Ruthless: A Memoir By Jerry Heller

I still remember the time I first listened to N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. I was in college, and a friend of mine had dubbed a tape for me and said, “Man, you need to check this out.” So I brought it back to my dorm room and let it rip. I couldn’t believe they were saying the things they were saying; no one had ever cursed like that on a record before, or spun such violent fantasies.

The attraction of the music for white kids like me with no experiences in the inner city was this: it was angry, rebellious, and somehow bizarrely life-affirming in its exuberance. In 2015, this type of music is no big deal any more. But in 1988, it was incendiary.

When I heard last month that a movie was being made about the formation of N.W.A., I decided to read Jerry Heller’s 2006 book Ruthless: A Memoir. Heller was the co-founder and producer of Ruthless Records (N.W.A.’s label), and I had been dimly aware of the various back-and-forth accusations that had been tied to the drama of N.W.A.’s breakup.

What were the roles of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube? Who had screwed over whom? Where did the blame properly lie?


Eric “Easy-E” Wright: the big conceptualizer behind N.W.A.

Heller’s book pulls no punches. He cuts through all the posturing, all the bullshit, and all the lies that have been circulating in the entertainment world for the past twenty years regarding who did what to whom. The effect is like that of a cleansing wind.

In the mid-1980s, Heller was a worn-out Los Angeles band manager in need of a second wind. He had been a big player in the rock world of the 1960s and 1970s, managing many famous acts. But changing public tastes and a nasty divorce had left him feeling empty and in need of a new path. Heller clearly has a talent for sniffing out good music, and he sensed that rap music was on the ascent.

So he started to frequent underground rap shows in various locales in the city. He must have cut quite an unusual figure: a tall, educated, middle-aged white Jewish guy trying to get established in a black cultural niche definitely attracted attention.

But Heller was at his core an anti-establishment type of guy, he had had a lot of experience in the music game, and he never tried to be something he wasn’t. And that “realness” was what gave him credibility in the rap world.

One day, he was approached by a persistent, sunglasses-wearing kid named Eric Wright. Wright, who went by the nickname Easy-E, had been trying to meet him for weeks, finally paying a friend $750 to arrange an introduction with Heller. As Heller relates it:

I was trying to imagine how this runt-of-the-litter twenty-three-year-old tenth-grade dropout saw me. Tall European-American, already gone a shade gray, educated, open-eyed, twice Easy’s age and outweighing him by a good eight or ten stone…”You were the first white guy I ever really talked to who wasn’t trying to collect rent or arrest me.”

Easy-E played a demo tape for Heller which contained the song “Boyz N the Hood,” and he was blown away. Out of this first meeting, the idea of N.W.A. and Ruthless Records was born. Heller knew musical genius when he saw it, and acting on blind faith, he took the biggest plunge of his life.

He contributed huge sums of his own money to start Ruthless Records, and Easy provided the talent in the form of the other members of the group (Dr. Dre, MC Ren, Yella, and eventually Ice Cube, who was only 17 at the time).


Jerry Heller: putting it all out there

But the unlikely pairing of Heller and Easy-E worked because each provided something that the other didn’t have. Heller actually worked for Easy-E, but was paid on a percentage basis of the label’s gross revenues. Heller knew what he was worth and wasn’t afraid to say so.

After a few successful albums, N.W.A. dropped a nuclear bomb with Straight Outta Compton. And as the money began to pour in, so did the inevitable personality conflicts, business disputes, and simmering grievances. As Heller sees it, the problems began with Ice Cube’s constant complaining and unwillingness to be a team player.

Apparently he believed he should have been paid more than the other group members, and had a legion of attendants who were willing to feed his ego. He says:

Even in those early days, Cube was always difficult. At first I thought he had a chip on his shoulder just because he was younger than everybody else in the crew. Of all the attitudes, adolescent attitude—harnessed, as it is, to hormones—is the most unsophisticated. I had to laugh at Cube’s angry gangsta posturing. He still lived with his mother. But shitty human beings sometimes make great art.

