Jerry Heller, the music businessman best known for managing seminal West Coast rap group N.W.A., died Friday of a heart attack, his cousin confirmed to Billboard. He was 75. (TMZ first reported that Heller died after suffering a medical emergency while driving.)
Born in Cleveland in 1940, Heller launched his career in the ’60s and ’70s representing acts like Elton John, the Who, Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Marvin Gaye. As hip-hop rose to prominence in the ’80s, Heller worked with a number of Los Angeles groups, meeting future N.W.A. members Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and DJ Yella. In 1986, Heller and rapper Eazy-E cofounded Ruthless Records. The label released N.W.A.’s influential 1988 debut, Straight Outta Compton, as well as solo projects by Eazy-E and MC Ren and records by other artists like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Michel’le.
N.W.A.’s relationship with their manager was infamously fractious; both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre accused Heller of ripping them off. Following the group’s breakup in 1991, Ice Cube blasted Heller and the other members of N.W.A. in his diss track “No Vaseline.” Dre left Ruthless for Suge Knight’s Death Row Records, mocking a Heller-like manager and “Sleazy-E” in his 1993 video for “Dre Day.” Heller and Eazy-E, however, remained close and continued to work together until Eazy’s death in 1995.
Heller’s profile rose once again last year with the release of successful N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, in which he was played by actor Paul Giamatti. The real Heller disputed his portrayal in the film and filed suit against Dre, Ice Cube, and NBCUniversal. Most of the lawsuit was dismissed in June.
Heller told his side of the story in a book, Ruthless: A Memoir, published in 2006. This April, N.W.A. became only the fifth hip-hop group to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.