Jerry Heller, the longtime music manager that helped launch the career of N.W.A and the gangsta-rap movement, died Friday. He was 75. Heller’s cousin confirmed Heller’s death to Billboard. According to TMZ, Heller died after suffering a medical emergency while driving that resulted in him sustaining serious injuries after crashing his minivan in California. It’s still unclear whether Heller died from the medical emergency or the injuries from the crash.
Heller started his career in the music industry as an agent and promoter, working with artists like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Marvin Gaye, the Who and Black Sabbath in the Sixties and Seventies.
By the mid-Eighties, as hip-hop swelled in popularity, Heller co-founded Ruthless Records with Eazy-E; the Compton rapper reportedly paid Alonzo Williams of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, another Heller-signed act that featured Dr. Dre, for an introduction to the manager.
N.W.A formed in 1986 with Eazy-E and Dre linking up with C.I.A.’s Ice Cube and Arabian Prince; a year later, in 1987, Ruthless released the supergroup’s first single “Panic Zone. By the release of 1988’s Straight Outta Compton, MC Ren and DJ Yella would join N.W.A, which was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
“From God we come and to God we return,” MC Ren told Rolling Stone following Heller’s death.
In addition to N.W.A, Ruthless also became the one-time home of acts like J.J. Fad, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, the D.O.C., Michel’le, Jimmy Z and more.
Heller served as the N.W.A’s manager for four years, although the group began to disintegrate in 1989 after Ice Cube quit over royalty disputes with Heller, resulting in the rapper’s scathing diss track “No Vaseline.” By 1991, Dr. Dre would ditch Ruthless for Death Row and skewer Heller in the video for his “Dre Day.” However, Heller and Eazy-E’s partnership continued until the rapper’s death in 1995.
“I was with him until the day of his untimely death,” Heller told Rolling Stone in November 2015. “I still think about him every day. He was like my son. He was a visionary. He was the greatest, and I’ve always believed that only he and I really understood the significance of what N.W.A was.”
Following the release of Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A biopic that portrayed Heller – played by Paul Giamatti – in a negative light, the former manager filed a $110 million defamation lawsuit against the film’s producers, including Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. Heller also spoke to Rolling Stone about what he perceived as the film’s many inaccuracies. However, the majority of Heller’s lawsuit was dismissed this June.
“As for the things that bothered me, I’ve been in the business for six decades. I’ve probably represented almost every major artist in the world, either directly or peripherally, at one time or another,” Heller said. “I have a certain reputation, and that reputation certainly doesn’t entail the things that they said about me. It was very hurtful. I thought ‘No Vaseline’ was hurtful. But actually, this was more hurtful. Look, I am what I am, but I’m not a thief. And I’m not scandalous. I did more for N.W.A … I mean, it was just incredible, the success that we had. So for them to call me a thief is just terrible.”
In 2006, Heller released Ruthless: A Memoir to tell his side of the story and address certain accusations he claimed were untrue.
This story is developing.