Death Row: Where Violence Meets Funky

While other record companies seem to be backing away from gangsta rap, Death Row Records--the home of Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg--is building an empire with it.

“What you got here is a young, black-owned company that knows how to spot talent and make hits,” says Marion (Suge) Knight, 27, a burly former semipro-football player who co-owns Death Row with Dre. “We’re two street guys from Compton who are going to shake this industry up.”

Housed in a sparse office on the 12th floor of a Westwood high-rise, Death Row was started early last year as a $250,000 joint venture by Dre and Knight, who made big bucks in 1990 from ownership of rights to songs on rapper Vanilla Ice’s hit debut album.

Thanks to the success of Dre’s “The Chronic” album, Death Row--which is distributed by Interscope Records--will generate more than $35 million in record sales this year. And 1994 promises to be a lucrative year, thanks to Snoop’s debut album and the scheduled summer release of an album by ex-N.W.A. members Dre and Ice Cube.

Death Row has raised eyebrows in the music business not only because it’s the first record company to successfully market a gangsta rap single to the top of pop radio playlists, but also because of a string of alleged violent incidents associated with its stars and management team.


Snoop is not the first member of the Death Row family to have a run-in with the law. Dre, who is on probation for three alleged violent episodes over the past two years, wears an electronic tracking device and is required by the court to be in his $1-million Calabasas home at night by 9. Knight is awaiting trial on his own assault charge.

Under a complex, $5-million-plus distribution pact with Interscope, Dre and Knight receive financing to help underwrite the label’s 18-employee payroll and recordings at Dre’s 48-track home studio, yet retain the rights over publishing and master recordings.

“What separates Death Row from the pack is that we know what’s funky,” says 28-year-old Dre. “In the end, it ain’t important what people say about us. At Death Row, we let the music talk. I mean, when I get into the studio, man, nobody in this business can even see me with binoculars.”