Jerry Heller may never have recorded a hit single, but he is one of rap’s most controversial — and reviled — figures. In 1987, the veteran music-biz agent formed Ruthless Records and achieved massive success managing the group N.W.A, whose membership included Ruthless cofounder Eazy-E — as well as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, both of whom later went on to attack Heller viciously in their solo careers (on 1991’s ”No Vaseline,” for example, Cube claimed that Eazy was ”Gettin’ f—ed out your green by a white boy, with no Vaseline” and suggested that his former bandmate ”Get rid of that devil real simple — put a bullet in his temple”). More recently, younger hip-hop stars such as Nelly and the Game have also besmirched Heller’s name.
Now the 65-year-old is fighting back with an autobiography, Ruthless: A Memoir (co-written with journalist Gil Reavill), in which he defends himself against claims that he swindled N.W.A and fondly recalls his odd-couple relationship with Eazy, who died from AIDS in 1995. EW spoke to Heller about disses, death threats, and why no one should have the ”displeasure” of meeting Van Morrison.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you really want to call the book Nigga 4 Life?
JERRY HELLER: Yeah. I mean, Efil4zaggin [which spells ”niggaz 4 life” backwards] was one of our biggest hits, and I was a ”nigga” [growing up] in Cleveland. Only we called it ”kike” back then.
Why did you decide to write it now?
A friend of mine said, ”Jerry, if you don’t deny something, it automatically becomes the truth.” I said, ”That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. You’re going to tell me that I ran a $10 million-a-month company, that Ice Cube left this company and just said goodbye, and didn’t bring in lawyers and accountants to look at the books and stuff? No one could believe that!” But [my friend] was 100 percent right. People have come up to me in later years and literally thought that I was the white devil. When I started with Eazy, who was a fantastic guy and a great visionary, I said to him, ”Look, we’re going to right all the wrongs that were done to guys like Little Richard and Bo Diddley. We’re going to make it so that everybody can get rich.” And everybody got rich — and they still talk s— about me! So, I thought that I would set the record straight.
The most chilling part of the book is when you recall how Eazy suggested that you should have Death Row’s Suge Knight killed when it became clear that he was trying to poach Dr. Dre.
When he said it, there was no question in my mind that he was serious. I said, ”Let’s think this through. We’re the most successful start-up record company in history, and you want to kill somebody and go to jail for the rest of your life?” I said, ”Maybe I’m not a wartime consigliere, but that just makes no sense to me.”
What was it like to become this hip-hop hate figure?
Of all the things that were said, I guess ”No Vaseline” was really the one song that hit me, as a man. That was devastating to me. But if Ice Cube and Dre want to say bad things about me, they’ve earned that right. They’re clearly wrong. But I’ve had relationships with them and they have earned the right to say what they want about me. But I don’t know Nelly! I’ve never met this guy, you know? I met Game. We sat and talked for a while. I said, ”You’re a very nice guy — why would you say something like that?” He said he thought it was a compliment.
His rap about you actually went, ”So if a nigga ever try to Jerry Hellin’ me/ Tell Dre to put up a mil, ‘cause that what’s my bail will be.” That doesn’t sound much like a compliment.
I didn’t think so either.
In the book, you refer to your life as having once epitomized what Louis Armstrong described as the ”Three M’s: music, money, and mmmmmm — p—-.” Which have you found to be ultimately the most enjoyable?
They’re so interrelated. Money comes from the music. P—- comes from the money. When I first started to be successful I would drive down Beverly Drive in my Rolls-Royce, and I’d open the door and girls would just get in. I’d be like, What is this? I wasn’t good-looking yesterday!
Some of the stories in your book sound too good to be true. Did a pal of yours really try to convince David Bowie that he should get breast implants?
Absolutely true story! I had this friend called ”Miami” Mike Gruber — as crazy a human being as ever lived. Bowie was at a party, and ”Miami” Mike said, ”I’ve got this idea for Bowie — let’s go speak to him.” So he says to Bowie, ”Listen, I’m your biggest fan, and here’s what I want you to do. I want you to go to my friend who’s a plastic surgeon and get a big set of boobs, and you’ll do the next tour in a blue cocktail dress.” I looked at the two guys and thought, This is probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. But Bowie was hanging on every word that came out of this guy’s mouth. Bowie says, ”What if I don’t like the boobs after the tour?” Mike says, ”No problem, we’ll go back to my friend and he’ll take them out.” It was surreal.
Back in your pre-Ruthless days as an agent, who was the most awkward person you represented?
I would think Van Morrison. I think he’s as objectionable as anyone I’ve ever met. I always said everybody should have the pleasure of listening to his music. No one should ever have the displeasure of having to meet him.