Read an Excerpt
From Straight Outta Compton
"Lonzo brought in Run-D.M.C.," Dr. Dre told me. "I think it was their first time in L.A., you know? And that was it. That was just it for me."
In 1984, a very young Andre Young started hanging out at Eve After Dark, bugging Alonzo Williams to let him do some cutting on the Cru. He was fresh out of high school in Compton. Lonzo finally let him in for a simple reason.
"He's absolute magic with women, man," Lonzo told me, raising an eyebrow. "Ladies fucking love him."
Once in the Wreckin' Cru, Young formed an alliance with a stocky DJ named Antoine Carraby, who used the stage monicker of DJ Yella. Andre Young needed a handle too so he modified the nickname of one of his heroes, Julius Erving, the legendary Dr. J of the Philadelphia 76ers, a basketball great who was among the top players in the game at the time. Dr. J pioneered the modern, above-the-rim playing style.
Dre always told me he liked Dr. J because he was forever number one in the NBA in steals. "I thought that was cool."
So Andre Young became Dr. Dre, the official resident lady-killer of Alonzo Williams's World Class Wreckin' Cru. On the Cru, he and Yella hung together, and when Lonzo brought Run-D.M.C. into Eve After Dark, the lightning bolt struck them both at the same time.
Conclusion number one, Dre and Yella standing there on their own turf, in their home club, listening to the crew from Hollis, Queens: "Damn, this shit is fresh."
Conclusion number two: "We could do this shit."
Conclusion number three: "Fuck the Cru. Fuck this shit. Fuck Alonzo and his motherfucking synchronized dance moves and his corny outfits."
Entirely unintentionally, Lonzo had killed the Cru. He was the one who brought Joey Simmons, Darryl McDaniels, and Jason Mizell (aka Run, D.M.C., and Jam Master Jay) in front of his two young protégés. In the summer of 1984, Run-D.M.C.'s "It's Like That" had blown away everything else that came before in rap -- the first hard-core rap song.
Genius leaps. Dr. Dre didn't have to think about it. Watching Run-D.M.C. at Eve After Dark, he had immediately grasped what he wanted to do.
I wasn't there the night Hollis, Queens, showed the way. Not my scene. But that didn't mean I wasn't just as restless as Andre Young. The Cru was okay. And all the rest of the acts I was managing were okay. But it was as if I was listening to the Beatles and waiting on the Rolling Stones. What I was doing back then was looking for something a little . . . harder. And it turned out so was Andre Young.
Looking for something harder. That's how I spent my time through the winter of 1986-87. Booking Lonzo and Dr. Dre and DJ Yella and the rest of the Cru in venues like Skateland -- a Los Angeles roller-skating emporium that doubled as a concert venue in those days -- and trying to get my acts on the radio.
Steve Yano's booth at the Roadium represented our major local distribution outlet. The real scene in L.A. was the roving bands of DJs that played parties all over south county and the Valley. The Wreckin' Cru and the Dream Team were prominent, but there were the Mixmasters and Uncle Jam's Army, too.
Three of the DJs from the Mixmasters got hired at KDAY, a low-powered radio station with studios located at the top of Alvarado Street, in Echo Park. Julio G, Gregg Mack, and Tony G started playing rap, hosting interview shows, contributing mightily to the visibility of the West Coast rap scene in general and the artists I was representing out of Macola in particular.
KDAY became one of the true major players in the record business, but the station did so without wasting money on excess wattage. It was a lo-fi, low-rent, low-rise kind of enterprise. I'd be tuned into KDAY in the car on my way home to the Valley, 1580 on the AM band, and as I would drive over the Cahuenga Pass the signal would begin to drift a mere ten miles from the transmitter. One second I'd be listening to the World Class Wreckin' Cru doing "Juice," and all of sudden I'd hear Kenny Rogers break in from a more powerful country station in the Valley.
You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em...
But Mack and the Two Gs became some of the most important players contributing to the rise of West Coast rap. I came to see KDAY as an almost mystical entity. Julio would play a Dream Team cut on that dim bulb of a radio station, and the next day Don MacMillan would get orders for ten, twenty, thirty thousand records -- orders not just from KDAY's listening radius (which was, after all, about a four-block area of Echo Park), but from all over the country: Texas, Philadelphia, New York.
