At age 8, Jerry Heller was dodging beatings by the Polish kids on the west side of Cleveland. At age 11, he had his first gun: a .26 caliber Mauser a family member had taken off a German soldier in the fields of World War II. He was born and raised in Ohio, the son of a second-generation scrap-metal man who palled around with Jewish mobsters like Moe Dalitz and Shondor “The Bull” Birns. The hardscrabble Midwest reared him good, he believed, stoking the pugnacity that would serve him well later in life.
But an incidental screening of the Sandra Dee schmaltz-fest A Summer Place was enough to convince him that California was where he belonged. So in the summer of 1960, a 19-year-old Heller left home. It was on the West Coast that he lost his virginity, and soon after, stumbled into rock and roll in its infancy. Through a cousin who sang in a Las Vegas lounge act, he got a job with a corrosive drunk of a talent manager who represented once-famous Hollywood acts on the inexorable downward slide of their careers.
In the next few years, working for a remarkable litany of stars, he claims to have cleaved right through the center of the industry. As a road manager. As a booker. As a kind of catchall consigliere. Heller did it all.
He says he worked with members of the Eagles when they were known as Longbranch Pennywhistle and Creedence Clearwater Revival when they were the Golliwogs. He claims he took Otis Redding to Monterey, and he personally talked heavily armed Black Panthers out of potentially killing Ike Turner.
One time, Heller boasts, he brought Van Morrison to New York — where he had been booed, and sworn off playing — guessing that Morrison, lost in a haze of tour dates and general self-interest, wouldn’t actually be able to tell the difference between one East Coast city and the next. He guessed right.
For one reason or another, Heller never stuck with any one act for too long. By his own telling, his professional relationship with Marvin Gaye fizzled when he refused to lend Gaye his sunglasses. By the mid-’70s, he’d effectively washed out of the upper echelon of the industry.
Then, in 1987, in his mid-forties, he met Eric “Eazy-E” Wright. Heller was, at the time, sleeping on his parents’ couch and sniffing around for a hook back into the game. Wright was a local hotshot looking to get into that same game with his friends, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, and their group, Niggaz With Attitude. And that’s when Heller’s life really began.
These days, getting to Jerry Heller is a peculiar kind of challenge. In the past few years, his public appearances have been limited to interviews with obscure Internet-radio personalities and the occasional TMZ check-in. Poking around for contact information via the radio DJs would lead to lightly attempted extortion. Asking a friend in L.A. who’s worked for DJ Quik and Snoop Dogg would lead to low-level shock. “Man,” he says, pausing. “You gotta understand: That’s kind of like, you know, asking to find the Devil.”
After N.W.A broke up, first Cube, then Dre attacked Heller in their music with lacerating imagery. They represented him as the torchbearer for the legacy of Colonel Tom Parker or the original Svengali: an enterprising but domineering, two-faced show business crook. The last time Heller had any sizable slice of the public imagination was when his name was leaving Cube’s and Dre’s mouths. Their characterization was brutally effective.
This week, after six years of on-and-off development, the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton finally arrives, and with it, Heller is back in the consciousness. Executive-produced by Cube, Dre, and Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, the movie contains a surprising and quasi-sympathetic portrayal of Heller. For the first half of the movie, Paul Giamatti plays Heller as a pudgy ball of ambition and stubborn pride — a Borscht Belter with balls and a Fila jumpsuit. But by the end, he has met his inevitable fate: reduced to a whimpering louse, abandoned by our heroes and shamed for his sins. F. Gary Gray, the movie’s director, and Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, its screenwriters, all did primary reporting, conducting hours of interviews with the principal characters and a long list of background players. To no one’s great surprise, Heller was not invited to these sessions.
“I was given a list of people that they recommend I speak with,” Berloff explained, “and he was not on it.”
If the creators of Straight Outta Compton had tried to find Heller, they would have done so in Westlake Village, roughly an hour’s drive north of the movie’s titular neighborhood. He lives here, alone, in one of a string of prefab two-story homes in a housing community where women in jorts and visors walk tiny dogs. It’s perfectly comfortable, if a bit unassuming. The thought does come to mind: If Jerry Heller stole money, perhaps he didn’t steal enough.
