Jerry Heller: The Unlikely Pioneer of Hip-Hop

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By Daudi Abe

When I learned that Jerry Heller, the former manager of NWA, passed away at the age of 75, I immediately thought of my brief time communicating with him. While conducting research in 2011 for my book 6 ‘N the Morning: West Coast Hip-Hop Music 1987-1992 & the Transformation of Mainstream Culture, I reached out to Mr. Heller to request an interview. He responded almost immediately, full of enthusiasm for not only the premise of the book, but also the opportunity to talk about that time.

A strong argument can be made that Jerry Heller was one of the most important figures in hip-hop history—on a par with Russell Simmons. In addition, if you subscribe to the theory of movies such as The Butterfly Effect or A Sound of Thunder, which suggest that even the slightest change in history can completely alter everything that follows, consider if the March 3, 1987 meeting between Jerry Heller and Eric “Eazy-E” Wright had never taken place. From that encounter came the rise of NWA, one of the most socio-politically relevant music groups of all time. From NWA came Ice Cube, who torched the mainstream with solo albums, while also branching off into an esteemed acting and film-making career. From NWA also came Dr. Dre, hip-hop producer emeritus, who released classic albums of his own, developed superstar talent like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Eminem, and launched the boutique headphone company Beats by Dre, which Apple purchased in 2014 for $3 billion.

Several things stand out to me as I reminisce about my own interactions with Jerry Heller. First, he reveled in the fact that on a magazine list of 20 all-time rap dis songs, six of them were about him. Another was the incredible story about being in an elevator with Eazy-E in New York, before NWA became popular, hearing some other guys on the elevator recite Eazy-E’s underground hit “Boyz N the Hood” word for word, and then realizing afterward that those “other guys” were Run DMC. Finally, was his admission that Eazy-E had a bit of a blind spot when it came to the true value of Dr. Dre. NWA survived Ice Cube’s departure, but not Dre’s.

NWA’s lineup of MC Ren, Eazy-E, DJ Yella. Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube released only two albums. The popular narrative, reinforced in the 2015 film Straight Outta Compton, tells that Heller’s financial unfairness with everyone except Eazy-E caused the group to fracture. On the basis of his portrayal in the movie, Heller filed a lawsuit against Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and others alleging defamation.

What follows is my transcribed interview with Jerry Heller from 2011, which appeared in 6 ‘N the Morning. Enjoy, and rest in peace to a true transformational figure in modern cultural history.

First Person Account: JERRY HELLER

I knew very little about the hip-hop scene in New York, which was mostly an art scene in the 1960s and 70s and then what evolved in hip-hop around 1985-86. It’s ironic that the album that I consider to probably be one of the two or three most important albums of the second half of the twentieth century, which was [The Beatles] Sergeant Pepper, set the bar so impossibly high for all of the other rock and roll people in the world that it changed the focus of the whole business and really led to what I feel is a real down period in rock and roll. Because people started to try to emulate that album so enthusiastically that they start spending way too much money on records and when they start spending way too much money on records then they had to spend way too much money promoting the records. So really people were involved with music just because they were trying to protect their jobs rather than the fact that they loved the music, and I just feel that it’s ironic that an album as influential and important as Sergeant Pepper would be the cause of all that. The other was Straight Outta Compton.

