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Jerry Heller, Music Mogul Who Worked With N.W.A, Dies At 75

Jerry Heller, seen here at a 2005 event in Hollywood, Calif., has died at age 75, according to multiple reports.
Marsaili McGrath
Getty Images
Jerry Heller, seen here at a 2005 event in Hollywood, Calif., has died at age 75, according to multiple reports.

His career in the music business ranged from Elton John to Eazy-E: Jerry Heller, who co-founded Ruthless Records alongside rapper Eric Wright (better known as Eazy-E), has died, according to multiple media outlets and family members. In the recent film Straight Outta Compton, Heller was portrayed by Paul Giamatti.

Heller was 75; his death was widely reported Saturday and confirmed to both the AP andBillboard by his cousin, Gary Ballen. Music site DJ Booth says Heller's nephew also announced his uncle's death online. Billboard lists the cause of death as a heart attack; TMZ says Heller was driving when he suffered a "medical emergency" Friday.

A native of Shaker Heights in Cleveland, Ohio, Heller worked for years as an agent, promoter and manager, working with U.S. and British rock stars that ranged from Marvin Gaye to Pink Floyd. But his name is deeply linked to West Coast rap, and particularly to the rise and contentious breakup of N.W.A, the group that included Eazy-E and stars Dr. Dre and Ice Cube.

Here's how Heller described N.W.A in his 2006 memoir, Ruthless:

"Dre played McCartney to Cube's Lennon, with Eazy acting as George Harrison, Brian Epstein, Murray the K, and Ed Sullivan all rolled into one."

Taking a shot at one of his chief rivals, Heller added, "which I guess makes a Yoko Ono out of a former college football linebacker... named Suge Knight. He had help, but he was the man who broke up the black Beatles, N.W.A."

After the group broke up, Heller was demonized by former N.W.A members — particularly Ice Cube — who accused him of skimming money and working only on his own and Eazy-E's behalf.

In 1987, Heller was in his mid-40s when he and Eric Wright, 22, who was then in the process of changing his life from that of a drug dealer to a musician — founded Ruthless Records. One year later, the label released N.W.A's seminal album, Straight Outta Compton.

"To say we did well together is an understatement," Heller wrote in his memoir. "I had become dollar-for-dollar the most successful record company executive of the entire rap era. To date, the original members of N.W.A have grossed somewhere in the neighborhood of $4.5 billion."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.