Jerry Heller broke into the music industry in 1966, representing artists for a mobbed-up booking agency in Los Angeles. Heller went on to act for stars like Marvin Gaye and Van Morrison; he booked Elton John and Pink Floyd’s first American tours. In 1987, he met Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, a twenty-one-year-old drug dealer who wanted to rule the hip-hop game. The unlikely duo became friends and business partners. They co-founded a gangsta rap label, Ruthless Records, and Heller agreed to manage Wright’s band, N.W.A [Niggaz Wit Attitudes].
In Heller’s estimation, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella were no less than “the black Beatles.” The band became U.S. law enforcement’s public enemy No. 1 upon the release of their 1988 album Straight Outta Compton. Their song “Fuck tha Police” had violent, anti-authoritarian lyrics; Heller says it provoked frequent run-ins with the LAPD and, in a letter of complaint from the FBI, N.W.A was cited for obscenity after performing the song in Cincinnati, and nearly arrested for doing the same thing in Detroit. Their manager championed their right to freedom of speech at every turn.
N.W.A’s last album was released in 1991. Eazy-E died in 1995 from complications related to AIDS. Dr. Dre has become one of the most successful producers in hip-hop history. Ice Cube (who painted Heller as the white devil of hip-hop for skimming N.W.A’s profits, although he has never pursued the allegation in a court of law) is now a Hollywood leading man. He continues to record gangsta rap, as does MC Ren. DJ Yella is the CEO of an adult film company based in Compton.
Heller was portrayed in the 2015 N.W.A biopic by Paul Giamatti. Feeling the depiction was filled with defamatory lies about his dealings with the group, Heller sued the film’s producers, initiating a defamation lawsuit that was eventually thrown out of court. He died of a heart attack on September 2nd, 2016. This interview was conducted in 2009, from his home northwest of Los Angeles.
Jerry Heller: Alonzo Williams, who was the patron of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, and one of the most influential of the early West Coast rap impresarios and artists, was a close friend of mine. He kept saying to me, “There’s this guy who comes in my club, and I’d like you to meet him.” At the time, I was managing Egyptian Lover, the Wreckin’ Cru, L.A. Dream Team, J.J. Fad, and Bobby Jimmy and the Critters, so I was reasonably busy. Alonzo kept on me for a couple months, until I said, “What’s the story? Is this guy your brother-in-law or your cousin?” He said, “No, he’s a guy who comes in the club and spends money. He offered me $750 to set up a meeting, and to be honest with you, I could use it.” I said, “Okay, I’m going to be at Macola [Records, a Hollywood vinyl pressing plant] on Tuesday. Have the guy show up and I’ll talk to him. Whatever.”
On March 3rd, 1987, a beautiful spring afternoon in Los Angeles, this tricked-out Suzuki Samurai pulled up. This little guy, Eric Wright, got out the driver’s side. MC Ren was in the passenger seat. Eric was clean — pressed Levis, a cap with Jheri curls sticking out. Alonzo introduced us. Eric reached down in his sock, pulled out a roll of money and paid Alonzo $750. I said to him, “You got anything for me to hear?” He said, “Yeah.” He didn’t say, “Oh man, I got this girl, and I got this guy, and I got this song, and this is my boy, and this is my this, and this is my that” — the typical bullshit L.A. record business patter. He was willing to let his music do the talking.
We went inside and he put on “Boyz-N-the-Hood.” I was flabbergasted. It blew my mind. When I asked Eric what the name of the band was, he said, “N.W.A” I said, “What’s it stand for, No Whites Allowed?” He laughed and said, “Actually, that’s pretty close.” I didn’t know what it meant until I heard “Straight Outta Compton” — “Crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube, from the gang called Niggaz Wit’ Attitudes.” I’m not sure the profanity was anything more than a vehicle to draw attention to the message, which was the anguished cry of what’s happening in America’s inner cities. I remember Gil Scott-Heron, I remember the Rolling Stones, I remember the Black Panther Party. I thought to myself, this is a combination of those forces that’s going to shock the world. I was willing to give up everything I was doing to go into business with Eric Wright.
Matthew McKinnon: Right now I’m looking at a Polaroid of you standing in front of a house with your arm around Eazy. There’s a sold sign on the lawn, and someone has printed “The Wrong Hous [sic]” beneath the photo. Do you know why?
That’s the first house that Eazy bought, in Norwalk [south-east Los Angeles County]. I had never been there before. There were two or three new houses in a row, and we wound up taking the picture in front of the wrong one. It was a modest house, but it was especially meaningful to him, I think because it was the first time anyone in his family had really owned a home. It exemplified our relationship, that we were able to do that together early in his career.
You look paternal.
That was our relationship. It was very much father–son.
In your book Ruthless: A Memoir, you wrote about representing Marvin Gaye in the 1960s. Were you still his agent when he released Let’s Get It On, which became notorious for its sexual content, in 1973?
