[Read more about Jimmy Z & NWA – NWA – Straight Outta Compton… then Torrance & Westlake]
Doing some house cleaning recently, I came across this legal document signed by both Eazy E (Eric Wright) and myself, Jimmy Z (James Zavala). It is a release from my contract with Eazy’s company Ruthless Records. Back then the word on the street and in the business was that any contract with Ruthless was ironclad because of Jerry Heller’s business acumen. In other words, forget about getting out of anything you signed with Ruthless. How’d I do it? Here’s the story…
The first contract I ever read from Ruthless was so ridiculous – by asking for so much and offering so little in financial terms for me – that I signed it so hard that the pen ripped up the document. I did that on purpose. But my manager at the time, Gary Ballen, who was also a VP at Ruthless and NWA’s Tour Manager calmed me down and as politely as possible pointed out that my career was not exactly soaring. Sign the contract, write some songs with Dr Dre, and we’ll work things out. So I did. I am now very grateful for Gary’s insightful guidance and the wild ass ride we had with Eazy E, Dre, MC Ren, DJ Yella, Jerry Heller, and the colorful Ruthless family circus.
When I came on the NWA scene in 1989 Ice Cube had just left the group over financial differences with Eazy. Apparently, Cube had written a good portion of the lyrics for “Straight Outta Compton” and didn’t feel he was getting his fair share of the profits. But I’m not here to hash over NWA history – that’s common knowledge. I’m just sorry I never got to meet and hang with Ice Cube.
But I did hang with the rest of the fellas fairly often in the studio, restaurants, and the LA club scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
And they were fun! One of Eazy’s favorite things to do was get all of NWA and the whole Ruthless gang of artists, secretaries, bodyguards (Animal, Big Mike) and, of course, Jerry Heller & Gary Ballen, and have us meet at Gladstone’s in Pacific Palisades on PCH looking over the ocean. Eazy said to order whatever we want. That crew could chow down on some enormous quantities of lobster and shrimp. Not to mention the almost nonstop delivery of Gin ‘n Juice and Long Island Ice Teas. Amazing we made it out of there standing and got home alive. But the point is the normality of it all. The most notorious rap artists on the planet behaving just like normal people anywhere else in the world going out to dinner with some friends.
Another time, we’d gone to a restaurant in West Hollywood and Eazy and Jerry hired the biggest damn limo I’d ever seen. All of us, Eazy, Jerry, Dre, Ren, Yella, Gary, Animal and Big Mike piled in and did a club crawl. At one point we end up in front of the infamous China Club, which was raging at that time and coincidently where I first met Eazy and Dre.
We pull up and the big doorman peeks his head in and upon realizing who’s in the car says he has to check with his boss to see if it’s OK to let the notorious NWA in their club. He kinda gives me a double take as he recognizes me because I played their often with my band and also the China Club Jam Band. I nodded back. As we’re waiting, everyone is speculating if they’ll let us in because they were NWA. He comes back and is leaning in the window and says it’s all right for everybody to come if they ain’t packing a piece. And then he points at me and says everybody but him. Jimmy Z can’t come in unless you keep an eye on him with your bodyguards and guarantee he doesn’t make any trouble. Everyone whips around to look at me saying, “Z!! WTF!!! ”
OK, here’s the deal. As I said, I played there a lot. A bartender working there and I got into it one night. I think his name was Bobby. Anyway, once after one of my shows he left me hanging in the hallway outside the locked dressing room door with two saxes in my hand and he wouldn’t come over to let me in. The VIP room downstairs was right next to the dressing room door and after a show, everybody would stampede downstairs where the celebrity action was. I was yelling at the fuck to let me in but it was too late as all these people are nearly knocking me and my horns over. Later I went to have a word with him and he got kinda mouthy with me so I jumped over the bar and slapped him around a bit. Nothing serious.
It was fairly humorous to all of us that out of everyone there, considering who was in the limo, it was me that was the “dangerous” one. We all pile out and they even let me in the club. I think I gained some street cred that night.
A lot of times this would be the time Eazy or Dre would say they needed me in the studio the next day. In this way I ended up playing on the last two NWA records “100 Miles And Runnin'” and “Efil4zaggin” (Niggaz4Life spelled backwards). As I write this I’m looking at a Gold Record for “100 Miles” and a Platinum for “Efil4zaggin” hanging on my wall.
I spent a lot of time with Dre and Eazy in the studio before we started work on my solo record, “Muzical Madness” (you can read more about that adventure, here). Eazy also called one day to have me go to a studio in the Valley to record with one of his new groups Bone, Thugs And Harmony. A Ruthless session was like no other.
