A Hip-Hop Hitmaker, Straight Outta Shaker Heights
The young guys who stop Jerry Heller in the street these days never ask if he can make them into pop icons like Elton John, or legends like Creedence Clearwater Revival. The young guys who stop Jerry Heller don’t even want to be latter-day Marvin Gayes.
These kids all want to be rap stars.
It’s in their eyes: a flash of recognition and then hope as they recognize Heller, the music manager who nearly 20 years ago discovered a group of kids from South Central Los Angeles — the headliners were Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube — and helped them figure out how to sell the ghetto to the suburbs. The result was the smash-hit album “Straight Outta Compton” and the birth of gangsta rap.
“I know who you are!” shouted one kid on a recent, warm December evening in downtown San Diego, where Heller was out late to catch the taping of a music TV show. “Your people dissed my demo.”
Right away, Heller told him it couldn’t be true, because Jerry Heller doesn’t dis anyone’s demos. He tells all the kids that he listens to every cut that is sent to him, uploaded to his MySpace page or handed to his wife, Gayle, at book signings.
Heller may listen to them all because it’s good business: As he says, you never know what you’ve got until you hear it. But there’s more to it than that: Heller wants people to like him, and in his world the best way to get people to like him is to never be just another rich old white guy who says “no” just because he can.
“I never pretend to be anything other than what I am,” said Heller, a dapper 66-year-old who was hanging out at the club in a navy V-neck over a plaid button-down shirt, and wearing brown loafers and white socks. “I’m a middle-aged white Jewish guy from Shaker Heights, and you know what? I get nothing but respect.”
Heller gets respect because he’s a tiny bit gangsta himself. Little Gerala grew up in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, hanging out at Kibitzer’s watching his dad gamble with mobsters like Shondor “The Bull” Birns.
The Hellers moved out to Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Gerala became Jerry, who went to the University of Southern California and lived at the Jewish ZBT frat house and tooled around in a 1957 Plymouth Fury. Eventually he graduated to an MG Convertible and drove right into the middle of the music business of the mid-1960s. “It was basically a Jewish business, and it was a fun business,” Heller said.
He ended up working for Associated Booking Corporation, an outfit located in Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive and run by Sidney Korshak, who controlled the Riviera casino in Las Vegas and amassed a sizable FBI dossier file to go with his fortune. In his new memoir, “Ruthless” (Simon and Schuster), Heller writes that he was just a pisher in 1966, but thanks to Korshak he was a pisher who got to book Marvin Gaye and fly around with the Fogerty Brothers.
Heller went on to book Pink Floyd and Elton John and many of the other big early acts of the late 1960s and ’70s before the first rock wave crested, and then there were 10 years of nothing before Heller found his next star in a diminutive 23-year-old kid from Compton, Calif., called Eric Wright — another little pisher off the street who adopted the name Eazy-E.
In 1987, Eazy and his friends, lyricist Ice Cube and sound producer Dr. Dre, had made a record called “Boyz-N-the-Hood.” It was one of the first songs to get across the horror of what was going in on the black ghettoes during the height of the crack epidemic, and, Heller said, it had the crucial “wow” factor. Heller teamed with Eazy to create Ruthless Records, the first big L.A. rap label. Within months they were selling hundreds of thousands of records out of car trunks to kids all over L.A.
“The kids always know first,” Heller said. “I could relate to gangsta rap in the ’80s because I’d seen it already with rock and roll.”
But Heller said he got into it for more than just the money. He saw shades of the Gestapo in the way the L.A. police treated his young black rap stars, and he thought of Bobby Kennedy.
“Kennedy and Martin Luther King, they were the only ones who really saw what blacks and Jews could accomplish together,” Heller said. “I thought Ruthless was my chance to at least make right all the wrongs in the music business, and make everyone rich.”
It worked for a brief, bright moment, giving voice to angry kids on ghetto streets and in suburban rec rooms as the country seethed in the years before Rodney King and the L.A. riots. But Ruthless eventually broke up, victimized, Heller believes, by the machinations of mogul Suge Knight and his Death Row Records. Eazy-E died in 1995 of AIDS, and Heller got out of a rap business that was growing into something very much like the rock business he left in the 1970s.
Now, 10 years later, Heller has his book and wants to make a movie about Ruthless. He’s looking to get back into the game, teaming up with producers to search the Latino barrios of Southern California for the new sound that will be to this generation what rock and rap were to theirs. He’s hoping the next Eazy will find him soon.
“I’m an entrepreneur at heart,” Heller said, looking at the growing crowd in San Diego. “I never get bored by this business.”
Allison Hoffman is a writer in Southern California.