8200 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90211
Telephone: (323) 852-5000
Fax: (323) 852-5029
Incorporated: 1992 as Death Row Records
Sales: $33 million (2004 est.)
NAIC: 512210 Record Production
1992: Rap producer Dr. Dre and Marion "Suge" Knight form Death Row Records.
1993: Snoop Dogg's album Doggystyle is released, and enters the charts at number one.
1996: Dr. Dre leaves the label; Tupac Shakur's album tops the charts; Shakur is killed.
1997: Suge Knight is sentenced to nine years in prison for parole violation.
1998: Snoop Dogg and several other artists leave the label; distribution is shifted from Interscope to Priority Records.
2001: Knight is released from prison; the firm is renamed Tha Row Records.
2002: Following an investigation by the FBI and Los Angeles police, Tha Row agrees to pay back taxes and a fine of $100,000.
2004: Tha Row releases its first all-new recording since 1996.
Tha Row Records specializes in rap music. Originally known as Death Row Records, the firm continues to use that name on its recordings. Death Row once had major hits with artists including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac Shakur, but after the departures of Dre and Dogg and the murder of Shakur, as well as CEO Marion "Suge" Knight's lengthy prison stay, the company lost much of its momentum. Since his release in 2001, Knight has vowed to return the label to prominence through new releases by such artists as Kurupt. Tha Row also releases videos through its Suge Knight Films, Inc. subsidiary.
Tha Row Records was founded in Los Angeles in 1992 by successful rap music producer Dr. Dre (Andre Young), of the popular group N.W.A., and Marion "Suge" Knight. Knight, born in the L.A. suburb of Compton, had gotten his nickname from being called "Sugar Bear" as a child. Reputedly a member of the Bloods street gang, Knight had played football for the University of Nevada and then tried out for the Los Angeles Rams. The 6-foot 3-inch, 315-pound Knight began working as a bodyguard for rhythm and blues singers including Bobby Brown, then became a music promoter before publishing white rapper Vanilla Ice's lone hit "Ice Ice Baby."
After starting out as Future Shock Records, the company took the more ominous name of Death Row, with a logo depicting a man strapped to an electric chair. CEO Knight reportedly liked the new name because many of the label's artists had been in trouble with the law. Funding for the endeavor came in part from Interscope Records, which would handle distribution. Before starting work with the label, Dr. Dre was released from his contract with Ruthless Records, allegedly after Knight threatened N.W.A. founder Eric "Eazy E" Wright with bodily harm. A lawsuit filed by Wright was later settled out of court by Knight, who admitted no wrongdoing.
Death Row's first release, in December 1992, was Dr. Dre's solo album The Chronic, which featured vocals from guests including Snoop Doggy Dogg, Nate Dogg, Kurupt, and Daz. It quickly became a major hit, and the following September the label's second album, Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle, entered the Billboard charts at number one and sold four million copies. Just prior to the album's release, Dogg (birth name Calvin Broadus) had been involved in a shooting incident in which a gang member was killed, and the ensuing media attention helped boost sales. After several years and a reported $2.5 million in lawyer's fees, the rapper was ultimately exonerated.
The label's chosen name, and its artists' troubled lives, mirrored the type of music in which it specialized, known as "gangsta rap." Whereas earlier forms of rap often had celebrated party life or uninhibited sexuality, gangsta rap featured songs with highly graphic lyrics about violent street life. Although popular among the young in the urban, mainly black communities from which the artists came, gangsta rap was increasingly embraced by suburban whites who apparently enjoyed fantasizing about a lifestyle of guns, money, and women.
In 1994 Death Row released two new albums, both movie soundtracks featuring rap songs. The label's hits were now filling the coffers of distributor Interscope, which was partly owned by Time Warner. Due to controversy over the lyrical content of 1995 Death Row release Dogg Food by Tha Dogg Pound, Time Warner sold its stake in Interscope under pressure from stockholders.
In 1995 future Death Row artist Tupac Shakur and company CEO Suge Knight were sentenced to jail time (4
1996: Tupac Shakur's Death Row Debut
In 1996 Shakur's first Death Row record, All Eyez on Me, was released. The double album quickly became a bestseller and boosted the stature of both Shakur and the label. In its first four years of business, Death Row had sold 18 million albums worth more than $325 million at retail. Its annual revenues were pegged at approximately $100 million. The company, which had thus far been exclusively tied to the Los Angeles area, was now reportedly laying plans for an East Coast division.
