Charis Henry was, by her own account, just 18 years old when she took a job as Eazy-E‘s assistant while the late rapper was a crucial member of N.W.A in the late 1980s. In the seven years that she worked with Eazy — years that would encompass the breakup of N.W.A, the public bitterness between Eazy and his former group-mates Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, and Eazy’s untimely death of AIDS in 1995 at the age of 30 — she became close with Eazy’s manager, Jerry Heller, who died this weekend at the age of 75.
In an emotional conversation with Billboard, Henry remembers first meeting Heller, the manager’s gruff and oftentimes prickly demeanor, his later years battling public accusations of his business misconduct — which he denied repeatedly — and the familial relationship that Heller formed with her, Eazy and several members of the Ruthless Records family that would continue until his very last days. Below is a transcript of that conversation, which has been slightly edited for clarity and cohesion.
Charis Henry: I was a rapper first. I met Eric [Wright, aka Eazy-E] and I was supposed to sign with Ruthless, but they had gone on a 100 city tour. I ended up signing to Bobcat, because I didn’t know he was coming back; cell phones weren’t really big then, and by the time he came back I was already signed to Bobcat and Motown and had a deal. But that deal was not right. I had a few months left on my contract, so Eric said, “In the interim, just come be down with us.” When you see the [N.W.A] “Express Yourself” video, I’m actually in the video as a rapper and a background dancer.
The day of that [“Express Yourself”] video shoot — it was a two-day shoot — I was just around, and [Eric] had two beepers, and he would only answer one. He said, “One is for my office, one is for my friends and family.” But he wouldn’t answer his office beeper. I was at UCLA at the time as a college student, and business was more my thing. The very next day I wrote on a handwritten piece of paper what I wanted to do for him: I could be his assistant, his in-house accountant, his tour manager — I had never been on a tour — and told him I could do promotions, though I didn’t know anything about that [either]. And at the video shoot, I gave it to him. He looked it over and started laughing. I was very embarrassed, but then he said, “Let me think about it. Give me until Wednesday and I’ll let you know.”
On Wednesday he told me to come to the [Ruthless Records] office and told me, “I’m going to hire you, you’re going to be my assistant.” So I rolled up with him and sat in the lobby area, and [Eric] went into a conference room with Jerry Heller. I couldn’t hear Eric’s voice, but I could hear Jerry loud. About 15 minutes later, the door slams open; Jerry was very tall, menacing, he would get very mad and his face would turn red and his hair would fly everywhere. He looked over at me and said, “I guess you work here. Welcome to god damn Ruthless.” He walked into his office and he slammed the door. Two seconds later, Eric came walking out looking like nothing happened and said, “Come on, let’s go.” We got out the office door and I said to Eric, “He hates me! How am I going to work here?” Eric said, “He doesn’t even know you. He hates everybody. It doesn’t matter, this is my company — he works for me. Come on.” I was 18 years old.
I didn’t like Jerry at first. Jerry was very brash, very rude, very mean, very menacing and very intimidating. However, through the process of me working with Eric, I would do certain things. Eric would get cash and spend cash all the time. Because I was a business major with an emphasis on accounting, I would notice that he was spending all this money and I would say, “Eric, you have to keep these receipts, you can write all this off.” So I would put a manila envelope in his car with his schedule and I told him to put his receipts there, and I started writing them down on ledgers. I did this for a year and gathered about $70,000 in his cash receipts, just the things I could grab.
I think Jerry just assumed I was one of Eric’s ex-girlfriends or whatever. So one day I went up to Jerry and said, “Hey, I know it’s almost tax time, this is what I could gather from Eric’s receipts.” And he looked at me and said, “Oh my God. Do you know how many years I’ve been trying to figure out where this cash was going so he could get the write off for it?” From there, he started trust me, like I was of value. But I was never always with him.
Sometimes I would be with [Eric] at a sales meeting at Priority [Records, which distributed Ruthless], and Jerry would be like, “What the fuck are you doing here?” and I would say, “What do you mean? I’m here because our boss asked me to be here.” The more Jerry would try to intimidate me, the more I learned I had to stick up for myself, and the more he understood that I wasn’t there to expose him or get rid of him, but to aid in the process. So what I did to gain his trust was in me was that if I ever saw Eric doing something wrong — as in, not beneficial to the company, or something he could be doing that would be beneficial — I would tell Jerry, always in benefit for the company. So Jerry would thank me, and once that started to happen, maybe two years into the seven that I worked with Eric, he said, “Out of all the people Eric has tried to hire or bring in over the years, you’re the only person that’s worth shit.” That was his compliment. And then from there, it was a mutual respect.
