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No more Mr. Nice Guy

In 1991 Ice Cube waged war on Ruthless Records label founder Jerry Heller with one the most vicious diss tracks of all time, “No Vaseline,” claiming that he was cheating N.W.A.

Now, hip-hop’s most vilified mogul has released a tell-all memoir, Ruthless, to clear his name. It’s hard to imagine that anyone cares anymore, being that it’s a full fifteen years later. It kinda makes you wonder why Heller bothered to fire back now. The answer to that question seems to depend on which day you ask.

In his book, Heller claims that he kept quiet all these years cause the allegations were so easy to dismiss. (“If I had stolen from them, why hadn’t they ever sued me?”) One of Heller’s contacts eventually hipped him to an important “street code”: any rumor that isn’t denied is assumed to be true. [1] As a result, dude finally stepped up to tell his side of the story.

Either that or it was pure opportunism. Heller may have chosen to publish now because—as he explains in Part 1 of an interview over at allhiphop—he picked up a copy of Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop and realized there was a market for hip-hop books. Or maybe it was just a simple case of sour grapes. It may have been that—as Heller explains in Part 2 of that same interview—it has always eaten him up that XXL named “No Vaseline” one of the top diss tracks of all time.

Whatever the reason, Heller’s autobiography turns out to be a fascinating, um, piece of work. Heller is an engaging storyteller and he’s had a front row seat for more than four decades of music history. (Before founding Ruthless Records with Eazy-E, Heller worked with the legends like Bruce Springsteen and Marvin Gaye.) The book weaves together Heller’s life story and the Ruthless/N.W.A. narrative with various entertaining anecdotes from the industry. (Helping Van Morrison get over stage fright. Kicking Charles Manson and his hippie groupies out of his house.)

Throughout the book, Heller’s intense love of music is clear, and there are some powerful moments in which he describes the top concerts of his life. Equally as potent are his recollections of Eazy-E. If Heller is to be believed, he loved E like a son.

Of course, Heller doesn’t exactly make for the most trustworthy narrator. He constantly paints himself as an altruistic figure as opposed to a savvy music exec (even claiming that he refused E’s offer to split everything 50/50, and instead opted to collect 20% of the profits at Ruthless.) Obviously, this is a little hard to believe.

Heller’s angelic self-portrayal occasionally lapses, though, and the reader gets glimpses of his other side. At one point, he notes the mercenary nature of the music business, and states that he, like all music moguls, would sign Hitler if he could find a way to make him profitable. At another point, he mocks Dr. Dre, pointing out that after he left Ruthless Records, the label collected 15% of everything Dre released, including the diss tracks that were aimed at them. Contracts like this may have something to do with why the former members of N.W.A. were so pissed at Heller in the first place, but Heller doesn’t seem to get it. His main defense is that he didn’t break the law. He can’t seem to comprehend that business can be exploitive without necessarily being illegal.

The most interesting element of the book comes in the form of a glaring omission. Heller states that he and E had a strong relationship while his mental faculties were still intact. The pair had a falling out during the last few months of Eazy’s life. The fact that Heller breezes by this rift without sharing any of the details tells the reader that there’s much, much more to this story.

As such, this memoir isn’t a particularly believable account of the rise and fall of Ruthless Records. It probably won’t be the last word on the subject either.

If anything, the book simply demonstrates the power of a scathing diss track. In this case, “No Vaseline” is clearly still eating away at its target—a decade and a half after Cube recorded it.


[1] C-boys: can you confirm?

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