I could never figure out how it happened. But in the mid-1980s, KDAY was the electronic embodiment of the mysterious power called "word on the street."
Concerts in roller-skating rinks. A distribution model in which car trunks figured prominently. A single-station radio network with a signal that wavered in a high wind. When MacMillan got the orders and the money came in, Lonzo and the Cru and Rudy and whoever else had a piece of the pie would all head down to the corner of Santa Monica and Vine to divvy up the proceeds. I was the only one with a checking account, so I'd cash the check and meet them. We'd split up the money right there on the corner, usually twenty or thirty thousand dollars. A few times we had a one-hundred-thousand-dollar check to split.
Up Vine Street at Capitol, or over the hump at Warner Brothers in Burbank, they were doing business their own way. Down in the flats at Macola, we did it our way. I was loving it, happier than I have ever been, I think, in the record business. Joe Smith or David Geffen might have looked at me as though I were nuts, but I couldn't help it. I was down in the trenches with the little guys. This was just my kind of thing.
There were always people tugging at my sleeve. "Hey, Jerry," Lonzo said to me in early 1987. "I got this Compton guy keeps saying he wants to meet you."
"Yeah? A rapper?"
"Nah," Lonzo said. "He's like a street guy, got a lot of big ideas. He says he wants to start a record store or something."
"Hey, Lonzo, spare me, okay? I get a lot of people wanting to go into business with me. If I talked to all of them, I'd be in the business of going into business with people, you know what I mean? I wouldn't have time for anything else."
But the dude wouldn't quit. Every couple of weeks Lonzo would be back at it, saying this Compton guy wants to know me. A couple times I blew up at him.
"You owe this guy money or something? He your relative? Leave it alone!"
Part of my playing hard to get was a conscious business strategy. As an executive you erect a wall around yourself. You want to give yourself a little peace and quiet and cut down on distraction. But the wall serves another function, too. It weeds out the losers. It's Darwinian. If a supplicant is strong enough and resourceful enough to get through to me, maybe, just maybe, he's got something worthwhile to show me.
In spring of 1987 Lonzo was still hocking me. "Hey, man, you got to see this Compton guy. He's on me all the time about it."
"So? That's your problem." I walked away from him.
He followed. "Listen, Jerry, the guy says he'll pay me for an introduction to you."
I stopped and turned back around. "How much?"
"Seven hundred and fifty." Lonzo paused. "Truth, Jerry, I could use the money."
That didn't necessarily sway me. Lonzo was a friend, but I don't think there was ever a time when he couldn't use $750. For him, saying he needed money was like saying "I'm breathing." On the other hand, it did intrigue me that someone was willing to pay cash money for an introduction to me.
"Who is this guy again?"
He had told me before, but I wasn't really listening, so he told me again.
"All right," I said. "I'll be back around next week."
"When?" Lonzo wanted to know.
"Tuesday afternoon, three thirty."
I could tell he wanted me to bump up the date a little, advance his payday. But he didn't push it.
So what did I think of a guy who bid $750 just to get next to me? I confess I have enough of an ego that my first knee-jerk response was "good move." I like initiative, I like ambition, I like people who drive themselves to accomplish. Passivity makes me nuts.
The guy who drove his tricked-out Suzuki Samurai up to the curb in front of Macola on the next Tuesday afternoon (March 3, 1987, if you want to mark the start of the Ruthless era right there) didn't go in for a lot of ceremony. A short, sprung-legged Muggsy Bogues point-guard type, but with a massive upper body, so the final effect was almost like an inverted pyramid. "Built like a tank, but hard to hit." Oakland Raiders ball cap jammed down on Jheri-curled hair, above black wraparounds.
Another small guy, I thought. All my life, I've played against small guys, including people in show business like Irving Azoff and David Geffen. It hadn't been all that long before, a few years, that Randy Newman had a hit with "Short People," a song which he supposedly wrote about Azoff and which I thought probably made this kid's life hell when he was coming up.
