Trouble-tinged success for Death Row


One night last month two incidents -- a music award and a killing -- pointed up the relationship between artistry and violence that defines Death Row Records, the nation's hottest producer of "gangsta rap" music:

The debut album of Snoop Doggy Dogg, Death Row's charismatic superstar, took top honors at the Soul Train Music Awards. A few hours after the show, a 28-year-old fan was fatally stomped at a party the company threw for its out-of-town retailers and promoters.

The slaying was the latest example of how Death Row's meteoric rise has been marked by violence and legal problems involving its key figures.

In just three years, Death Row has grown from an unknown operation run by two young men from the Compton, Calif., area into the most profitable and influential company in the increasingly mainstream world of rap.

Death Row's music transforms the macho subculture of Southern California's black street gangs into a driving funk sound that has captured an audience of millions of young people of all races, from the inner city to suburbia. In 1993 and 1994, the firm, which is affiliated with media giant Time Warner, grossed $90 million from the sale of tapes, CDs and merchandise.

With a corporate logo of a hooded man in an electric chair, the Los Angeles-based company has thrived under its co-owners: Andre "Dr. Dre" Young, 29, the architect of gangsta rap and one of the nation's most respected music producers; and Marion Knight, 28, a former college football star turned rap entrepreneur.

But with success has come trouble for them and for their top star, Snoop Doggy Dogg, whose real name is Calvin Broadus.

Mr. Broadus, 23, faces a murder trial this month in the 1993 killing of a 20-year-old man. Mr. Broadus was at the wheel of a parked Jeep when his bodyguard shot the man, police say. Broadus says the bodyguard fired only after the man threatened them with a gun.

Long Beach, Calif., police files identify Mr. Broadus as a member of the Long Beach Insane Crips, a notorious street gang. But he has told interviewers that he never was a member, although he says he hung out on the gang's fringes.

Young is serving a five-month term in the Pasadena, Calif., jail for violating the probation he received after breaking another rap producer's jaw in 1992. He also was convicted of hitting a New Orleans police officer in a 1992 hotel brawl and of slamming a TV talk-show host into a wall at a Hollywood club in 1991.

Knight was charged with assault with a deadly weapon in a 1992 DTC altercation with two aspiring rappers at a Hollywood recording studio. One rapper said Knight hit him with a gun and fired a shot at him. Knight pleaded no contest to the charges this February and was sentenced to five years probation plus 30 days in a halfway house on a work-furlough program, which he will begin serving this month.

But the company's products have intensified the nationwide debate over the artistic and social merits of gangsta rap. Critics maintain that such music glamorizes gang violence for profit.

"I know it doesn't bother their fans, but I think it's loathsome that these guys make money bragging about being criminals," said one prominent record industry executive, who requested anonymity.

Fans praise the music as honest, if unsettling, portrayals of inner-city life. "I like the way Dr. Dre lays it down and puts the music together," said 24-year-old John Hamilton, a graduate student at Loyola Marymount University who grew up in South-Central Los Angeles. "I'm not a gangbanger, but as far as the lyrics of [Death Row's] rappers go. . . . I can relate to about 80 percent of what they are talking about.

"I think they are just our own ghetto reporters," said Mr. Hamilton, who buys all of Death Row's records as soon as they hit the stores. "And if you don't know what's going on in the 'hood, they will run it down for you."

Other defenders say Death Row's music is a legitimate, if hard-edged, commentary on the gun violence, drug abuse, despair and anger that afflict the inner city.

"I think their music is more the result of violence" than a cause, said University of Southern California professor Todd Boyd, who is writing a book about black popular culture and gangsta rap.

"To me, the records and the videos we make are just pure entertainment, Young says. . . . "I think the main reason that people keep coming down on us is because we're young and we're black and we're in charge of what we do."

Not so, says C. Delores Tucker, head of the Washington-based National Political Congress of Black Women.

"They say they're just describing reality, but I think they glorify and glamorize violence and promote it in such a way that they make it seem fashionable," Ms. Tucker said.

But she added: "This isn't just about Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre, though. . . . To me, gangsta rap is really an indictment of our society. American culture has not given young men like them any alternative but to earn money this way. This is the culture they grew up in, and they see it as their only entry into the workplace."

For its part, Death Row hasn't forgotten the 'hood. The firm has donated $500,000 to a South-Central Los Angeles anti-gang program and its stars have denounced gang violence.

"Nobody in the media ever asks me how I feel about what's goin' on in the 'hood, but I wish the gang violence would stop," said Mr. Broadus.

Death Row's artists are hardly the only rappers to get in trouble with the law. But industry observers are divided over whether their notoriety pumps up sales.

"It's hard to say whether or not Snoop's run-ins with the law have boosted his sales -- because everybody expected his debut album to be huge anyway," said Geoff Mayfield, director of sales charts at Billboard magazine, the music industry's leading trade journal. "But what might otherwise have been construed as negative publicity for anybody else did not hurt Snoop's sales impact whatsoever."

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