The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jerry Heller, music executive who launched gangsta rappers N.W.A., dies at 75

Music industry veteran Jerry Heller in 2006. (Jim Cooper/AP)

Jerry Heller, a once-powerful music executive who helped take gangsta rap mainstream as a ­record-company founder and the manager of the group N.W.A., but who was later pilloried as a caricature of the greedy, exploitative manager who takes advantage of young music stars, died Sept. 2 at a hospital in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He was 75.

He had a heart attack while driving and was involved in a car crash, his cousin Gary Ballen told the Associated Press. He had a history of heart problems and diabetes.

Mr. Heller had been a manager of musical acts since the 1960s, working with such major performers as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Marvin Gaye, Pink Floyd and Elton John. But he had his greatest impact when he joined forces in the late 1980s with a group of young hip-hop artists in Los Angeles.

The teenage rappers who formed N.W.A. — most notably Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre — became the first major stars of West Coast gangsta rap. Their boastful, intensely profane lyrics depicted a world of sex, violence and racial tension, with frequent references to guns and an overt hatred of the police.

In 1987, Mr. Heller and Eazy-E (Eric Wright) launched Ruthless Records, an independent label devoted to the emerging genre of gangsta rap and, in particular, N.W.A. Eazy-E performed the rap tune that, in some ways, came to define the gangsta culture: "Boyz-n-the-Hood," which was adapted as the title of a 1991 movie directed by John Singleton.

The group’s anti-establishment point of view was reflected in its defiant name, which stood for Niggaz With Attitude. With the release of the group’s first album, “Straight Outta Compton” in 1988, N.W.A. “introduced some of the most grotesquely exciting music ever made,” Newsweek reviewer wrote. The recording sold 3 million copies and became immensely popular with young listeners of all backgrounds.

“I thought it was the most important rap music I had ever heard,” Mr. Heller told London’s Telegraph newspaper. “This was music that would change everything.”

There were five members of N.W.A. on the debut album: ­Eazy-E, Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson), Dr. Dre (Andre Young), DJ Yella (Antoine Carraby) and MC Ren (Lorenzo Patterson). Mr. Heller considered himself virtually a sixth member of the group, once saying, “Eazy conceptualized, Dre musicalized, I financialized and Cube verbalized.”

After a second album in 1991, N.W.A. broke up amid an acrimonious dispute. Eazy-E stayed with Mr. Heller as a business partner, but Ice Cube and Dr. Dre went on their own, criticizing Mr. Heller in the harshest terms.

In the often-violent world of gangsta rap, Mr. Heller slept with a gun under his pillow.

“Was I scared?” he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2006. “Not necessarily, but I watched myself. I had Mossad-trained bodyguards. I dealt with it.”

Ice Cube’s 1991 song “No Vaseline” left no bridges unburned with its explicit lyrics — condemned by some as anti-Semitic — that appeared to urge the assassination of Mr. Heller: “You let a Jew break up my crew. . . . Get rid of that devil real simple, put a bullet in his temple.”

Mr. Heller took it in stride and seemed to bear few grudges.

“Yeah, it hurt me,” he said in a 2015 interview with the online magazine Grantland. “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.”

In a 2015 movie about the rise of N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton,” Mr. Heller was portrayed by actor Paul Giamatti. He was depicted as a scheming, devious showbiz character who exploited the naive young rappers, withheld their paychecks and kept much of the money for himself.

Mr. Heller sued the film’s producers, including Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, for defamation, telling Rolling Stone magazine, “Look, I am what I am, but I’m not a thief.”

In June, a California judge dismissed most of the lawsuit, except for one claim that Mr. Heller had tried to coerce Ice Cube into signing a contract without legal advice.

“I don’t have anything to say to Jerry,” Ice Cube told the New York Times in April. “He’s never owned up to his participation in the destruction of the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Group.’ So he doesn’t deserve to be mentioned. The music that we put together, he had little or nothing to do with.”

Gerald E. Heller was born Oct. 6, 1940, in Cleveland. His father was a scrap-metal dealer.

“My dad wasn’t a gangster and he wasn’t a criminal, but he sure liked to rub padded shoulders with them,” Mr. Heller wrote in his 2006 memoir, “Ruthless.” “He was a high roller, interested in nightlife, horses, organized athletics, dice, bookies, touts, and card games.”

Mr. Heller shared some of the same interests. He graduated from the University of Southern California in 1963 and began working in Los Angeles entertainment circles, managing musical acts that included, at various times, Otis Redding, Van Morrison, Black Sabbath and Ike and Tina Turner. By the early 1970s, his booking agency was earning millions of dollars a year.

He looked the part, wearing tinted glasses and colorful shirts and driving sports cars with customized license plates. He was married and divorced two times.

After the breakup of N.W.A. in 1991, Mr. Heller sought to regain his foothold in the music business, but he had a hard time escaping the reputation, deserved or not, as something of a shakedown artist.

He managed several other groups and moved toward Latino hip-hop without duplicating his earlier success.

In the years since N.W.A. emerged, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre went on to become entertainment moguls, worth hundreds of millions of dollars each. Eazy-E — whom Mr. Heller considered the most talented member of the group — had AIDS and died in 1995.

N.W.A. was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.

Mr. Heller ended up living in a modest prefab housing development in Westlake Village, Calif.

"It's perfectly comfortable, if a bit unassuming," reporter Amos Barshad wrote in Grantland last year. "The thought does come to mind: If Jerry Heller stole money, perhaps he didn't steal enough."

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Eric Wright (Eazy-E) wrote the song “Boyz-n-the-Hood.” It was written by O’Shea Jackson (Ice Cube ) and performed by Wright.

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