Jerry Heller on the other women ‘Straight Outta Compton’ forgot
In the months before N.W.A’s album “Straight Outta Compton” was released in the summer of 1988, a team of teenage female rappers from the Inland Empire called J.J. Fad helped upend West Coast hip-hop by putting the fledgling enterprise Ruthless Records on the map.
The success of J.J. Fad’s infectious single, “Supersonic,” and its Dr. Dre co-produced album that followed, played a role in establishing Ruthless as a legitimate enterprise, forging a path for the breakout success of N.W.A.
Not that you would know any of this fascinating back story from the recent blockbuster N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton.” J.J. Fad’s existence, let alone import, isn’t acknowledged. As is often the case in such endeavors, whole swaths of the narrative are missing.
“I just think that Ruthless owes them a great debt of gratitude,” said former N.W.A manager Jerry Heller, who’s portrayed as a divisive business figure by Paul Giamatti in the film.
Though mostly a one-hit wonder, J.J. Fad was nonetheless a trailblazer of non-gangsta, pop-oriented West Coast rap. Along with East Coast peers Roxanne Shante and Salt-N-Pepa, the group pushed against the glass ceiling of the male-dominated genre.
J.J. Fad toured, collaborated and socialized with N.W.A during the period recounted in the movie, commuting the 60-plus miles from Rialto to Compton to hang with members Arabian Prince, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E.
Decades later, J.J. Fad’s Dania “Baby D” Birks recalled those years spent with N.W.A with bittersweet affection. “They were our family. They were like brothers,” she said. “We go to sleep with them, wake up with them. ‘Let’s go to the studio — work with them.’ It was everything. It just seemed like, you don’t forget about people that easily. I mean, I didn’t.”
Birks waited a few weeks before seeing “Straight Outta Compton.” She’s been busy. J.J. Fad co-founder Juana “MC JB” Sperling, however, saw the movie opening weekend and thought it was amazing, with a caveat.
“I want to see it again and again. It’s just that it would have taken literally two seconds to say our name,” she said.
Better yet: Call J.J. Fad’s story “Straight Outta Rialto” and you’ve got a sequel. Until N.W.A blew up nationally, “Supersonic” was Ruthless’ biggest hit to date. It helped set the foundation, literally. Cashing “Supersonic” checks dictated that Eric “Eazy-E” Wright open his first bank account.
Recalled Heller during a recent conversation: “They generated a lot of money for our company. People never thought about some of the other stuff we had there, like J.J. Fad and Michel’le, but that was a big part of the Ruthless story.
“Eazy and I loved those girls,” he said.
Inking the deal
It didn’t hurt that “Supersonic” was successful. The song was one of five 1989 Grammy nominees in the first ever hip-hop category, rap performance. It lost to DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”
The “Supersonic” single first hit regionally in 1987 when it was issued by L.A. label Dream Team. Recorded after the group pressured producer and friend Arabian Prince to let them have a go at rapping during off hours in the studio, the track blew up when early Los Angeles rap station KDAY started spinning it. Ruthless quickly bought the rights and teamed with indie imprint Macola to keep the song in play on the streets. Birks recalls being skeptical of Ruthless’ leader.
“When we met Eazy, we were like, ‘Are we sure we want to do this? Go from one independent to another? Does this guy know what he’s doing?’ But he kind of mastered it. We agreed to it, and it took off from there.”
Ruthless soon brokered a J.J. Fad deal through Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco. Dr. Dre remixed the hit song, and it sold additional hundreds of thousands of copies. Meanwhile, after Atco and every other major label passed on it, Ruthless inked a deal to release “Straight Outta Compton” in partnership with another label, Priority.
In the wake of these dual successes, the three-piece J.J. Fad (also featuring Michelle “Sassy C” Franklin) joined a series of seminal group tours. In addition to multi-city concerts on bills with both N.W.A and Eazy-E, J.J. Fad was part of Run DMC’s “Run’s House” tour and gigged with DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Public Enemy, Too Short and others.
