Death Row Records (formerly Tha Row Records) was an American record company founded in 1991 by Dr. Dre, Suge Knight and The D.O.C.. The record label almost instantly became a sensation by releasing a succession of multi-platinum hip-hop albums from West Coast-based artists such as Dr. Dre (The Chronic), Snoop Dogg (Doggystyle), Tupac Shakur (All Eyez on Me), Tha Dogg Pound (Dogg Food) and others. At its peak, Death Row Records was making over $100,000,000 a year, but by the late 1990's the label began to decline in the wake of the shooting death of its star artist Tupac Shakur and imprisonment of co-founder Suge Knight. Despite the financial success, Death Row would be embroiled in many controversies, lawsuits, legal troubles and violence by its artists and associates. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2006 and on January 15, 2009, was auctioned to entertainment development company WIDEawake Entertainment Group, Inc. for $18,000,000 Death Row Records' legacy has been credited in popularizing the form of gangsta rap music to a wider audience.
In the late-1980s, producer Dr. Dre was a member of N.W.A, signed to friend Eazy E's Ruthless Records. As head of production at the label, Dre produced a large number of Ruthless projects, many of them successful; feeling the pressures of having to produce so many acts and feeling he was underpaid, Dr. Dre became frustrated with Ruthless Records. After the departure of Ice Cube in 1989 over financial disagreements with N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller, Suge Knight and fellow Ruthless artist, The D.O.C. went over the books with a lawyer. Convinced that Heller was dishonest, they approached Dr. Dre about forming a label with them, away from Heller and Eazy-E. Allegedly using strong-arm tactics, Knight was able to procure contracts from Eazy-E for The D.O.C., Dr. Dre and Ruthless singer, Michel'le.
Dr. Dre, Suge Knight along with partners The D.O.C. and SOLAR Records founder Dick Griffey began the process of starting a record label and music partnership in anticipation of Dre's departure from Ruthless Records. Although the name of their new music venture was originally called Future Shock Entertainment, The D.O.C. claimed to have suggested changing the name of the new label to "Def Row" (a play on the hip-hop label Def Jam), but rights to the name were already owned by The Unknown DJ, who also happened to be one of Dre's former music associates in the 1980's. Unknown stated in an interview that he created the name "Def Row" for a potential deal to start another record label under Morgan Creek Entertainment Group.  However he later sold the naming rights to Dr. Dre and his partners in July 1991 and by 1992 the name changed to its eventual title of Death Row Records.  Knight approached Michael "Harry-O" Harris, a businessman imprisoned on drug and attempted murder charges. Through David Kenner, an attorney handling Harris's appeal, Harry-O set up Godfather, a parent company for the newly christened Death Row.
Knight approached Vanilla Ice, using management connections with Mario "Chocolate" Johnson, claiming Johnson had produced the song "Ice Ice Baby", and had not received royalties for it. After consulting with Alex Roberts, who sources suggest was Suge Knight's connection to the underworld, Knight and two bodyguards arrived at The Palm in West Hollywood, where Van Winkle was eating. After shoving Van Winkle's bodyguards aside, Knight sat down in front of Van Winkle, staring at him before asking "How you doin'?" Similar incidents were repeated on several occasions, including alleged attempts to lure Vanilla Ice into a van filled with Bloods and Crips, before Knight showed up at Vanilla Ice's hotel suite on the fifteenth floor of the Bel Age Hotel, accompanied by Johnson and a member of the Oakland Raiders. According to Vanilla Ice, Knight took him out on the balcony by himself, and implied he would throw Vanilla Ice off unless he signed the rights to the song over to Knight; Van Winkle's money helped fund Death Row. At one time, Death Row was located at the intersection of Wilshire Blvd. and San Vicente Blvd. Knight was seen on several occasions leaving Alex Roberts' home in Malibu.
The Chronic and Ruthless Records feud
With the help of Kenner, Knight began signing young, inner-city California-based artists and arranged for Death Row Records to handle the soundtrack for the 1992 film, Deep Cover. The single, "Deep Cover", established Dr. Dre as a solo artist and a young Snoop "Doggy" Dogg as his protégé. Work soon began on The Chronic, Dr. Dre's debut solo album, which heavily featured Snoop and the rest of the label's core roster.