When I showed up for the BT&H session one of the brothers, I think maybe Crazy Bone was there in charge. He was just getting ready to leave to go look at a huge boat in Marina Del Rey that he was thinking of buying. He had photos and literature on the boat laid out. We were way out in the Valley so I asked if they wanted to do the session at another time and he said no. Just go ahead and record some harmonica and we’ll listen later. I thought they were nuts. So the engineer and me did the session on our own. That song ended up being a #1 hit called “Ghetto Cowboy.” Go figure. Ruthless Life.
During the making of my record “Muzical Madness” with Dr Dre producing and Eazy E as Executive Producer, a notorious presence became familiar in the studio. Suge Knight. After Suge got his claws in Dre things started going south. I think if Eazy would’ve cut Dre a better production deal things might have turned out different. But as we all know that didn’t happen and when we were mixing my album the shit blew up. Lawyers getting threatened at gunpoint to release contracts, Eazy supposedly being kidnapped by Suge with baseball bats. At the Ruthless office security cameras and electronic locks were installed. It literally became an armed camp or maybe I should a more heavily fortified armed camp.
Dre said he’d be gone a couple weeks but we never worked together again after close to three solid years together. Too bad.There was never any bad blood between Dre and me. I was just on the wrong side from Dre’s view point. I was with Eazy, Jerry and Gary. I really liked Dre and we laughed our asses off all the time in the studio. Plus our birthdays were really close as we are both Aquarians. Sometimes his mother would drop by the studio and he was the model son, making sure she was comfortable or needed anything to eat or drink. She was a very elegant, quiet woman.
As things deteriorated between Eazy and Dre my record was released. Time Warner had let us use their private jet to go make an appearance at the WEA Convention in Chicago. A really big deal. Dre was supposed to rap to our new single “Funky Flute” (watch the video, here) and I was to sing and play flute and harmonica on some other songs. We were to rap, sing, and play LIVE over a backing DAT tape.
Unfortunately, Dre never made the trip. Eazy E, three dancers, Big Mike doing security and rapping in place of Dre, Jerry Heller, Gary Ballen, Animal (my personal security) and Lacy the choreographer flew out of Van Nuys airport on this tricked out Gulfstream lV jet headed for Chicago. We played to around 3000 industry types packed into a hotel ballroom. Sitting at the front table right in front of the stage was Atlantic legend Ahmet Ertegun, promoter Bill Graham, Atlantic President Doug Morris along with Jerry Heller. Just a little bit of pressure.
We did OK. But if Dre had been there it would have really torn the roof off the sucka. What saved us is my demand that I play harp, flute and sing live. Our last song was called “Reeperbon” about the Red Light district in Hamburg. I sing and play harp on it with a long solo at the end. I tore it up on that solo and brought the house down with that one.
Eazy and Jerry were ecstatic. Jerry said Ahmet wanted to come backstage and talk to me. I was on cloud nine. Ahmet fucking Ertegun!! Responsible for so much great music from Ray Charles (Mess Around) to the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Aretha, Cream and the list goes on and on.
Ahmet and Bill Graham and the rest came backstage and Ahmet says to me, “Jimmy I just want you to promise me one thing. When you’re a superstar you will still have a drink with me.” I said, “On one condition. That I buy.” We had a good laugh and life was looking pretty good that night. I never got a chance to buy Ahmet that drink. That ship sailed a long time ago, but I was honored to have met Mr. Ertegun. And especially to have been able to play one of my best performances live in front of him and then for us to hang out a bit in Chicago. What a classy, nice guy. RIP Ahmet.
We came back from that trip stoked. The single “Funky Flute” was being added to radio stations all across America. I was doing interviews and making appearances. We were on our way. Then after six months RCA merged with my label ATCO and all the people in the LA office were fired. We were dead in the water. Six months later I was dropped from the label.
By 1993 the rift between Eazy and Dre was getting really bad. They were talking trash to each other on their records and videos. It was ugly.
I had started working back in the rock world and ran into a producer named Dana Strum who wanted to produce some songs for me. He was also the bassist in a group called Slaughter. When he heard of my contract with Ruthless it stopped everything so I had to do something fast.
I asked Jerry Heller about getting out of the contract and he said go talk to the boss. Eazy.
So I did. We were in his office and I explained how I had an opportunity but I needed to get out of my contract with Ruthless. He looked at me and said, “It’s cool Jimmy. No problem. I’ll have Ira (his attorney) draw up the papers.”
Just like that. I’m out of my contract that had promised that I was to deliver something like ten records.
That was so like Eazy E. A man of few words but he meant what he said. I was free to go. We then smoked a fat one.