The legendary gangster rapper Eazy-E was a visionary, and his Ruthless Records was one of the strangest rap labels ever. In the late 1980s, Ruthless maintained a small roster of artists, headlined by N.W.A., the D.O.C., and Above the Law. This all changed when a near-fatal car accident in 1989 crushed the D.O.C.'s larynx, derailing a promising career, and Ice Cube left N.W.A. the same year amidst accusations of financial improprieties. In 1991, Dr. Dre defected too, which dissolved N.W.A. and forced Eazy-E to fill a creative void. Eazy-E didn't respond to the loss of his label's talent by trying to sign the next N.W.A. Instead, he responded by signing the next everything.
He and his infamously duplicitous manager/Ruthless co-runner Jerry Heller's stable of artists was almost comically diverse. It included Chicano rappers Brownside (whose member Klever recently made headlines for brandishing a gun in the vague direction of a cop on Instagram) and Kid Frost. There were the DJ Quik associates Penthouse Players Clique, a ménage à trois of female rap groups (Hoes with Attitude A.K.A. H.W.A., Gangsta Bitch Mentality, and one literally called Menajahtwa), and, absurdly, a long-haired flautist named Jimmy Z (read more about his Ruthless adventures here). Eazy-E, impressed by an impromptu backstage performance, signed a group of fast-rapping Clevelanders then known as B.O.N.E. Enterprise, and then renamed them Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. Also under the Ruthless banner were Blood of Abraham, proud Jews who released "Niggaz and Jewz," featuring Eazy-E and will.i.am (then Will 1 X). Will.i.am, along with fellow future Black Eyed Pea apl.de.ap, made up part of Eazy's Native Tongues-esque signees, the Atban Klann.
Perhaps like no other Ruthless track, Eazy-E's "Merry Muthafuckin' X-Mas," released in 1992, epitomizes the island of misfit toys that was late-era Ruthless: Eazy, Buckwheat (of group the Wascals, who were signed to Delicious Vinyl), and debutants Menajahtwa and the Atban Klann trade lines over production by Danish immigrants Dr. Jam and a duo called Madness 4 Real. If that sounds incredibly bizarre, that's because it is.
"Merry Muthafuckin' X-Mas" begins with Rudy Ray Moore (of Dolemite fame) telling the story of a three-year-old Eazy-E drinking whiskey and gin, and doesn't get any less ridiculous over the next five-and-a-half minutes. Eazy-E interpolates "Jingle Bells," substituting a candy red '64 for a one-horse open sleigh, the source of his laughter not holiday gaiety, but a woman voraciously fellating him. Menajahtwa's sack of Noel-themed sexual puns would break the back of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (or "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindick," as they call him), and the Atban Klann's botanical Christmas list extends as far as "Indo, chronic, and some hash." Toss in some fart noises, sleigh bells, and a sense of sophomoric humor that's only endearing in middle-schoolers and Christmas songs by gangster rappers. Will.i.am, after all, was only 17 at the time.
According to Will himself, he was spotted by Jerry Heller's nephew, Terry, while freestyling at a series of rap battles hosted by David Faustino, star of Married with Children. "That was the summer of 1991," will.i.am told me over the phone. "In January of 1992, I signed to Ruthless, and the winter of 1992 is when 'Merry Muthafuckin' X-Mas' came out. At the time, Run-DMC were the only ones who had a Christmas joint, so it wasn't out of the ordinary. I went back to school after we recorded it. I [had] just turned 17… I still lived in the projects, and I would ride the yellow bus and everyone was like, 'Oh shit, you recorded with Eazy-E!'"
Though Will's verse on "Merry Muthafuckin' X-Mas" was part of Eazy-E's 5150: Home 4 tha Sick, which was certified Gold, will.i.am's role at Ruthless remained largely behind the scenes. Thanks to his prodigious freestyling abilities, will.i.am was groomed by the label as a ghostwriter. "People were like, 'Ey, nigga, freestyle! Show these niggas what you got!'" he said. "So, I would go up there and freestyle, and they'd be like… 'Damn nigga! Hey, freestyle me a verse, nigga, that's gonna be my verse.' That's how it worked. I'd go in there and freestyle, and those freestyles would turn into verses."
The initial excitement of a burgeoning rap career slowly turned into frustration for will.i.am. The release of the Atban Klann's debut album, Grass Roots, was delayed multiple times. It would ultimately go unreleased, and it took Ruthless two years to issue the group's first single, "Puddles of H2O." "Puddles of H2O," like "Merry Muthafuckin' X-Mas," was produced by the aforementioned duo of Danes Madness 4 Real.
Though Ruthless' flautist Jimmy Z was outwardly the most unlikely member of the extended Ruthless family, he'd been gigging around Los Angeles for years and was a known quantity among the city's studio rats. It makes sense that this guy would, at some point, cross paths with Eazy E and Jerry Heller. Madness 4 Real, meanwhile, were straight outta Hillerød, a sleepy town about 20 miles north of Copenhagen, where their conception of gangsters was limited to leather-clad Hell's Angels. Nicholas "Nick Coldhands" Kvaran and Rasmus Berg's production for Lifers Group, comprised of Rahway State Penitentiary prisoners, caught the ear of Eazy-E. With a post-Dre Ruthless in dire need of producers, Eazy enlisted Coldhands and Berg. They arrived in Los Angeles a week after the 1992 Rodney King riots and were shocked when, instead of G-funk, they were asked to make a Christmas song.
