Heller Gets ‘Ruthless’

When Elton John first visited the United States, he was amazed to see a backyard swimming pool at a party for agent Jerry Heller. Fast forward twenty-some years, and Ruthless Records founder Heller was amazed to see MTV cameras filming a clothing-optional pool party for members of his latest discovery: N.W.A.

Heller recounts those stories and many, many more in a new book, “Ruthless: A Memoir,” hitting bookstore shelves this month. The autobiography details his life and times, including a second act as the man who made West Coast rap an international music phenomenon.

Heller recounts every stage of his long career, from personally rearranging a Sacramento club marquee to give proper due to client Mickey Rooney, to finding death threats scrawled on his bathroom mirror during his heyday as a West Coast rap impresario.

He tricked a notoriously mercurial Van Morrison into showing up for a gig at Carnegie Hall, a show now considered one of the greatest of his illustrious career. He also had a “dis” rap written about him called “No Vaseline” that requires no explanation.

So just how did a nice Jewish boy from Shaker Heights, Ohio, come to be such a legendary figure in the rap world – with a famous career in the rock world in between?

Thank The Beatles.

“I thought the business in the early to mid-’80s had lost its economic integrity,” Heller told Pollstar. “It used to be a win-win business. When somebody has a hit record, then everybody has a common goal and they all make money. Of my favorite albums of all time, at least of the second half of the 20th century, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band set the bar so incredibly high for everybody that it ruined that economic integrity.

“I think The Beatles spent 700 to 800 hours in the studio on that album. They recorded a seven-figure album at a time when that was absolutely unheard of,” he explained. “What resulted was that people became committed to records because of how much they cost, rather than because they absolutely loved the music.”

So when he learned in 1985 about a group of Compton kids pressing vinyl records in a dingy little Hollywood shop and selling 15,000 of them on the streets for a net of $25,000, he checked it out. Some of those kids, who were recording raps in their parents’ garages on machines literally bought at Toys ‘R’ Us, had street names like Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Arabian Prince and MC Ren.

Before long, Heller struck up a business partnership with Eric Wright – better known as Eazy-E – and the two formed Ruthless Records, the first and possibly most successful West Coast rap label.

Heller’s first and most important signing to the label, of course, was Wright’s group N.W.A – Niggaz With Attitude. In the span of about five years, N.W.A would become the most notorious group in the land, thanks to a cut on the multiplatinum Straight Outta Compton called “Fuck Tha Police.”

A part-time bodyguard by the name of Marion “Suge” Knight entered the scene and within a short time, the “Black Beatles” fell apart – with the help of death threats, shakedowns and a whisper campaign that painted Heller as a “white devil” ripping off his African-American clients.

Ice Cube was the first to leave. Dre went later, becoming the creative force behind Knight’s fledgling Death Row Records – a move he surely came to regret. Knight was recently forced into bankruptcy and his label into court-ordered receivership.

Eazy-E died of AIDS in 1995, shortly after his partnership with Heller ended.

Heller tells the history of the turbulent era in detail, but it doesn’t take a rap fan to enjoy his memoir. Heller’s storytelling spans many eras and artists, though some of the best and funniest tales he spins are about his colleagues on the business side of “The Biz.”

He recounts a litany of label execs, artists, agents, managers and promoters that make up a virtual Who’s Who of rock history: Irving Azoff, David Geffen, Bill Graham, Ron Delsener, Jerry Perenchio, Sylvia Rhone, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Ike Turner all make appearances.

But the publication of the book begs the questions: Why was Heller drawn to rap, and why write about it now? He answers both and then some.

“I started in rock ‘n’ roll at the beginning and had been at the forefront of the major movements – most rock ‘n’ roll, new wave, funk. And I’d lived through the period of the Black Panthers, Richard Nixon and punk rock. [Rap] wasn’t that different to me,” Heller explained. “N.W.A was kind of a combination of The Rolling Stones and the Black Panthers.

“The rebellion was there and they were putting out the message of the realities of the inner city. It really struck me.”

As for the book, Heller had been out of Ruthless Records for several years, teaching a class at UCLA called “Hip-Hop Nation: From Jamaica to Compton” and generally enjoying life, splitting time between homes in San Diego and the L.A. suburb of Calabasas. He saw a copy of Bay Area-based hip-hop chronicler Jeff Chang’s book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” on the front shelf of a local Barnes & Noble, and was intrigued.

“I bought it and thought it was about the most definitive book on hip-hop I’d ever read. … I went and saw [Chang] in some mom-and-pop bookstore, and it was so packed you could barely get in.”

He struck up a friendship with Chang that day and decided it was time to write his own memoir.

“I had a friend who called publishers in New York. Of the 10 he called, some weren’t interested at all. Of the seven who were, three wanted to meet with me in New York. So I met with Simon & Schuster and two divisions of Harper Collins who all made offers. I wound up making a deal at Simon Spotlight, which is an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and I’m very pleased.”

He spent the next four or five months interviewing writers before choosing one of the few non-journalists on his wish list: Gil Reavill. That done, Heller said the writing and editing took another year. There is talk of turning “Ruthless” into a movie.

But the main reasons Heller wrote the book, he said, are more personal.

“I’ve achieved this status of urban legend, and in some circles the white devil,” Heller said. “I’ve never responded to any of [the rumors alleging Heller took advantage of his rap acts] before. … When Ice Cube left Ruthless, this multimillion-dollar-a-month company, he didn’t send in accountants and lawyers, even if Ruthless wasn’t checked by accountants and lawyers and everyone else already? I’ve never been sued, but I’ve had raps written about me.

“The book is sort of an attempt to rehabilitate my name, or at least to fight back for my name, and also to fight for Eazy’s legacy, because it wasn’t just me they went after. They said it about Ruthless and they said it about Eazy-E, too,” Heller said.

The book is dedicated to Heller’s wife, Gayle, and to Eazy-E of whom he writes: “Eric Wright, my friend, surrogate son, and partner … .”

– Deborah Speer