But during that period of time around 1985 when I feel that the music business was really in a very bad place, a friend of mine called me and told me about a little scene that was happening down in old Hollywood on Santa Monica Boulevard at a pressing plant called Macola Records. For a thousand dollars you could get five hundred copies of your record pressed up and this guy would send it out to four or five different guys around the country that did what he did. The records themselves cost so little that the actual tape cost more than the record cost to make. So we had this scene at Macola where there were a bunch of artists not only from Los Angeles but from Seattle and the Bay Area pressing their records. There was Jay King and the Timex Social Club, MC Hammer, Ice-T, the LA Dream Team, Egyptian Lover, Rodney O and Joe Cooley, Sir Mix-A-Lot, and the World Class Wrecking Cru. After thinking about it for a while I finally got over to Macola and met this guy Rudy Pardee who was from Cleveland, where I’m from, and he had a group called the LA Dream Team and also signed to him was JJ Fad. I listened to what he had and I liked it a lot more than I liked what was happening on the East Coast because not only was it more musical and melodic, because I’ve always been a melody kind of person, but it had a sense of humor which I didn’t think the East Coast music had. So I started to get involved there and was managing Egyptian Lover and Bobby Jimmy and the Critters, Rodney O and Joe Cooley, LA Dream Team and JJ Fad and I was really liking what was happening there because to me the music business is a win-win business. In the music business the more the artist makes the more everybody makes. In any other business the more one person makes, the less someone else makes, so it’s really one of the few win-win businesses that I’ve ever seen and I liked it a lot because if you sold ten or fifteen thousand in vinyl you could split up some money and everybody made some money and that’s what the music business is supposed to be about.

During that time when I was managing World Class Wrecking Cru who were on Cru Cut Records which was owned by a guy named Alonzo Williams, who I feel never really gets the credit that’s due him. He really was one of the great early pioneers of the West Coast hip-hop movement. In the World Class Wrecking Cru were Yella and Dr. Dre, and in one of his other groups which was called CIA, Cru In Action, were Ice Cube and Sir Jinx. So he [Williams] was a very influential guy, and he owned a club called Eve After Dark, where when I used to go down there I was literally the only White person in the club. So he kept telling me about this guy that wanted to meet me, and his name was Eric Wright. This went on for a couple of months and I was real busy and I had sort of checked up a little bit on him and he was a reputed drug dealer from South Central, he had some money and he was getting involved in backing other peoples records so nothing about it made me really want to meet him. Alonzo was never really comfortable with the portrayals of violence and misogyny in our inner cities. If you look the early Wrecking Cru records they were sort of The Temptations of the West Coast hip-hop movement. They had choreographed dance steps and they wore glittery outfits and make up. But finally Alonzo said to me, “You know this guy Eric Wright offered me $750 to meet you,” and I said okay and agreed to meet Eazy-E on a Tuesday which was March 3, 1987. I meet him over at Macola and he drove up in this tricked out Suzuki Samurai with MC Ren. I was certainly impressed with his charisma and I said to him, “Do you have anything you want me to hear?” First of all he reached in his sock, pulled out a wad of money and paid Alonzo the $750, and he just said to me, “Yeah,” and handed me a cassette.

That was very impressive to me because most of the music business, at least the music business that I grew up in, there’s a lot of bullshit. Everybody’s got this guy, it’s all hype, and they got this song, it wasn’t that way with this kid. This kid just said to me “yeah” and handed me a cassette so obviously he was willing to let the music do the talking for him. So we went inside, put Ren in another office where he proceeded to carve his initials into the owner of Macolas desk with his knife, and I heard “Boyz-N-The Hood,” and I thought it was the most important music that I had heard probably since the mid-1960s. Being older, these guys were all in their teens, I was of course in my mid-40s already, I had been there at Berkeley and grown up with Bill Graham and Mario Salvo and the Panthers and Gil-Scott Heron and the Rolling Stones so I was able to relate to what they were rapping about. For the first time I felt that maybe this is some music that all of America is going to be able to relate to, it’s going to show people in Kansas, Nebraska and Minnesota exactly what it’s like to grow up in a place like Compton, California. I heard in this music the rebellion of the Rolling Stones and Gil-Scott Heron and the Black Panthers and having been there for that I felt it was really important for everyone to understand the angst and oppression that minorities in our inner cities have always felt. I grew up Jewish in Cleveland, in fact I grew up on the same block as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, but being Jewish in Cleveland was very restrictive. For example, I literally went to college in Ohio with girls that were not allowed to go out with Jews, so I was also able to relate to where that was coming from.

