The Rise & Fall Of...: The Rise & Fall of Death Row Records

Tuesday, Feb 9, 2010 12:00AM

Written by

As hip-hop enters a new era of business ventures, endorsement deals and growth within the music industry, SOHH reflects on the highs and lows of the rap empires who opened the today's black entrepreneurs.

Death Row Records

Founded in the early 1990's by rap moguls Suge Knight and Dr. Dre, Death Row Records reached some of the highest peaks in all of rap history. Under their watch, Tupac Shakur developed into a renowned rapper and respected actor under.  In addition, the label was responsible for building the careers of Snoop Dogg, Kurupt and Daz Dillinger. Online estimates suggest the company profited over $325 million.

Soon after the creation of Death Row, the company struck a distribution deal with Interscope, a relatively new record company which had made a name for itself through its willingness to support and distribute obscure or controversial bands. Inter-scope, headed up by James lovine and the financial magnate Ted Field, was partly owned and financed by Warner Music Group, a division of Time Warner, and thus gave Death Row the financial clout necessary for a successful debut. (Encyclopedia)

The Players

Suge Knight

Suge Knight

The rap world is no stranger to controversy, but the vast majority involves its recording artists, and perhaps an occasional outbreak of violence at a show. Yet, few industry figures ever attracted the kind of notoriety that Death Row Records label head Marion "Suge" Knight did. A particularly flamboyant and visible executive, Knight built Death Row into the biggest hip-hop label of the early '90s, thanks to a stable of talent that included Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and 2Pac. Death Row brought gangsta rap to the top of the pop charts, and made the West Coast into the epicenter of '90s hip-hop. But along the way, Knight acquired a reputation for using threats of violence as a business tactic, and made little attempt to hide his gang connections. (All Music)

Tupac Shakur


Signing with Death Row Records in late 1995, 2Pac released the double-album All Eyez on Me in the spring of 1996, and the record, as well as its hit single "California Love," confirmed his superstar status. Unfortunately, the gangsta lifestyle he captured in his music soon overtook his own life. While his celebrity was at its peak, he publicly fought with his rival, the Notorious B.I.G., and there were tensions brewing at Death Row. (All Music)

Snoop Dogg

Snoop Dogg

After many delays, Doggystyle was finally released on Death Row in November of 1993, and it became the first debut album to enter the charts at number one. Despite reviews that claimed the album was a carbon copy of The Chronic, the Top Ten singles "What's My Name?" and "Gin & Juice" kept Doggystyle at the top of the charts during early 1994, as did the considerable controversy over Snoop's arrest and his lyrics, which were accused of being exceedingly violent and sexist. Snoop exploited his impending trial by shooting a short film based on the Doggystyle song "Murder Was the Case" and releasing an accompanying soundtrack, which debuted at number one in 1994. By that time, Doggystyle had gone quadruple platinum. (All Music)

Dr. Dre

Dr. Dre

When he left N.W.A. in 1992, he founded Death Row Records with Suge Knight, and the label quickly became the dominant force in mid-'90s hip-hop thanks to his debut, The Chronic. Soon, most rap records imitated its sound, and his productions for Snoop Doggy Dogg and Blackstreet were massive hits. (All Music)

Death Row's Achievements

Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg's Popularity, Selling Ability

In 1993 the Recording Industry Association of America certified The Chronic album multi-platinum and Dr. Dre also won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance for his performance on "Let Me Ride". For that year, Billboard magazine also ranked Dr. Dre as the eighth best-selling musical artist, The Chronic as the sixth best-selling album, and "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang" as the 11th best-selling single. Besides working on his own material, Dr. Dre produced Snoop Dogg's debut album Doggystyle, which became the first debut album for an artist to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 album charts. In 1994 Dr. Dre produced the soundtracks to the films Above the Rim and Murder Was the Case. (Wikipedia)

Tupac Shakur Lands Movie Roles

In addition to rapping and hip hop music, Shakur acted in films. He made his first film appearance in the motion picture Nothing But Trouble, as part of a cameo by the Digital Underground. His first starring role was in the movie Juice. In this story, he played the character Bishop, a trigger happy teen, for which he was hailed by Rolling Stone's Peter Travers as "the film's most magnetic figure." He went on to star with Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice (for which he was nominated outstanding actor in 1994, but did not win) and with Duane Martin in Above the Rim. After his death, three of Shakur's completed films, Bullet, Gridlock'd and Gang Related, were posthumously released. (All Eyez On Me)

