Cunnigan grew up in Compton, California and attended Crenshaw High School with Ice-T. Cunnigan was one of the few students attending the school who was interested in rock music. Ernie's uncle was an important influence. He introduced Ernie to different groups and a diverse number of styles in the genre. Ernie became an enthusiastic fan eventually buying a guitar from his local music store. He dedicated himself to learning, starting at 12. He was entirely self-taught.
Cunnigan's guitar playing and showmanship earned him respect among his fellow students, including members of the Crips gang. Cunnigan also taught guitar to fellow students, including D-Roc the Executioner, who later joined the band Body Count.