But Cube’s imagined grievances (completely baseless, in Heller’s view) would cause him to leave the group and start a solo career. This would prompt a string of back-and-forth insults between him and his former bandmates. Things would eventually get even worse once a shadowy figure named Suge Knight appeared on the scene.

As Heller relates it, Knight basically held Easy-E hostage and forced him to sign away his top producer, Dr. Dre. This part of the story is painful to read, as Dre and Easy had been close friends. Heller makes it abundantly clear that Dre set up and totally betrayed his friend Easy.

Heller is aware that Cube and Dre have accused him of financial wrongdoing. To Heller, that is complete bullshit:

It’s a time-honored maneuver for African-American musicians to cry “racism” whenever they wish to leave a music contract. Not that such claims are always baseless—just that they are pretty much automatic.

In describing Ice Cube, Heller’s prose seethes with real anger. Even after all these years, the wounds caused by Cube’s words in his song “No Vaseline” and in interviews still cut deep. One can almost feel the satisfaction Heller has in relating this little story:

Ice Cube, the apostate ex-member of N.W.A., was quoted in a newspaper interview running his mouth off with an indirect dis at Above the Law [another rap group signed to Ruthless Records]…The beef came to a head at an Above the Law show in Anaheim at Circle Star Theater. Hutch [a member of Above the Law] invited Cube to their dressing room backstage, where he gave him a savage beating. “[Cube] was crying like a little girl,” crowed Easy. No love lost there. Ice Cube was terrified.

But it perhaps in putting to rest the allegations of financial wrongdoing that Heller has his finest moment in the book. In this passage, Heller rises to red-hot eloquence:

All these years I’ve never answered the allegations of financial impropriety leveled against me, first by Cube and then by Dre. Now that I’m writing this book, I feel compelled to answer those allegations on behalf of my longtime partner, Easy-E…And I say to you, Cube, that the amount of money you earned at Ruthless Records didn’t have anything to do with anyone’s hand in the cookie jar. It was pure mathematics, baby—not your strong suit, from what I hear about the producers and writers you utilized at your own record label. They were screaming about not getting paid just like you used to scream…

Here are the numbers spelled out: For every record and merchandising dollar N.W.A. brought in, Ruthless Records took twenty-five cents off the top. The label deserved it. That’s a fairly conservative percentage. Ruthless sponsored your time in the studio, your tours. The label bought you your fucking pencils. That leaves seventy-five cents to split five ways, between the five members of N.W.A., which means everyone gets fifteen cents out of every dollar.

Heller then goes on to break down the financials in a methodical and devastating way, and points out that neither Cube nor Dre have ever sued him for anything. The reader will form his own conclusions from all this. The book is not without flaws. Heller feels compelled to spend pages talking about his experiences managing rock acts in the sixties and seventies like Van Morrison and Creedence Clearwater Revival, but these musings detract from the focus of the book, and held no interest for me.

The takeaway

I like Jerry Heller’s attitude about life. His philosophy is simple: if you don’t like me, I’m not going to like you. He mentions how rapper The D.O.C. disliked him for some unstated reason. Heller gave it right back to him: if you don’t like me, go fuck yourself. Life is too short.

I’ve read that the new movie Straight Outta Compton was made without any consultation with Jerry Heller. Easy-E’s son apparently wasn’t even given the chance to read for the part. But Ice Cube’s son is playing in the film. The fact that the movie was produced by Dre and Ice Cube suggests the reasons why one version of history is being promoted over another.

“Only two guys were present at the formation of Ruthless Records,” Heller said in a recent interview, “And they were me and Easy. And one of them is now dead.” Heller went on to say that he’d be watching the opening of the film on its first day, with his lawyers. “And if I’m not portrayed accurately, then that’s going to be addressed. I owe that much to Easy.”

Even if you have no interest in rap music or the entertainment industry, Ruthless: A Memoir is worth reading for what it teaches us about the Shakespearean themes of power, riches, and friends betraying friends.  These themes are timeless for a good reason.

Heller had wanted to call his book Niggaz 4 Life. At first, I thought the title sounded ridiculous. But after reading the book, I think it sounds just right (Easy would have loved that title). He survived in a rough world with rough characters, and gave as good as he got.

