The impresario who helped launch gangsta rap
Jerry Heller 1940–2016
Things looked bleak for Jerry Heller in the mid-1980s. His glory days, managing and promoting music acts like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Pink Floyd, and Elton John, were long gone, and he was living with his parents outside Los Angeles. Then in 1987, Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, a diminutive Compton drug dealer looking to go straight, approached the 48-year-old Heller with a business proposition. Together, the two men launched the Ruthless Records label, and Heller began managing Eazy-E’s rap outfit, N.W.A. Using profanity-laced lyrics, the group—whose name stood for Niggaz With Attitude—depicted the inner city as a world of sex, violence, and explosive racial tension. “It was the most important rap music I had ever heard,” said Heller. “This was music that would change everything.” He was right. N.W.A’s debut album, 1988’s Straight Outta Compton, introduced gangsta rap to the masses, selling 3 million copies.
Raised in Cleveland, Heller grew up surrounded by Jewish mobster friends of his father, a scrap metal merchant, said Billboard.com. Heller began promoting rock acts in the 1960s, and by the early ’70s his booking agency was earning millions of dollars a year—money that dried up in the 1980s. “Heller’s second act came by way of the emerging L.A. hip-hop scene,” and he began introducing himself to rappers, including future N.W.A members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. N.W.A’s defiant, copbashing debut LP was “a commercial and critical success that underscored rap’s combustive hold on popular culture,” said the Los Angeles Times. But the group soon broke up amid claims that Heller was siphoning off royalties. In 1991, Ice Cube released a track urging Eazy-E—then still in business with Heller—to “Get rid of that devil real simple / Put a bullet in his temple.”
Heller “never again achieved the level of success” he had with N.W.A, said The New York Times. He managed several other groups, but failed to secure a breakout act. In 2015, he sued the makers of the hit N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, arguing that the movie unfairly portrayed him as a rip-off artist. Most of the suit was dismissed, but Heller insisted he had been maligned. “Look, I am what I am,” he said. “But I’m not a thief.”