After Eric passed, we got closer, because we were literally a tight-knit family. And we’d gone through so much — from kidnappings, to Death Row situations, to having to carry guns, to me having to have security because Eric would say, “You’re the closest thing to me, I don’t want anything to happen to you” — that we became a family. And Jerry was a protector. He wasn’t afraid of any street dudes, he wasn’t afraid of the rap element. He made sure that we were straight in every aspect: legally, street-wise. He helped a lot of the artists that came there that had janky deals; people that were down with us, he looked out for them and made sure that they were straight, that they got out of certain things. And we began to be really close.
I remember, shortly after Eric died, I was looking for a job. I knew Jerry had been in the industry for a very, very long time, powerful dude, and I said, “Jerry, I need you to open up some doors for me.” He said, “Charis, you’ve built yourself a reputation working with us. You’re respected.” Even people who worked with us that didn’t necessarily like us, even some of our label mates at the time — [MC] Ren [from N.W.A] wouldn’t even talk to Eric or Jerry at a certain time, he would only go through me because he was pissed — Jerry said, “Because you built that foundation on your own and people like you and know you, I don’t ever want to associate you in this industry with me that close. Because people don’t like me. And you’re a likable, smart girl, and I don’t want to do that to you. You get out there, put all that stuff on your resume and you go get your job. Because if I vouch for you, they might not want you.”
I knew then that he cared. He would always check on me, and I would check on him. Jerry had gone through a lot in these last years; when his wife left him, I saw the pain in his face when I met with him. I saw him beginning to get frail. He was always one who didn’t care what anyone said, was always strong or whatever. But I saw a man deteriorating. Being more humble. I saw hurt. Our bond was always reminiscing about Eric, going through the things that we would hear in the media, the things that [Eazy-E’s widow] Tomica [Woods-Wright] did with the company [Ed. Note: Woods-Wright took over Ruthless Records following Eazy-E’s death in 1995]. We built that closeness and stayed very tight.
Was Jerry perfect? No. Did Eric love him? Yes, because he told me. [Jerry] was like a father, because [Eric] was in the business, was in out being a young street dude trying to build himself into a mogul, and Jerry was with him every day. And he looked at Jerry like a step-father; he told me this. Towards the end [of Eric’s life], I’m not familiar with all the details, but I do know that Eric loved him. Because he stood his ground with Jerry.
When the [Straight Outta Compton] movie came out [in 2015], Jerry was hurt. He was hurt how he seemed to be villainized, he was hurt by the inconsistencies that he felt were portrayed about him and Eric and Tomica. All of us that were close to Eric, none of us were involved with the movie. Nobody. And I saw that really break him down, to have the world thinking that he was this heinous dude who wasn’t an integral part of the building process, and doing as the guy who hired him — the sole owner of Ruthless Records [Eric Wright] — afforded him to do.
I had lunch with Jerry last year at one of his favorite delis in the Valley. He looked fine; he was frail, but he was still the same Jerry, talking shit, doing the most, reminiscing. And he reached out to me two weeks ago and said, “I want to see you, let’s do lunch on me.” His favorite deli. And [former N.W.A promoter] Doug Young, who’s been around since the Macola days prior to Ruthless, very good friends with Jerry, he had also been reached out to by Jerry and been asked to come see him. And what’s hurting my feelings is that I know he was ailing, and he was prideful. So those reach outs were, “I really want to see you guys, because I know I’m getting weak.”
I didn’t get a chance to go out there. And it’s overwhelmingly sad for me because our connection was Eazy. Eazy was one of my best friends, my boss and my mentor. I loved Eric. And [Jerry] was like the poppa of us all. And to have him, KMG [The Illustrator who died in 2012] from Above the Law and Eric [pass away], it’s like our family unit is disappearing. I knew I would be hurt, but I didn’t know I would feel this much pain. I’m feeling the resurgence of Eric again, I’m feeling the demise of our family unit. And the guy that ran it is gone. I am extremely sad.
Jerry was not a perfect man. But he wasn’t a bad person. Without his experience and tenacity, Ruthless — I don’t think it would be what it was without him. And I just want people to remember that Jerry not only was the person that ran Ruthless Records and was Eazy’s manager, but he was a super-power agent. Elton John, War; he did a lot for this industry, a lot for clients, a lot for rock, pop, hip-hop — and he helped a lot of young talent. We all know Jerry was really, really, really a strong personality. But once you got to know him and understand he had no kids, didn’t have a whole bunch of friends; the more you understood who he was, you accepted and appreciated what he brought to the table.
He would always thank me, because people would publicly defame him — even some of the people from our camp, things like that. And I would correct them about things that I knew. And he would always thank me for publicly standing up for him. And even right now, I know that he’s appreciative that I’m speaking on his behalf. I know he was tired. He was stressed, and he was hurt. So I’m happy knowing he’s in a much better place.