But I knew that this music was important, and maybe my goals weren’t totally altruistic, I mean I had been at the forefront of every musical movement in America. I was in rock and roll at the beginning of rock and roll, I was in new wave at the beginning of new wave, I was in punk at the beginning of punk so I had been involved with some of the most important artists of our generation. I was involved with Creedence Clearwater, I brought Elton John to this country, Pink Floyd, I represented Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Van Morrison, Boz Skaggs, Joan Armatrading, ELO, I’d been involved in most of the important music of my generation so I just felt that this was important. I’m not sure if it was from a monetary point of view because I tend to think of things being measured in success, and I’d certainly been successful in my career and my artists had been successful, so I just felt that this was going to be the next big move in American music.

Knowing that the music was good, and Eric Wright didn’t need me to sell records at swap meets, my problem then became a marketing problem rather than a musical problem. I recognized that the music was there, so the issue was how to get the rest of what we call White, middle-class America to listen to these songs and relate to them. So I went to where I felt the hotbed, in California at least, of people that were on the cutting edge which were the surfers and skateboarders in Huntington Beach. These guys are always on the cutting edge. So after spending some time down there I said to myself, “Look, who do they like?” At the time they liked Guns-N-Roses, they liked Metallica, they liked Suicidal Tendencies, and I felt anybody that ever bought [the Guns-N-Roses album] Appetite for Destruction certainly would buy Straight Outta Compton. So if you look at any interview or video that any of those groups did from 1987-91 you’ll see them wearing Straight Outta Compton hats and t-shirts, and their favorite group became NWA. So I approached it from a marketing point of view and obviously it worked because the original members of NWA wound up doing to this date probably $15 billion between their writing, producing and record sales. And Ruthless was a company that Eazy and I started that day, March 3, 1987, when I didn’t even know what NWA stood for. I said, “What’s it stand for, No Whites Allowed?” and Eazy just laughed and said, “That’s pretty close!”

Eazy-E was a real visionary. He was a good guy, and it was hard for me to relate to why or how he knew that somehow our futures would be linked together like that. I mean there were no two people that were more diametrically opposed: I was tall he was short, I was White he was Black, I was old he was young, I was from Cleveland he was from Compton, I was educated he dropped out of high school in 11th grade. There was nothing about us that would ever portend to the two of us building this incredibly successful company, except the music. Although it wasn’t true with Eazy because he and I were such close friends, he was like my son, I’ve always said with most of my artists I’ve always only had one thing really in common with them: We both like what they do. Other than that, Van Morrison, if I saw him on the street I would turn my back because he’s a bad guy. So most of the artists that I represented over the years, when our business relationship was over our personal relationship was over. There are some exceptions with artists that I’m still fairly close to but really it’s the exception rather than the rule. I’ve always felt that was really a true-ism; we only like what they do, and you know something? That’s usually enough. That’s all you have to have. All you have to do is have respect for what the other one does.