In the summer of 1996, cofounder Dr. Dre parted ways with the firm. He had apparently grown tired of both the negativity and the stylistic limitations of the gangsta rap genre. Leaving his master tapes and publishing rights with Death Row, he formed a new company, Aftermath Entertainment, to release his projects. Dre would later have major success with artists like the white rapper Eminem.
On September 7, 1996, at a Las Vegas intersection, a gunman opened fire on a vehicle driven by Suge Knight, hitting both Knight and passenger Tupac Shakur. Although the Death Row CEO was only grazed by a bullet, Shakur was hit four times, and he died a week later. The next month, Knight was jailed for violating parole, having allegedly participated in beating the man who, some said, had later shot him and Shakur. In the midst of this turmoil, the label was preparing for the release of new product, and four albums came out before year's end, including new titles from both Shakur and Snoop Dogg.
In February 1997, Knight was sentenced to nine years in prison for violating his parole. After being imprisoned, he was barred from running the label, and half of its staff was laid off. Knight's brother-in-law, Norris Anderson, was given initial control of the firm, before more experienced management personnel were brought in. Numerous lawsuits were now swirling around Death Row, including several claiming underpaid royalties or unpaid bills. Another suit had been filed by relatives of a man stomped to death at a Death Row event in 1995, which was later settled out of court.
In March 1997 East Coast rapper Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace) was murdered in Los Angeles, which brought a feud between East and West Coast rappers (already aggravated by threatening lyrics on their albums) to fever pitch. Some speculated that the killing had been in retaliation for the still unsolved murder of Tupac Shakur, and Knight was later investigated for possible involvement, but he was not charged.
In January 1998 Interscope dropped Death Row from its distribution roster under pressure from new co-owner Seagrams, but the company soon found another distributor in Priority Records. The year after Knight's incarceration saw several artists defect, including Snoop Dogg, Daz Dillinger, and old-school rapper MC Hammer. The handful of new albums released made little headway, with the exception of the fall release 2Pac Greatest Hits, a double album that would become Death Row's best seller to date.
In 1999 Daz Dillinger returned to Death Row for releases under the DPG Records imprint, but in October he and a bodyguard were shot and killed in a Los Angeles recording studio. Another Death Row rapper, Javon Jones, was wounded. Several more artists left the label during the year, including Rage and Chocolate Bandit. Releases included another featuring posthumous Shakur material, Still I Rise, credited to Tupac and the Outlaws.
Activity for 2000 was slow, with an exclusive license for audio downloads signed with Musicmaker.com in March, and two albums released in October, including one of unreleased Snoop Dogg material, Dead Man Walkin'. The following year brought another compilation of unissued Tupac material, Until The End of Time, and a Dogg Pound album. The label's distribution arrangement with Priority lapsed in 2001, and the firm signed a new agreement with a smaller independent company, DNA, to release remastered, enhanced versions of 16 Death Row albums.
Also in 2001, Death Row's video unit, Suge Knight Films, prepared for the release of J. Lo Uncut: The Real Story, which purportedly contained home-video sex footage of actress/singer Jennifer Lopez (the then girlfriend of Knight rival Sean "Puff Daddy"/"P. Diddy" Combs). Legal action ensued, and Lopez successfully blocked the release, whereupon a Death Row spokesman admitted that no sex tape actually existed. Suge Knight Films already had released several direct-to-video titles including the documentary Welcome to Death Row.
August 2001: The Return of Suge Knight
In August 2001, Suge Knight was released from prison, having served slightly more than half of his nine-year sentence. Although he had been banned from running the label from jail, his presence was still strongly felt, and upon release he vowed to restore Death Row to its former luster. He also announced that the label would henceforth be known as Tha Row, and would broaden its scope to include Rhythm and Blues artists. Knight later signed with a talent agency, hoping to pursue film roles and write an autobiography.
In January 2002 a joint investigation of Tha Row by the FBI, Los Angeles police, and other agencies ended with the company agreeing to pay a fine of $100,000 and back taxes. Rumors of drug money laundering and murder had been investigated, but Knight and the label were not charged. In November, police raided Knight's home and offices, arresting three of his associates in connection with another murder investigation, but they were later released. Knight's legal troubles were mounting, and included a multitude of lawsuits, claims of unpaid child support from his ex-wife, and a reported $6 million in back taxes sought by the Internal Revenue Service. Clear Channel Outdoors, Inc. was also seeking damages from Death Row because the label had used a Clear Channel billboard atop its headquarters without permission. The sign, which advertised a Crooked I album, generated complaints from some passersby, but Death Row had refused to take it down or give Clear Channel workers access to the roof.