Heller’s living room is decorated with large paintings of circus horses and nighttime jungle scenes. On the mantle sit three see-no-evil/hear-no-evil/speak-no-evil ceramic monkeys. In the corner, near a desktop PC, a trash can bears the grinning face of the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo. Above a brown couch dotted with fleurs-de-lis hangs a portrait of a Weimar-era chanteuse. On the coffee table lies a Tupac coffee table book, a three-ring binder labeled “Fillmore West Dates,” and stacks and stacks of Heller’s 2006 memoir, Ruthless.
Heller, now 74, sits on the couch with his arms folded, wearing Lacoste sneakers, white socks, blue jeans, and a multicolored striped dress shirt. Vintage, Porsche-brand sunglasses cover his eyes. He appears significantly skinnier than in the old photos with N.W.A. His wattle is pronounced. But he speaks firmly and surely, at times with a kind of modified Nicolas Cage drawl. There’s still a glint of “fuck you” in his eyes.
“I think that N.W.A picked up where Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King would have gone if they hadn’t been assassinated,” he says, right off the bat. “I think that they did more for race relations in this country than any other entity in history.” By way of comparison, the name “Abraham Lincoln” is floated. “They were incredible,” he says.
Heller met Eazy-E in the spring of 1987 at the offices of Macola Records, which operated then as both a printing plant and quasi-indie label. L.A. hip-hop acts with populist appeal but no entry point into the industry’s mainstream would press their home-recorded stuff at Macola, often selling it literally out of the trunks of their cars. Along with the Roadium, a Torrance, California, swap meet where all the latest street hits could be purchased, and KDAY, the tiny radio station that passionately supported the scene, Macola was an elemental cog in the independent California rap machine.
In 1987, Heller was working with a local impresario named Alonzo Williams, helping him manage a flashy act called World Class Wreckin’ Cru, which featured both Dr. Dre and his future N.W.A partner, DJ Yella, and an MC trio called C.I.A, which featured a young Ice Cube. Williams knew a guy who wanted to get to Heller so badly that he was willing to pay $750 for the honor. In this lo-fi world, Heller’s past life with rock-and-roll dinosaurs still meant something.
As Heller writes in Ruthless, Eazy rolled up that day looking exactly as the world would come to know him: Jheri curl spilling out from his Oakland Raiders cap, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. He popped out of a Suzuki Samurai with his friend Lorenzo Patterson — N.W.A’s future MC Ren — and, saying nothing, plucked the agreed-upon sum out of a cash roll stashed in his crew sock.
Eazy played Heller his debut single, “Boyz-n-the Hood,” and Heller was smitten. They spent hours together that day, hashing out right then and there the basics for what would become their Ruthless Records empire.
“You were the first white guy I ever really talked to who wasn’t trying to collect rent or arrest me,” Heller quotes Eazy saying.
“What does N.W.A stand for?” Heller asks Eazy at one point. “No Whites Allowed?”
That line actually made it into Straight Outta Compton; in general, the first meeting between Eazy and Heller is represented in the movie more or less as it appears in the book. And by Herman’s admission, that’s not the only thing they borrowed from Heller’s book. “I didn’t want him to be a total asshole,” he says. “I mean, obviously he did some unscrupulous things. But he really believed in these guys. This old white dude really did champion their music.”
In conversation today, Heller still does, and with just as much chutzpah. “Compton wasn’t on the map of the city of Los Angeles,” he says, and it’s true — in a 1985 official county publication, it was literally left off. “And they made Compton the third-biggest music city in the world! L.A., New York, and … not Nashville! Not London! Not Tokyo! Compton, California!”
He flashes back to the social uprising inherent in the music: “I was older than them. I’d grown up during the Berkeley period, the Panthers and the Diggers. Immediately, I knew what it was.” He homes in on that first day at Macola: “Right from that very first time I heard ‘Boyz-n-the Hood,’ I just knew that somehow I was in the right place at the right time.”
