Today, most Hip-Hop fans can spout off the names of every label’s CEO, and maybe even an A&R or two. But in 1986, Jerry Heller became one of the first behind-the-scenes moguls to emerge when he aligned with Eric “”Eazy-E”” Wright to form Ruthless Records. The label would change Hip-Hop forever with its introduction of “The Black Beatles”, better known as N.W.A. Other successful acts such as D.O.C., Above The Law, and Bone Thugs & Harmony would follow, but it was the label’s ‘80s glory years, where it’s remembered for some of the Blackest rap to ever release, and the White Heller pulling the strings.
After a lot of accusations and criticism – including Ice Cube’s ““No Vaseline”” and Dr. Dre’’s ““F**k Wit’ Dre Day,”” Heller has chronicled his success, while defending his name in Ruthless, a memoir of the era.
In promotion of the book, Heller spoke to AllHipHop’.com’s Grouchy Greg about moving from a Rock & Roll manager to one of the earliest believers in West Coast Hip-Hop.
The Ruthless mind touches on the earliest days of Eazy-E, Suge Knight, and some raps that Ice Cube may like to forget, a hundred pages and turnin’.
AllHipHop.com: After all these years of silence, why did you decide to pen Ruthless?
Jerry Heller: I’ve always felt that I was a good storyteller and for years, people asked me to write a book. I never thought the time was right. I do very few interviews and I’ve always been a behind the scenes guy. I walked into a Barnes & Nobles or Borders one day. I read a lot of books especially since Eazy died, I really haven’t been doing that much. So I saw this book on the front table called Can’t Stop Won’t Stop [by Jeff Chang]. I picked it up and read it. It was the first time I had seen a music book at the front at one of the major stores, for $30. I said maybe it’s time for me to write this book, because it had a chance of getting attention, and being an important book. So I got a call from Phyllis Pollack saying that [Jeff Chang] was in town at some eclectic little bookstore. I showed up late and he was finishing his presentation. The place was just packed. So I told him I read the book, and that it was the most definitive kind of book on Hip-Hop I’ve ever read.
Very few people recognize who I am. So someone said, “That’s Jerry Heller,” and it was an electric moment. Then [Jeff Chang] inscribed my book, saying I was responsible for some of the most influential music during his lifetime. That started it. I started interviewing writers. Of the publishers we approached, I think we approached ten, and seven or eight were interested. I flew to New York and met with Harper Collins and Simon and Schuster and I chose Simon and Schuster.
AllHipHop.com: People know your role at Ruthless Records, but most people don’t know that you were an influential music industry executive in the ‘60s, before N.W.A., with some of the big Rock & Roll acts.
Jerry Heller: One of the reasons I was able to understand what was happening in the ‘80s was because it was not unlike what I saw at the beginning of the Rock & Roll era. The first group I started with was group named The Standells in 1966. They were managed by a guy Bert Jacobs, whose major claim to fame was that he was proud of point shaving and fixing some basketball games in the ‘60s. He wound up managing Three Dog Night and Steppenwolfe. Then I got involved with the Grassroots, Creedence Clear Water Revival, and The Guess Who. Then in 1969, I brought Elton John to America for his first US tour. When I finished that tour I represented Pink Floyd. In mid 1970, I started my own agency. I represented Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Electric Light Orchestra, Joan Armatrading, Boz Scaggs and a lot of other Rock and Roll groups.
AllHipHop.com: What was it about Hip-Hop music that made you pay attention?
Jerry Heller: I liked [West Coast Hip-Hop] because it was more melodic than East Coast Hip-Hop. Besides, whatever else it was, it had a sense a humor, which I didn’t think East coast Hip-Hop had. I started to manage some of the West coast groups, mainly the World Class Wrecking Cru, who were with Alonzo Williams, who I think is one of the most important guys in the history of West Coast Hip-Hop.
AllHipHop.com: He’s featured on their hit song “”Turn Out the Lights”,” which also features Michel’le. But why was he so important behind the scenes?
Jerry Heller: It’s always important to be one of the first guys. He really helped with the movement. He had a club called Eve After Dark, which allowed the guys to showcase what they were doing. His vision for Hip-Hop was sort of rapping to like Temptations kind of orchestration and dance moves. That was sort of his vision of Hip-Hop. In his stable he had C.I.A. [Crew in Action] that Ice Cube and Sir Jinx were in. Then he had the Wrecking Cru, which was himself, Yella, Shakespeare and Dr. Dre.
AllHipHop.com: And all of this occurred before you met Eazy-E?