He’s got no regrets, and no apologies. He helped make history, and he knows it. That alone makes the book a great read. If anyone can claim the title of being a Nigga 4 Life, it’s Jerry Heller.

Ya did good, Jerry. Thanks for the 1990s memories.  Much respect.

Read More: Shimson’s Tale Sets An Example For Masculinity

71 thoughts on “Ruthless: A Memoir By Jerry Heller”

  1. I loved Easy back in the 80s, and NWA kicked so much ass.
    I will go see the movie, and I wish I had time for the book. In any case, I ‘d rather gloss over some of the drama they faced, in hindsight, and just enjoy the music and the attitude. These guys told the Cathedral itself to get fucked better than any manosphere blog ever did.
    Gonna bump that shit right now.

    1. “All overweight freaks stay off my block, ’cause it’s ILL to have a fat girl on your jock”

      1. lol I can imagine that some fatty will call this hate speech if this song was released in 2015

    2. You should dust off some of those old tapes. The Ruthless label had some good acts. Even Michel’le and The D.O.C. have held up well over the years.
      What Heller liked about the music was the rebellious nature of it, which reminded him of the Rolling Stones. Heller’s genius was to realize that he had gold in his hands. The same people who were listening to Guns n’ Roses he knew would buy an NWA album.

      1. First time I heard it was on vinyl…. didn’t know Ice Cube was such a bitch…..Dre….billionaire…..Easy….dead of AIDS…..

      2. Exactly.
        It is not a coincidence that many hard rock and metal fans into bands like GNR and Slayer got into rap groups like NWA and Public Enemy at the time. Their music had the same aggressive-visceral pull. They just used different tools.

  2. These people should have left hip hop for the East Coast to deal with.

  3. Eazy wasn’t the greatest rapper but he had real personality, and his business acumen was above the rest of the crew which made him indispensable.
    Rap music was so fresh and daring then. Efil4zaggin(niggaz for life) is even offensive by todays standards. It is one of the darkest and most misanthropic rap albums ever made.
    Now what do we have in the mainstream? Pussies like Drake and fakes like Rick Ross.
    The older generation of rappers actually stood for something. Even Chuck D’s afrocentric race baiting was edgy and relevant for its time.

    1. Exactly. Easy had charisma, and the use of the word “genius” would not be an exaggeration. I’m only glad that saw first hand the golden years of rap (1985 to 1993 or so)) before it became all this bullshit that it is today. Back then, it was edgy, fresh, and fun.

      1. I might extend that a few more years- The Roots and Mos Def hit their strides in the late 90s…I havent listened to rap since…

        1. Absolutely! I joined the Peace Corps in 1999, and I left for Africa with a copy of The Roots “Things Fall Apart” and Mos Def & Kweli’s “BlackStar” in my backpack. When I returned to the states in 2002 I didn’t recognize the hip hop landscape. WTF happened??? It was at that point that I began to listen almost exclusively to world music (afropop, latin, middle eastern) and eurobeat fusions. I said goodbye to hiphop in 2002, and it was painful, but I haven’t looked back since.

        2. Hey! an old hip hop head! The Roots’ “concerto of a desparado” might have the best lyrics of all time…

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        4. Those guys kind of hit their stride when hip-hop was falling apart though.
          Mos Def is hit and miss, but The Roots are fairly consistent.

    2. Rappers were always fake. NWA weren’t murderers and gangsters like they portrayed themselves. Eazy-E was a drug dealer, but that’s about it.

        1. True. Ironically, they don’t rap about being criminals as much as they rap about being ninjas.

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    3. Exactly, everyone always asks me why I don’t listen to rap anymore. And it’s because it has no soul.
      Seriously, tribe called quest pharcyde, the fugees, and a host of others, all of them had songs that could make you smile and sing along without having to bleet out the “f word” or talk about how bad you fucked a girl every five seconds. It’s become so predictable.

    4. Public Enemy, Ice T, NWA, Schooly D and so on. A lot of hard rappers bringing energy and anger to the fore. None of that exists anymore.
      And for pure red pill wisdom, check out NWA “I Ain’t the One” and Ice T “You Played Yourself”. Kids need to know this stuff isn’t new.