After finding solo success, Dr. Dre began crafting Snoop Dogg's debut album Doggystyle; the process took two years. Snoop's debut was released in 1993 due to public demand and high pressure from retailers. Though unfinished, it outperformed The Chronic at Quadruple Platinum, and garnered similarly glowing reviews. Soon after the release of the album, Snoop Dogg was charged with murder, fueling the debate that politicians C. Delores Tucker and then-Vice Presidential candidate Dan Quayle sparked by denouncing gangsta rap as against American values, encouraging violence towards police officers, and degrading to Black women.
Signing Tupac and Suge Knight's rise
By 1995, the label began to flood with Suge Knight's cronies—friends and gang members fresh out of jail, as well as off-duty LAPD officers later implicated in the Rampart scandal working as security. Emboldened, Knight began taking more control of the label and further sought the spotlight, while Dr. Dre receded into the background, shying away from the violent atmosphere and Suge Knight's newfound volatility. Tucker's pressure to conform extended to a joint proposal by herself and a Warner executive to set up a record label with Knight to put out content-controlled hip-hop music, which Knight billed as a breach of contract, resulting in a switch in distribution from Time Warner to Interscope. At The Source Awards in 1995, the Death Row roster's performance garnered a poor reception from the mainly East Coast audience; Knight also made comments pertaining to Bad Boy CEO Puff Daddy, sparking friction between the two labels (and, soon after, the two entire coasts). Knight soon signed 2Pac,and Lord Autopz of Ruthless Criminalz while 2Pac was incarcerated on a sexual abuse conviction, after agreeing to post 2Pac's bail. At the same time, a rift between Michael and Lydia Harris and Suge and David Kenner began to grow, with the latter pair denying Harris'.involvement in the company and refusing to take his phone calls.
Bad Boy feud and Dr. Dre's departure
2Pac began work on his Death Row album, kicking off his tenure by insulting The Notorious B.I.G., Junior M.A.F.I.A. and Puff Daddy (the founder of Bad Boy Records), whom he accused of setting him up to be robbed and shot earlier that year, as well as Busta Rhymes, Mobb Deep, Jay-Z, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, The Fugees and Nas. Tha Dogg Pound's debut album, Dogg Food, continued the label's streak of commercial successes; its members – rappers Kurupt and Daz Dillinger – then joined Snoop in ridiculing New York rappers with their single "New York, New York", featuring Snoop Dogg. The video, set in New York City, New York, was also heightened when the set was fired upon in a drive-by. After the shooting, Snoop Dogg and Tha Dogg Pound filmed scenes kicking down a building in New York. The single provoked a response called '"L.A., L.A." by East Coast rappers Capone-N-Noreaga, Tragedy Khadafi, and Mobb Deep.
Another report was that Sam Sneed was beaten in one of the label's meetings by a group of Death Row affiliates, led by Suge Knight and 2Pac. According to Daz Dillinger, the reason this happened was that Sam Sneed had too many East Coast rappers in his Lady Heroin music video. Disillusioned with the direction of Death Row, artists RBX and The D.O.C. chose to leave, after which Suge Knight exercised tighter control over the rest of the roster. Dogg Food was not produced by Dr. Dre but was mixed by Dr. Dre, a further testament to Dre's dwindling involvement with his own record label. Dr. Dre also grew tired of Knight's violence within the label, although he contributed toward two tracks on 2Pac's All Eyez on Me. The rest of the tracks on the album, however, were mostly produced by Daz Dillinger and Johnny J, despite Dr. Dre being nominally titled as Executive Producer. Shakur's behavior reportedly became erratic as he continued his verbal wars with The Notorious B.I.G., Bad Boy Records, Puff Daddy, Mobb Deep, and Prodigy, including many violent confrontations with many of those rappers at some points. In 1996, due to the infighting, Dr. Dre left Death Row Records to found Aftermath; which provoked 2Pac to turn against Dr. Dre.
