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Future Is Cloudy at Death Row : Shakur's Passing Adds to Woes for Troubled Label

September 14, 1996|ROBERT HILBURN and CHEO HODARI COKER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The death Friday of rapper Tupac Shakur following a shooting last weekend in Las Vegas is the most dramatic incident to befall Death Row Records, pop music's most successful and controversial rap label. Shakur's death follows the departure in March of Dr. Dre (Andre Young), the producer credited with forging the label's distinctive sound.

These twin blows have raised questions in the industry about the future of the Beverly Hills-based label--a company that has seemingly become a victim of the volatility that marked its controversial rise to the top of the multimillion-dollar rap world.

Record labels often have had to overcome major talent losses--whether seeing best-selling artists die tragically or dealing with artists jumping to rival labels.

But there are circumstances involved with Death Row that make its situation unique--specifically a series of violent real-life incidents, now including Shakur's death. The rapper was shot last Saturday as he was riding in a car being driven by Death Row co-founder and president Marion "Suge" Knight.

"There is a potential crisis at Death Row," one music industry executive said Friday, before news of Shakur's death was announced. "The danger is the talent pool. Can a relatively small label afford to lose such major players as Dr. Dre and Tupac? Also, will they be able to still attract new talent? Or will artists prefer to go somewhere else, concerned about the drama at Death Row?"

But other industry observers think that the real question, more than talent, may be the ability of the company to retain its creative focus in the midst of such continuing real-life tension.

"To me, it all boils down to this: Can they take the pressure?" another executive said. "Death Row appears to have an incredible arsenal of talent, including producers and rappers who have spent invaluable time in the studio with Dre . . . learning from a master. But can they take the turmoil?

"It's hard enough to compete when you have all your energy pointed in a single direction, but it's doubly hard when you are being pulled all over the place by drama, the media and public scrutiny."

Most observers contacted said Death Row likely will continue to attract new talent.

"The perception among African American males from the ghetto is that Suge takes care of his own . . . that his word is his bond," said one music industry figure. "They see in him a big brother figure.

"If you grow up on the streets and go into a major record label, it's a whole different social world, whether you are dealing with a white face or a black face."

Another executive on Friday said: "The perception to a young black kid from the streets is that [Knight] is a guy who has cut through the white machinery. Death Row fits the bill . . . the company is revolutionary and bold . . . far bolder than any other rap label ever."

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The first major blow to Death Row was the exit in March of Dr. Dre, who is widely viewed as the most creative figure in rap. The 31-year-old producer's recordings have generated more than $250 million in record sales, including the production of such hits as Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Gin 'N' Juice" and Shakur's "California Love."

Following months of tension over the creative direction of Death Row, Dre decided to give up his ownership in the company for what he has called a "comfortable" settlement.

Dre has also expressed his growing disenchantment with the "gangsta" rap movement, on which Death Row built its fortune and reputation.

"Many times, there have been intimidating people in the industry," said an East Coast executive. "It happens in rock as well as everywhere else, but it's not as obvious, it's not as glorified. At the MTV [Video Music] Awards last week, you could see these [Death Row Records] guys walking in like they were King Tut.

"Everybody else, including label heads, just waited in line, but these guys just walked right down the aisle. The only thing that worries me is if the [shooting] makes Tupac bigger, then there's a danger of escalating of the attitude in the field."

Ultimately, Death Row's notoriety could strain its business relationships, including its ties to industry giant MCA Inc., which owns half of Interscope Records, the distributor of Death Row.

One senior MCA executive, however, said that the company has no plans to change its deal with Interscope. But, the executive added, MCA officials are clearly unnerved by the week's developments.

"Obviously we're concerned. Guys are getting shot at," the executive said.

Death Row, Interscope and MCA Music Entertainment Group declined comment for this story.

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