Happy Hanukkah! The Jewish "Festival of Lights" comes early this year, its first day coinciding with Thanksgiving. (Blame the ancient Hebrew calendar for the annual confusion—it doesn't line up with our modern one.) Hanukkah is the time when Jews worldwide celebrate a miracle that supposedly happened at a temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century B.C. Back then, a group of Jewish rebels called the Maccabees defeated the Greeks who had taken over the city. When they cleaned up the temple and rededicated the place to Judaism, they needed oil to burn in the lamps overnight. (For religious reasons, you were supposed to keep a lamp lit in a temple overnight.) They only had enough oil to burn for one night, but (here's the miracle) that little bit of oil burned for eight nights—long enough for them to get more oil, and keep things going. So that's why the holiday lasts for eight days. (Well, eight nights, technically, and seven days.) And why we light an eight-pronged candelabra called "the menorah," adding a new candle each night. And that's why, also, it seems like a good time to give thanks to some of the most notable Jews in hip-hop history. So sit back and light one (a candle) as we spin some records and the dreidel and celebrate the 8 Jews of Rap.
Written by Jeff Rosenthal & Eric Rosenthal (@ItsTheReal)
It’s an easy caricature to make: the less-than-a-hundred-percent-ethical, money-grubbing Jewish record label owner. Sadly, in Jerry Heller’s case, it might’ve been true. It was the '80s; it was a greedy decade, and his mission was to make money, not friends. It wasn’t always that way. In a 1974 interview with Billboard, he preached prudence. That was when he was booking shows for Elton John, Pink Floyd, Marvin Gaye and a litany of rock acts, before cocaine and alcohol brought him down.
In 1986, he was rebuilding, managing a few early rap acts—the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, Egyptian Lover, others—when Eric "Eazy-E" Wright sought him out. Wreckin’ Cru had a hit on the radio with "Turn Off the Lights," but they were breaking up and Eazy wanted most of the spare parts for a group he wanted to put together. The sound would be aggressive, none of that dance shit. They’d be called Niggaz With Attitude, signed to Ruthless Records (a label co-founded by Eazy and Heller).
Heller’s other acts mutinied. Dr. Dre was from a good home! Why were these N.W.A. guys buying shotguns to bring on tour?! Heller held fast. Those other groups would soon disappear in the media frenzy surrounding 1988’s Straight Outta Compton. “Fuck Tha Police” became a national slogan, especially, and unexpectedly, in the suburbs. The FBI wrote a letter to Heller and Ruthless, saying, “advocating violence and assault is wrong and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action."
Records kept selling, so money was coming in. Not much of it was making it the artists other than Eazy, though. Ice Cube, in particular, felt exploited. He left in 1989, saying Heller needed to pay him not just for writing and recording his parts, but for writing Eazy and Dre’s, as well. It got uglier. Ugliest when, in 1991, Ice Cube released “No Vaseline,” a diss track against his former friends, wherein he rails at Eazy about his partnership with Heller: “It's a case of divide-and-conquer," he rapped, "'cause you let a Jew break up my crew.” And, “You're gettin' fucked out your green by a white boy, with no Vaseline.”
Stereotypes are tricky. Unfortunately, it seems that, for the important part he played in making one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time, Jerry Heller lived up to some unflattering ones. (Heller has refuted these claims in his memoir, Ruthless.)
Check back tomorrow for our the next great Jew of rap!