Jerry Heller was an industry veteran and controversial manager for gangster rap pioneers. He leaves behind a complicated legacy.
Jerry Heller, one of rap’s best known and most controversial managers, has died at age 75. His death was confirmed to Billboard by his cousin, Gary Ballen. The cause of death is still unknown.
Heller was born to a Jewish family in Cleveland and after graduating from the University of Southern California he began a career in artist representation in 1963. Over the next two decades he first found some fortune with his Heller-Fischel Agency, working as an agent for the likes of Marvin Gaye and Creedence Clearwater Revival (then the Golliwogs) and promoting Pink Floyd on their first U.S. tour. By the mid-80s however, Heller had fallen from grace in music industry circles and returned to his parents home.
His fortunes changed once again after he was introduced to the emerging Los Angeles hip-hop scene by a friend and took to visiting a local record plant and label called Macola. He began managing key acts within the scene, including the first groups of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. In 1987, already in his mid-40s, Heller met Eazy-E and invested in the rapper’s Ruthless Records label while also taking on a managerial role for many of its acts.
Within a few short years Ruthless Records became a west coast rap powerhouse with multiple platinum releases including Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It, N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton, and The D.O.C’s No One Can Do It Better. Heller had successfully reinvented himself as a driving force behind gangster rap, which was growing in popularity in both the U.S and abroad. Speaking to Grantland in 2015, Heller said his time with Eazy-E was “the period I’m most proud of.”
Heller’s role in the rise of gangster rap was immortalized in last summer’s Straight Outta Compton N.W.A biopic, in which he was played by Paul Giamatti. Heller, who throughout his career remained outspoken and prone to litigation, sued the film makers for $110 million claiming he was represented as the villain of the movie and not compensated for the use of his likeness. All but one of his claims were dismissed by a U.S. District judge in June 2016.
Heller’s work in rap circles caused numerous tensions and he drew the ire of past clients. Most famously he was the subject of Ice Cube’s scathing ‘No Vaseline’ track. Ice Cube left N.W.A after their 1988 debut claiming he hadn’t received proper payment. Dr. Dre left in 1991 amid similar disputes and the involvement of Suge Knight. Dre’s departure would involve threats against Eazy and Heller by Knight as well as the involvement of the Jewish Defense League in negotiating terms favorable to Ruthless. Heller always denied allegations of financial impropriety.