RUTHLESS: N.W.A.’S MANAGER SPEAKS OUT
Managers aren’t supposed to be famous.
The artists they represent are supposed to soak up the headlines. Managers are supposed to be bit players. Background. Not Jerry Heller, perhaps the most infamous manager—living or dead—who ever took 20 percent.
The man has repped everyone from Marvin Gaye to Pink Floyd, but he’s best known for the seminal rap group N.W.A, which—when he discovered the group—included future superstars Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E.
N.W.A.’s quick rise and quicker fall are legendary. But the public has had a hard time sifting fact from fiction. Heller’s spent the last two decades in and out of court, and the court of public opinion, battling accusations that he stole from the group, caused its breakup, and even had a hand in Eazy’s death.
Wounds are still fresh when he speaks, fresher still in the wake of his on-screen portrayal in Straight Outta Compton.
With the film, politely described as revisionist history, renewing interest in N.W.A., and Heller, the rumor mill has re-started. One rumor alleges Heller was responsible for Eazy contracting AIDS. Another rumor is that he talked Eazy out of murdering Suge Knight.
Heller, 75, hasn’t spoken much publicly, beyond telling the Los Angeles Times that he may sue the Straight Outta Comptonfilmmakers.
In a rare one-on-one, he admitted he was an unlikely father-figure to Eazy.
But he maintains their relationship was genuine—and neither he, nor Eazy, ever stole from the other members of N.W.A. He’s emphatic in saying that he had nothing to do with his friend’s demise. But in a surprise twist, he told me he should have allowed Eazy to murder Suge.
Court-ruled non-disclosure agreements keep him quiet about specifics of the film, and Eazy’s death, but the ever-bombastic manager told me he’s planning his own biopic based on his Ruthless memoir, which delves deep into the mechanics of Ruthless Records.
“I want this to be right and good,” he said from his Westlake Village home. “I haven’t done this kind of interview in a long time.”
Q: How did you meet Eazy-E?
Heller: I heard about this scene at Macola Records. Alonzo Williams had these groups: CIA, O’Shea Jackson, and Sir Jinx, and World Class Wreckin’ Cru, Yella and Dre.
I was at Alonzo’s club, Eve After Dark, the only white guy there. He said “You gotta meet Eric Wright.” After three months of making my life miserable, Alonzo said “Listen, this guy will give me $750 to meet you—and I need the money.” I said “OK.”
This tricked-out Suzuki Samurai pulls up, he gets out, the guy’s 5 feet tall. But he has charisma, a jheri curl, and he’s cool. The first thing he does is pull up his sock, pull out a roll of money, and pay Alonzo the $750. That’s a good start to a relationship, I think.
I say, “You got something you want me to hear?” Real abrasive—cause that’s the way I am.
He pulls out a cassette, hands it to me, this guy hasn’t said a fucking word. I put in the cassette, and hear “Boyz-N-The-Hood.”
Now, I’m in my 40s. I grew up in sit-downs with Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, I made Eldridge Cleaver’s book deal, Soul On Ice. I grew up with the Rolling Stones. My best friend handled their money and sold them their drugs. This music had the rebellion of the Stones, the anger of our inner-cities that the Panthers had, lyrically, Gil Scott-Heron. I thought “Wow, I’m getting another chance. This is the most important music I’ve heard.”
I’d been there with Elton John, Pink Floyd, Boz Scaggs, I represented those people.
And me, middle-class Jewish guy from Ohio, if I’m saying this, people in Minneapolis, Kansas City, they’re going to understand for the first time what’s going on in our inner-cities. It literally freaked me out. This guy walks up to me and plays me the greatest record I’ve ever heard. Then I asked “What do you call this group?” He said “N.W.A.” I said, “What’s that stand for, no whites allowed?” And he laughed. “Pretty close.”
So Eazy said, “You and I are 50-50 partners.” Then I said to him “For this group, for this record company to work, this has to be 100 percent black-owned. I’ll be your manager, I’ll take 20 percent of the gross, you pay all of the expenses out of your own.” So, we made our deal.
Q: What went wrong?
Heller: I think I got an advance for $500,000 from Priority Records. A small portion went to Ruthless, Eazy got more because he owned the company, the rest was split five ways. Each guy got $75,000. Dre says it all the time, it was the most money he had ever seen. Dre wrote the music for every Ruthless song. Right off the top, he gets 37.5 percent [of the mechanical royalties]. The writers of the lyrics split it. Cube never wrote a song by himself. They all wrote their own verses. So obviously, Dre got the most, half of the publisher’s net share, which comes to 37.5 percent. The other 37.5 percent is split between the writers. It doesn’t go to me.
They had lawyers, business managers. You think they went over contracts themselves? Ice Cube had Lee Young Jr., the head of business affairs at Motown. Eazy had a business manager named Lester Knispel. Eazy goes in there by himself and signs his tax returns, goes over the figures. I would arrange with Eazy to transfer the funds into an operating account, and we would send the checks along with a statement to each member of the group.
Q: And the stealing claims?
Heller: You can’t steal in this business. Either you have a good deal, or you don’t. If you don’t, when you have a hit, you re-negotiate.
Everybody signs their contract to N.W.A. They split the net five ways. You can’t penalize Eazy because he owns the company. You can’t penalize Dre because he writes all the music. Now they’re acting like it was nothing. No matter what Cube says, they had a great deal. The average deal those days was somewhere between seven and 12 percent for everybody. They were getting $75,000 each, because I made the deal.
