What happens when the most notorious gangsta rap label Death Row Records is resurrected as a Canadian-based catalogue imprint? VIBE connects the dots to find out the future of the once-feared West Coast power.
Death Row Records. The name alone evokes the early ‘90s dominance of the most profitable and controversial gangsta rap label in music history. The groundbreaking West Coast imprint is known just as much for its classic roster of game-changing, influential talent (Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound, 2Pac) and its notorious, two-fisted CEO Suge Knight as it is for brazen tales of recording studio beatdowns, gang-related beefs, arrests, and murder. Which is why the 2009 acquisition of the once mighty imprint by Toronto-based company Wideawake Entertainment was met by a perplexed reception.
Now the Canadian company is working to clean up the legacy of the bankrupted Death Row, with a series of high-profile catalog releases and projects. “We had an $18 million debt so things are going to be done a certain way,” Wideawake/Death Row President John Payne tells VIBE of the company’s no-nonsense strategy. Payne’s ties to the label goes back to 1991 when he worked as a studio engineer for Knight and Dr. Dre, who first founded the company operation under the banner Future Shock before it went on to sell more than 50 million albums.
"This is unreleased 2Pac, no remastering or remixing. These songs could've been 2Pac's next record if he were still alive"
“The good thing about Death Row is the music has always stood the test of time,” Payne continues. “You can pick up albums like The Chronic and Doggystyle and still listen to them. But the problem with the label is people as well as the media have dwelled on the negative. It’s kept Death Row in a one-dimensional place. So in order to sell records, they pushed negativity when it wasn’t necessary because the artists were talented enough to let that speak for them. We would like to give Death Row it’s fair chance to be seen and heard correctly without the drama, murder or court cases.”
Payne says that one revelation he took away while going through the hundreds of unreleased tracks from the Death Row vault was the surprising quality of R&B music left over. The first release from the revamped label, crooner Danny Boy’s It’s About Time, is already in stores. The Atlanta-based singer joined Death Row when he was 15-years-old, and went on to record classic tracks with 2Pac (“I Ain’t Mad At Cha,” “Picture Me Rollin,’” “Toss It Up”).
“We are trying to do reach out to all the Death Row artists who never got their chance,” says Payne. “A lot of people are not aware of Danny Boy beyond 2Pac. We have his participation, so that’s great.”
*Correction: Earlier, we wrote that Death Row is headed up by white self-proclaimed “soccer mom” and music industry vet Lara Lavi. According to Death Row reps, Lavi is no longer with the company.