When Jerry Heller met Eric “Eazy-E” Wright on March 3, 1987, he knew right away that the diminutive, Jheri-curled dude with a roll of cash stuffed into his sock would change the music world.
Eazy was the founder of Ruthless Records and creator of the prototype gangsta rap group N.W.A. Heller was a music industry veteran who had represented artists from Elton John to Van Morrison to Marvin Gaye. With Eazy running the “show” and Heller handling the “business,” N.W.A. — and gangsta rap — exploded into a global force.
Now, 11 years after Eazy died of AIDS, Heller has written “Ruthless,” a memoir detailing how Eazy, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and MC Ren formed N.W.A. and how an ambitious security guard named Suge Knight broke up the platinum-selling crew.
Heller, 65, spoke by phone with The Associated Press from his Los Angeles office about “the most important music since the beginning of rock ’n’ roll.”
AP: What kind of person was Eazy-E?
Heller: Eazy was an exceptional human being. He was a visionary. He was very Machiavellian, he understood power and how to use it. He was a good-hearted guy, a good father, just an exemplary human being. I couldn’t be any prouder of him than if he had been my blood son. It’s amazing that we could have this relationship because we’re so different. He told me I was the first white person he ever met not in a police uniform or collecting rent. I miss him very much.
AP: With all the bad stuff Eazy boasted about in his music, how can you say he was a good person?
Heller: I have no proof that he was ever a drug dealer. I’m not sure if he was or he wasn’t. I know that it was good for the Ruthless image, the Ruthless persona, so maybe that’s why he adopted that.
AP: C’mon, man ...
Heller: He certainly never [dealt drugs] at Ruthless. It wasn’t a part of our lives. Now, if you want to talk about how somebody who espoused this kind of brutal misogynistic music could be a good person, well, this was the voice of our inner cities that most white people had never come across. To the guys in Ruthless, this was the reality of their way of life. This is the way they grew up, the way things were.
AP: You have a lot to say in your book about Ice Cube, who talked real bad about you after he left N.W.A.
Heller: He insulted me as a man, as a person, as a Jewish person. ... [yet] he is probably the most important African-American indie filmmaker in the business today. His movies are incredible. Certainly “Friday” and “Barbershop” are important movies, he’s an important guy, yet until recently, this year, I never saw an interview where he didn’t talk bad about me.
AP: How did Suge Knight enter the picture?
Heller: Suge was a part-time security guard at Ruthless. He can be a very charming guy, and my initial instincts were to help him. Eazy was more perceptive, he always thought he was going to be problem. I remember walking into my office one day, and Suge was standing there staring at my chair. He didn’t see me. I said to him, “What you doing, man, you think that’s gonna be your chair?” I never thought anyone could come between Dre and Eazy, they were childhood friends and as close as brothers. I didn’t take Suge as seriously as I should have.
AP: How do you feel today, looking at what gangsta rap has become?
Heller: Imagine me walking into Joe Smith’s office, he’s chairman of Capitol Records, I play him the record. ... He said, “You’re trying to tell me somebody’s gonna listen to this, or play it, or buy it? The day that happens I’ll retire.” Joe Smith remains one of the giants of the music business and I love him dearly. I said, “Joe, I remember when radio wouldn’t play the Rolling Stones singing ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together.’ Times change. This is the music of the future.” He says, “I love the name Ruthless. I’ll give you a million dollars for the name. But as far as this other stuff, you better stop getting high.”
AP: What did you think that day you first met Eazy and he played you his song “Boyz-n-the-Hood”?
Heller: It just totally blew me away. It was a combination of The Last Poets, Black Panthers, Gil Scott Heron and the Rolling Stones. If I wasn’t so old I wouldn’t have been able to relate to it. I thought: This is the most important music I’ve heard since the beginning of rock ’n’ roll.
AP: You were right, although some people would still argue with you.
Heller: This was the first time that the voices of our inner city were heard. The only question in my mind was how could we water it down so white people would buy it.
AP: It turns out white folks took it straight up.
Heller: We did one thing. Who were the biggest acts in the world in 1987? Guns N’ Roses and Metallica. I shamelessly pandered to surfers and skateboarders, and in pictures from then you’ll see Slash and those guys wearing N.W.A. stuff. If they thought it was cool, people in Kansas and Wyoming would buy it. That’s how we broached the subject. Because no question this was the most important music of the second half of the 20th century.
AP: What’s next for you?
Heller: We’re putting together the movie version of the book. To play Eazy, I hope we get Larenz Tate. When I look in his eyes, I see Eazy inside there. I have talked to Game about playing Suge Knight. And these are just talks right now, but I’ve talked to Bruce Willis about playing me.