Since its August release, Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A biopic chronicling the rise and fall of the gangsta rap firebrands, has become the highest-grossing music biopic in history. Though the rags-to-riches story detailed the rise of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E, it also depicted Jerry Heller, the group’s first manager and longtime nemesis, as the villain, extending a decades-long battle between Heller and the group.
Portrayed by Paul Giamatti in the film, the now-75-year-old served as the group’s manager from 1987 until the group fell apart in 1991. He also co-founded the group’s label, Ruthless Records, with Eazy-E, with whom he claims to have maintained a close friendship with until the rapper’s death in 1995. The film accuses Heller of sleazy business dealings previously detailed in Ice Cube’s scathing diss track “No Vaseline” and the depiction of a manager in Dr. Dre’s “Dre Day” video. In 2006, Heller released Ruthless: A Memoir to tell his side of the story and address certain accusations he claimed were untrue.
Straight Outta Compton, he now says, took these accusations to another level. Last week, Heller filed a lawsuit against Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E’s widow Tomica Woods-Wright, who all served as producers on the movie, director F. Gary Gray, the film’s screenwriters and NBC-Universal. The suit claims the film vilified him and wrongly made his business dealings look shady, claiming he withheld checks, dined on lobster brunches while the group members waited for final contracts and that Eazy-E fired him, among other instances.
Heller says none of this is true and is seeking $110 million in combined compensatory and punitive damages for defamation, copyright infringement, breach of contract and other charges. In the 55-page complaint, Heller alleges that he did not “authorize anyone to use his name” in the film and that the movie “is littered with false statements that harm [his] reputation … and deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.”
The former manager also claims that parts of the film were lifted from his book without permission and that select scenes violated a confidential settlement with Woods-Wright in 1999 barring either party from publicly disparaging the other. Heller spoke with Rolling Stone to explain why he felt he needed to sue.
When did you see the movie?
No one invited me to a screening before it came out, so I saw the movie like anyone else on August 15th. I took a date, and it cost me $42 to get in. So I saw it and lived with it for a while [before] talking to several lawyers. We got a copy of the movie and went over it frame-by-frame for four, five, six hours one evening. I just decided that I could not live with myself and not file this suit. While the movie was a powerful, well-done movie, it was dishonest. Most of it was inaccurate, or just out-and-out not true. So when I came to that conclusion with my lawyer, we decided to file a suit. That was just in the last couple of weeks.
Had you expected the movie to come out the way it did?
I had no idea how it was going to come out. Ice Cube has never been real fair on the things that he said to me. All you have to do is listen to “No Vaseline,” and you see where he’s coming from. I call the movie revisionist history, like something invented by Joe Stalin, just saying whatever you want. Well, I don’t think that you can do that. I’m just not a victim.
“Most of [the film] was inaccurate, or just out-and-out not true.”
What were the most egregious inaccuracies in the film?
The film started off with Eazy getting beat up. That’s a joke. You’re going to tell me that Eazy got beat up? That’s ridiculous. So right from the get-go, I said, “Whoa, this is going to a weird place.”
As for the things that bothered me, I’ve been in the business for six decades. I’ve probably represented almost every major artist in the world, either directly or peripherally, at one time or another. I have a certain reputation, and that reputation certainly doesn’t entail the things that they said about me. It was very hurtful. I thought “No Vaseline” was hurtful. But actually, this was more hurtful. Look, I am what I am, but I’m not a thief. And I’m not scandalous. I did more for N.W.A … I mean, it was just incredible, the success that we had. So for them to call me a thief is just terrible. And I’m just not going to allow that.
Your lawsuit claims the movie falsely depicts you withholding a $75,000 check from Ice Cube. What happened?
This was 1989. We were in Phoenix, Arizona. Bryan Turner [co-founder of Priority Records, which worked with Ruthless] flew down with our first gold record and he had given us an advance. The deal was structured so that Ruthless got a little off the top, and the band split the rest equally. So they split $375,000 five ways, which is $75,000 apiece. That was an astronomical amount of money, and everybody signed their contracts except for Ice Cube.
He said, “I want my lawyer,” and I told the rest of the guys, “Do you want to take it to a lawyer?” “No, no, no. Just give us the checks.” So Ice Cube said, “I want my lawyer to read it.” I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” He had a good lawyer, Lee Young, Jr., who used to be the head of business affairs at Motown and a guy that I have done business with over the years. Ice Cube said, “Give me my check.” I said, “Listen, give Lee Young the contracts,” and I handed him the contracts. I said, “When Lee Young makes his comments and we agreed on whatever we said, then I will send Lee Young your check. You can’t expect Eazy-E to give somebody a check and the guy doesn’t sign the contract.” So for him to say that I withheld the check, that’s just being clever. Did I not give him the check? Yes. Did he sign the contract? No. Did he take them to his lawyer? Yes. And that’s the way things were. I find nothing wrong with that. That’s the way business is.
Was Eazy-E involved in those decisions?
Well, Ruthless was Eazy-E’s company. So not only did we live next to each other and have keys to each other’s houses, we always discussed every major decision and this was a major decision.
Your lawsuit also says the film claims you fraudulently induced Dr. Dre and Ice Cube to sign unfavorable contracts.
Well, once again we are being cute. Ice Cube never signed his contract. So how could I fraudulently induce him to sign an unfair contract? He never signed it. And he still got his money.
“I have never had a lobster brunch in my life.”
It also claims the movie made it look like you made sure you were paid more than your fair share.
