Reviled for having as his mentor a middleaged Jew, Wright, better known as Eazy-E, demanded to know where Al Sharpton, Don King, and Lewis Farrakhan had been while Heller was making him rich. Heller made hilarious pronouncements, such as that Ice Cube, who is as much a poet as you, the reader, are a ballerina, was nothing less than the poet laureate of rap, and that NWA and Public Enemy were carrying on the work of Dr. King and…Bobby Kennedy? Then Dr. Dre and Ice Cube left, accusing Heller of having cheated them, and everybody wrote songs about sodomizing one another with broomsticks in between meeting at Roscoe’s in Hollywood for chicken and waffles. “It’s not possible to steal from an artist,” Heller would muse ruefully on a hot Saturday morning in the spring of 2013, “unless you rob them like you rob a bank.”
Nowadays, a couple of decades past his period of greatest prosperity, he teaches, or at least tells his wealth of stories, at UCLA and Cal State Northridge. And then he gets home and finds that a great many of the wide-eyed college kids whom he’s just told, for instance, about David Geffen infuriating him so much that he threw armfuls of Asylum Records releases into Sunset Blvd., have asked to be his friend on Facebook. The bad news being that the first thing they all ask the moment he clicks Confirm Friend Request is, “How do I become a star?”
He’s read for a part in a forthcoming David O. Russell film. According to the director’s…people, David loved him, and they will be getting back to him. Heller has, moreover, spoken with Mark Wahlberg’s…people about the actor playing Heller in an adaptation for the screen of Heller’s 2006 exultantly vulgar memoir Ruthless, in which, hilariously again, he describes Dr. Dre as the pre-eminent musical genius of our time.
Believing Latino to be the demographic of the future — Latinos make up the fastest-growing segment of the population, but all the Latino stars seem to want to become pop artists the minute they gain momentum — he formed Streetlife Records in the middle of the last decade with Johnny J, who produced tracks for Tupac Shakur, but nothing much happened before Johnny “J” killed himself in LA County Jail a couple of years later. “I have never discovered a new artist in the traditional sense,” Heller admits, seemingly forgetting his Golliwogs-at-the-nurses-bar anecdote. “I don’t have to be first, though. Do you think Rodney King was the first African-American guy the cops beat up on the freeway? I can follow somebody else’s formula. I’m a terrific mimic.”
While swimming in the Eden Roc hotel’s swimming pool in Miami much more recently, he realized a couple of African-American guys — he purports to relate to prejudice only as one who’s suffered it, and dutifully intones Jesse Jackson’s polysyllabic substitute for “black” — were calling his name. Not that their doing so was any surprise. “I am,” he says, “the most recognizable white face in the world to the black community. I have mothers coming up to me with tears in their eyes to thank for giving their sons an opportunity to be something other than Michael Jackson.” Not, mind you, that the two African-Americans turn out to have anything to do with this anecdote. It’s actually the guy in the inflatable raft about whom we’re concerned, as it was he who informed Heller that his son has a terrific rock and roll band to whose CD Heller ought to listen. He did, and Became Involved with the transplanted-from-Pittsburgh rock band 28 North, which sings, plays, and writes well, but are beardy and very old hat, and likely to appeal in the main to dudes in baseball caps and beer guts. Not, in other words, that to which you might expect the visionary who guided West Coast gangsta rap to the toppermost of the poppermost to have hitched his wagon.
Of course, it could be that Jerry Heller’s secretly hoping that a call from David O. Russell will make it possible for him to leave the music business behind after all these decades. “I don’t relate well to the business today,” he sighs. “The Internet provides inexpensive marketing and promotion, but nobody knows how to make money, and I get bored with things that don’t make money.”