"We thought, You must be fucking kidding," Coldhands told me as I interviewed them via Skype.
"Doing Christmas music is the most white thing you can do. It's like rock music. The arrangements in a rock piece are so white, but that's what made it work," added Berg.
"Going into it, we found out we had to do classical, baroque arrangements. We looked at each other like, 'This might be the weirdest thing we've ever done'… We were doing white music on top of white music for a rapper."
Berg and Coldhands regularly finish each other's sentences, the result of a life-long friendship, and are exceedingly polite. Coldhands, the more talkative of the pair, speaks English like a rapper doing an impression of a Scandinavian, not the reverse. They're forthcoming interviewees, with Berg ad-libbing Coldhands's colorful answers.
"The studio in L.A. [Audio Achievements, in Torrance] was full of gangster rappers, strapped and everything—," Berg said.
"—strapped! You can imagine the Twilight Zone we were in. They called us Den-Marks [a pun on Denmark and the now-ancient pejorative "mark"], which we didn't learn until later."
"Merry Muthafuckin' X-Mas" was the beginning of a creatively fruitful four years in Los Angeles for Madness 4 Real. They not only produced for Ruthless' chieftain and the aforementioned Atban Klann, but Rakim, MC Ren, Mack 10, B.G. Knocc Out & Dresta, and perhaps most notably, Ice Cube. Madness 4 Real were privileged to experience—and contribute to—gangster rap during some of its best years. Berg and Coldhands understandably speak about this period of their lives with a hint of nostalgia—they were rap fanatics from a small town in Denmark who got to spend their early 20s palling around with Eazy-E. The fortunes of Madness 4 Real contrast sharply with that of Menajahtwa, whose commercial failures remain opaque.
Ruthless had experienced success with female rappers. J. J. Fad's "Supersonic" went Gold, and the white rapper Tairrie B. had a couple tracks that charted on Billboard's Hot Rap Singles. Unlike the more pop-leaning J. J. Fad and Tairrie B., Menajahtwa made unapologetic G-funk.
Like their male peers, Royal T and Spice were foul-mouthed shit-talkers, whose attitudes toward cunnilingus were liberal and encouraging. Their roles as ingenues in "Merry Muthafuckin' X-Mas" would feel exploitative if the group's attitudes toward sex were merely passive—one listen to them and it's overwhelmingly clear that they were not. Their sole full-length release, Cha-Licious, spawned a single video, "La La La," in which the lithe Compton natives invert G-funk's rampant misogyny by judging men. Literally. A panel of women with scorecards judge musclebound men in spiked collars, some of whom are caged. Menajahtwa were ahead of their time—they were young, talented, and attractive, but their baggy attire seemed to subvert certain ideas about rap and masculinity that many of their spiritual successors don't service.
The contributors to "Merry Muthafuckin' X-Mas" share more than the song itself—those who spoke to me for this story claimed they were undercompensated. In spite of this, everyone I spoke to also had almost unwaveringly positive opinions of Eazy-E. Such was the force of Eazy-E's personality that his kindness, rather than the company's duplicitous dealings, is what interviewees dwell on.
Will.i.am fondly told me about Eazy-E's gentle teasing of his thrift store-bought clothes, as well as their yearly jaunts to celebrate his birthday. "From 1992 to 1995, every birthday Eazy and Jerry would take me, on March 15th, to Monty's [Steakhouse, in Woodland Hills] to celebrate. Now, looking back, it's like 'Wow, he took time to go to my birthday.'" Less fondly, he remembers the $10,000 lump sum he received when he signed with Ruthless, and the subsequent $150 per week stipends. "Now that I look at it, it was a really shitty deal. We didn't know any better, we got taken advantage of."
Nick Coldhands claims that after meetings with Jerry Heller, he'd feel physically sick, and describes Heller as "icky" and "not a likeable guy." When I asked if Madness 4 Real were compensated for their work, Coldhands laughed and replied "Hell no." The duo, who contributed to multiple albums that sold millions of copies, were forced to return to Denmark because they could no longer afford to stay in the United States. Their distaste for Ruthless appears confined to Heller and a thieving manager named Carsten Willer; Berg and Coldhands remember Eazy-E as a joker and an instinctive businessman, who took a chance on two unknown Danes.
The story of Ruthless Records essentially ends with Eazy-E succumbing to AIDS-related pneumonia on March 26, 1995. Tomica Wright, Eazy's widow, attempted to continue the label, but artists who could find new deals gradually departed. Menajahtwa briefly rebranded as Twa-Zay and released a dance-rap album, Who'Z Party, which spawned a single ("Freaky Deaky") and a placement on the soundtrack for the film Fakin' da Funk. Atban Klann's Ruthless debut Grass Roots never ended up seeing a release—by the time it leaked, will.i.am and apl.de.ap were bankable pop stars as members of the Black Eyed Peas. Upon returning to Denmark, Nick Coldhands and Rasmus Berg founded Den Gale Pose ("The Mad Bag") and won numerous Danish Music Awards.
When I asked Coldhands and Berg what Eazy-E had taught them, Coldhands emphatically replied, "Do it yourself." Berg added, "Just do it yourself. Fuck 'em."
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