Jerry Heller, controversial early manager of N.W.A, dies at 75
Jerry Heller, the combative music manager whose fraught relationship with the seminal hip-hop group N.W.A was searingly portrayed in last year’s box office hit “Straight Outta Compton,” died Friday of a heart attack at Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks. He was 75.
Heller’s cousin, Gary Ballen, confirmed Heller’s death to The Times.
A native of Cleveland, Heller began his career in music as a booking agent and tour manager for artists including Elton John, Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye and Pink Floyd. After his rock career fizzled, Heller became an important and colorful figure in the emerging West Coast rap scene of the 1980s.
“He was a visionary,” Ballen said. “He knew that this rap thing was going to happen before anybody else did.”
Heller helped launch the influential Ruthless Records with rapper Eric “Eazy-E” Wright of N.W.A in 1987, who, according to hip-hop lore, had paid for an introduction to Heller. The group’s controversial, cop-bashing debut studio album, “Straight Outta Compton,” was a commercial and critical success that underscored rap’s combustive hold on popular culture and turned Compton into the epicenter of the newly minted gangsta rap movement.
“Gangsta rap was the most important movement since the beginning of rock ’n’ roll,” Heller told The Times in a 2001 interview. “N.W.A were the first great rap audio documentarians of the problems in our inner cities.”
Though influential, the group was short-lived. Ice Cube left to pursue a solo career in 1989, amid a dispute over royalty payments. Making similar claims about Heller’s mismanagement, Dr. Dre departed in 1991 to form Death Row Records with Marion “Suge” Knight, igniting one of the most infamous rivalries in rap history. Heller denied the accusations.
The acrimonious split continued to play out dramatically in public for years. Using language widely criticized as anti-Semitic, Ice Cube accused Heller of breaking up N.W.A in his 1991 song “No Vaseline,” while Dr. Dre ridiculed both Heller and Eazy-E in his video “Dre Day.”
Heller’s professional partnership with Eazy-E continued until shortly before the rapper’s death, from AIDS, in 1995, and he often described their relationship as that of a father and son. Nevertheless, Heller and Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, became involved in a heated legal battle over the estate that eventually was settled in December 1999.
Heller stayed involved in the music business, founding a record label called Hit A Lick that focused on homegrown Latino rap and hip-hop acts, but he never duplicated the success he’d achieved with N.W.A.
In 2006, Heller published a memoir, “Ruthless,” that was his attempt to set the record straight. Claiming that he was “always squarely in the camp of the little guy, the underdog, the artist,” Heller nevertheless seemed to take perverse pride in his lingering reputation as the bad guy. “Jerry Heller, urban legend and all-purpose straw dog of the hip-hop world. I’m the boogeyman used to scare South Central kids when they tell ghost stories.”
Heller had tried to develop “Ruthless” into a feature film — his dream was for Larenz Tate to play Eazy-E — but was beat to the punch by “Straight Outta Compton,” released in August 2015.
The biopic, directed by F. Gary Gray and starring Paul Giamatti as Heller, was a box office hit, grossing $201 million domestically, and was nominated for an Oscar for original screenplay.
Heller was angered by the film, which he claimed portrayed him in a villainous light. In October, he filed a $110-million libel suit against Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, NBC Universal and others involved in its creation, saying it was “littered” with inaccuracies. Much of the case was dismissed in June by a federal judge.
Heller spoke to The Times about his legacy in 2006. “I don’t want to be judged next to guys like Suge Knight,” he said. “I want to be measured next to David Geffen, Irving Azoff and Clive Davis. Whether I measure up or not, I let my record speak for me. That’s how I want to be judged — by what I’ve done, not by what people like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre have said about me.”
He is survived by his brother Ken Heller and nephew Terry Heller.
2:20 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction and background.
10:45 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details.
This article was originally published at 10:25 a.m.
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