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The State

Death Row's Empire Mostly Just a Memory

Now known as Tha Row, Marion 'Suge' Knight's label is struggling to rebuild itself.

November 15, 2002|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

In two weeks, the most promising music project of 2002 that bears the name of Marion "Suge" Knight will hit record stores. But the album with the bittersweet title "Better Dayz" is the leftover work of a dead man, and will do very little to rebuild the fading empire that once was Death Row Records.

"Better Dayz" is the latest collection of unreleased Tupac Shakur music and Knight is credited as executive producer, but sources involved say his role in the project was minimal, unlike the glory days when he had his hand in most every aspect of his label's music. The roster of stars he has now is largely unproven, and Knight these days is generating far more interest from police detectives than music fans.

At the height of its powers, Death Row Records (now known, more simply, as Tha Row) was pulling in $100 million a year and proving that hard-core rap could power a hit machine in pop music. The cigar-chomping Knight, a 320-pound repeat felon in heaps of jewelry, was the center of it all, a Capone-like figure of intimidation and dark charisma who had a stable of stars with Shakur, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 16, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 11 inches; 415 words Type of Material: Correction
Death Row Records -- A chronology accompanying a story on Death Row Records in Friday's A section mistakenly said that record producer Delmar "Daz" Arnaud was killed in a 1999 attack outside an Atwater Village recording studio. Arnaud reportedly was at the studio at the time, but was not involved in the shooting.

Knight's talent was taking edgy urban music and selling it widely, and his successes with Death Row set the stage for today's mainstream embrace of rap, most evident at the moment in the reign of "8 Mile" as America's top-grossing movie. The path between Knight and Eminem runs through Dre, the Death Row defector who has mentored Eminem's career.

The flip side of the Death Row story is the violence that was the company's trademark in both lyric and life. With the police search Thursday of Knight's office, once again, the so-called "most dangerous man in the music business" finds his name linked to a violent crime investigation.

In the past, the unsavory aspects of Knight's reputation were bundled with his career success, but now his label's future is uncertain. His biggest stars are gone and, though he has some of their unreleased material to tap, his fortunes will be decided by his long-term ability to find new talent and rehabilitate his relationship with industry players.

"Clearly, he is someone who knows how the business works and definitely knows how to build a success," said Violet Brown, the urban music buyer for the Wherehouse chain, Thursday. "He's shown that before."

The 38-year-old Knight grew up in Compton as the son of a janitor and made a name for himself on the high school football field and then as a defensive end at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. His pro football aspirations fizzled and instead he became a bodyguard for R&B singer Bobby Brown. From that vantage he became mesmerized by the music business and, in 1990, he started his own song publishing company and promoted local rap shows.

Two years later, Death Row, in alliance with Interscope Records, debuted with the hugely successful album "The Chronic." Dre, a founding member of the pivotal rap group N.W.A, was a familiar face from Knight's youth in Compton but he was already under contract to another label, Ruthless Records. In an episode that became part of Death Row lore, Knight allegedly freed Dre from that contract by making a menacing visit to the Ruthless offices of Eric "Eazy E" Wright with some friends, pipes and bats in hand. Knight has denied that account from Wright's lawsuit against Knight and Dre. The suit was settled in 1993.

The defining rap label before the arrival of Death Row in 1992 was Def Jam Recordings, which had East Coast stars such as Run-DMC, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. Death Row's music and spirit were dramatically different -- its template of West Coast gangsta rap, shaped by N.W.A. The East Coast music had mostly been playful, but the sound from Compton and Los Angeles was proudly thuggish and graphic. Knight has kept company with the Mob Piru Bloods, the notorious street gang, and the gang's trademark red has been a design emphasis in Knight's offices and home.

The music itself would stir controversy for its bloodied themes and relentless misogyny, but it also was hugely successful as a commercial and critical force. Dre's "The Chronic" in 1992 was included on most every list of the decade's vital albums, and Snoop Dogg's loping street drawl on hits such as "Gin & Juice" made him a cartoonish rap icon. Shakur, meanwhile, was hailed as a ghetto poet and, along with Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, was cited as the lost spokesman for his generation.

"Death Row reintroduced Dre, they brought in Snoop and Shakur," Emmanuel "E-Man" Coquia said Thursday. Coquia is music director for KPWR-FM (105.9), the leading urban radio station in Los Angeles. "Their music paved the way to gangsta rap on a commercial level and that was when radio opened up to hip-hop and embraced the West Coast music. You just look at those albums. It was a great run."

While Dre and Shakur were undeniable talents, Knight was a specialist at crafting their marketing and a micro-manager in everything from their music videos to their album cover art.

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