    5. Eazy E wasn’t one of the greats lyrically, but he held your attention like no one else. He had such big presence for such a little man. When I listened to NWA, Ice Cube may be the biggest voice but Eazy E comes through as the top dog.

    6. Yup. I was captivated by that era of rap. It was vital,vibrant and exciting. Now it’s become a joke. NOTHING new has been said since N.W.A and Public Enemy. P.E was a force to be reconned with. It boggles my mind how todays rappers have the following they do with none of the lyrics ,skills, timing, phrasing, inflection that made guys like Chuck D, or K.R.S One the best at what they do. These guys sound like rocket scientists compared to the dim witted, strip club trolls that are famous now and at the top of that joke of a genre.

  4. Ironic he has such compassion for Eazy, considering I heard it was Jerry Heller’s doctor that infected E with HIV with a dirty flu shot needle. Meh. I don’t know the details, but people seem to think Jerry Heller was responsible for E’s death.
    The Bone Thugs & Harmony – Conspiracy song talks a little about the suspicious circumstances leading to E’s death, including the fact that he only lasted 3 months (if I remember correctly) after being diagnosed with HIV.

    1. Heller suggests that it was Knight who was responsible. And Knight even joked about it once on the Jimmy Kimmel show. And one other thing. Dre and Cube are full of fucking bullshit. They stabbed Easy in the back and now act like they loved the man.

      1. That’s true. Just a bunch of here-say and finger pointing, who knows the truth, but I’d be more inclined to think it was Knight as well.
        Actually didn’t Snoop somewhat do the same thing? He was always real shady when it came to talking about E’s death so he either knew something or was in on it, probably a well known conspiracy between them all.

  5. I rank rap right up there with feminism when I think of the decay and rot of American culture. I fail to see what the allure of it is here. Even for QC? “The attraction of the music for white kids like me with no experiences
    in the inner city was this: it was angry, rebellious, and somehow
    bizarrely life-affirming in its exuberance.” I find that pathetic and about as masculine as Tiny Tim crooning about his Miss Vicky. It is also painfully patronizing towards black people, whether they be lovers of rap or more traditional black music. I come from the inner city rust belt and my “homeys” would have found that attitude laughable. We were rubbing elbows and knocking heads with black kids in school, in the parks and at work. We got along with them some times, avoided them others and fought with them now and then. We also listened to and played their music when you could call it that. Great black radio like WVON Chicago, WAMO Pittsburgh, WLAC Nashville. We were on the front end of the era of desegregation and enjoyed the benefits and tribulations of it. We weren’t pathetic little wiggers in need of life affirming exuberance. We were scuffling and fighting for survival without the exuberance of pretending we was big bad niggaz.

    1. The funny thing is, you are judging the man today by who he was 20 years ago. Further, you are implying a lot; of which there is not any substantial evidence. Try not to take the article too personably.

    2. “Even for QC? ‘The attraction of the music for white kids like me with no experiences in the inner city was this: it was angry, rebellious, and somehow
      bizarrely life-affirming in its exuberance.’ ”
      The below also applies to each individual man.
      “If one should desire to know whether a kingdom is well governed,
      if its morals are good or bad, the quality of its music will furnish
      the answer.”― Confucius

      1. Why cannot someone like something that has dope beats and provocative lyricism? You sound no different than those NYC Hip Hop snobs who insult people for liking West Coast rap. Your derision is nothing but snobbery.

      2. Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.
        Rap does not encourage virtue.
        Preposterous ass, that never read so far
        To know the cause why music was ordain’d!
        Was it not to refresh the mind of man
        After his studies or his usual pain?
        –The Taming of the Shrew
        Rap is not something I would relax to.

    3. I won’t disagree with your assertion that rap is poison, but I’ve read a fair bit about that era of the rap business. Something about it fascinates me.

