Death Row Records
Death Row Records
Sales: $325 million (1997 est.)
SICs: 6794 Patent Owners and Lessors
Death Row Records, a private company established in 1992, is one of the most lucrative rap labels in the music industry. Since its inception the company has produced several multiplatinum records, grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, and has become the driving force behind the popularization and commercial success of gangsta’ rap music. In an industry known for its distinct personalities and eccentricities, Death Row Records stands out not only for its phenomenal financial success but for the label’s well publicized confrontations and legal battles.
Death Row was conceived and founded by Marion Knight, a former professional football player known to all in the music industry as “Suge.” Raised in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton by parents who were both musically and athletically inclined, Knight parlayed his early talent as a football player into a full scholarship at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and, later, a brief career with the Los Angeles Rams. After retiring from football, Knight became a bodyguard, working security for Los Angeles rap concerts as well as for R & B singer Bobby Brown, and thus developed business connections throughout the rap music industry. In 1990 Knight met the producer and rapper Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, at that time under contract to Ruthless Records, and together the two formed a partnership (initially funded in part by Sony and Solar Records), which eventually became Death Row.
Soon after the creation of Death Row, the company struck a distribution deal with Interscope, a relatively new record company which had made a name for itself through its willingness to support and distribute obscure or controversial bands. Inter-scope, headed up by James lovine and the financial magnate Ted Field, was partly owned and financed by Warner Music Group, a division of Time Warner, and thus gave Death Row the financial clout necessary for a successful debut.
The Commercial Success of Gangsta Rap
In 1992 Death Row released its first effort, an album entitled “The Chronic,” which was written and produced by Dr. Dre. Dre was regarded as one of the most gifted producers in the business; his involvement with Death Row’s first project therefore gave the label an unusually high level of marketability. “The Chronic” proved to be an immediate commercial and critical success, remaining on Billboard’s Top Ten for over eight months, and established Death Row as a leading and innovative force in the rap music industry.
In the early 1990’s the commercial viability of gangsta’ rap was still unknown. Though the mid-1980s had seen the popularization of rap, with such groups as Public Enemy, Run D.M.C., and LL Cool J selling millions of albums, the genre thus far had been essentially viewed as a new form of dance music, with antecedents in the soul and funk sounds of the 1970s. Gangsta’ rap, however, with its explicit lyrics and overtly subversive edge, was a subgenre of rap, the willfully controversial nature of which promised to be an inherent risk to large music labels. At the time of Death Row’s creation, the only successful gangsta’ rap album had been N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton,” the lyrics of which had ignited a flurry of political controversy and public outrage. However marketable gangsta’ rap appeared to executives in the industry, it could also be seen that with sales came scandal for which publicly held companies had to answer. Death Row, after its release of “The Chronic,” proved not only its willingness to take a risk where other companies refused, but also that the notoriety of gangsta’ rap’s lyrics translated into huge profits.
In November 1993 Death Row released “DoggyStyle,” an album by the rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, which debuted at number one on Billboard’s Top Ten and which eventually sold over four million copies. During this period as well Death Row’s music videos began to receive regular rotation on television’s MTV, an occurrence previously unheard of for rap videos, and which greatly increased gangsta’ rap’s exposure to a large audience. Pop radio stations as well began to play Death Row singles from Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre, thereby boosting the label’s sales and making gangsta’ rap’s stars recognizable to a broader consumer base.
For all its sudden success, however, the label was also besieged by legal troubles. The same year in which “Doggy-Style” was produced, Snoop Doggy Dogg was arrested and charged with the murder of a man in Compton. The previous year Death Row’s CEO, Marion Knight, was put on probation for a widely publicized assault on two singers. Moreover, in 1994, Knight received federal probation for an illegal weapons charge. When the daughter of the Los Angeles District Attorney who had brokered the federal probation deal with Knight was signed to a recording contract with Death Row, becoming the company’s only white artist, further controversy surrounded the label.
By 1995 Death Row was the largest rap label in the industry, eclipsing in sales both its East Coast competitor Def Jam Recordings and other, longer-established West Coast labels. Gangsta’ rap had become the most popular and marketable form of contemporary music for both black and white audiences, with its albums consistently achieving multiplatinum status and selling millions of copies. However, as gangsta’ rap’s popularity grew, so did the public protest against what was perceived as that music’s blatant encouragement of drug use and violence. Gangsta’ rap, and the industry executives and artists who produced it, became the subject of a very public political debate.
In the fall of 1995 Death Row was engaged in preparing an album called “Dogg Food” by the group Tha Dogg Pound which was being marketed as containing particularly prurient and violent lyrics. During the time in which “Dogg Food” was set to be released, a Washington-based political group called the National Political Congress of Black Women (NPCBW) launched a public protest against gangsta’ rap and the genre’s artists and producers. C. Delores Tucker, the leader of NPCBW, attempted to block the release of “Dogg Food” by publicly revealing that Time Warner, a company which previously had attempted to distance itself from controversial music, was through its financial involvement with Interscope indirectly supporting the production of gangsta’ rap. Tucker appeared at a press conference in August of that year to condemn the pernicious effects of gangsta’ rap, and she specifically singled out Death Row and Time Warner as exerting a negative influence over young people.
Though “Dogg Food” was eventually released, and grossed over $100 million in sales, Tucker’s efforts were not without effect: the undesired publicity brought on by her campaign caused Time Warner to jettison its 50 percent ownership of Interscope, thus leaving Death Row’s distributor without necessary financial backing. Several months later, however, Interscope sold Time Warner’s former shares to Seagram’s Universal Records at a profit of $150 million.