Jerry Heller: I met and managed all those guys before I met Eazy. And Alonzo, who was never comfortable with the rough language of later gangster rap, kept telling me about this guy named Eazy-E coming to the club saying he wanted to meet me. So I put Eazy off as long as I could.
AllHipHop.com: What happened the first time you met Eazy-E, and what was the first thing that went through your mind?
Jerry Heller: Well, up comes this Suzuki Samurai all tricked out. And Eazy gets out with [MC] Ren and the guy impressed me. When he got out of the car, he was only about 5’2. It wasn’t his size. He had a kind of impact, a charisma, this inner-power that I was impressed with. In the music business, you hear so much bulls##t. Guys tell you they have this group and that group, and I got this and that, but it’s usually all bulls##t. So I asked him if he had something to play for me. But first he pulled $750 out of his sock and paid Alonzo. Then he simply said, “Yeah,” and that’s all he said.
AllHipHop.com: What was the first record that he played for you?
Jerry Heller: He played “Boyz-N-Tha Hood”.
AllHipHop.com: What was you reaction to hearing such a different form of Hip-Hop music at the time?
Jerry Heller: It freaked me out. I thought it was the most important music I had heard since the mid ‘60s and the beginning of Rock & Roll. And fortunately, I have been around long enough to recognize it. It was like a cross between Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, The Rolling Stones, and The Black Panthers.
I knew it was incredible music and it just blew me away. It had that hardcore feeling that I used to associate with The Panthers, who were really serious individuals. I am a child of the ‘60s. I grew up with the assassination of the Kennedys, I grew up with the Panthers, I grew up with the [President Nixon] being a thief and the war in Vietnam, the most unpopular war in history, although Iraq may come very close to equaling that, on a much larger scale. He played this music when a few things were happening that were significant.
The crack epidemic. We had the emergence of the swap meet as a social and economic force in our cities over here. We had the advent of the cell phone, which, when I grew up, a cell phone was $2,500, nobody had one. Now everyone had them and when you were talking on the phone, you could hear what guys were playing in their rides. All this played a part.
AllHipHop.com: I took to Eazy-E early on, because of his voice. I actually liked his delivery too, but it was such a different sound. What attracted you to the songs? Eazy? The production? The lyrics?
Jerry Heller: I know a lot of rappers that are technically better then Eazy-E, just like I know a lot of Rock groups that made better records than N.W.A. If you listen to a Steely Dan or a Mamas and The Papas record, technically, those records put N.W.A. to shame. But the honesty of an N.W.A. record! If they had worked on the album for a thousand more hours, that was the best we could do. And while it didn’t have the technical excellence of a Steely Dan record, the kids were able to relate to it and we were able to build the kind of integrity that rebellious kids relate to, and we were able to build that credibility.
There are certain things in the music business that separates the stars from the superstars. You can be first, do something new, or do something better than anyone else has ever done it. There’s no question in my mind that Jimi Hendrix was the greatest guitar player of the Rock & Roll era. Bob Dylan isn’t the greatest singer I’ve ever heard, but you don’t confuse him with anyone else. Eazy-E has a unique vocal style.
There’s nobody that sounds like him. For a while, DJ Quik tried to sound like him, but it was a unique kind of sound. Anyone who knows rap, knows it’s Eazy-E when he’s rapping. The other thing, was he was able to make you better than you were. At Ruthless, Eazy used to say, “Dre musicalized, Eazy conceptualized, Cube verbalized and I financialized.”
Remember that Cube isn’t from the streets. Cube would rap a verse to him and Eazy would say, “Oh, that’s sort of corny,” and tell him how to change the words. As great as Amerikkka’s Most Wanted was, as great as The Chronic was, they have never matched anything as impactful as Straight Outta Compton. To me, Straight Outta Compton, which I feel along with Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band [by The Beatles], are the two greatest records of the second half of the century.
AllHipHop.com: How did you eventually go into business with Eazy-E?
Jerry Heller: We decided to go into business the same day we met. The next day I called a meeting of all my clients and told them that I couldn’t represent them, because I was going into business with Eazy. Now I was making a lot of money per year, just with the clients I had. For me to put all that aside to go into business with this upstart kind of guy, it was something that I felt very strongly about, because I thought he was on the cutting edge of something I wanted to be involved with. Even though I represented J.J. Fad, the LA Dream Team and Egyptian Lover, I told all these people they could have a home at Ruthless if they wanted. I was only going to be involved in business with Ruthless Records and Eazy-E.