Jerry Heller, Former N.W.A Manager and Music-Industry Veteran, Dead at 75

Photo: 2008 Getty Images

Jerry Heller, best known for serving as the controversial manager of the hip-hop group N.W.A, has died at the age of 75. His cousin, Gary Ballen, confirmed the news to Billboard, and TMZ is reporting that he "suffered some sort of medical emergency" while driving a vehicle yesterday afternoon. Heller's genre-bending, prolific career in the music industry began in the 1960s, where he primarily worked as an agent and promoter of rock musicians including Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Who, Carly Simon, Van Morrison, and Black Sabbath  before turning to the emerging Los Angeles rap culture in the 1980s. From there, he co-founded Ruthless Records with the Compton-born rapper Eazy-E, and N.W.A was assembled in 1986. (Heller also managed other hip-hop acts such as J.J. Fad, Michel’le, D.O.C., and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.) Throughout Heller's four years of managing N.W.A, the group released two highly successful and influential studio albums that pioneered the gangster rap subgenre (1988's Straight Outta Compton and 1991's Niggaz4Life), though their partnership was quick to implode — Ice Cube quit the group in 1989 due to monetary disputes, and Dr. Dre followed in 1991 to join another label amidst another financial strife. Heller and Eazy-E continued to work together until the rapper's death in 1995.

In 2006, Heller released a tell-all memoir titled Ruthless: A Memoir; most recently, Paul Giamatti portrayed him in the 2015 biographical film Straight Outta Compton. Heller filed a $110 million lawsuit against the makers of the film for defamation, claiming they depicted him as "a sleazy manager who took advantage" of N.W.A, and that he never granted the filmmakers permission to use his likeness. In June, the majority of the lawsuit was dismissed by a U.S. District judge.