Jerry Heller, Co-Founder Of Ruthless Records & N.W.A. Manager, Dead At 75
Longtime music industry veteran, Jerry Heller has died at the age of 75. Earlier today (9/3), Heller’s cousin, Gary Ballen, confirmed to Billboard that Heller passed away on Friday (9/2). While Heller was most known as the co-founder of Ruthless Records with Eazy-E, and the manager of N.W.A., he worked with several other notable acts over the years.
During the 1960 and 1970s, Heller began his music career working as an agent and concert promoter for artists like Marvin Gaye, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Pink Floyd and Elton John. In the mid-80s, he re-surfaced as one of the earliest businessmen to recognize the potential of Hip-Hop. Working with groups like C.I.A., led by Ice Cube, and World Class Wreckin’ Cru, anchored by Dr. Dre, Heller would be a key figure in the foundation of the West Coast Hip-Hop movement. His affiliation with the two men ultimately led to his working with Eazy-E, who reportedly paid World Class Wreckin’ Cru’s Alonzo Williams for an introduction to Heller.
Together with Eazy, Heller founded Ruthless Records, home to N.W.A., The D.O.C., Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Michel’le, J.J. Fad and many more. The record label and its artist would bring West Coast Hip-Hop to the mainstream and become a worldwide megaphone for the streets of Compton. At a time when Hip-Hop was dominated by New York City, the ascension of a West Coast presence was a signal that, what many considered to be a regional fad, had the makings of a global phenomenon.
Heller’s position as both manager of N.W.A. and an owner of its record label, was an inherent conflict of interest, but not one that is uncommon in the music industry. His handling of the artists’ money did, however, become the subject of vitriolic disputes, with both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre eventually leaving N.W.A. and hurling scathing accusations of financial improprieties at Heller. Those claims came in the form of diss songs (“No Vaseline“) and unflattering portrayals in music videos (“Dre Day“), as well as in last year’s N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton.
Heller was featured extensively in the movie. The film portrayed him as multilayered–protective of the group from the police and deeply loyal to Eazy, yet also withholding money from artists. Heller was deeply unhappy with how he was depicted, filing a $110 million lawsuit against both Dre and Cube, much of which was ultimately dismissed.
Heller told Rolling Stone of the film “As for the things that bothered me, I’ve been in the business for six decades. I’ve probably represented almost every major artist in the world, either directly or peripherally, at one time or another. I have a certain reputation, and that reputation certainly doesn’t entail the things that they said about me. It was very hurtful. I thought ‘No Vaseline’ was hurtful. But actually, this was more hurtful. Look, I am what I am, but I’m not a thief. And I’m not scandalous. I did more for N.W.A … I mean, it was just incredible, the success that we had. So for them to call me a thief is just terrible.”