Cube said “I’m not taking this check,” then “Let me have the check, I’m going to send it to my lawyer.” You can’t have the check until you sign the contract. What am I, a fucking moron? I said “Take the contract, show it to Lee Young, sign the contract, have him make your changes.” He admits to that all the time. He says: “Jerry wouldn’t give me my check, he wouldn’t let me have the contract.” That’s not true. I handed him the contract. And he took it to his lawyer. But he already made his decision to do his solo album. That’s what broke up N.W.A.
When he said that at some point at Ruthless I had made more money than him, well, yeah. That’s what the music business is about. You get paid in the future for more money than you earn in the present for records that you made in the past.
What he didn’t tell you was that they went on the road and did a huge tour. The only N.W.A. tour. Who do you think paid for it, Ice Cube? Everything went on my platinum American Express card. I paid for everything. I recouped it eventually because Ruthless didn’t get paid either.
Q: What’s the most surprising thing about your relationship with Eazy-E?
Heller: You got a 6’2, middle-age, Jewish white guy, in business with a 5 foot tall, dope dealer, black guy, who built the biggest indie company in music history.
An unlikely relationship, to put it mildly. If Eazy was still alive today, we would still be in business together. He never fired me—that was all bullshit. Can you see me sitting in my kitchen crying? “Please Eazy, don’t go.” Not my style.
Q: In your book you said you feared for your safety back then—and Suge Knight threatened you to let Dr. Dre sign to Death Row Records?
Heller: The day it ended [when Eazy died], was the day I stopped worrying. Before, I protected the assets of Ruthless. I was the keeper of the keys. And I had made plans with Eazy, in case something happened. Suge told him that they were holding me hostage, and they were going to kill his mother.
Eazy was very embarrassed. Eazy’s a tough guy—the only street guy in the group. From the day Eazy went in the hospital and passed away, that was it. I never used another bodyguard, I lived in a gate-guarded community.
Now, when Suge came at me for the first time…
Suge worked for us as D.O.C. and Dre’s driver. I eventually had to fire him because he was too aggressive. Once I saw him in my office staring at my chair. This is not good. So I said: “What are you looking at? You want that chair?” “No, Jerry, you and I are friends.” One day he came in with a couple of really bad guys, put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger. And I said “This will never happen again.” [Then] my house was robbed, July 4th weekend of ’90, or ’91. I always thought that it was him, cause the guy spray-painted on the mirror “Payback’s a bitch, Jerry.”
Q: Would you have been killed if you were in the house?
Heller: I don’t know. I think my bodyguards would have been with me—if it was Suge, he could have gone right to Dre’s house two streets away.
Q: With Dre teamed with Suge, could Dre have been in on the robbery?
Heller: I don’t know. I don’t think so. I’m cordial to Suge when I see him. I’m cordial to Dre when I see him. The only guy that was unforgivable to me was [Ice Cube], the guy that wrote “No Vaseline.”
Q: Have you seen Ice Cube in person?
Heller: I go to every Laker game, every Dodger game, I’ve never seen him once since the day he left. And he’s taken a lot of beatings since—in the streets—guys rip off his chain, whatever they want. I would never do business with him again. Those lyrics he wrote: “How can you be a nigga for life crew with a white Jew telling you what to do? I want to shoot that Jew in the temple…”
Q: Did the allegations and lyrics in “No Vaseline” become believable to the public because you never publicly replied?
Heller: I made a mistake there. I should have attacked that situation right when it happened. Instead, I went to a lawyer, big civil rights guy, and he said “Hey man, it’s called the first amendment. You can’t sue.” I was so arrogant not to answer that. I said: “Nobody will believe this nonsense.” But they believed it. And it did me a lot of harm.
What always happens in the music business? They say: The white Jew stole from me. And, they’re still saying, like in the movie, that he caught me stealing. That’s so ridiculous. I don’t give a shit about money. I never did, and I never will.
I said: “Let me just think this through, we have six employees, we’re doing $10 million a month, and you want to kill this guy Suge Knight because you think he’s going to be a problem? I don’t know, maybe I’m just not a wartime consigliere, but it don’t make no sense to me.”
The truth was, I should have let Eazy kill him.
It’s not like anyone would have investigated it. Who do they put him in jail with? The guy that killed Tupac? Or the guy that killed Biggie? Or the guy that killed Eazy? Do they share a cell, or what? I should have let him do it. And probably, Eazy would still be around, and Ruthless would still be making great records.
Q: How crazy is the rumor about how Eazy contracted AIDS—that he was injected?
Heller: At the end [in 1995], he did go for acupuncture. One of his assistants, she took him to a Korean acupuncturist in Burbank—I don’t know for sure, but I think so.
My doctor in Beverly Hills—I had gone to him for 30 years—he examined Eazy, and Eazy was not HIV positive in July of 1994. So, that sort of makes sense to me. It doesn’t always show up when the doctor does the test. I’ve heard of that happening.
Q: Is that even possible—or was it that he was already HIV positive, and it remained dormant for awhile, and then showed up aggressively 9 months later?
Heller: It doesn’t make any sense, right. But I know Suge had something to do with it, just like he had to do with Tupac, and just like he did with Biggie. Because that’s the kind of snake he is.
Q: That sounds crazy.
Heller: I know! But the other stuff is crazier. One of us injected him with AIDS? Let me ask you a question: Where do you go to buy AIDS? CVS? I suppose Suge could pay some guy or girl, $10,000 for some of their blood. I suppose. I don’t know. Seems far-fetched to me.
Q: Do you think Suge put the hit out on Tupac?
Heller: He absolutely did. Unquestionably put the hit on him. Pulled Tupac in front of him, that’s how he got the glass in his head. You don’t think the cops could have solved this if they wanted to? I think Suge got what he deserved. Looks to me like he’s in jail for at least the foreseeable future.
Eazy didn’t deserve to die, man. He was one of the good guys. Really.