Eazy and I built this incredibly successful company, and within a short period of time we were doing $10 million per month. I think that probably at that time Russell Simmons had a singles deal at Columbia. Although I’ve never really been a big fan of his I think that Rick Rubin was certainly, musically, one of the most important guys in rock and roll. But Eazy came to me and was able to put this group of artists together; Eazy always said that he was the conceptualizer, Dre was the musicalizer, Ice Cube was the verbalizer and I was the financializer, and that was NWA. At first everybody was saying, “Aw man Jerry it’s great that you can do this,” then of course when we started being successful they came out of the woodwork to say to Eazy, “Aw man, why are you with this White Jewish guy? You should be with brothers keeping the money in the community,” all that stuff. Right to the very end he stood up to a lot of peer pressure to stick with me. I had made a deal with Irving Azoff for Dre to have his own label and was like $20 million upfront or something like that, and then Mo Ostin refused to fund it because he was having his own problems at Warner Brothers with all that heat over “Cop Killer” by Ice-T and C. Delores Tucker and all these people putting them under pressure when Warner Brothers at the time was really in the cable business, not really in the music business. Ostin ended up getting forced out at Warner Brothers, which was one of the great record companies of all time, it’s not anymore but it certainly was when he and Joe Smith were there. In fact, one time I later went to see Joe Smith when he was the chairman of the board at Capitol [records], he was an old friend of mine. I played him one of the songs that started off, “What the fuck is up, who the fuck is he, comin on the mic its Eazy-motherfuckin-E,” and he looked at me and said, “Jerry, you really gotta stop getting high! You’re trying to tell me that people will listen to this garbage? That anyone will play it on the radio?” He said, “Jerry forget it! I love the name Ruthless. I’ll write you a $2 million check for the name right now. But this music, just forget it man it’s just not happening.” I said, “Joe, I remember when radio stations wouldn’t play ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ by the Rolling Stones, and now Mick Jagger is Frank Sinatra.” Times change and this was the music of the future because besides being musical, besides having a sense of humor, besides being important music, obviously someone like Rodney King wasn’t the first Black guy to get beat up by a bunch of cops on the freeway. So when we wrote “Fuck Tha Police,” that had come from years and decades of police oppression in the inner cities, but that was just the first time anyone had ever videotaped it, that’s all. If not for that videotape, who knows? Just like who knows what would have happened if Bobby Kennedy wouldn’t have been assassinated? I mean here’s a guy that was talking about this stuff in the 1960s. Who knows if there wouldn’t have been a video camera that day [of the King beating] how things would have been different?

Eazy was actually in that courtroom every single day when those cops were on trial in Simi Valley. He just had this insatiable quest for knowledge, he wanted to know everything about everything. Eazy was a unique individual and they don’t come along often like him, I mean a true, true visionary. I think nothing portrayed it to me more than a time when he and I were in New York at a party that Bill Graham threw. Bill Graham was an old friend of mine and he had a party at the Parklane Hotel and Eazy and I were coming down the elevator. Diana Ross and Chaka Khan were in this elevator talking and then these other three big Black dudes. Now this was before Straight Outta Compton was ever released, we were selling it at swap meets out of the trunks of our cars so we’re not talking about tremendous exposure yet. But these guys on the elevator went into “Boyz-N-The Hood” and rapped every line of it, word for word. Eazy and I stepped out of the elevator and I don’t think he understood at that particular moment the impact of what that meant. I said, “Do you realize, here we are in New York, no radio stations are playing the record and those guys on the elevator knew every word to ‘Boyz-N-The Hood?’” And he said, “Oh, you mean Run-DMC?” So I’m thinking to myself, “Well nobody’s playing this music, so how are people hearing it?”, and I’ve never really been able to answer that question to my satisfaction. I can say that it had something to do with the mall becoming the social center of urban America, it had to do with people beginning to have cell phones, always talking on the phone in cars or wherever they were, and it had something to do with a social change that was going on in America. When we finally did get some airplay, there was only one station in the country that played our record. That was a 5000-watt station on the top of Alvarado Street called KDAY. Greg Mack and the Mack Attack, the Mix Masters Tony G. and Julio G., these guys were instrumental for us. These guys played our music. They were the only station in America that played our music. A couple years later there was a station in Dallas that started to play it, but KDAY was really the only station in America that would play West Coast gangster rap. I’ve just had a tremendous affinity toward Greg Mack, we’re very close friends to this day. Julio G, Tony G, the Mix Masters, I mean these were important guys. We would go over there and play a record for them, we had a promo guy named Doug Young, we would go over there and play the record for them, they’d say, “Aw man, we can’t play this, you gotta take out this, you gotta do that,” we’d go back to Eazy’s mother’s garage and beep it or reverse it or overdub it, come back two hours later and it would be on the air. Then we’d get orders for 40 or 50 thousand units the next day.