    4. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re so full of shit it’s coming out your ears. When a new art form comes out that has something to say that is new, people from any background can appreciate it for what it is.
      That has nothing to do with “pretending” to be anything. I happen to like wordsmiths, and can appreciate things that come from honest energy.
      It doesn’t mean that I was emulating their lifestyle or trying to be like them. Since when is listening to a fucking tape “acting like a wigger” or “insulting to black people” ? What a whiny little bitch you are.
      Obviously you have a problem and you’re trying to project it on me. You sound like a loser and a real square.

      1. He obviously has a problem with black people, which is the case in the majority of white people I know that don’t like rap.

      2. …You’re so full of shit it’s coming out your ears….

        What a whiny little bitch you are……

        You sound like a loser and a real square….

        A lot of shaming language there for such a small post!
        Are you a woman?
        What about using rational/logical arguments to disprove his accusations instead?

    5. agree to an extent. Most rap is bone headed and contributes nothing to culture, but there are many exceptions.

    6. Go and listen to the afore mentioned groups and then come back and tell me how much it’s like feminism.

    7. The allure is that it appeals to the lowest common denominator.
      Its edgy.
      There’s also the tough guy image.
      Old joke I remember from when I was a kid:
      So, the music reviewer for Rolling Stone was writing the first review for the first rap album on his typewriter.
      “And so, after listing to both sides of the record five times, reading all the lyrics, and comparing it to popular music past and present, I can come to the definite conclusion that this record is….”
      Dammit! The “c” key is stuck!”

  6. Quintus, an excellently written review. Your love of the classics certainly shows in your writting, which makes the content all that more engaging.

  7. The trailer for the movie made me want to puke. They are making NWA out to be civil rights heroes for challenging censorship and standing up for free speech. What a bunch of bullshit. They were just opportunistic fakes capitalizing on white teenagers’ love for music that their parents wouldn’t want them listening to. I’ve heard all their stuff. Never did they portray ghetto violence and gang culture as anything but cool.

  8. This adds to my experiences as a consumer of L.A. rap in the late 80s and early 90s. I didn’t know the backstory. I was a fan of the so-called conscious Hip Hop that was popular on the East Coast (NYC) and so when Ice Cube broke with NWA and released the Hank Schockley produced (of Public Enemy) Kill At Will, I reflexively assumed Cube’s narrative of events to be true. On that album and “Death Certificate” Cube was dropping “conscious” lyricism and so I saw no reason to doubt his side of the story. Heller gives the other side and I appreciate this.
    Kill At Will and Death Certificate are still great CDs and Cube gets his props but Heller’s story changes things for me. I am more than familiar with Black folks sometimes playing the race card when adversity strikes. Cube does this frequently in “No Vaseline. He even employs an “Uncle Tom” epithet through suggestion which was directed at Dre, Yella, Ren, and Easy. Heller’s side of the story makes me consider Cube’s age and if this side of the story is true, and I believe it is, then Cube seems merely to be a young kid who did not understand the business. When both adversity and misunderstanding came his way, he reflexively resorted to an immature response.

    1. I think that’s accurate. Heller does give O’Shea Jackson his props for being a great lyricist. But he makes it clear that Ice Cube was surrounded by a lot of vultures who lied to him about Heller and Easy-E “ripping him off”. To me it sounds like Ice Cube didn’t like the situation and thought he could do beter on his own. Same thing with Dre.

  9. Eazy E was a rapping genius. When I heard ‘Straight Outta Compton’. ,I was blown away. And I listened to a shit ton of rap at that time. His shit was lyrical, raw and made you feel like you were a part of it.
    It’s a shame that Ice Cube and Dre lambasted him like that, and the dude didn’t get his due. Fuck, Dre and Cube were in fuckin disco bands before this blew up — so you know they were just fakes. And now they’re laughing to the bank, making shitty earphones, Disney movies and producing weak ass whiteboy rap ala enimem.

  10. Anything that turns white people away from their potential as whites is poison. It must be known so that immunity against it can develop.

  11. Baroque music will make you smarter- and Eastern/Southern European folk music can help you develop soul (as Euros). There’s no need to go to Africa.

  12. TL;DR: Jerry had a nose for degenerate music.
    You don’t need to read an essay to know who’s behind the scenes orchestrating cultural marxism like this; not a Chinese guy, and not a Mexican. Life experience tells you that.