Then he flashes all the way back. “Look, I brought Elton John here. I represented Marvin Gaye, Pink Floyd, Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Van Morrison. Of all the things that I’ve done, certainly the most important period of my life was March 3, 1987, to March 26, 1995” — the date of the Macola meeting to the date of Eazy-E’s death due to complications from AIDS. “That was my period with Eazy-E. That was the period I’m most proud of.”
In his memoir, Heller paints a bizarre, fascinating self-portrait, making bold claims in varying shades of outlandish. He says that on the night he saw Canned Heat at the Topanga Corral, Janis Joplin introduced herself by plopping right down on his lap. Later, he writes that on the night that the Manson Family murdered Sharon Tate, their first attempted stop was his then-home in Benedict Canyon.
There is no effort by Heller to present himself as anything other than what he was: a hard-charging, money-loving L.A. schmoozer. Throughout, he drops the names of quite possibly everyone who ever held any fleeting clout in the music industry, and every label that ever had a hit.1 He explains his life via “the holy trinity of the ‘Three M’s’ that Louis Armstrong always talked about: ‘Music, money, and mmmmmm — pussy.’”
Once the book jumps to the days of N.W.A, the oddly entrancing elliptical nature rolls on. There are loads of good tidbits: He writes of the way Eazy would watch King of New York over and over and over; and the “spooky, psychic connection” between Dre and Yella while behind the mixing board.
One night on the road, Heller got a call from Eazy. Come over to the hotel room to talk business, he says. Heller showed up and found Dre with Eazy in the bathroom, with, he writes, a “gorgeous naked girl [making] deep gulping noises as she fellated him.” Deadpan, Eazy rolled off some made-up issue: What’s up with the percentages on those latest royalties? Dutifully, Heller promised to check. He walked outside, shut the door, and waited a beat. Then, the familiar sounds of Dre and Eazy guffawing rolled in.
Back in L.A., he watched his young talent get shaken down by the police outside of their home studio, Audio Achievements, for no reason at all. As the outsider, he was deeply shaken. It wasn’t the cops’ fatal cynicism, though, as much as it was the crew’s response: a wearied acceptance. “Just fuck it,” he quotes Eazy saying. “I’m tired.”
Heller hasn’t seen MC Ren or Yella since the ’90s. He has no relationship with Woods-Wright, Eazy’s widow. He says he runs into Dre “now and then,” which is hard to imagine. “We say hello to one another. There’s no animosity between us. What happened, happened.”
As for Cube, he says, “We were never friends. Even when we were in the group. He was younger than the other guys. And I was older. He lived at home with his mother and father, who were professional, educated, very bright people. He went to Taft High School in the Valley. We were never close.”
Cube’s “No Vaseline,” the track on which he viciously attacked Heller for being the “Jew” that “break[s] up my crew,” still hits a nerve.
“I think it’s one of the most vitriolic attacks on the Jewish people that I’ve ever seen,” Heller says. “And yeah, it hurt me. But I never believed that just because he wrote one of the most anti-Semitic songs of all time that he was anti-Semitic. It was just a way to sell records. Or maybe he did hate me. I don’t know. I could care less.”
Throughout our conversation, Heller is stock-still. He never flinches when discussing Cube.
“I don’t have the kind of respect for him except that he knows how to make money, OK?”
In his living room, Heller stays mostly in character: hard edges, puffed-up bravado. But when Eazy comes up, he softens. “Not one of them understood anything except what they wanted to understand, and that was making money. Only Eazy and I understood the importance of what we were doing. Eazy was a true visionary.”
“He really was like flesh and blood. Like a son.”
Still, Heller is stoic as he talks. This is all a matter of fact.
“He was a good kid. He was the best.”
In a room of the Benjamin Hotel on the east side of Midtown Manhattan, Ice Cube sits spooning brown sugar into his cappuccino. He wears a blue L.A. Dodgers cap and a blue Dickies workshirt; his wrist is decorated with gold, as are a few of his fingers. Recounting the long path of the N.W.A movie, he speaks slowly and carefully, like the Hollywood insider that he is, name-checking studios and CEOs: Toby Emmerich, New Line; Donna Langley, Universal. He’s 46 years old now — just about the same age Heller was when he first met Eazy.
