Jerry Heller, N.W.A’s controversial original manager and music industry veteran, has died, his cousin Gary Ballen confirms to Billboard. He was 75; the cause of death is not yet known.
Already in his mid-40s when he paired up with aspiring rap mogul Eazy-E, Heller became an unlikely booster of gangsta rap, and his efforts helped N.W.A and its label Ruthless Records make hardcore hip-hop popular around the world. Outspoken and litigious, he sued the makers of the 2015 hit biopic Straight Outta Compton and was the subject of numerous diss songs.
After rapper Ice Cube left N.W.A he famously suggested in his 1991 song “No Vaseline” that the remaining group members “Get rid of that devil real simple / Put a bullet in his temple.”
Raised in Shaker Heights, Cleveland, Heller said he faced anti-Semitism growing up, and that his father, the owner of a scrap metal business, spent time with the Jewish mob. He enlisted in the Army, and after getting out earned a business degree from the University of Southern California. During the ‘60s and ‘70s his career in the music industry began to take off, and he served as agent for artists including Creedence Clearwater Revival and Marvin Gaye, and promoted Pink Floyd, Elton John, and Kraftwerk on their first U.S. tours. His fortunes later declined, however, and by the mid-‘80s he was living with his parents in Encino, Calif., he wrote in his 2006 memoir Ruthless.
His second act would come by way of the emerging L.A. hip-hop scene, which was largely based around a Hollywood record plant and label called Macola. Tipped off by his friend Morey Alexander, a music manager, Heller began hanging out at Macola and introducing himself to the artists, and became the manager of acts including World Class Wreckin’ Cru and C.I.A., the first groups of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, respectively.
But his greatest pairing was with Eazy-E, aka Eric Wright, a diminutive Compton drug dealer who was looking to go straight. Wright famously paid World Class Wreckin’ Cru leader Alonzo Williams for the introduction to Heller, whom he believed could take his label Ruthless Records to the next level. Heller invested money in Ruthless and became the manager of many of the label’s acts, who experienced unprecedented success in the George H.W. Bush and early Bill Clinton years, with acts including N.W.A, Eazy-E, J.J. Fad, Michel’le, D.O.C., and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony going gold or platinum. By 1995 Ruthless “was bringing in millions per month,” Heller claimed in his memoir.
But Heller clashed with many of his artists along the way. N.W.A’s iconoclastic lyricist Ice Cube left the group following seismic 1988 debut Straight Outta Compton, claiming that he hadn’t been paid properly. The group’s main producer Dr. Dre left after their 1991 follow-up Efil4zaggin, amidst a similar financial dispute. Heller denied allegations of financial impropriety, and was strongly backed by Eazy-E. “People callin’ me, askin’ me, ‘Why you got a white man as your manager?’ ” Eazy told Rap Pages at the time. “It’s like, when I was lookin’ for a manager, I closed my f—in’ eyes and I said, ‘I want the best.’ Jerry happened to be the best.”
Heller’s legal battles with the group continued over the years. In October of 2015, shortly after Straight Outta Compton was released, Heller filed a $110 million lawsuit with a litany of claims boiling down to the fact that he was presented as the villain in the film, not compensated for the use of his likeness, that the defendants stole his work and breached an agreement that settled an old dispute with the Eazy E estate. In June 2016, a U.S. District judge dismissed all of Heller’s lawsuit, but allowed one claim to continue.