If you look back to the East Coast, Hollis, Queens, and you’re talking about Kool Herc, the Jamaican influence, “Rapper’s Delight” and some of that early stuff up to Afrika Bambaataa, that’s one set of circumstances that I’m not familiar with and wasn’t involved in and really wasn’t interested in because it’s not real musical and actually had no sense of humor. I call it the era of big dicks and gold chains because that’s all they were talking about. When we started on the West Coast there was some humor in the music, plus it was real musical. Eventually we started to pave the way for people to listen to it and dance to it and have fun with it, and even though we were talking about very serious subjects we were doing it in a way that was a little more palatable.

Along with a guy who I consider, and even though he’s my neighbor he’s no friend of mine, you know I think of the 20 best or worst dis records of all time listed in XXL magazine and six were about me, but certainly Andre Romel Young [Dr. Dre] who did the song “Dre Day” and a couple of other dis records about Eazy and I, is the most important musical influence of the entire rap era. Starting in 1986, just look at what his body of work is. He started with the World Class Wrecking Cru with “Surgery” and “Juice,” then he did a song called “Turn Out the Lights” with Michel’le who sang the lead on that who he brought out of nowhere, of course he did the music and production for every song that ever came out on Ruthless so that means he did the D.O.C., Penthouse Players with DJ Quik, NWA, he did World Class Wrecking Cru, the Michel’le album, he does The Chronic for himself, he does Eminem, 50 Cent and The Game. I can only say one thing: This guy has been doing this since 1986 and he’s still at the very top of his game. I gotta say that this guy is the most important musical factor of the entire hip-hop era.

I used to always tell Eazy that he was our biggest asset, and that was the one place where Eazy had a little blind spot was with Dre. Because Eazy had started the company and we built it together, he never felt that Dre was that instrumental and it just reinforced it after Dre left when we came out with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. If Eazy wouldn’t have died and I wouldn’t have left the company Bone Thugs-N-Harmony today would be the biggest group in the world. They were just so self-destructive and very difficult to deal with. But you know, we had Dr. Dre. That’s 25 years, and show business years are like dog years. These guys come and go, they burn out, they’re like the flavor of the month. I like some of the stuff Pharrell did, I like all those guys for a period of time, but I can’t really say that I really like everything. Except for that first Aftermath album after he [Dre] left Ruthless with ‘Mr. Evil’/Suge Knight I would say that I really just love his entire body of work. For me he’s the number one guy and then I think Rick Rubin, who has done it in a lot of different genres, not just hip-hop. But that early stuff that Rick Rubin did with the Beastie Boys was just great material.

I don’t know if a legacy has to be good or bad, but I tend to look at it both ways. Number one, hip-hop re-established the economic integrity of the music business because we cut Straight Outta Compton for 12 thousand dollars, we cut Eazy Duz It for 8 thousand dollars, we did the first D.O.C. album for 30 or 35, the first Michel’le album for 30 or 35, so that’s what the music business is supposed to be about. It supposed to be about win-win, establishing the economic integrity of the business and I think that’s one of the things hip-hop did. The other thing it did was unite the country. I don’t see any of the kind of discrimination that we used to see – I know that as a Jewish person I certainly don’t. But I don’t think that we see the extent of discrimination coming from the time when I grew up and went to college. So I think that it brought that change, and NWA became the audio documentarians of their time. Politically you would certainly have to give that mantle to Public Enemy, but sociologically you’d have to give it to NWA. They are the two most important factors of that entire era and on the other side of the coin I think that the music business now is a shell of what it was before. Everybody is talking about how downloading has ruined the music business. I don’t believe that. I believe that the downfall of the record business came from the greed of the executives at all the major companies who then imposed their scope of economic integrity on the business, because to do a Snoop Dogg record now costs the same as a Whitney Houston record. They do three-minute videos now that cost more than it took to make [the movie] Easy Rider. There’s just something basically wrong with that, and the same stations that play a Whitney Houston record play a Snoop Dogg record. So the business has changed and hip-hop has become, I’m not even sure it’s hip-hop anymore, but that form of music has become the rock and roll of the past generation. It’s different now and I attribute the downfall to the greed of the major labels who become married to these business plans that are doomed to failure. Anybody that’s ever read Karl Marx can see that’s it’s just a traditional cost-push downward spiral and I blame guys like Jimmy Iovine for the downfall of our business.