"Hey, Jerry, this is Eric Wright," Lonzo said, and then to Eazy he just said: "Jerry Heller."
Show, meet business. Business, meet show.
Eric had a running buddy with him, a partner who climbed out of the passenger-side door of the Samurai. Lonzo knew him, too: "This is Lorenzo."
"Lorenzo Patterson," the kid said almost inaudibly, giving me a soft handshake.
Eazy didn't say a word, just reached down and peeled back his pant leg, rolled down his striped white crew sock, and extracted a money roll. I laughed. He was going to pay Lonzo right on the spot. That amused me. I noticed he didn't move his lips when he counted money, like a lot of people do, and I liked that, too.
I got a sense of cleanliness, freshness. I know this kind of observation can stray into racist quicksand, but I've heard a lot of other people say the same thing about Eazy, that he was always almost preternaturally clean. It wasn't just hygiene, it was more a philosophical stance, like the Buddha's breath was supposed to smell like honey.
At the same time, I was trying to imagine how this runt-of-the-litter twenty-three-year-old tenth-grade dropout saw me. Tall European-American, already gone a shade gray, educated, open-eyed, twice Eazy's age and outweighing him by a good eight or ten stone. Checking me out checking him out.
"I thought you looked like a guy who liked to enjoy hisself," Eazy told me later. "You were the first white guy I ever really talked to who wasn't trying to collect rent or arrest me."
I asked him the same question I asked most people I met in the business. "You want to play me something, man? Let's go inside."
The first word I ever heard out of Eric Wright's mouth was positive, a good omen: "Sure."
We passed through the storefront doors and went into the first-floor conference room at Macola. Running buddy or not, Lorenzo Patterson made no move to remain at Eazy's side. I found out later that while Eazy and I had our first meeting, which ran to three hours, Lorenzo amused himself by carving his name into Don MacMillan's desk with a buck knife.
Doug Young, Macola's promotion genius, joined me as we listened to Eric Wright laying out "the plan." People were forever laying out "the plan" to me. Usually it involved conquering the entertainment industry, though I got the idea some people would just as soon go ahead and aim for world domination. Everybody, every single person, was going to hit the charts like Elvis, bring 'em to their knees like Sinatra, reinvent the wheel like Hendrix.
But I reacted differently to Eric's pitch. He wasn't rushed, or gushing. He never took his hat or sunglasses off. He just very calmly told me what he was going to do.
"I want to start my own label," he said. A place where an artist could work without anyone looking over his shoulder, telling him what he could and could not do -- a free environment, no rules, no catering to any taste other than the artist's own.
I held off saying what I usually said at this point, which was that he was the sixth, twelfth, twentieth person this week, month, year that had stepped up and told me they wanted to start a business with me.
Instead I asked him again, "You want to play me something?"
Eazy fished out a tape from the front pocket of his jacket. He slotted it into the conference room's deck and played me a song called "Boyz-N-the-Hood."
Cruisin' down the street in my 6-4
Jockin' the bitches, slappin' the ho's . . .
The whole story rolled out in a distinctive nasal whine, a South Central saga, a day in the thug life. Driving in Compton, witnessing jackings, blasting back at enemies, pulling up at police actions and jail riots. A blistering view of a harsh world. Always coming back again and again to the chorus.
'Cause the boys in the hood are always hard
You come talkin' that trash, we'll pull ya card
I thought it was the most important rap music I had ever heard. This was the Rolling Stones, the Black Panthers, Gil Scott-Heron; this was music that would change everything.
"Wow" is the word.
If I play it today, I can still hear the "wow" in "Boyz-N-the-Hood." No apologies, no excuses, just the straight undistilled street telling me things I had never heard before, yet that I understood instantly.
The voice that delivered the rap was maddening. When I first heard it, I immediately wanted to dismiss it, tell Eric, Shit, this guy isn't a rapper. First thing we do is hire a professional. I know a real good MC. . . .
But then it hit me. It was him. Eazy-E himself was doing the rapping.
"Who is that?" I asked. He didn't answer. "Was that you?"
I asked him to play it again, and he did.