Kurupt & Daz Dillinger's Dogg Food Release

The album spawned two singles -- "Let's Play House" and "New York, New York," featuring Nate Dogg and Snoop Dogg, respectively. It landed on the top of the Billboard 200 chart producing a first-week sales of 277,500 albums. Though it eventually sold over 3 million records (3x platinum), Dogg Food did not equal the success of preceding Death Row Records releases. (Wikipedia)


Suge Knight's 1996 Las Vegas Arrest:

Videotape at the Las Vegas hotel where Knight and Shakur had been watching a boxing match prior to the murder showed an altercation with Crips gang member Orlando Anderson, who some believe was the eventual triggerman. Knight's involvement in the fight violated the terms of his probation. Moreover, it was revealed that Knight's light sentence may have involved a conflict of interest on the part of prosecutor Lawrence Longo, who rented out a Malibu home to Knight and even had his teenage daughter sign a recording contract with Death Row. Knight was sentenced to nine years in prison, which effectively spelled the end of his Death Row empire. From the beginning of the company's creation, Death Row had been dominated and shaped by Knight. According to Lynn Hirschberg, writing in The New York Times, Knight "was on top of everything at Death Row--from choosing artwork, promotional materials, singles and the track for the B side, to hiring the video director." As California law forbids an inmate from running a business from prison, upon Knight's incarceration, Death Row was left without one of its most vital players. (Encyclopedia)

Dr. Dre Leaves Death Row Records In 1996

More losses ensued as in March 1996 Dr. Dre had creative differences with Knight and left Death Row to establish his own label. Nevertheless, even while the company experienced internal conflict and legal turmoil, it grossed $75 million in profit by year's end. (Encyclopedia)

Interscope Cuts Ties With Death Row Records

Several months after Knight went to jail, Interscope, bending to pressure from Universal, ended its distribution deal with Death Row, marking the first time in the company's history in which the latter's records had no permanent distributor. Death Row began developing distribution deals with other companies on a record by record basis; Shakur's posthumously released soundtrack to the film "Gang Related," for instance, was distributed by Priority Records, a company known for its readiness to distribute and promote material deemed undesirable or too risky by other labels. (Encyclopedia)

Suge Knight's Home Burglary

During his time in prison, Knight's home was burglarized, and police seized a vehicle at the Death Row offices thought to be the getaway vehicle in the Biggie Smalls murder. He was released in August 2001 after serving around five years, and immediately went back to work, retooling his label as Tha Row and searching for new talent. (Encyclopedia)

Tupac Shakur Estate State Demands $150 Million

Shakur estate filed a $150 million suit against Death Row, demanding back payment in royalties and the return of Shakur's master recordings, of which Death Row claimed ownership. The case was later settled out of court, with Shakur's masters being returned to his estate. (Encyclopedia)

Death Row Raided, Suge Knight Returns To Jail

In late 2002, police raided Tha Row's record offices and several of Knight's homes looking for evidence in two gang slayings. Only Knight's associates were implicated in the crimes, but consorting with gang members was another parole violation, and Knight was briefly jailed again; he was eventually sentenced to 200 hours of anti-gang community service. (Encyclopedia)


Although Death Row was eventually sold by Suge Knight, the iconic label was later resurrected through its purchase by WIDEAwake last year after an auction placed the company's worth at $18 million.

WIDEawake Deathrow Entertainment LLC a Delaware company was formed as soon as the Death Row Assets were fully paid for in early 2009. WIDEawake Entertainment Group Inc. - the Canadian company which is funded by New Solutions Capital in Ontario, Canada assigned the entire Death Row Asset to the Delaware company. The Assignment documents are on file with the New York Supreme Court. The Delaware company has two members US citizen, Lara Lavi who is the managing member, and CEO/President and Canadian, Ron Ovenden who has a minority share in the US company and is also the Chairman and CEO of WIDEawake's lender New Solutions Capital. Litigation continues in both the USA and Canada between Lavi and Ovenden over control of the Company because of New Solutions Capital's efforts to interfere with Lavi's ability to manage her company. (Hip Hop DX)

For the latest gadgets, gear and giveaways, check out

blog comments powered by Disqus