  13. To this day No Vaseline is STILL one of the hardest diss tracks ever. I’m glad you wrote this QC. I’ve always wanted to hear about the inner workings of NWA +1

    1. Thanks, Vin. I’m becoming aware that some of this is a generational thing. Some of these guys here weren’t even born in the late 1980s. They don’t even know a lot of this stuff. Ah well. History moves on.

    1. and from what I read, the only gangster was Easy E…the rest were phonies…

  14. But shitty human beings sometimes make great art.
    That needs to be posted on a plaque on the wall of every arts school.

  15. I remember my college days playing Madden ’92 on Sega Genesis while blaring N.W.A. on our boom box. Those were the fuckin’ days, man. Good times.
    Very well written, Quintus.

  16. Rap is just another tool for the dumbing down of people. As the years go by, the music gets less tasteful and more assimilated to the point where it all sounds the same. All the more useful for controlling herds of brainless hedonistic losers.

    1. Listen to KUSC online at The first thing I do after work is turn it on, I have an old laptop plugged in to my av receiver. Please donate as well, its one of those things we have to keep going for the good of society.

  17. I don’t know if he was paraphrasing someone else, but this quote was attributed to Eazy-E and I live by it:
    “Nobody gets what they deserve, only what they negotiate.”
    Eazy Duz It was classic album. Thanks for writing this, QC.

  18. Music is a powerful force, as it goes straight into the subsconcious/pre-rational part of the person. Who but an idiot would let a savage like this connect to their root?

  19. My takeaway has always been that it was a room full of Alpha males trying to hustle and make bread. Heller, Easy, Dre, Cube and later Suge Knight jockeying for power and money in a particular industry. At the end of the day, we can all learn from their strategies, missteps and successes. Knowing about Jerry Heller’s background was one reasons I decided to go to law school and understand legal contracts and business. Today, Dre and Cube are multi-millionaires. Hey, they all “did what they had to do” to survive and get the “fuck out the ghetto” and I have a lot of respect for that. Although I loathe Puff Daddy/Sean Combs for what he did to hip hop as well, I hella respect his biography too.

  20. “The book is not without flaws. Heller feels compelled to spend pages
    talking about his experiences managing rock acts in the sixties and
    seventies like Van Morrison and Creedence Clearwater Revival, but these
    musings detract from the focus of the book, and held no interest for me.”
    I haven’t read the book but I think Heller’s decision to include that part of his career is valid. It shows the difference between managing the egos of white entitled rockstars and young macho black mens. And how they are more similar than not.

  21. Eazy E has some great red pill songs including give me that nut and Id rather F*ck with you

  22. Old Jew makes young black kids stars meanwhile ripping them off and everyone goes their seperate ways.What else is new? Oldest story ever told.Now he’s playing the martyr angle like he was Easy’s best buddy. “Only two guys were present at the formation of Ruthless Records,” Heller said in a recent interview, “And they were me and Easy. And one of them is now dead.” Heller went on to say that he’d be watching the opening of the film on its first day, with his lawyers. “And if I’m not portrayed accurately, then that’s going to be addressed. I owe that much to Easy.” “Only two guys were present at the formation of Ruthless Records,” Heller said in a recent interview, “And they were me and Easy. And one of them is now dead.” Heller went on to say that he’d be watching the opening of the film on its first day, with his lawyers. “And if I’m not portrayed accurately, then that’s going to be addressed. I owe that much to Easy.” How typical of an old L.A music biz jew. Bring out the lawyers! They’re probably relatives too. Oi vey.

  23. People who carry on like this about pop music need to get out more.

  24. Anyone remember “Straight outta Lo-cash” by CB4? Lol, I had to watch it after reading the article. Friggin hilarious…

  25. I think most of the ppl that cry about rap’s downfall and those that wish its demise are not truly of the hip hop community. What we see before us is not our creation — this is what corporate interests allow. much like what has happen to the black woman — you allow what you see to tarnish the truth. It is up to you to take back what is yours. Its by design that the devil wishes something so special to end.

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