No. But we had a close relationship; we were very good friends. There was some discussion about Let’s Get It On when it came out, but nothing serious, because it wasn’t so overt that it came to the attention of radio programmers. They seemed to be more lax toward black artists than they were to artists like the Rolling Stones. Marvin didn’t throw sex in your face like Mick and Keith did with “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” which is the first record I can remember that radio stations wouldn’t play.
There was nothing radio-friendly about N.W.A.
I went to see Joe Smith when he was chairman of the board at Capitol and played him Straight Outta Compton. He looked at me and said, “You know, Jerry, you’ve got to stop getting high. This is too crazy. Nobody will ever listen to this, no radio station will ever play it, and certainly no one will ever buy it.” I said, “Joe, I remember when radio stations wouldn’t play ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ by the Stones — now Mick Jagger is Frank Sinatra. Things change, Joe. This is one of those times, one of those seminal albums that is going to forge a change in American culture.”
Did you expect “Fuck tha Police” would be labelled obscene?
I’m a child of the sixties. I grew up with a president who was a crook, who put us into the most unpopular war in history, who had no communication with people under thirty. I had seen the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Panthers and the Diggers, I understood what they were about. I didn’t think the authorities would perceive “Fuck tha Police” as the kind of threat that they did with the Panthers, because the Panthers really scared them. But I thought they would find it distasteful, and I certainly never thought that radio would play it.
Milt Ahlerich was an assistant director of the FBI when he wrote, “Law enforcement officers dedicate their lives to the protection of our citizens, and records such as the one from N.W.A are both discouraging and degrading to these brave, dedicated officers,” and, “I wanted you to be aware of the FBI’s position relative to [‘Fuck tha Police’] and its message. I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community.” Was his letter alarming to read?
First of all, Priority Records, which was our distributor, was terrified. Number two, the band loved it. They thought it was one of the greatest compliments of their lives. I took it very seriously until Donald Edwards, who was a Democratic congressman from San Jose, came out and defended our right to free speech. Once he did that, I said, “Fuck these FBI guys. Whatever happens, it’s not going to go unnoticed.”
Still, getting scolded by the Bureau must have been a surprise.
It was the furthest thing from my mind, that the world’s number one law enforcement agency would take “Fuck tha Police” seriously. Even though I had been around Huey P. and H. Rap Brown and Bobby Seale and the Panthers — I actually represented Emmett Grogan and the Diggers — it was never something that crossed my mind. What crossed my mind was, how am I going to get white people to buy this record? How am I going to get the people in Kansas and Nebraska and Minneapolis and places like that, which is probably ninety per cent of the record-buying public in America, and was probably eighty per cent of the record-buying public in the world in those days? What I came upon was this: the Huntington Beach surfers and skateboarders, who are always on the cutting edge of the arts in this country, liked Suicidal Tendencies, Metallica, and Guns N’ Roses. I approached those groups, who then became giant fans of N.W.A. If you look at the interviews and videos Guns did during that period, ’88, ’89, ’90, you’ll see them wearing Compton t-shirts and hats. Their fans said, “If Guns thinks they’re cool, if Metallica thinks they’re cool, if Suicidal Tendencies thinks they’re cool — they’re cool.” We’re talking about 26 million people who had bought Appetite for Destruction at that point.
What happened when N.W.A performed “Fuck tha Police” in Detroit?
We had been warned by the mayor that if the band played “Fuck tha Police” there would be serious repercussions and the city would close the show. I said to the guys, “The date is sold out, and if they shut you down, it will cost us a couple hundred thousand dollars. Can we do one show without that song?” They said no problem. They got on stage and started with a couple other songs. Then they looked at each other, started laughing, and went into “Fuck tha Police.” Mysteriously, some cherry bombs went off in the audience. The cops interpreted that as gunfire and rushed the stage. We had two tour buses at that time, but the police had confiscated our bus drivers’ licences so they couldn’t drive. My cousin Gary Ballen was N.W.A’s production manager; my old friend Atron Gregory was the tour manager. To get the band offstage, they took the guys through LL Cool J’s dressing room, out the back door and on to the hotel. When the cops got to LL’s room, I guess all blacks look the same to them, so his guys took the beating that was meant for N.W.A. Elvis had already left the building.
But the police found them anyway, right?
When our guys got to the hotel, I told them not to leave their rooms because the police couldn’t come inside without a search warrant. Of course, they weren’t in the rooms fifteen minutes before they were down in the lobby looking for women. The cops showed up; it turned out to be a fiasco. I negotiated a settlement with the chief of police, which was that N.W.A would leave the state immediately. Their next date was in Nashville or somewhere. The cops gave the bus drivers their licenses back and the band left Detroit.
I want to read you something from Ruthless: “In Cincinnati, N.W.A was busted for violating the city’s obscenity statutes, taking [their] place in a long line of artists, from actress Mae West to photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, victimized by the censorship capital of America.” Was that episode a repeat of Detroit?