The rap wasn't professional, it wasn't smooth, but it grew on me. Eazy's voice was as insistent as the ghetto -- you wanted to deny its reality, but you just couldn't. The timbre and style of his rapping was wholly original. It kept insinuating itself into my brain like a nail file. "Racky" we would have called it back when I was growing up in Cleveland, from "racketeer." I've heard his voice called a lot of things since that first day I heard it, but it was always "racky" to me. It sounded as though the rapper came straight out of the state home for wayward youths.
There are three qualities I've tabulated that can lift an act to superstardom. The first is actually to be the first, a trailblazer or innovator, like Louis Armstrong or Lenny Bruce. Second, you can simply be better than anyone else at what you do, like Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. And three is to be unique. No one is ever going to mistake a Bob Dylan record for anything other than a Bob Dylan record, and the same could be said for Joan Armatrading, say, or the Beach Boys. Of the great rappers, Eazy fulfilled that quality of uniqueness.
Two spins of "Boys-N-the-Hood" and I was convinced. I prepared to jettison my whole life and devote myself to this music. If this song was the only one he had, I would devote myself to that one song.
But he didn't have just that one, he had "8 Ball" and "Dopeman," other blood-fresh bulletins from the front lines of the inner city. I couldn't believe it. This guy, this pisher, had the goods -- the real deal.
"The label you want to start," I asked him, "it have a name?"
"Ruthless Records," he said.
Ruthless. A word from the fourteenth century. Having no "ruth," or pity. "Without rue," meaning without regret. Synonyms: pitiless, callous, inhuman, heartless, cold-blooded, remorseless, implacable, cruel, relentless, severe, ferocious, vicious, cutthroat.
Perfect, I thought. Perfect for the world I was hearing described in those songs.
"And the group?" I asked him. "What do you call them?"
"N.W.A.," he said.
"N.W.A.," I said. "What's that mean, 'No Whites Allowed'?"
That was the first time I heard Eric Wright laugh.
"Sort of," he said. "Close enough."
Eric never intended to be a rapper. He saw himself as more of a behind-the-camera kind of guy. He backed into his performance on "Boyz-N-the-Hood" in classic show business manner, like Eve Harrington taking over for Margo Channing in All About Eve. The understudy became the star.
It all happened because Dre didn't pay his traffic tickets -- didn't pay, and didn't pay, until finally, inevitably in L.A. where young blacks get stopped by the police all the time, he would get hauled off to jail on "failure to appear" beefs. Again and again. He'd use his one phone call to contact Alonzo Williams. And because Lonzo usually needed Dre for some Wreckin' Cru gig, he'd post Andre's bail. Again and again.
Finally Lonzo got sick of it and told Dre that he'd just have to rot in the slammer this time. So Dre called Eazy, and Eazy called me to arrange a bail bondsman. (I was now Eazy's go-to guy, the guy who, if you have a single quarter left to your name, was the one you were going to call.)
"Sure," Eazy told Dre. "I'll post your bail. But you got to do something for me."
It's a time-honored inner-city move, to bail someone out of jail and thereby gain some measure of respect, friendship, or control. Suge Knight signed Tupac to Death Row Records by doing this exact thing, arranging to get Tupac out of jail when he was inside on a sex abuse rap. Come to think of it, my pal Jack Kellman and I once helped facilitate the release of singer Flora Purim -- although I didn't strong-arm her into a contract because of it.
In this way, Eazy was owed a favor from Dre. So if you want to follow the twisted logic of the facts, Dre became a superstar because he found himself in jail with no one to post his bail, because the LAPD harassed him, because he ignored his traffic tickets. And Lonzo Williams let the biggest prize in rap music slip away.
Eazy called in his marker. He wanted Dre to lay down some beats for a DJ-style collective he was forming, "N.W.A. and the Posse." Yella could be in it too, Eazy said, and he also recruited Arabian Prince, a smooth, polished producer.
I had heard Arabian Prince's work that first day at Macola, since he was the mixmaster behind the original version of "Supersonic" by the girl rap group J.J. Fad. His real name was Kim Nazel, which he sometimes represented as "Mik Lezan." Nazel was a skinny little guy whose body seemed to be all head. A dapper clotheshorse, he came from a little more upscale background than the rest of the guys in the group. He dressed in tailored suits, drove a nice car, didn't seem to have any money worries.
