Let’s hitch a ride on the music time machine back to the year 1987. Whitney Houston, Madonna and Michael Jackson rule the No. 1 hit parade on the pop charts, along with rockers U2, Bon Jovi and Bob Seger. In control on the R&B front are Jackson again, baby sister
Janet, Luther Vandross and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam.
Still in its formative years, rap is mostly an East Coast happening. Eight years have elapsed since the Sugarhill Gang rhymed its way to commercial success in 1979 with “Rapper’s Delight.” And it’s three years since Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force landed on “Planet Rock.”
Now rapper LL Cool J has nabbed his first No. 1 single—”I Need You”—just a year after Run-D.M.C. stepped up its legacy with top 10 singles “My Adidas” and “Walk This Way.”
It’s in this climate that co-founders Eric “Eazy-E” Wright and music industry veteran Jerry Heller decide to launch rap label Ruthless Records. Little did anyone know that the upstart indie would put West Coast and gangsta rap on the map, let alone house a stable of gold- and platinum-selling acts, among them pioneering rap group N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude).
But Trans World Entertainment director of urban music Violet Brown says, “Eric knew, the DJs knew, and I knew too.” Brown’s friendship with Eazy-E dates back to the late ’80s when she was a DJ shopping for 12-inch singles at the Roadium swap meet in nearby Gardena, Calif. It was here that she met Eazy-E, who was hosting mixtape cassettes being sold by DJ Steve Yano.
“Eric would kind of host these tapes, throwing in lyrics between songs,” Brown recalls of the Compton, Calif., native and one-time drug dealer. “I think that’s how people first got to know him. I saw him become more and more popular through these tapes.”
Ruthless began with $7,000 of Eazy-E’s own money and 5,000 12-inch copies of his single “Boyz N the Hood.” It was written by C.I.A. rapper Ice Cube who, along with World Class Wreckin’ Cru DJs Dr. Dre and Yella, had switched allegiance from Kru-Cut Records to Ruthless. Distinguished by Eazy-E’s high-pitched voice, “Boyz” sold more than 500,000 copies throughout South Central L.A., according to label figures. Between that record and “Supersonic,” a 1988 R&B/pop gold single by female rap group J.J. Fad (Just Jammin’ Fresh and Def), Ruthless Records was on its way.
But things really began to click in 1988 with the release of N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton.” The seminal five-man crew—Eazy-E, Dr. Dre (who produced J.J. Fad), Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella—came together in 1987, managed by Eazy-E’s label partner Heller. The group first attracted aural attention on the Ruthless compilation “N.W.A. and the Posse.” Issued by Macola Records in 1987, the album featured future Ruthless solo star the D.O.C.
“At this time,” Brown says, “people were putting out their own records but selling them out of their car trunks instead of going after major distribution. But Eric and Jerry got distribution through Priority and took things to a bigger level.”
Established in 1985 by former K-tel executives Bryan Turner, Mark Cerami and Steve Drath, Priority Records’ most recent claim to fame had been the California Raisins’ platinum-selling cover of “Heard It Through the Grapevine.” On the surface, the Raisins and N.W.A. might not seem like ideal labelmates. But youth and naiveté paid off.
“I think back and realize that we were incredibly naïve and young,” Turner recalls of hearing the incendiary single “Fuck Tha Police” and deciding to distribute N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton.” The record, considered by many as pioneering the subgenre of gangsta rap, unflinchingly depicted inner-city youth’s anger at police brutality, racial profiling and other social ills.
“I’d known Jerry for years,” Turner continues. “We worked in the same building. Mark [Cerami] and I knew ‘Fuck’ would scare some people. We were young and had nothing to lose. But never in a million years did we think we’d get a letter from the FBI castigating us for putting out that kind of music. It’s not like we were starting a revolution and distributing arms. It was words. Then [the] Rodney King [incident] happens. It was kind of scary how prophetic the song turned out to be.”
Amid damning critiques, lack of radio airplay and parental advisory stickers, the album went on to sell double-platinum, followed by Eazy-E’s own multiplatinum solo debut, “Eazy-Duz-It.” During the next five years, Ruthless produced a series of gold- and platinum-selling albums encompassing R&B, pop and rap by such acts as Michel’le, the D.O.C., Above the Law and MC Ren.