M.C. Hammer's involvement and departure
Suge Knight's relationship with MC Hammer dates back to 1988. With the success of Hammer's 1994 album, The Funky Headhunter (featuring Tha Dogg Pound), Hammer signed with Death Row in 1995, along with Snoop Dogg and his close friend, 2Pac. The label did not release the album of M.C. Hammer's music (titled Too Tight), although he did release versions of some tracks on his next album. However, Hammer did record tracks with Shakur and others, most notably the song "Too Late Playa" (along with Big Daddy Kane and Danny Boy). After the death of 2Pac in 1996, MC Hammer left Death Row Records.
Tupac Shakur's murder and Suge Knight's incarceration
Formerly a united front of artists, Death Row's roster fractured into separate camps. Daz, now head producer, worked on Snoop Dogg's second album Tha Doggfather, which featured Bad Azz and Techniec of his LBC Crew, Warren G and Nate Dogg of his group 213 and Tha Dogg Pound. 2Pac shut himself into the studio with Hurt-M-Badd and Big "D", crafting The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory - unlike All Eyez on Me, it was devoid of high-profile Death Row guest appearances, instead showcasing The Outlawz and Bad Azz. Suge Knight was now barely reachable by his staff, and employees were assaulted as punishment for not following orders.
During a trip to Las Vegas, Nevada for a Mike Tyson boxing match, 2Pac was interviewed on the possibility of Death Row East, an East Coast branch of Death Row. It was also during this time, that Alex Roberts and David Kenner had been seen at Suge Knight's Vegas Club 662 in discussion about the possibility of having Roberts' New York underworld connections help pave the way for Death Row East. Though names from Big Daddy Kane and The Wu-Tang Clan to Eric B. and K-Solo were mentioned, the label would never be formed; On September 7, 1996, Suge Knight and 2Pac were caught on surveillance camera at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas attacking gang member Orlando Anderson who was a Southside Compton, California Crip. Later that night, 2Pac was shot four times in a drive-by shooting in the back seat of Suge Knight's BMW 750iL waiting at a red traffic light at crossroads; en route to Knight's Las Vegas Club 662; despite living six days in critical condition, 2Pac died September 13, 1996.
Shakur's "The Don Killuminati: 7 Day Theory" was released in November 1996, just one week before Snoop Dogg's "Tha Doggfather". Both albums achieved Platinum sales. Suge Knight was convicted of parole violation and sentenced to nine years in prison, causing Interscope to drop their distribution deal with the label. Suge Knight's control over the label diminished, as Nate Dogg was able to leave, followed by Snoop Dogg and Kurupt. After the release of her solo album The Lady of Rage left. Daz Dillinger departed in 1999 but produced for Big C-Style, he later formed Dogg Pound Records. Kurupt returned to the label in 2002 upon Suge Knight's release from prison.
2nd generation exodus
Maintaining artistic control from behind bars, Suge Knight launched smear campaigns against his former artists, most notably Snoop Dogg. The label supported itself with releases pulled from vaults—most successfully various posthumous 2Pac albums, along with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg re-releases and then-unreleased compilation records such as Suge Knight Represents: Chronic 2000 and Snoop Dogg: Dead Man Walkin. He signed new talent, including Crooked I who had been lighting up the Californian underground with his rhyming ability, particularly the Wake Up Show with Sway & King Tech. Suge Knight also signed Left Eye. He also appointed Cold 187um head producer, to oversee the 2Pac album Until the End of Time and Tha Dogg Pound 's 2002.
Despite bad blood, Kurupt would again sign with Suge Knight in exchange for the position of Vice President, which sparked a feud between himself and Daz Dillinger and Snoop Dogg. He began work on Against tha Grain; his verbal feud with his former partners continued from 2002 to 2005. Left Eye signed with Death Row after finishing her solo deal with Arista who released her 1st album Supernova in 2001. Lopez joined to record a 2nd solo album under the pseudonym N.I.N.A. (New Identity Not Applicable) she was also working on TLC's new album 3D. N.I.N.A. was cancelled after her death in April 2002. The album was leaked online in 2011.