Another recruit whom Eazy roped in was very young -- still in high school, as a matter of fact, when the supergroup was being put together. O'Shea Jackson worked on raps with Dre. He wrote the lyrics to "Boyz-N-the-Hood" in English class. He wrote most of "Dopeman" and "8 Ball," too. That's all O'Shea Jackson did, on his long bus rides north from his home neighborhood in Compton to Taft High School on Ventura Boulevard in the Valley, where he was a cog in the L.A. school district's half-baked integration effort.
O'Shea never went anywhere without his notebook. He wrote in his bedroom in Compton, where his mother, a high-powered, extremely capable woman, encouraged him. He wrote and wrote and wrote. Meanwhile, he became a member of a couple of Lonzo's minor DJ collectives, the Stereo Cru and C.I.A. It was in C.I.A. that O'Shea Jackson first took his stage name.
More than anyone else, Cube popularized the gangsta persona that has come to dominate rap music. There were others who came before. Ice-T's "Six in the Morning" was probably L.A.'s first gangsta rap song, and Philadelphia's Schoolly D recorded street-crime raps on his 1987 album Saturday Night! But the scribblings in O'Shea Jackson's school notebooks would eventually form the backbone of a whole new genre.
So the group Eric called N.W.A. and the Posse contained most of the elements necessary to make great rap records. Producers, like Dre and Yella from the Wreckin' Cru, and Arabian Prince. A street poet in the person of O'Shea Jackson, aka Ice Cube. An ever-changing, always-interesting lineup of friends, homies, DJs, and musicians.
But it was Eazy who put it all together. Without Eazy there would be no Dre, no Cube, no N.W.A. I'm not saying those guys would have wound up pumping gas if Eazy hadn't come along and dragooned them into a collective of West Coast rap superstars. But without Eric Wright and Jerry Heller, history would not have happened in the precise way that it did.
What did Eazy bring to the table? Vision, concept, all the big fancy words that people use when they talk about making something happen. Remember where popular music was at that point in time -- dominated by Michael Jackson and Prince. Eazy effectively said That ain't the way to go. This is the way to go. His vision was complex enough, tight enough, and right enough to attract geniuses such as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube.
Eric's first move was to try to place the songs of his new DJ collective with an established rap group. He rented time at a Torrance recording studio called Audio Achievements, run by an energetic fireplug of a guy named Donovan "Dirtbiker" Smith. From the Roadium to Audio Achievements was maybe five miles as the crow flies. Eazy stuck close to his roots.
Dre, Yella, Arabian Prince, and Eazy assembled at Audio Achievements to present a rough cut of "Boyz-N-the-Hood" to H.B.O., a couple of East Coast rappers. The track didn't even have a vocal laid down -- just Dre and Yella's beats and lyrics written in Cube's tattered school notebook.
The forties movie star and tough guy George Raft was famous for turning down roles that other actors, usually Humphrey Bogart, eventually made famous. Raft turned down Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Rick in Casablanca. Bogart's agent used to sell his client on a role simply by telling him that George Raft had passed on it.
In what surely ranks as an ultimate George Raft moment, the members of H.B.O., in their infinite wisdom, turned down "Boyz-N-the-Hood."
"Too West Coast," they said. Not only that, but they disliked the whole Audio Achievements vibe enough to walk out of the studio -- out of the studio and, it turns out, into the mists of history, since H.B.O. vanished from the music scene after the single bad decision for which the group is known.
Unlike Eve Harrington in All About Eve, Eazy resisted the call to take over the lead on "Boyz-N-the-Hood." Cube wasn't around, and Dre certainly wasn't going to do it. Eventually, Dre and Yella prevailed upon Eric, and thus was born Eazy-E, West Coast rapper extraordinaire. It was a rocky start. Lonzo recalled a lot of snickering at Macola over the quality of the resulting rap.