Cube has worked with F. Gary Gray, Straight Outta Compton’s director, for decades, since they made 1995’s Friday together. “Me and Gary had like a DEFCON 4 plan,” he says. “We made a pact that if they do anything to Hollywood this movie, we outta here.” In Compton, he’s played, charmingly, by his son O’Shea Jackson Jr. For Cube, every aspect of the production seems to scream a tried-but-true cliché: History is written by the victors.
I ask about Heller. I tell him I’m surprised the movie doesn’t give it to Heller even worse.
“Personally, I don’t really have that much animosity toward Jerry Heller,” he says. “You know, it’s a long time ago. Respect the fact that Eazy was no fool. And this guy was like a father figure to Eazy. In a lot of ways, he did what he said he was gonna do. Which is, make him legit. We were selling records out the trunk of our car before Jerry came into the picture.
“For the group, Jerry was a champion. He would stand up when we had to deal with Tipper Gore or the FBI or whatever. But with us, individually — we thought he was just worried about Eric. And his own bottom line.”
In any biopic, composite characters and timeline conflations are a necessity. But Cube insists that the critical events are depicted as they occurred. In the movie, after storming away from the group and salting the earth behind him, he makes peace with Eazy after a chance run-in at vaunted hip-hop club the Tunnel.
“Eazy told me, you know, ‘Jerry gone.’ I didn’t believe him,” Cube says. “I thought I’d never see [Jerry and Eazy] part. We was all ready to fuck with Eric and go back after Jerry was out the picture.”
In his book, Heller doesn’t discuss the end of Eazy’s life. Instead, he chalks up the events, in his elliptical style, by quoting his then-wife, Gayle.2 “‘He’s not himself,’ I remember her telling me about Eazy, over and over. ‘You’ve got to hold on to that. Whatever he does — he’s not himself.’” In his living room, he refused to talk about it any further.
In the movie, Eazy cuts ties with Heller after Woods-Wright, who had music industry experience herself, discovers financial impropriety. In the scene, Giamatti unleashes the full breadth of his self-emasculating abilities as Heller breaks down. Herman confirms that this was the version of events as recounted to him by Woods-Wright.
In the movie, the wildly entertaining, madcap first half makes way for the bitter dysfunction of the second half. But before the ugliness sets in forever, all relevant parties make peace.
“I believe it would have happened,” Cube says of an N.W.A reunion. “Because everybody was sick of feuding by that time. When I saw Dre in the hospital” — to visit Eazy after he was diagnosed HIV-positive — “that’s how I knew that this could have really happened. Because at the end of the day, we was all back. Right there. And trying to put all that shit aside. It was just all about our friend and his suffering.”
Could it have really been so simple? As Gray acknowledges, “I don’t think you can ever say there’s a definitive point of view. Cube always said, there’s five different versions of this movie.”
For the screenwriter Jonathan Herman, blending those versions was more difficult than it looks in the movie.
“I think Dre and Cube have become pretty simpatico over the years,” Herman says. “I don’t really know if they see eye to eye with Tomica. Her remembrances of Eazy clashed with theirs often. The version that they tell, the version that I suspected, and the version I actually wrote are completely different. A lot of the illegal and fucked-up shit that happened — I mean, draw your own conclusion. The version of what really happened, maybe no one will ever know.”
Before Cube sits down in the room at the Benjamin Hotel, his son O’Shea holds court. His resemblance to a younger version of his father is so close as to be almost eerie. But where Cube is taciturn and businesslike, O’Shea is joyous. There is no rage apparent in the next generation. Before he leaves the room, O’Shea announces plans to go across the street and grab a vanilla milkshake. And he can relay his father’s happiness without baggage.