The one thing most people didn’t know about Eazy-E, Turner says, was his business savvy. “I think overall he was incredibly underrated when it came to the business side of the industry. He was the brains behind the marketing approach: All the artwork, T-shirts, logos . . . all that was him. He would be in my office every day talking about marketing.”
After Ice Cube left the group in 1989 over royalty disputes, Ruthless released another N.W.A. album, 1991’s “Efil4zaggin” (“Niggaz4life” spelled backward). Beyond it being the group’s final project, it also ushered in the Nielsen SoundScan era, copping No. 1 its first week out and further cementing the Ruthless legacy.
“I don’t think anyone truly paid attention until SoundScan hit,” Brown says. “When the SoundScan chart arrived with real numbers and N.W.A. was No. 1, a gangsta rap group from Compton? That was the wake-up call. That’s when people said, ‘Oh, my God. Rap is selling a lot of units.’ “
Ending its distribution pact with Priority in 1992, Ruthless was later distributed by Relativity Records, which, in turn, was folded into parent company Sony Music and launched as RED. With Dr. Dre, the D.O.C. and Michel’le exiting Ruthless for Death Row, Ruthless bounced back in 1994 with innovative Cleveland rap group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony beginning with the group’s No. 2 R&B-charting debut album, “Creepin On Ah Come Up.”
“Everyone was counting him out,” group member Bizzy Bone recalls. “Then he found us, a new group with a new flavor: four brothers in braids and sagging jeans harmonizing.” Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, whose members have had a stormy personal and legal history, announced a reunion of the original members in June. Their upcoming untitled project will likely be released on Interscope, which signed the group in 2006.
“[Wright] was always looking for other artists,” Brown says. “He told me he wanted Ruthless to be a Motown; to be around for a long time. And not just stay with hip-hop. He was definitely starting to listen to different types of music.”
National air personality Felicia “Poetess” Morris (of Jamie Foxx’s “The Foxx Hole”) agrees. “He was a visionary, looking at signing rock groups and Latin artists,” says Morris, who met Eazy-E in the early ’90s when she was an artist on Interscope. “He always wanted to do it his way; he never sold out. Eazy-E planted the seed for what you see today with a lot of these indie empires.”
Eazy-E’s untimely death from AIDS in 1995, however, precluded him from pursuing his vision or seeing Billboard name Ruthless the No. 1 independent label in 1996 and 1997. Or watching a Ruthless act pick up its first Grammy Award when Bone Thugs-N-Harmony was awarded best rap performance by a duo or group in 1996 for No. 1 R&B/pop single “Tha Crossroads” from second Ruthless album “E. 1999 Eternal.”
“Ruthless made an incredible impact on the business,” Brown says. “Eric put gangsta rap and West Coast rap on the map. And look at the offshoots: Dr. Dre becoming one of the industry’s biggest producers; Ice Cube making movies. A lot came from little Eazy-E and Ruthless.”
“Ruthless was the first label to show that a rapper or rap group could control a lot of their own destiny in terms of making and releasing a record,” Turner adds. “And that’s a lasting legacy today.”
Thirteen years after Eazy-E’s death, Tomica Woods-Wright is keeping the promise she made to her husband. “Even in his last days,” she recalls, “he was telling me, ‘I know it may be a burden. But whatever you do, keep it going for as long as you can.’ “
Earlier this year, Woods-Wright announced that in celebration of Ruthless’ 20th anniversary, the label is gearing up five new acts slated for release between now and the end of the year. In keeping with Eazy-E’s multigenre vision, the roster includes R&B singer/songwriter Na’Shay, bilingual pop singer/musician/actress Agina, rapper/songwriter/producer Hopsin, party/dance trio Street Runnaz Click and rapper Stevie Stone. Their albums will be released through a recently renegotiated pact with RED.
“It’s been difficult at times since Eric’s death, but it’s been worth it,” Woods-Wright says. “We have a strong, groundbreaking mix here that represents the next generation. Eric wasn’t a quitter. He believed in riding a project until the wheels fell off and if they did, then he always said he’d carry it. This company was—and is—him.”