Jerry Heller, who served as N.W.A.'s original manager and helped launch Ruthless records with band member Eazy-E, has died at age 75.
His cousin Gary Ballen told the Ventura County Star that Heller suffered a heart attack behind the wheel of his car Friday afternoon in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Emergency crews revived him with a defibrillator and got him to Los Robles Hospital & Medical Center, where he was put on life support but never regained consciousness. He died around 10:30 p.m. PT that night. Ventura County medical examiner Zeb Dunn said the official cause of death is still unknown.
After serving in the Army and obtaining a business degree at the University of Southern California, Heller (who was originally from Cleveland) put down roots in L.A. and worked as a music tour promoter in the 1960s and '70s. He worked with artists including Marvin Gaye, Elton John, Pink Floyd, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
In the late mid-to-late 1980s, he tried to dig himself out of a career slump and offered his services to artists at Macola, a L.A.-area record label. This is where he met Eazy-E (a.k.a. Eric Wright), a Compton drug dealer angling to go legit.
Heller, who was played by Paul Giamatti in the 2015 hit biopic Straight Outta Compton, invested in Eazy-E's nascent label, Ruthless Records, arguably the birthplace of West Coast rap. He managed its artists, including N.W.A. and Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony, to great success.
But dissent began to grow, as the members of N.W.A. became concerned that Heller had mismanaged them, withheld money and favored Eazy-E, sentiments made public in Ice Cube's 1991 solo track No Vaseline, which included the line "It's a case of divide and conquer, 'cause you let a Jew break up my crew."
Ice Cube left the group in 1989 after a contract dispute with Heller and later filed suit against the band's manager in an attempt to recoup royalty money he said he was owed. Dr. Dre quit the band for financial reasons two years later. Eazy-E also felt he was being taken advantage of and fired Heller in 1994, a year before his 1995 death from AIDS.
Heller battled with Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and the band for years, most recently in 2015 when he sued them and the widow of Eazy-E over his defamatory depiction in their biopic Straight Outta Compton. He sought $110 million and alleged the film's producers did not ask permission to use his name or likeness and lifted plot points from his 2006 biography Ruthless. In June 2016, a federal judge threw out all but one of the claims in Heller's suit.
Heller also claimed he talked Eazy-E out of murdering Suge Knight, the bodyguard-turned-CEO of rival label Death Row Records who, as legend has it, physically threatened them into releasing Dr. Dre and two other artists from their contracts. At the time, Heller told his client that it didn't make business sense to kill a glorified bouncer. In a 2013 interview with The Murder Master Music Show, he said he regretted stopping the murder: “You know something? I should’ve let him kill him,” Heller opined. “I would’ve done the world a favor."
His death comes just a couple of weeks after that of another controversial music manager, Lou Pearlman, who oversaw the '90s boy-band explosion before being convicted of fraud and sent to prison in 2008.
Billboard reports that at the time of his death, Heller still lived two doors down from Eazy-E's old house in Calabasas, Calif., and drove the white BMW the rapper bought for him bearing the license plate "RTHLSS2."
Contributing: Christian Martinez, Ventura County Star