It won’t come as a surprise for you to know that I’ve never been to a Death Row Records party, but I can imagine what it would have been like. The venerable rap label, started by endlessly incarcerated Suge Knight and hip-hop legend Dr. Dre, played a major role, if not the biggest part, in gangsta rap’s popularity. It’s no secret that guns, drugs and dubious characters played a big role in the label’s success — and downfall — so a night out with the likes of Tupac, Snoop and Knight would have been wild to say the least.
It should be a different story tonight, when Death Row’s new parent company, Toronto’s WIDEawake Entertainment, unveils its new 6,000-square-foot multimedia studio in the trendy Liberty Village neighbourhood. There will likely be no old Death Row artists, corrupt cops, or former inmates at this shindig, only lawyers, media and business types.
The new Death Row, run by Lara Lavi, a self-proclaimed Jewish soccer mom, is about as far from gangsta as the label can get. It’s still mired in controversy, but it’s more of the white-collar variety (Lavi’s suing WIDEawake for trying to dump her, Dre is suing Death Row for re-issuing The Chronic without his permission). Still, former Death Row engineer and now label president John Payne, said, in an interview with 411mania.com, he hopes to put out new music and continue to release songs from its back catalogue.
But, I have to ask, what’s the point? Names like Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg are still big moneymakers, and the label’s publishing assets are in the millions, but without the violence, drugs and the controversial leader, the Death Row brand isn’t nearly as strong as it once was.
“I don’t know if there will ever be the same street appeal for that label again,” says Jake Brown, author of The Rise and Fall of Death Row Records.
Brown adds that even the label’s hope that rap fans will keep coming to the Tupac well over and over again may be misguided. “Most of those masters have either been repackaged or remixed,” he says. “And Tupac fans, who have been an extraordinarily loyal consumer base, already bought those records.”
The only way the label can rise from the ashes and regain its cred is by installing a name figurehead as president — like Priority Records did when it made Snoop Dogg its “creative chairman.”
It also needs to sort out its legal issues, something they may be able to do better than Knight — but with a rising debt of about $25 million — WIDEawake could sell the label before it really gets off the ground.
Whatever happens to this once powerful music machine, Brown says Knight let go of the label a long time ago. “He’s over all of it,” says the author. “The guy’s seen so much in life that nothing shocks him.”
Bryan Borzykowski is a business and entertainment writer. Follow Metro Music on Twitter @TheMetroMusic