I think Jerry Heller is an enabler, I don’t wanna make too much of my part in it. But I think if you talk to anybody that was in high school or college between the years 1987 and 1992, they can tell you exactly where they were the first time they heard Straight Outta Compton. I think that its affected people all over the world in so many different ways, just for example: In 1988, maybe three or four months into Straight Outta Compton, we did a 10-page spread in foreign Elle magazine called “Gangster Chic.” Half the people that take my class at UCLA are in the fashion business, so I just think its affected the world in so many different and positive ways, it’s unbelievable. We got a letter from the head of the FBI saying that we were responsible for the deaths of something like 80 police officers and law enforcement personnel in 1988, it just affected the world in so many different ways it’s just astonishing to me.

Look, I found Creedence Clearwater when they were the Golliwogs playing in a small bar in San Francisco. The Grass Roots, the Guess Who, I represented Marvin Gaye, Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, ELO, Boz Skaggs, Van Morrison, Joan Armatrading, The Four Tops, The Miracles, I’ve represented all those people but of all the things that I’ve done in my life, the most important period of my life was from March 3, 1987, until March 26, 1995, when Eazy-E passed away. I think that was certainly the most important period of my life, and that’s the period that I am the most proud of. Jeff Chang was doing a speaking tour with his first book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. I heard that he was speaking in Los Angeles so I went to see him at some hip little book store in Echo Park or Eagle Rock or one of those areas that’s really becoming very hip now, and a bunch of people were there in suits and ties sitting on these little chairs on the floor. The place was packed and he’s doin his speaking thing; I got there late and walked in then people started to ask questions. I raised my hand and said, “I read your book and I certainly think it is the definitive work on the hip-hop nation and I just love it. For the first time I saw a book on the music business on the front table at Barnes and Noble!” So I said to myself now’s the time for me to write my book [Ruthless published by Simon & Schuster] to establish Eazy’s legacy and reconstitute my own reputation a little bit because I was very naive and very stupid as far as that went. A friend of mine named Big Regg who’s in prison now said to me, “You know man, you know what you know and I’m just tellin you I know the streets, and if you don’t deny the things that Dre and Ice Cube are saying about you and Eazy, then because you don’t deny them in my world people are going think they’re true.” I thought that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, I mean come on, that’s just impossible! You wanna know something? He was 100% right and I was the one that was arrogant and naive in my thinking. So it just came to a point where I wanted to right those wrongs. Eazy had died, I saw Jeff Chang’s book on the front table of Barnes and Noble, which I had never seen before, and thought the timing was right. So I said to Chang at his talk, “I don’t know you, but once again, like all of you jive-ass New Yorkers, you’ve totally relegated the West Coast to almost insignificance in your book!” He says back to me, “First of all I’m from San Francisco. Second, I gave NWA six whole chapters,” and then I asked him a couple of other questions and then someone in the audience whispered, “Man, I think that’s Jerry Heller!” because I’ve always been a behind the scenes kind of guy. It just got electric in the room, and Chang says, “You’re Jerry Heller?” I said, “Yeah,” he said, “Come up here,” and in my copy of his book he wrote: “To Jerry Heller: The man who’s responsible for all of the important music in my life.” In closing, this Saturday [March 26th] is the anniversary of the death of my friend and business associate “The Little Big Man,” Eazy ‘Muthafucking’ E. Rest in peace my brother.

6 N The Morning: West Coast Hip-Hop Music 1987-1992 & the Transformation of Mainstream Culture is available from Amazon:
https://www.amazon.com/Morning-Hip-Hop-1987-1992-Transformation-Mainstream/dp/1483990664/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1456849889&sr=8-2&keywords=daudi+abe