The album that eventually came out of these sessions, known as N.W.A. and the Posse, is unquestionably a raw production, not quite ready for prime time. It has elements of greatness, rap songs that later became monsters: "Boyz-N-the-Hood," "Dopeman," "8 Ball." Listen to the version of "Boyz" on the Posse album and then compare it with Dre's remix a year later that appears on Eazy-Duz-It, Eric's first solo album. The difference is clear. Posse was a trial run, a rehearsal.
One more thing that is clear even from the rudimentary tracks of Posse: If Eazy made N.W.A., then rock made Eazy. Not rock 'n' roll, but rock cocaine.
In the mid-1980s, crack screamed down on Eazy's neighborhood in South Central like the fucking Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Imagine your own streets, your own city, your own neighbors under assault by a drug that basically makes people lose their minds. What if your homies ran outside and began jacking everyone in sight? What if fathers left their families, mothers neglected their children, friends attacked friends like rabid dogs? It happened in Compton. Murder, assault, burglary, and street violence rolled over the place like a tsunami.
Newton's Third Law: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I've read articles by sociologists expounding on the roots of gangsta rap, but to me it is very simple. Crack cocaine hits Compton with a vengeance. A few short years later, an itinerant troupe of Compton street poets calling themselves N.W.A. records the horrors they have seen in their own lives, using their own language, rendering the images that have been indelibly seared upon their young eyeballs by the crack epidemic.
Eazy-E and N.W.A. were products of a community plagued by cocaine just as surely as crack babies, gangbangers, and the rising body count on the streets of South Central.
I never met a conspiracy theory I didn't like. Did the dark forces behind the Gemstone Theory utilize the talents of Lucky Luciano, Aristotle Onassis, and Howard Hughes to flood America with French Connection heroin after the Second World War? I believed it could have happened that way.
Likewise, did the U.S. government import the cocaine that eventually wound up in the base pipes of South Central? Was it all engineered by the C.I.A. (the government agency, not the band)? Was it part of an elaborate plan to fund the anti-Sandinista insurgency in Nicaragua? Or maybe something darker -- a plot to destroy the inner-city community?
This sounds well within the realm of reason to me. I've lived through McCarthyism, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the fantasy of WMDs in Iraq. Nothing the U.S. government does can surprise me. But if the conspiracy theory holds true, then we can follow a tortuous path from the Central Intelligence Agency to the crack epidemic in South Central and arrive at Ruthless Records. Eazy-E and I were just pawns of C.I.A. machinations too vast to contemplate.
But I had been hearing something else, too. Maybe the cocaine connection was more than purely metaphorical, that my guy here had a quite literal connection with crack. Lonzo and Rudy and others had been telling me about Eazy. The money roll in his crew sock, they said, came from hustling dope on the street corners of South Central.
"So what are you, you're the 'dopeman'?" I asked Eazy, that first day we met at Macola. We had just listened to the song.
Hey, man, give me a hit
Eric was very good at deflecting lines of conversation. I eventually came to see him as Machiavellian in his ability to manipulate people. The Prince could have been written about Eric Wright. I could not pin him down. If he didn't want to say something, it wouldn't get said.
"You get paid selling drugs?" I asked, trying to push him.
Stone-faced. I waited. He waited.
"I got a money tree in my backyard," he finally said.
I laughed. "You do, huh?" I said. "How do I get me one of those?"
I launched into a meditation on the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the Federal anti-organized-crime measure nicknamed RICO. "What do you do the first time you get a little money?" I asked rhetorically. "You buy your mama a house." With RICO, I told him, you get busted selling drugs, pretty soon Federal agents show up at the front door of your mama's new house, seizure papers in hand.
"You don't want your mama to have a seizure, do you?" I joked, trying to keep the tone light.
Of course, he made no response. Still laughing, I gave up. I've since come to question the whole notion of Eric as a dope dealer. I know that it has become part of the accepted mythology behind the creation of Ruthless: The label was funded in part by dope money. The idea lent us a lot street credibility, so I never bothered to deny it. I mean, given the reputation of Ruthless Records, it should have been true.
But I don't think so. I certainly never witnessed Eric sell any coke. I saw him give away a lot of marijuana in his day -- he used to keep garbage bags full of pot that were given to him by his street connections, but I never really even saw him sell any of that, either. And I was with him day in and day out over the course of several years.
