The novelist F Scott Fitzgerald asserted that there were no second acts in American lives, but this adage was confounded by the veteran music agent and manager Jerry Heller, who, after 20 years in the rock music industry, took on the hip-hop group NWA and played a key role in the gangsta rap movement.
In the 1960s and 70s, Heller, who has died aged 75, worked with many of the period’s most prominent artists, from Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Elton John to Creedence Clearwater Revival, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Van Morrison. His career had gone quiet by the late 70s, but he embarked on a hugely successful and controversial new phase of his life when he met the Los Angeles-based rapper Eazy-E in 1987. As the manager of Eazy-E’s group, NWA, and partner in the record label Ruthless, Heller was at the centre of the most notorious yet influential sector of the music industry in the late 80s – West Coast gangsta rap.
NWA’s debut album, Straight Outta Compton (1988), became a multimillion seller and its release is now regarded as one of the defining moments in the history of rap, not least because of such confrontational tracks as Fuck tha Police. “Compton wasn’t on the map of the city of Los Angeles, and they made Compton the third-biggest music city in the world,” Heller declared.
In 2015, the hit movie Straight Outta Compton told the story of NWA (the band members being closely involved in its production), with Paul Giamatti playing Heller. Heller filed a $110m defamation lawsuit because of what he considered an unfair and negative portrayal of himself, though a US district judge dismissed the majority of the suit in July this year.
Heller was born in Cleveland, Ohio. His father was a Jewish scrap metal dealer who numbered among his acquaintances Jewish gangsters such as Moe Dalitz and Shondor “The Bull” Birns. Growing up on Cleveland’s west side, Heller grew accustomed to defending himself against attacks by antisemitic gangs. After serving in the US army, he earned a business degree at the University of Southern California.
He entered the music industry by working as a road manager and booking agent, then, in partnership with Ben Fischel, opened the Heller-Fischel Agency in Beverly Hills. One of its employees was a young Irving Azoff, future manager of the Eagles and chief executive of Azoff MSG Entertainment. The company amassed a client roster that included many of the biggest names of the day, including the Who, Grand Funk Railroad and Black Sabbath. Heller bought out Fischel’s share of the company and continued to handle major names including Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, Journey and REO Speedwagon. However, Heller’s fortunes subsequently declined, and the mid-80s saw him living with his parents in Encino, California.
His fateful meeting with Eazy-E (real name Eric Wright) came after he had begun working with Los Angeles hip-hop artists at the Macola label in Hollywood. Heller was well aware of the incongruity of being a middle-aged, white Jewish American in the midst of LA’s black youth culture, but it did not cramp his style. With a local impresario, Alonzo Williams, he managed World Class Wreckin’ Cru, which included the future NWA members Dr Dre and DJ Yella, and the trio CIA, featuring Ice Cube, who would also join NWA.
Eazy-E was so keen to meet Heller, with his fabled music business success, that he paid Williams $750 to make the introduction. Heller was instantly smitten with Eazy-E’s debut single, Boyz-n-the-Hood, and the pair set about planning a future for the artist and their new label venture, Ruthless Records. Heller stumped up $250,000 for a 20% share of the business. “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,” Heller told the Grantland website last year. According to Heller’s book, Ruthless: A Memoir (2006), Eazy told him: “You were the first white guy I ever really talked to who wasn’t trying to collect rent or arrest me.”
In the slipstream of NWA’s powerhouse success, Ruthless enjoyed a searing streak of hits into the mid-90s with such artists as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, JJ Fad and Michel’le. The label notched up 11 Top 40 albums on the Billboard 200 chart between 1989 and 1995, with NWA’s Efil4zaggin and Bone Thugs’ E. 1999 Eternal both reaching No 1. “Next to David Geffen, we built the biggest empire in the history of the music business,” Heller said.
However, the violent and volatile climate surrounding gangsta rap took its toll. In 1989 Ice Cube quit NWA to pursue a solo career, claiming he had been deprived of his fair share of royalties. He vented his spleen against the manager in his song No Vaseline (1991), which became notorious for its antisemitic content.
Then NWA’s production mastermind Dr Dre quit the group, again claiming to have been short-changed by Heller, and signed to Suge Knight’s Death Row label. It was later claimed that Eazy-E had been persuaded to let Dre, the DOC and Michel’le out of their contracts with Ruthless by a visit from Knight and some hired help brandishing lead pipes and baseball bats. Heller responded to the threat by enlisting the assistance of the Jewish Defence League, a rightwing group dedicated to protecting Jews from antisemitism. “I’ve always said that high-reward businesses are also high-risk businesses,” Heller told Hip-Hop Connection magazine in 2007. “People don’t just give you money … Sooner or later you have to deal with these things.”
In 1995 Eazy-E died from complications of Aids, though not before he had allegedly fired Heller, who once commented that “Eazy was like my flesh-and-blood son”. Ruthless Records was taken over by Eazy’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, but its artists drifted away and Ruthless was absorbed into Epic Records. Heller and Woods-Wright sued each other over financial issues surrounding the label, but settled out of court in 1999.
Heller subsequently dabbled in several musical ventures, which included launching the Hit A Lick Records label, which specialised in Latino rappers.
His book, Ruthless, offered some vivid insights into the growth of the West Coast gangsta rap scene and firmly responded to claims of financial misconduct that had been made against him. He had been working on a film treatment of the book at the time of his death.
Heller’s marriage to Gayle Steiner ended in divorce. He is survived by his brother, Ken.
• Gerald Heller, music agent and manager, born 6 October 1940; died 2 September 2016