To the casual rap fan, Alan Grunblatt is merely the President of E1 Music (f.k.a. Koch Records), but his roots in the independent hip-hop scene run much deeper. For nearly five years, he worked side-by-side with gangsta rap pioneer Eric “Eazy-E” Wright and his business partner Jerry Heller at Ruthless Records. The West Coast-based label paved the way for countless hip-hop execs, ranging from Diddy and Jay-Z to Master P and Birdman, to make millions as self-made entrepreneurs.

With today (March 26) marking the 15th anniversary of Eazy’s passing, caught up with Grunblatt to share some of his fond memories of the fallen rap legend as a businessman, artist and friend. It’s been 15 years since Eazy’s been gone. What do you think about his legacy today?

Alan Grunblatt: To me, it’s more than a legacy because he was my friend, you know? He was like the coolest, greatest guy… I dealt with a lot of people in my time. Eric’s one of my old time favorites. In fact, in one of my two offices I have a gold record from the EP we did together, 187 Um Killa… I just think about him all the time. How long ago did you guys meet?

Alan Grunblatt: It was more than meet… I pretty much ran Ruthless Records for five years, because in the transition of when he got sick and before [the label] went to Sony, I was basically running Relativity and we had Ruthless Records. So basically, I would say really from ’93 to ’97 I pretty much ran it. [Eazy’s wife] Tamika Wright was around, [his business partner] Jerry Heller was around but there was just so much drama going on… But I remember the first time that I met Eric, he introduced me to the guys in Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and the tragedy is, he wasn’t there for the E. 1999 Eternal album, which was at the time the biggest rap records ever. Yeah, Bone Thugs went on to sell over five million copies of that album and it’s a shame Eazy wasn’t able to witness that. But that success came after a lot of people doubted them, right?

Alan Grunblatt: I’ll never forget, we had a meeting with MTV after we released Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and it was doing great but MTV [execs] said we’ll never play a video by a group called “Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.” Then, a year a later—almost to the day—we set up a meeting with Eric and MTV and they aired the video for “Thuggish Ruggish Bone.” So it was pretty amazing. You can’t deny good music, right?

Alan Grunblatt: You can’t deny a hit record [Laughs]. You could deny good music all day long but a hit record you gotta play it and I’ll never forget we never got played in New York for Bone. They said, “Oh, Bone is not New York,” and then when we put out “Crossroads” it’s the No. 1 single in New York without one station playing it and then the stations [finally] aired it and it was kinda ironic. Eazy was one of the first artists to run his own label; do you feel people today are still following the blueprint he laid down?

Alan Grunblatt: Yeah, absolutely. He made hundreds or millions of dollars. Him and Master P really did it. They really created the blueprint. P, who I also worked with, was more business oriented than Eric. Eric relied a lot on Jerry. Eric was more about keeping himself hot, keeping himself relevant. Once we had him on Arsenio Hall and he went on the show in a bathrobe, it was pretty funny. [Click here to watch]. Eazy’s image was so intertwined with gangsta rap but working with him for so long, I’m sure you got to see many different sides of him. Any fond memories you wish to share?

Alan Grunblatt: My wife is a very straight, Jewish lady and sometimes he would call my house and she would say, “Honey, Eazy’s on the phone.” Eric would get a kick out of that, you know? And then once when we did the EP I told Eazy, I said, “Eazy, it’s 40 minutes, man. Why don’t we just make it an album? You can make an extra two bucks on records.” He didn’t want to do that to his fans. He said, “Alan, I came from nothin’, if I go back to nothing I don’t care.” That seems to contradict a lot of the stuff Dr. Dre was saying about Eazy being money hungry during their beef.

Alan Grunblatt: The whole thing with like, Ruthless and Death Row… It was ironic because I ended up doing a lot of business with Suge [years later] but the last record that Eric was going to deliver to me and that I saw the album artwork and everything for was a record called “Death Row Killaz.” I was like, “Eric, we really going to put this record out?” He says, “Alan, you bet.” For me, it’s more than just a he did this; he did this really as a record guy…

The funny thing is when we did the Ruthless deal we started with Above the Law. Then, when we were gonna go with his EP, the back of it is a picture of Dre in a dress. At the time Sony owned Relativity and Sony was not going to let us release this record and Jerry Heller said, “Well, the deal’s done.” So we ended up releasing the record because Jerry figured Suge’s not a suing kinda guy and we put it out, which was pretty crazy. How would you describe Eazy’s relationship with Jerry Heller?

Alan Grunblatt: Jerry sort of gets a lot of negative press but when I was with them, they were like best friends… It was like Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin and Lyor Cohen in the beginning. It was that kinda dynamic and at least for me I wouldn’t see one without the other. That changed later obviously but everything sorta went south with the disease and everything. His death came pretty quick. It was like word broke that he had contracted AIDS and before you know it he was gone.

Alan Grunblatt: It was crazy, he came to New York because we set up press for him and I’ll never forget, one of my guys took him to a party and I think it was the Tunnel and he got bronchitis and never recovered. Three months later he passed; it was the craziest thing. Anything else you want to add about the 15 years since Eazy’s been gone?

Alan Grunblatt: I think about him all the time. When I meet with rappers I always tell them about him and show them my gold record and everything, you know? It’s funny. Certain rappers remind me of him but it’s a rare combination of being an artist and a businessperson. So it’s pretty interesting. —Anslem Samuel