You Don’t Know Me
So who would you cast to play yourself?
Myself? You know, when we talk about the movie business, it’s a business of financing. So the people who are putting up the money sort of tell you who’s acceptable to them by what they mean in foreign markets. They wanted Bruce Willis. There were discussions with Bruce Willis or his agents. I sort of felt that I would like someone more like Tim Robbins or Sean Penn, somebody who had a little different kind of edge and maybe was a little more Jewish.
In Dre and Snoop’s video for “Dre Day,” the character that was supposed to be based on you was played by Steve Berman, an executive from Interscope. How did you feel about that casting choice?
How embarrassing for me to be portrayed by Steve Berman? It’s funny. The guy is 2 foot 4, I’m sure he didn’t want to do it. I’m sure he got coerced into that. I’m sure they made him feel like he would be a pussy if he didn’t do it. So, I don’t have real good feelings toward Steve Berman for playing that, but then I accept that for what it is. I’m sure that wasn’t his first choice. They didn’t say, “Oh, we’ll give you $100,000 and a piece of the gross.” I’m sure they said, “You gotta do this.” I wouldn’t go up and spit on him because he did it. I might give him some shit about it.
I read that you were talking with Eazy’s son about him maybe trying to put out an album of unreleased tracks with his father. Is there any truth to that?
No. I talked to him, but not about that. I don’t have any unreleased tracks.
That’s interesting. Do you think there will every be a posthumous Eazy album?
I have to tell you this: I have no comment on anything that has to do with Ruthless after 1999, when I worked out my disagreement with them. I have no part of what goes on over there, I’m not in the mix, the loop or anything else, and I don’t know what they have planned. I hope they have something big planned for Eazy, but I have no way of knowing, I don’t speak to any of those people. I’d go out and buy it though, just to support it.
If you were Black rather than White, do you feel like Cube and Dre would’ve felt that need to break away from you as strongly? Obviously there are lots of racial overtones to the whole situation.
Well, I think that it’s traditional way to get out of your contract. The White guy fucked us; he stole our money or whatever. Obviously it’s not true, because it would seem to me if we did what they said we did, they would’ve sued us or somebody would’ve sued us. It goes back to the days when the old gangsters in the music business had Jackie Wilson and Little Richard and Bo Diddley and they took their publishing. All those kinds of stories that we’ve all heard.
How did the African-American community react to your involvement in N.W.A.’s success?
I think that when I got started, all the important African-Americans like Clarence Avant and Jesse Jackson said, “Oh, wow, you’re doing this great thing,” because they just thought I was out of my mind, to be involved with a group called N.W.A. But then when we started to make money at Ruthless, it seems like everybody wanted to be on the bandwagon. Like, I ran into Clarence Avant one day at Neiman-Marcus. I said, “Hey, Clarence, how you doing?” He says, “I’m fine, how’re you doing, Jerry?,” because I’d known him for a long time, when I used to work at Associated Booking. I said, “Great.” He said, “I know you’re doing great, you’ve made a lot of money off of my people.” So right then and there, I knew that the days of Jerry Heller being a good guy were coming to a rapid close and now that gangsta rap was going to be big business, everybody wanted to be on the bandwagon. I’m not saying Clarence did, I think he could give a fuck less. But I think that he was making a third person observation. I think he had no aspirations to be involved with gangsta rap, he was the Chairman of the Board at Motown at the time. But I think he made an astute observation, and after that, people like Don King and everybody else just came after Jerry Heller.
In the book, you talk about your last ditch effort to get Dre involved in a new Ruthless deal with Warner, just before he left to start Death Row with Suge. Why didn’t that ever happen?
I had talked to Eazy many times about making Dre a partner. It just wasn’t in the cards with Eazy’s mindset. Eazy’s mindset was that he started the company, and that’s the way it was gonna be. Doug Young [former promotions executive for Ruthless] said to me, “You can’t just let this guy just slip away like this.” We had a lot of records that we wanted to put out and we were getting to the point where our distributors really couldn’t accommodate the plans we had for the future. I had lunch with [Giant Records founder] Irving Azoff and we worked out a deal for, I think, $20 million, of which Dre was going to get $12 million upfront.
Now, Eazy and I were going to own no part of that company and we were going to commission 20 percent of the company, of which Eazy and I were going to split at 10 percent apiece, and Dre was going to own his own company called “Def Row.” I was going to file papers and everything for him, but a guy named the Unknown DJ owned that name. Irving kept saying, “Yeah we’re gonna do it,” but by then, not only did the “Cop Killer” [controversy] happen at Warner Bros, but that whole upheaval of [the company]. All of those things seemed to be coming down at once, and Irving told me [former Warner President] Mo Ostin refused to fund the deal. It sort of fell by the wayside at a very inopportune time, because now it’s the end of ’91, and it just gave our detractors more ammunition to entice Dre away.
How do you think things may have played out differently if Warner had done that deal with Ruthless and Def Row?
Certainly that would have undermined whatever efforts Suge had to circumvent us. Dre would’ve continued to produce Eazy and N.W.A, remained a member of N.W.A and still had his own company and do his own solo stuff on. I think it probably would’ve worked out at least for a couple more N.W.A albums, which was very important to Eazy.
In the late ’90s, there was a lot of talk about an N.W.A. reunion without Eazy. How did you feel about that?
I didn’t care. Eazy’s dead, and there’s no N.W.A without Eazy. So it meant nothing to me. They can go play their little games.
Why did you wait until now to write this book?
I don’t like to get involved with things unless I think they’re going to be important. And I’m so used to seeing books on the back table in the music section about the music business that I wasn’t interested in writing one of those kind of books.
What made you think this could be different?
One day I walked into Barnes & Noble and I saw this book on the front table called Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, which is Jeffrey Chang’s book. Not only was it a really good book, but it was significant to me that it was on the front table. He was doing a book signing in L.A. that night and went out and sort of caught up with him there and it was just packed, this little eclectic bookstore. It was just packed. I said to him, “Look, I think that your book is probably the best book I’ve read on the music business, but as usual, you East Coast guys trivialize the contribution of West Coast rap.” And I’m 65 years old. I’ve got gray hair, I don’t look like a kid. So for me to be talking about rap, usually is off-putting to most people. So he said, “I don’t know, I had nine chapters [on West Coast rap],” or whatever it was. I said, “Yeah, but that’s bullshit.” And then I asked him a couple more questions and he said, “By the way, I’m from San Francisco, not New York.” I asked him a couple more questions, and then someone said to him, “I think that’s Jerry Heller.” And then the word sort of got around in this book thing and it wound up that he stopped the thing and signed my book, “To the guy that’s been instrumental in all the important music in my life,” or something like that. And we’ve gotten to be very close. I teach at UCLA and he came and spoke in my class.
So even though people have been telling me that I should write a book for years, because I have such great stories, all of the sudden I said, “Well, maybe the time is right now.” And it’s been like, 11 years since Eazy died. Nothing has really happened to establish him as the important force I feel he’s been in the music business.