After promoting his new talent from prison, directing a campaign against his former artists and exacerbating the conflict between Daz Dillinger and Kurupt, Suge had still yet to release any albums by his new artists. After Kurupt's 2nd departure, Against tha Grain was released; soon after, citing dissatisfaction with serving 5 years on the label and seeing no release, Rapper Crooked I left Death Row, eventually filing a gag order on Knight to prevent him from interfering with him finding a new deal. Petey Pablo, who had signed in 2005 and started the never-released album Same Eyez on Me, left along with rapper Tha Realest in 2006.
Chapter 11 Bankruptcy
On April 4, 2006 both Death Row Records and Suge Knight simultaneously filed for Chapter 11 Bank protection following the appointment of a Receiver to acquire and auction off assets of both Death Row Records and Suge Knight in the civil case filed by Lydia Harris against Suge Knight. Among those listed as unsecured creditors to Death Row include the Harris', the Internal Revenue Service ($6,900,000), Koch Records ($3,400,000), Interscope Records ($2,500,000) and a number of artists previously signed to the label. Suge Knight would eventually lose control of Death Row Records and his personal assets when Chapter 11 Trustees took over both cases.
From WIDEawake acquisition to E1
On January 15, 2009, Death Row was successfully auctioned to entertainment development company WIDEawake for $18 million USD. On January 25, 2009, an auction was held for everything found in the Death Row office after it filed for bankruptcy. Of note was the Death Row electric chair which went for $2500 USD.
Since the acquisition, the company has continued to release material from its vast archives of materials acquired in the sale. Noteworthy releases include previously unreleased material from such artists as Snoop Dogg, Kurupt, Danny Boy, Crooked I, Sam Sneed, LBC Crew and O.F.T.B. Since the acquisition of the material, Money Mafia-Death Row, under the management of WIDEawake, has made many positive steps towards improving the image of Death Row by making good on its promise to make royalty payments to many of the artists, producers, and songwriters with commercially released material under the label. On "Record Store Day" April 18, 2012, the label has issued a free Death Row "Record Store Day" CD sampler which included music from Lord Autopz, Petey Pablo and Danny Boy
"The Chronic Re-Lit" was released on September 1, 2009. The album contained the original The Chronic album re-mastered and 7 bonus songs from the vault by Snoop Doggy Dogg, CPO, Kurupt, Jewell, and more; plus a DVD containing music videos, a rare Dr. Dre interview, a Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg mini movie, and rare 1992 television commercials for the original The Chronic release.
"Snoop Doggy Dogg – Death Row The Lost Sessions Vol 1" was released October 13, 2009 and contains 15 previously unreleased tracks with 4 being produced by Dr. Dre.
"Death Row The Ultimate Collection" was released on November 24 and was a special box set containing 3 audio CDs (1 greatest hits disc and 2 discs of unreleased content), 1 DVD of music videos which includes the unreleased Dr. Dre music video "Puffin' On Blunts" and a limited edition Death Row T-shirt. The set boasts over 20 unreleased tracks from the likes of: Snoop Doggy Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound, The Lady of Rage,Lord Autopz and Petey Pablo. During this period, there was a specific distribution venture between E1 and Wideawake Death Row LLC.
On 10 December 2012, New Solutions Financial Corp., the Canadian company that owned WIDEawake Death Row, had gone bankrupt and sold both the label and catalog to a publicly held company In 2013, E1 purchased the rights to the Death Row catalog. The Group invested £175 million in content rights and television programmes in the year (2012: £135.8 million) and £4.2 million (6 million $) to purchase the music library assets of Death Row.