Despite often being the only girls in a room full of self-professed gangstas eager to boast onstage about guns, cops and women, J.J. Fad never felt threatened on the road with N.W.A. And unlike singer Michel’le and journalist Dee Barnes, both of whom accused Dr. Dre of physically assaulting them, J.J. Fad had a different experience.
“They treated us like little sisters,” said “Baby D” Birks. “I actually was a baby at the time — I was only 15. I was everyone’s little sister, and everyone looked out for me. They looked out for the other girls too, but I was the baby.” She remembered those days as “the best experience of our life, because we had opportunities to go other places.” (Dr. Dre declined an interview request.)
In doing so, J.J. Fad helped deliver the music into new ears. Eager to draw fans of rap and popular ‘80s freestyle and electro music, the group divided the 10 songs on “Supersonic” into two parts. Side one, which opened with the title track, burned with poppy, upbeat R&B songs. The second side was all rap. In years to come, artists like Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, Beyoncé and Rihanna would gradually meld those parallel vibes into a new sound. “Supersonic” would also be name-checked on “Rap God” by Eminem and its flow mimicked by Killer Mike on “Go!” Most successfully, pop singer Fergie’s hit “Fergalicious” was a virtual remake.
Sperling, who is now a nurse and mother of five in Fresno, feels that J.J. Fad’s more pop-friendly sound helped “soften the blow,” allowing labels to consider Ruthless for partnerships. “‘They have J.J. Fad, who’s already gone gold, on their way to going platinum.’ It made it a lot easier for N.W.A to break through. I think that’s super important.”
Heller is effusive when asked about J.J. Fad and label mate Michel’le. He remains on good terms with J.J. Fad’s members and was also disappointed by their exclusion from the film.
Heller, however, didn’t have much to offer when asked about his reaction to “Straight Outta Compton,” other than a post-screening update on an earlier statement.
“Well, my only comment so far is that I think it’s inappropriate for me to comment on a movie that I haven’t seen,” he said. “I did see it on Saturday, and I’m still not willing to comment right now on that movie because I think sooner or later it may be part of an ongoing litigation.”
J.J. Fad’s co-founders have had decades to process those formative experiences and long ago moved on. The group put out a follow-up to the “Supersonic” album called “Not Just a Fad,” but with Dr. Dre rising — as an artist, in-demand producer working with Snoop Dogg and budding empire builder — production for J.J. Fad’s tracks fell to DJ Yella. None charted.
Recalled Birks of their interactions with Eazy-E and Dr. Dre near the end of J.J. Fad’s first run: “I’m not gonna say they forgot about us, but they kind of put us on the back burner. They started working on more artists and pushed us over to the side.”
The women watched from the sidelines while raising families as Dr. Dre hit with “The Chronic.” Since 2009, the group has toured with Arabian Prince and third member Sassy C as part of throwback tours, most recently as part of the Freestyle Explosion Tour, with acts including Taylor Dayne, Debbie Deb and Lisa Lisa.
As evidenced by the exclusion, members of N.W.A seem less interested in J.J. Fad’s past. Sperling is circumspect about the film’s omissions.
“I think there was a certain image that they wanted to put out there, and I don’t think they wanted us to soften that,” she said. “That’s just my perception, and I don’t know if it’s true or not. The way the story was told was very hard-core, so I’m thinking, there were a couple soft sides, but our presence in it might have been a little too soft.”
Still, an invitation to the premiere might have been nice.
“We don’t even have contact with no one anymore, you know,” said Birks. “I guess because they’re still in the light, we think about them. But I just honestly think that even if they weren’t in the light, we’d think about them because we’ve always thought about them. Because they were like family.
“I wish it would have gone differently,” she added, “but there’s nothing that I could do about it. I don’t regret anything they’ve done for us or that we did for them. I just would like for them to take into consideration, you know, look at us and say, ‘Thanks, girls, after all these years.’”
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