Let me explain to you how it worked: They obviously didn’t understand what was going on. I took 20 percent, ’cause I managed the group. If Dre got $75,000, I got $15,000. So $15,000 times five – ’cause there were five members of the group – equals $75,000, which is 20 percent of the money that came in. So just because I took 20 percent of each individually doesn’t mean that I got more than 20 percent; I got a total of 20 percent. So once again, it’s just playing loose with the facts of the situation.
I am as honest as honest can be. They had lawyers. They had business managers. And Eazy had a business manager that represented the company, Lester Knispel, who has represented the Eagles, Rod Stewart, Barbra Streisand, Irving Azoff. He’s a big, big business manager. To even intimate that he would be involved in something that wasn’t totally honest is ridiculous.
N.W.A in 1989 Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
Moving on to another item, you say you never had lobster brunches with Eazy-E while the others waited for their contracts.
I don’t eat brunch or lunch. I have never had a lobster brunch in my life. One night, my then-wife and I and Eazy-E took everyone [in the group] to the Ocean Grill [in Santa Monica], and everybody had lobsters. And I laughed because Dre said, “Look at Jerry, he’s eating the shit out of the lobster,” like the roe, which is considered a delicacy. They thought that was so funny. So when we moved, we all bought houses together. Eazy and I and Dre or whatever, and we went to dinner. But I’ve never had a lobster brunch in my life. So once again, it’s just trying to make me look bad. That’s all.
Your suit also claimed that the movie made it seem like Eazy-E fired you.
That’s totally not true. I can prove it, and it will be proved in court by a number of people. I was with him until the day of his untimely death. I still think about him every day. He was like my son. He was a visionary. He was the greatest, and I’ve always believed that only he and I really understood the significance of what N.W.A was. The rest of the guys were like, “Hey, we’re going to be a big group, and we’re going to make money.”
Do you feel the movie got anything right about you?
Yeah, that scene where I was screaming at the cops. That’s right out of my book, man. Look, I was always a champion of the minority, of the underdog. I was screaming at the cops right there in front of the studio.
I’ve got to tell you something: My book is 100 percent honest. I challenge Ice Cube in the book. I challenge Dr. Dre. There were no lawsuits ever filed by anybody against my book or against me. I’m very proud of my book. It’s the absolute, 100 percent truth.
“I’ve always believed that only [Eazy-E] and I really understood the significance of what N.W.A was.”
You claim in your lawsuit that three of the screenwriters wrote scripts for you and then entered into agreements with the producers of Straight Outta Compton. Were you aware the screenplay was in development?
They wrote an original draft, and then three rewrites for me. And I have it in writing where they said, “OK, Jerry, this is the fourth draft. We hope you like this one.” It came directly from interviews with me. This was before my book. The next thing I knew, they were at New Line, which was Warner Bros., and I didn’t attempt to stop them.
Another interesting point in the lawsuit is the part where you said that Tomica Woods-Wright, Eazy-E’s widow, violated an agreement that forbade her from saying bad things about you.
Right, it was a mutual non-disparagement clause. She’s a producer on this movie. Would you say that it’s disparaging? I would have to say that it’s disparaging. So, we filed a breach of contract.
Had you warned her ahead of time that she might be violating the agreement?
Well, I haven’t spoken to Tomica or Ice Cube. Nobody reached out to me. I didn’t know what was in the movie. They knew what was in the movie. I didn’t, until I saw it on the screen. Nobody from their camp ever reached out to me once to talk about, “Are you going to like this?” or anything else. I thought that was disrespectful. If that’s the way they choose to do business, then that’s why there’s a lawsuit now.
Would you have preferred for them to use a fake name for your depiction? Your complaint suggests “Gary Beller.”
I have nothing to say about it. They used my name, and it was obviously my character. It was obviously me; it was my name. You don’t just call a guy Jerry Heller by accident.
One of the most pivotal scenes in the film was when you play “No Vaseline” for the group, and you were outraged, but everyone else didn’t care. Is that how it really went down?
Well, that is just movies. I didn’t take that [scene] seriously. I actually heard the song first in Bryan Turner’s office. In the original lyrics, he had my name in there. And I said to Bryan, are you going to put this out, man? And I guess he talked to Cube and they just took my name out of it, but there is no question of who it is about. But no, none of us ever listened to it together.
I’ll tell you what was much more important to them and to Ice Cube was the Benedict Arnold quote [“Message to B.A.,” an interlude that addresses Cube on N.W.A’s second record, Efil4zaggin]. That caused much more of a stir between them than “No Vaseline.”
Finally, the lawsuit claims that the film is damaging your business and your credibility. Are people saying they don’t trust you now because of this movie?
Yes, it is already having a profound impact on my business and I’ve already suffered damages. This lawsuit is something I had to do. Look, after six decades in the business, I’ll stand my record up against anybody who does what I do. Am I David Geffen? No. But I certainly rank myself with guys that do what I do, that do it well. But if you look in L.A. Weekly, they list “10 Music Managers Who Fucked Over Their Clients.” Guess who was Number One.
Yeah, you guessed right. Boy, you are a good guesser. Number One, man, and I can’t imagine what the effects are going to be. And you know I’ve gotten tremendous support from the community and all I can say is it is what it is.
Has any of this changed the way you feel about working with N.W.A?
No. I’ve been involved with everyone from Elton John, Marvin Gaye, Pink Floyd. I’ve been involved with lots of very, very important groups. I consider the most important period of my life, from March 3rd, 1987 I think it was, to March 26th, 1995, the day I met Eazy-E and the day he died. To me, that was the most important period of my life, of my career, and the part that I am most proud of.