- Dr. Dre (1991-1996)
- The D.O.C (1991-1994)
- Michel'le (1991-1999); (2002-2003)
- Snoop Dogg (1991-1997)
- Tha Dogg Pound (1991-1997)
- Lady of Rage (1991-1997)
- 2Pac (1995-1996)
- Outlawz (1995-1999)
- 213 (group) (1991-1997)
- RBX (1991-1994)
- Chilly Chill (1994-1995)
- Nate Dogg (1991-1997)
- MC Hammer (1995-1996)
- Kurupt (1991-1997) (2002-2005)
- Daz Dillinger (1991-1999)
- Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes (2002)
- Crooked I (1999-2004)
- SKG (2001)
- Tha Realest (1996-2001)
- YGD Tha Top Dogg (1997-2000)
- Danny Boy (1994-1999); (2002-2003)
- Sam Sneed (1993-1997)
- Yaki Kadafi of The Outlawz (1995-1996)
- Jewell (1992-1999)
- O.F.T.B. (1994-1998)
- J-Flexx (1994-1997)
- Petey Pablo (2005-2006)
- Soopafly (1994-1997)
- 2nd II None (1994-1998)
- Prince Ital Joe (1995-1998)
- LBC Crew (1995-1997)
- O.G. Big Tray Dee (1994-1997)
- Bad Azz (1995-1997)
- Lil' C-Style (1994-1998)
- Techniec (1994-1997)
- Young Swoop G (1994-2001)
- Nanci Fletcher (1993-1996)
- DJ Quik (1994-1996)
- C.P.O. Boss Hogg (1991-1998)
- Above the Law (1999-2001)
- Young Soldierz (1994-1998)
- Big Pimpin' Delemond (1994-1999)
- Butch Cassidy (1996-1998)
- V.K. (1999)
- Dobbie (1998-1999)
- Eastwood (2002-2005)
- Big C-Style (1998-2001)
- 6 Feet Deep
- Chocolate (1991-1993)
- Chocolate Bandit (1996-1999)
- Mr. 2-3 (1991-1993)
- Sean 'Barney' Thomas
- Slip Capone (1993-1998)
- Lil' Malik a.k.a. Lil' Hershey Loc
- Fatal-n-Felony (1995-1996)
- The Gang (1996-1997)
- GP The Beast
- El Dorado (1998-1999)
- The Relativez(1998-2000)
- Spider Loc (2002- 2004)
- Gangxsta Ridd
- Mac Shawn
- LA Nash
- O.Y.G Redrum781
- Gangsta Girl
- Gail Gotti
|1992||Dr. Dre – The Chronic|
|1993||Snoop Doggy Dogg – Doggystyle|
|1994||Above the Rim|
|Murder Was The Case|
|1995||Tha Dogg Pound – Dogg Food|
|1996||2Pac – All Eyez On Me|
|Makaveli (2Pac) – The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory|
|Snoop Doggy Dogg – Tha Doggfather|
|Death Row Greatest Hits|
|Christmas on Death Row|
|Lady of Rage – Necessary Roughness|
|1998||Daz Dillinger – Retaliation, Revenge and Get Back|
|Michel'le – Hung Jury|
|2Pac – Greatest Hits|
|1999||Suge Knight Represents: Chronic 2000|
|2000||Too Gangsta for Radio|
|Snoop Doggy Dogg – Dead Man Walkin'|
|2001||Tha Dogg Pound – 2002|
|Snoop Doggy Dogg – Death Row: Snoop Doggy Dogg at His Best|
|2Pac – Until the End of Time|
|2002||2Pac – Better Dayz|
|2Pac – Nu-Mixx Klazzics|
|2005||The Very Best of Death Row|
|Kurupt – Against the Grain|
|2007||2Pac – Nu-Mixx Klazzics Vol. 2|
|2009||Dr. Dre – The Chronic Re-Lit|
|Snoop Doggy Dogg – Death Row: The Lost Sessions Vol. 1|
|Death Row The Ultimate Collection|
|2010||Kurupt – Down & Dirty|
|Danny Boy – It's About Time|
|Crooked I – Hood Star|
|2011||Sam Sneed – Street Scholars|
|LBC Crew – Haven't You Heard...|
|O.F.T.B. – Damn Near Dead|
|Jewell – Black Diamond|
|2012||20 To Life: Volume 1|
|Tha Dogg Pound - Doggy Bag|
|20 To Life: Volume 2|