Those two cities, along with St. Louis and Milwaukee, amazed me, because I always thought they were in the north. But those places were unbelievably bigoted against the band. It was obvious what their motives were. In Cincinnati, the guys did “Fuck tha Police” and the police came on stage and cited them for obscenity. The people from the Riverfront Auditorium, where the show happened, told us they would finance a lawsuit up to the Supreme Court if we were willing to take it that far. Towards the end of that lawsuit, the officials from Cincinnati called us and said they would let us off if we paid tickets of $117, and they would only cite two guys in the band. We refused. The Riverfront people won that suit. Around the same time, the city lost another obscenity suit [over an exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s photographs at the Contemporary Arts Center]. It was a great victory for civil liberties.
Is censorship gone since the time of “Fuck tha Police,” or has it just changed?
Censorship has moved into the hands of the people rather than into the hands of the legislators. One thing that N.W.A did, as Larry Flynt did before them, was to expand the boundaries of our reliance upon the good sense of the people to determine what’s right and what isn’t, what’s obscene and what isn’t, and what’s immoral and what isn’t. It’s an individual choice now, which is what it should be.
What do you think that society was afraid of back then?
N.W.A were the audio-documentarians of their time. They were trying to shock people with the violence of their language and the subjects they were talking about. The fact that they dressed in guerilla outfits like the Black Panthers made them shocking by their appearance as well. People my age were terrified of the Panthers in the sixties and seventies. They were terrified that the Panthers were going to poison water supplies and commit overt acts of terrorism. Remember that one Sunday afternoon in 1971, the Panthers walked into a San Francisco police station and killed a police officer? We’re talking about people the system couldn’t control. “Fuck tha Police” reawakened that fear in the hearts and psyches of middle America.
Does that fear persist? What if “Fuck tha Police” came out tomorrow instead of twenty-one years ago?
For one thing, the record stands up. Certainly, it enlarged our level of tolerance and understanding of the problems that young people face in our inner cities, to the point that everybody can understand their situation. “Fuck tha Police” isn’t about killing police, like Milt Alherich said. It’s about the interactions of inner city youths when confronted by different configurations of police: a black officer with a black officer, a white officer with a white officer, a black officer with a white officer. That’s what it was trying to enlighten young America about — what it was like to live in that environment. It certainly wasn’t a call to arms against the police.
Body Count, a metal band fronted by Ice-T, released “Cop Killer” in 1993. The song was thematically similar to “Fuck tha Police,” and was equally loathed by U.S. authorities. What did you and Eazy think when you heard it?
“Cop Killer” was more of a rock & roll record than it was a rap record. Ice-T was the original gangsta rapper in Los Angeles. He was a lot older than the guys in N.W.A. He was a friend, but Eazy didn’t feel he was making the same magnitude of political statement that Straight Outta Compton made. We thought about it more from an economic point of view than we did from a ground-breaking, sociological-political point of view.
What about Public Enemy? “Fight the Power” came out a year after “Fuck tha Police,” and became as much an anthem for hip hop on the east coast as “Fuck tha Police” was for the west.
To me, there are no two more important acts in the history of American hip-hop than Public Enemy and N.W.A. They went hand in hand, with Public Enemy on the east coast emulating the Panthers and N.W.A on the west coast emulating the life of inner city youths in places like Compton. When those bands broke up, that was the end of gangsta rap as far as I’m concerned. Everyone else were just imitators. The difference between “Fight the Power” and “Fuck tha Police” was that Public Enemy was making a political statement and N.W.A was making a sociological statement. The songs were interlocking in a certain respect. Together, they covered the whole spectrum of problems that Bobby Kennedy had been trying to remedy before he and Dr. King were assassinated.
I don’t remember Public Enemy getting knocked for obscenity. N.W.A’s offence seems to have been violating community standards — although there’s no such thing as a homogeneous American community.
N.W.A had something in common with the Rolling Stones and MC5 and groups like that: the voice of rebellion. It’s rebellion against your parents, it’s rebellion against the system, it’s rebellion against society. The band just had to strike that note of discord, to make the public feel that what they were saying was not that different than what the Rolling Stones were saying in 1965.
Was it necessary to defend against everything? Or, turning that question on its head, what if N.W.A had not defended “Fuck tha Police” — if they had chosen to apologize for the song and pull the album from stores?
That wasn’t open for consideration. I thought Straight Outta Compton was the most important piece of work I had heard since the mid-sixties, probably since Sgt. Pepper. I was totally uncompromising, the band was totally uncompromising, the backbone of the band, Eazy-E, was totally uncompromising. MTV banned the video for “Straight Outta Compton” and we refused to change anything about it. We were going to rise or fall with what you see is what you get. Of all the things I’ve done in my career, which have been many, I’ve never been prouder than the period from March 3rd, 1987 to March 26th, 1995, when I was associated with Eazy-E.
Finally, should we be legislating against some forms of obscenity these days?
We have to worry about nuclear capabilities in Iran and global warming and the economy now. There’s far more serious problems for us to face than whether someone says “motherfucker” or “cocksucker.”
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