At RECORDS Music: The high-flying rap music label struggles under the weight of violence and accusations of questionable practices.

DEATH WATCH

February 10, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Things ought to look pretty good for Death Row Records right now. This week finds the Death Row soundtrack to "Gridlock'd" -- which features the late Tupac Shakur both as co-star and musician -- atop both the Billboard Hot 200 and R&B Albums charts.

Moreover, the "Gridlock'd" album kicks off with a duet between 2Pac and the label's other big name, Snoop Doggy Dogg. Add in a new, MTV-friendly single from Snoop himself (a cover of the Biz Markie oldie "Vapors") plus continuing strong sales for Makaveli's "The Don Killuminati" album (another 2Pac project), and it would seem that the label is definitely alive and kicking.

So why is much of the music industry on a Death Row death watch?

It all started last spring, when Dr. Dre -- the rapper/producer who co-founded the label in 1992 with former football player Marion "Suge" Knight -- parted company with Death Row. Considered the prime architect of the gangsta sound, Dre's 1993 album "The Chronic" helped establish the fledgling label as a hip-hop hit machine.

Moreover, he also produced some of Death Row's most successful recordings, including Snoop Doggy Dogg's quadruple-platinum debut, "Doggy- style," and "California Love," the first single from 2Pac's "All Eyez On Me" album. Although the label obviously had other producers on hand, none could match Dre's reputation or track record.

Things grew more dire for Death Row in the fall. On Sept. 13, Shakur died of wounds received in a drive-by shooting six days earlier, after he had attended the Mike Tyson/Bruce Sheldon fight in Las Vegas.

Barely a month later, on Oct. 22, Knight was jailed after failing to appear for a drug test, one of the terms of the nine-year suspended jail term he received after being convicted of assault in 1992; he faces a hearing on Feb. 28. Should prosecutors tie Knight to the beating of Orlando Anderson, a member of the Southside Crip gang, before the Tyson fight, Knight would not only face incarceration, but, by California law, would be unable to operate the label from jail.

Suddenly, Death Row was down two stars and one CEO -- and reports that the FBI was looking into possible ties between the label and real-life Los Angeles gangs made prospects for the future seem dim indeed.

"Are they on the ropes? Absolutely," says Alan Light, editor-in-chief of Vibe, a monthly music and pop culture magazine. "But it's not like they were putting out 50 records a year. As long as the brand name still resonates, I still think it's possible for them to put out a hit record."

That brand name does seem to be one of Death Row's greatest strengths. It isn't just fans who look for the label's hooded-prisoner-in-an-electric-chair logo; anti-rap activists William Bennett and C. Delores Tucker have described Death Row as the epitome of gangsta rap's ills. It was largely through their efforts that Time Warner severed its ties with Interscope, which distributes Death Row. (Interscope subsequently entered into a partnership with the Canadian-owned MCA records last February.)

Poor Christmas sales

But brand-name loyalty goes only so far. Although Death Row headed into the Christmas season with four releases on its schedule, only one -- Makaveli -- had any lasting impact.

Snoop Doggy Dogg's sophomore release, "Tha Doggfather," may have entered the charts at No. 1, but it slipped out of the Top 10 in three weeks and is slowly sliding down the Top 40. Still, that's better than "Death Row's Greatest Hits" has done; despite contributions from Snoop, Dre, 2Pac and Ice Cube, the double-disc set never got any higher than No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 200 albums chart.

But even that was a better showing than "Christmas on Death Row" managed -- it entered at 155 and disappeared from the charts the following week.

Even more disturbing are reports that Death Row is stiffing its artists and producers. Since Shakur's death, his mother, Afeni Shakur, has complained that the label has not made full payment of royalties due Shakur's estate. On Dec. 20, a federal judge granted a permanent injunction barring Death Row (and two other companies) from selling merchandise bearing the name or likeness of the late rapper. Still, Afeni Shakur continues to contest both the label's financial dealings and the validity of its contract with her son.

Nor is she the only one who feels cheated by Death Row. Johnny Jackson, who produced tracks for the "Gridlock'd" soundtrack as well as the 2Pac album "All Eyez on Me," claims that Knight had promised him $10,000 plus royalties for his work; to date, he has not been paid a dime.

Does this mean Death Row is no longer a force in rap music? "It's too short term to extrapolate too much from that," says Light of Death Row's recent releases. "If they were going to stay in one specific box and that's all that they were going to do, well, the music changes faster than that. Obviously, you're playing beat the clock.

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