The streets of hip-hop history are littered with feuds. This summer we got Drake vs. Meek Mill. (Drake won.) Back when he was relevant, 50 Cent swapped disses with everyone from Rick Ross to The Game. And Eminem's had beef with just about everybody - not least of all a bizarre obsession with Mariah Carey.
But sometimes the fracture is internal, which brings us to the events depicted in the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton.
On the one hand, Straight Outta Compton is your standard biopic. It's an origins story which shows us how three young men - Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E - came together to form the notorious hip-hop group NWA (Niggaz With Attitude), and how a music mogul (Jerry Heller) propelled them to superstardom. But on the other, it's a crime drama in which the crime is the siphoning off of profits from the band's considerable income, and the accused is Heller himself.
This element of intrigue adds another layer to what could otherwise have been a fairly unremarkable biopic - and not surprisingly, events as depicted in the movie have been pretty strongly contested by the man himself.
The film doesn't waste much time in setting out its heroes and its villains. Ice Cube is depicted as leaving after discovering Heller had manipulated the group's contracts to ensure Eazy-E was paid a far bigger share of the band's profits than his bandmates. Dre then breaks off to form a partnership with Suge Knight, another manipulative manager with fingers in all kinds of dodgy pies. The narrative is that Heller screwed NWA over and got rich doing so.
But is there more to the story?
The fall-out from Straight Outta Compton could be so juicy that we'll be watching another NWA film ten years from now, because Jerry Heller reckons the movie is libellous, and he's already threatening a lawsuit.
In all honesty, the story of how NWA were fractured apart is probably not as black and white as the film would like us to believe. We know, for instance, that a hell of a lot was left out of the movie - there's a conspicuous lack of reference to the group's notorious ill treatment of women, which numerous reviewers have picked up on, suggesting the film veers somewhat into flattery of Dre and Cube. Part of that flattery is diminishing their own responsibility for the departure of Cube and the betrayal of Eazy-E by shifting the blame onto Heller, and to some extent Suge Knight, who took Dre under his wing after he bailed on the group. Basically, it's pretty convenient for Heller to be the villain of the piece.
Jerry Heller is notoriously difficult to pin down nowadays, but occasional radio interviews like the one above have given him the opportunity to tell the story as he remembers it. The film's screenwriter Andrea Berloff did not speak to Heller whilst researching and interviewing the key players in the tale. Ice Cube's son, O'Shea Jackson (who plays Cube in the movie) spoke of how "[Ice Cube] says he never thought this movie would happen, man. He’s been working close to a decade trying to get it off the ground." Given the group's involvement in the production of the film, it was never likely to be present a balanced view of events.
Perhaps we'll never know if Jerry Heller really was the villain who prised NWA apart, or the visionary who helped them become icons of hip-hop. Maybe even asking the question is missing the point - that by splitting at the height of their success, NWA's legend was cemented in history. Maybe the who screwed who doesn't matter. But whatever you do, go see Straight Outta Compton.
Is Jerry Heller victim or villain? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.