In 2003 Knight was jailed twice for parole violations, the second time for punching a parking lot attendant, for which he was sentenced to ten months in jail. In early 2004 Death Row also was ordered to pay $162,000 to a man who had been beaten by the firm's security guards in a recording studio. The label countered that the altercation had begun after the man brandished a gun.
In the summer of 2004 Tha Row released its first all-new recording since 1996, Against Tha Grain by Dogg Pound cofounder Kurupt. A hits compilation, The Best of Death Row, was slated for release in early 2005. Artists on the label at this time included Kurupt, Danny Boy, Eastwood, Michel'le, Crooked I, Virginya Slim, and Gail Gotti. Tha Row now claimed to have sold more than 50 million albums worldwide since its inception, accounting for $750 million in retail sales.
Although Tha Row Records had once been the leading label for "gangsta rap" music, it had fallen victim to the same kinds of violence and legal problems that were portrayed in its artists' songs. CEO Marion "Suge" Knight was still a force within the industry, however, and he vowed to restore the label to prominence with new releases by artists including Kurupt.
Principal Subsidiaries: Suge Knight Films, Inc.
Principal Competitors: Interscope Records; The Island Def Jam Group; Tommy Boy Music; Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment Group; TVT Records.
- Bing, Jonathan, "New Life for Death Row," Daily Variety, June 10, 2002, p. 1.
- "Escaping Death Row," OC Weekly, January 29, 1999, p. 22.
- Gumbel, Andrew, "Guns 'N' Poses: Marion 'Suge' Knight Is the Biggest, Baddest Man in Gangsta Rap," Independent (London), August 9, 2001, p. 1.
- ------, "Rap Label Boss Cuts a Deal to End Criminal Inquiry," Independent (London), January 10, 2002, p. 12.
- Harrington, Richard, "Is Death Row in Death Throes?; Legal Troubles, Talk of Sale Dog the Once-Hot Rap Label," Washington Post, August 22, 1997, p. D1.
- Kennedy, Dana, "Deadly Business," Entertainment Weekly, December 6, 1996, p. 34.
- Lee, Jr., McKinley "Malik," Chosen By Fate: My Life Inside Death Row Records, West Hollywood: Dove Books, 1997.
- Morris, Chris, "DNA to Distribute Death Row Catalog," Billboard, March 3, 2001.
- ------, "Knight Sentenced to 9 Years; Impact on Death Row Uncertain," Billboard, March 15, 1997, p. 12.
- ------, "New Questions Over Funding of Death Row," Billboard, September 13, 1997.
- Pollock, Danny, "Rap Pioneer Facing Challenges to Rebuilding Legendary Label," Associated Press, July 12, 2003.
- Ro, Ronin, Have Gun Will Travel--The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records, New York: Doubleday, 1998.
- Samuels, Allison, "Suge Knight Is Back in Business," Newsweek, April 23, 2001, p. 54.
- Strauss, Neil, "Rap Empire Unraveling As Stars Flee," New York Times, January 26, 1998, p. D1.
- Waxman, Sharon, "A Rap Cast to Make Your Head Spin; Death Row Boss in a Courtroom Muddle," Washington Post, October 31, 1996, p. B1.
- Wielenga, Dave, "Nighty Knight: Suge Knight Is in Jail, Death Row Records Is in Disarray," New Times Los Angeles, December 18, 1997.
- ------, "Reeling and Dealing; 'Suge' Knight Is Behind Bars, Tha Doggfather Is on the Shelves, and the Future of Death Row Records Hangs in the Balance," Phoenix New Times, November 28, 1996.
- ------, "Stacked Deck: With Suge Knight Behind Bars, Death Row Galvanizes Behind Tha Doggfather," New Times Los Angeles, November 7, 1996.
- ------, "Who's the Man?; With Suge Knight in Prison, Onetime Receptionist Norris Anderson Is Now the Big Man on Death Row," Phoenix New Times, March 27, 1997.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.69. St. James Press, 2005.