I think now that the whole "dope dealer" tag was part of Eric Wright's self-forged armor. The hood where he grew up was a dangerous place. He was a small guy. "Thug" was a role that was widely understood on the street; it gave you a certain level of protection in the sense that people hesitated to fuck with you. Likewise, "dope dealer" was a role that accorded you certain privileges and respect.
No one survived on the streets without a protective mask. No one survived naked. You had to have a role. You had to be "thug," "playa," "athlete," "gangsta," or "dope man." Otherwise, there was only one role left to you.
So Eric took on one of the only roles that allowed him to operate. Was it for real? I didn't think so, and no one else who was really close to him thought so either. But it's become an unchallengeable part of the Eazy-E mythology.
Far be it from me to dispel such an effective bit of mythology. I will say that the first $250,000 slugged into Ruthless Records was mine, and that I put up another million over the first few years of the label's existence. I thus went against the sage advice of one of the smartest men I have ever met, David Geffen, whose business mantra was always "OPM" -- other people's money. David made an art of using OPM to start his businesses.
When Eazy didn't want to talk about something, he'd suddenly go off on an entirely new tangent, usually one that he chose because he knew it would be extra enticing to you. That's what happened that first day at Macola, when I was trying to extract information about his dope-dealing past.
"I want to go into business with you, man," he said, switching subjects abruptly. "We could do everything fifty-fifty, half and half, down the middle. You own half the label and I own half."
"Half-ownership? Why would you want to do that?"
"Well, I figure it would make the math real simple."
I laughed again. I was starting to like him.
"Don't worry about the math," I said. "I've been in the business a long time. I can do the percentages in my head."
"Yeah?" he said, immediately challenging me. "Okay, give me twelve percent of thirty-eight K."
"Fuck you," I said. "I don't work for twelve percent."
"I knew it was bullshit."
I said, "Four thousand, five-sixty, okay?" I grew up in the era before calculators. The bookies and gamblers that I came up with could all do numbers in their head. If I don't nail the percentage exactly, I'll be close enough that you'll think I'm right anyway.
"No calculator, man!" he said, impressed.
"Here's the thing, Eric," I said. "That fifty-fifty deal is real generous, but this has got to be all yours. Ruthless Records has got to be Eric Wright, sole owner and proprietor."
He thought about that. "How you going to get paid?" he asked.
"Every dollar comes into Ruthless, I take twenty cents. That's industry standard for a manager of my caliber. I take twenty, you take eighty percent. I am responsible for my expenses, and you're responsible for yours. You own the company. I work for you."
I could tell he liked my deal a lot better than the one he had proposed. He hesitated, though, trying to figure the logic behind someone negotiating downward.
I laid it out to him. "Total black ownership, one hundred percent. It doesn't make any sense any other way."
I believed it back then, and I still believe now that it was the right path to take. Ruthless was Eric Wright's initiative, his concept, his creation. He even came up with the name.
What was I going to do, ride in on him like Colonel Parker rode in on Elvis, grabbing 50 percent? Those days were long gone. (In the Colonel's defense, his was the most successful artist-manager team in history, and he had only one client.) At that point in my career, I earned the commission of all top managers, which was 20 percent. In fact, I was known as "H20," meaning Heller at 20 percent.
I also quite consciously grappled with the fact that I was a Jewish male and he was an African-American male. History had loaded that particular dynamic with plenty of freight. I wanted to bend over backward to do what was right. And I think I did. Later on people used this deal to discredit me, but it definitely fit within the industry standards for a start-up act. And the truth was that Eric would have gladly paid me 80 percent.
My first meeting with Eric was one of the great three-hour periods of my life. I didn't have to take a few days to think about it, and neither did he. We both just knew. When we entered that room, Ruthless was just an idea, a phantasm, a collection of neuroelectrical impulses firing in Eric Wright's brain. There were no Ruthless artists, no Ruthless offices, no Ruthless logo. Nothing.
But when we left the conference room that afternoon, Ruthless was real, as real as Warner Brothers, Elektra, or Atlantic. We were in business.
Copyright © 2006 by Jerry Heller