“He says he never thought this movie would happen, man,” O’Shea says. “He’s been working close to a decade trying to get it off the ground. Now that it’s so close to the opening, he’s so pumped. I hear him rewatching the trailer every day.”
Upstairs in his home, just off the staircase, Jerry Heller has erected his trophy room. It’s compact and lined with memorabilia from floor to ceiling: plaques and photographs, news clippings, framed sales charts, platinum records — mostly from his days with Ruthless and N.W.A. There is also a painting, in bright primary colors, of Heller with his friend Eric Wright.
To this day, he denies any theft. It’s simple, as he sees it. “Hey, man. If we were such bad guys, how come you never sued us?” (This, too, is echoed almost exactly in the movie.) He’ll go into the details, if you want: the business managers involved, the lawyers, the accountants. But the bottom line is this: He says he never took a dime that wasn’t his.
This may technically be true. As Dre himself explained in a 1996 Vibe story, “I was gettin’ like two points for my production on albums. I still have the contracts framed. I’m not no egotistical person. I just want what I’m supposed to get. Not a penny more, not a penny less. I wanted to do my own thing anyway. I was going to do it with Ruthless, but there was some sheisty shit, so I had to get ghost.”
As far as impropriety goes, this may well be it. Heller had young, fresh kids, long on talent and short on knowledge. He wouldn’t have been the first grizzled industry veteran to sign newbies to unfavorable contracts. He won’t be the last.
It’s still not entirely clear what happened. As Cube himself says, “We come to find out that when it got real thin at Ruthless he started stealing [from Eric], too. I mean, we can’t say stealing. But misleading. ‘Cause Eric’s not really here to tell the whole story.”
Heller’s not alone in the world: He’s got people in his corner, like the ghostwriter of his book, Gil Reavill. Yes, Reavill was an employee. But that was nearly a decade ago. And he was compelled, not to mention charmed, by Heller.
“I don’t think love is too strong a word,” Reavill says now. “He is so full of life. If you aren’t down for a guy like that, you ought to withdraw to a hermit cave.”
As for the longstanding charges, Reavill swears there’s nothing to it. “It’s all hype. Jerry’s the bogeyman brought out to scare the kiddies around the campfire. It’s a show business trope. Dre and Ice Cube and others used it as a way to define themselves, not to accurately describe Jerry Heller. If Jerry Heller didn’t exist, the rap world would have to invent him.”
And for those who still see him as evil, Heller explains, “I only say three words to them: ‘Read my book.’ When they do, that changes everything. I answer every single inquiry on Facebook. And everybody that writes to me, I send them a copy of the book. I buy 2,000 at a time and I send ’em all a copy, autographed. And every single word in there is the truth. Every. Single. Word.”
As he walks down a short path outside his home leading to a neat dock overlooking a small lake, Heller talks about the future. He’s spending most of his time working on an adaptation of his book. He says he’s got Carter Harris, who has written and produced for Friday Night Lights and Bloodline, onboard to write the script. He says six-time Oscar nominee Jim Sheridan will direct.
Heller’s personal life is more complicated. He and his wife Gayle have just gone through a divorce. That’s why he’s living here in Westlake Village all alone. “It was brutal,” he says. “Really brutal.” As for extended family: “All dead.”3
Straight Outta Compton doesn’t concern him, he insists. “The movie has nothing to do with what we did.” Giamatti’s portrayal doesn’t concern him, either. As far as he sees it, the case of public opinion has been settled. “People were talking shit about me. They don’t anymore! I’m the same guy, man. But now I’m, like, one of the biggest heroes in the history of the music business. I mean, an icon. People stand in line to take pictures with me. I’m talking about gangsters.”
What about Ice Cube — is there anything Heller wants to say to him?
“I don’t wanna talk to him about anything.”
Back at the Benjamin Hotel, I ask Cube the same thing. He answers the question, as he does every question, carefully and deliberately.
“The only thing I would say to Jerry Heller is, you know, fuck the past. It’s a whole different time. Ain’t no ill will. I’ve had my shit to say over the years. He’s had his shit to say over the years. Ultimately, we all did some incredible shit.”