Only three years after its creation, Death Row’s roster included both Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg, two of the most successful rap artists in the industry. Added to that list in the fall of 1995 was a gifted singer/songwriter named Tupac Shakur. Despite the commercial success of his albums, Shakur had made himself unpopular with industry executives, given his extensive criminal record, which included the shooting of two police officers and charges of assault. When Death Row signed Shakur to the label, the singer was serving out a jail sentence for sexual assault, and part of Shakur’s contract included the payment of over $1,000,000 for his bail. The label’s investment paid off: early in 1996 Shakur recorded the album “All Eyez on Me,” which within one week of its release sold 500,000 copies and would eventually sell over seven million copies.
Shakur’s success with Death Row, however, was short-lived. On September 7, 1996 Shakur and Knight were attending a boxing match between Mike Tyson and Bruce Seldon in Las Vegas. After the match the two men got into a fist fight with reputed gang members in the lobby of the MGM Grand. Later that evening, Shakur was fatally shot while riding in Knight’s car.
Important Players Leave the Label
The events of that evening created more problems for Death Row than the loss of its top-selling artist. Knight, who had been on probation for assault, was arrested for his role in the fight at the MGM Grand. In February 1997, after a short but highly publicized trial, Knight’s probation was revoked, and he was sentenced to nine years of prison in the California state penitentiary.
From the beginning of the company’s creation, Death Row had been dominated and shaped by Knight. According to Lynn Hirschberg, writing in The New York Times, Knight “was on top of everything at Death Row—from choosing artwork, promotional materials, singles and the track for the B side, to hiring the video director.” As California law forbids an inmate from running a business from prison, upon Knight’s incarceration, Death Row was left without one of its most vital players.
More losses ensued as in March 1996 Dr. Dre had creative differences with Knight and left Death Row to establish his own label. Nevertheless, even while the company experienced internal conflict and legal turmoil, it grossed $75 million in profit by year’s end.
In 1997 Death Row’s legal problems mounted. With Knight in prison and Death Row’s long time general manager Norris Anderson acting as CEO in his stead, federal authorities launched a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) investigation into Death Row’s history and business practices. At issue were questions of the label’s reputed connection to street gangs and Knight’s alleged relationship with a convicted drug dealer. Subpoenas were issued to 15 companies that had ties to the label.
Among the subpoenaed was Solar Records, the company which had helped in the initial funding of Death Row, and which several months earlier had filed suit against the label, claiming they had never received compensation for their involvement in the production of “The Chronic.” Also during this time, the Shakur estate filed a $150 million suit against Death Row, demanding back payment in royalties and the return of Shakur’s master recordings, of which Death Row claimed ownership. The case was later settled out of court, with Shakur’s masters being returned to his estate.
The first album Death Row released after Knight’s imprisonment was by female rap singer Lady of Rage. The album, called “Necessary Roughness,” did not sell well and created some question as to the viability of Death Row operating successfully without Knight at the helm. With the death of Shakur and the departure of Dr. Dre, there was tremendous pressure on the label to produce marketable artists. Though a posthumous release from Shakur, as well as Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Tha Doggfather,” each premiered at No. 1 on Billboard’s chart, Death Row’s roster was less promising in 1997 than it had been the previous year. To add to the label’s trouble, its last highly successful crossover singer, Snoop Doggy Dogg, left Death Row in January 1998, leaving the company with only a handful of bankable acts.
New Directions for the Future
Ultimately, Death Row’s controversies proved to present too much of a risk to Seagram’s Universal Records, which owned 50 percent of Interscope. Several months after Knight went to jail, Interscope, bending to pressure from Universal, ended its distribution deal with Death Row, marking the first time in the company’s history in which the latter’s records had no permanent distributor. Death Row began developing distribution deals with other companies on a record by record basis; Shakur’s posthumously released soundtrack to the film “Gang Related,” for instance, was distributed by Priority Records, a company known for its readiness to distribute and promote material deemed undesirable or too risky by other labels.
Though Death Row was embroiled in conflicts both legal and political, the label’s sales continued to climb. In 1997 alone, Death Row saw sales of $325 million, an increase of 225 percent. Moreover, the company has made efforts to branch out into more traditional, and less conspicuous, forms of pop music, such as R & B and soul, evidenced by the label’s contract with the soul and jazz singer Danny Boy.
In August 1998 the California Court of Appeals approved a new hearing for Knight, giving rise to hopes that the CEO would be released from prison before serving out his full term. Still, the controversy surrounding the company’s relatively brief history has prompted speculation about Death Row’s future. Neil Strauss, writing in the New York Times, suggested that “Since a record label has few assets beyond its executives, its acts, and its distribution arrangements, the losses suffered by Death Row have raised serious questions about its future.” Much would depend on its leadership.
Hirschberg, Lynn, “Does a Sugar Bear Bite?,” New York Times Sunday Magazine, January 14, 1996, pp. 26-57.
Morris, Chris, “Grand Jury Looking into Death Row,” Billboard, March 8, 1997, pp. 6-8.
_____, “Knight Sentenced to Nine Years; Impact on Death Row Uncertain,” Billboard, March 15, 1997, pp. 12-14.
_____, “New Questions over Funding of Death Row,” Billboard. September 13, 1997. pp. 5-7.
Nelson, Havelock, “Upbeat Year for Rap, Despite Legal Matters,” Billboard, December 28, 1996, pp. 31-34.
Ro, Ronin, Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records, New York: Doubleday, 1998.
Strauss, Neil, “Rap Empire Unraveling as Stars Flee,” New York Times, January 26, 1998, pp. 2-7.