In the history of hip-hop, record labels have become just as fabled as the artist who made music with them, with Sugar Hill, Bad Boy, and Roc-A-Fella to name a few. Then, there’s Death Row Records, the label that brought West Coast Rap to the forefront and has a history that is just as notorious as it was successful, and for a time in the ‘90s, which is considered by many to be hip-hop's second golden age, the label was sitting on the throne of the hip-hop game all by itself.
As with any story, there has to be a central figure, and in the story of Death Row, that central figure is Suge Knight. But the origins of what would become Death Row didn’t begin with Knight, however. The story of one of the most successful and notorious labels in music actually begins with Andre Romelle Young, better known as Dr. Dre.
In 1986, Dre was recruited by Eazy-E to join the seminal rap group N.W.A. and its label, the upstart Ruthless Records, which was co-founded by Eazy and Jerry Heller, who would later become the group’s manager. Dre was the head of production at Ruthless, and under his leadership, the label was growing to become a force in the hip-hop world, with numerous label mates such as The D.O.C. (Tracy Lynn Curry) pumping out high-selling records.
At the height of their commercial fame, Ice Cube left N.W.A. in a dispute over royalty payments, claiming that he wasn’t being paid what he was truly worth due to the fact that he wrote half of the songs on N.W.A’s double Platinum LP Straight Outta Compton and Eazy’s debut solo project Eazy-Duz-It. Wondering if his friend was right, The D.O.C. hired an independent lawyer to read over Ruthless’ accounting books.
Finding that there was a disparity between what Ruthless was making and the royalties being paid to them, The D.O.C., along with Knight, who was his manager at the time, went to Dre, who was already becoming frustrated with Ruthless, and talked to him about forming their own label.
In 1991, Knight was able to negotiate contract releases for both Dre and The D.O.C., and that same year, the three formed Death Row Records, with Knight proclaiming to make the label “the Motown of the ‘90s,” and for a time, that actually was the case.
With a distribution deal with Interscope Records secured, Death Row was off and running, and the Dre magic that made Ruthless Records a force in the late ‘80s was having its effect on his new label. Death Row hit pay dirt right off the bat with Dre’s 1992 solo debut, The Chronic, which is considered by many to be one of the greatest hip-hop records ever recorded.
The Chronic went triple Platinum and it officially put Death Row on the map. The album also showcased a young Long Beach rapper named Snoop Dogg (Cordozar Broadus), to whom Dre and Knight signed to the label soon after the release of The Chronic. Snoop Dogg (who was known as “Snoop Doggy Dog” at the time) released his debut in 1993, and Doggystyle became another smash hit for the label, going four-times Platinum, and soon after, every major West Coast artist wanted to link up with Death Row.
But around the same time Doggystyle was released, controversy began to swirl around the label. In 1993, Snoop was charged with murder, which brought gangsta rap to the forefront with politicians denouncing the sub-genre as being a threat to law enforcement and demeaning women. Though Snoop was able to beat the charges, the controversies only grew for the label.
In 1995, there were reports that Death Row was being flooded by cronies of Knight to work security, some of whom were friends of his, others gang members fresh from prison, and off-duty LAPD cops who would later be tied up in the Rampart scandal. With the atmosphere surrounding the label becoming increasingly hostile, Dre decided to recede to the background and focus squarely on the music side of the business, which was still riding a tidal wave of smash hits, and had since become the record label for the rap genre.
That same year, Death Row’s entire roster traveled to New York City, long the epicenter of the East Coast Rap scene, and performed at the Source Awards. But when Knight went on stage to receive the Soundtrack of the Year Award, he issued this bold statement:
“Any artist out there wanna be an artist, wanna be a star without their executive producer all in the videos, all on the records, dancin’, come to Death Row!”
The comment was pointed to Bad Boy Entertainment’s owner Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, and this didn’t sit well with the audience, and when Dre went up to receive the Producer of the Year Award later in the show, he was met with boos, which led to Snoop shouting at the crowd:
“The East Coast don’t love Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg!? Y'all don’t love us!? Y'all don’t love Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg!? We know y'all East Coast! If y'all don’t love us, let it be known!”
The Source Awards was the starting point of a feud between Death Row and Bad Boy, and it only grew worse when Tupac Shukar accused Combs, along with Christopher Wallace (The Notorious B.I.G.) of knowing of a robbery that caused Shakur to be shot five times and lose thousands of dollars in valuables. Throwing even more gasoline on the flame, Bad Boy hit pay dirt with Biggie’s Ready to Die LP, which ended the West Coast dominance of the genre.
With the playing field now leveled, Knight sought to bolster his roster, and he did so in a big way by signing Shakur, who was sharing the rap crown with Biggie, to Death Row. With Tupac now aboard and with resentment to Bad Boy in his heart, he dove into the feud with gusto, releasing the diss track “Hit ‘Em Up” and rest of Death Row backed up Shakur by releasing “New York, New York,” a jab at their East Coast rivals. Death Row artist Sam Sneed was reportedly beaten up in a meeting because he had “too many East Coast artist” in his video “Lady Heroin.”
With the feud with the East Coast and Bad Boy engulfing the label, and Knight exercising greater control over the production and artists, The D.O.C. left due to the direction Death Row was taking, and Dre was beginning to step further and further away from the spotlight. He didn’t produce Tha Dogg Pound’s 1995 hit album, Dogg Food, and he wasn’t really involved at all in Shakur’s debut for the label, the mammoth All Eyez on Me, despite receiving an Executive Producer credit for the record.
Finally fed up with the violence and atmosphere surrounding Death Row, Dre left the label in 1996 and formed Aftermath Entertainment. With his co-founder gone, Knight and Death Row continued to solider on, but a fatal blow occurred on September 7, 1996, when Shakur and Knight were shot in a drive-by shooting after they left a Mike Tyson boxing match at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Shakur died six days later, and soon after, Knight was arrested for probation violation, and the next year, he was sentenced to nine years in prison.
With their leader, star producer and star hit maker gone, Death Row went into a tailspin. Interscope Records dropped the label’s distribution deal and Snoop, Nate Dogg and Kurupt all left. Although Knight was released from prison and returned to run the label in 2002, it was clear that Death Row was a shell of its former self, and on July 7, 2006, after failing to meet with creditors during his bankruptcy case, a federal judge ordered the trustee of his debt to take over the label, which was cited as being under a gross amount of mismanagement.
And just like that, the Death Row Records story came to an end.