In a move that will reorder the architecture of the rap music business, rap star Dr. Dre, the top producer in the booming hip-hop music market, is splitting with Death Row Records, the controversial record label he co-founded four years ago with partner Suge Knight.
Dre, whose real name is Andre Young, will launch a new label, as yet unnamed, that will be funded in part and distributed by Westwood-based Interscope Records, according to sources. Dre, 30, will be chief executive and produce records exclusively for the new label.
Death Row, also based in Westwood, has sold more than 18 million albums and dominated the nation’s pop charts over the last three years with gangsta rap music by such stars as Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound and Tupac Shakur.
The company attracted national attention last year after violent and sexually explicit lyrics released by Death Row artists set off a political uproar that caused Time Warner to dump the label’s distributor, Interscope. (MCA recently purchased 50% of Interscope.)
Dre will leave Death Row in the hands of Knight, 30, a shrewd entrepreneur from Compton who is credited with engineering the company’s transformation from an unknown start-up label into a thriving and respected enterprise that generates more than $100 million in revenue annually. Dre’s departure and Knight’s decision to purchase the remaining 50% of Death Row could be announced as early as today, but some financial details were still unresolved late Thursday. Death Row will continue to be distributed by Interscope.
Neither Dre nor Knight could be reached for comment. But sources familiar with the split said tension has been building for the last six months over the creative direction of the company. Sources also said Knight and other Death Row associates were disappointed that Dre didn’t show up to support rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg at his recent murder trial. Snoop, whose real name is Calvin Broadus, was acquitted of the most serious charges and will not be retried.
Death Row has raised eyebrows in the music industry not only because it was the first record company to successfully market gangsta rap singles to the top of pop radio playlists, but also because of a string of violent incidents alleged to have been associated with its stars and management.
Both Dre and Knight have had run-ins with the law stemming from assault allegations. Shakur is currently out on bail as he appeals a conviction on a charge of sexual abuse.
Despite their legal problems, Knight and Dre created a black-owned and operated firm whose success surpasses any rap company in the business. Dre is credited with producing a stream of hits that have cemented his reputation as the rap equivalent of Phil Spector, the brilliant rock producer celebrated for his work in the 1960s.
Dre is known as a gifted innovator who has created a new sound by smoothing out rap’s pile-driver beat with an overlay of 1970s-style funk. His studio talents attract frequent offers from pop stars such as Madonna. But he has chosen to work with unknown artists, who often write the controversial lyrics to his songs.
He began his career as a deejay in Compton dance clubs, learning the rudiments of record engineering while many of his friends gangbanged in the streets.
Dre later helped assemble the trailblazing rap group N.W.A. It rose to fame with an underground hit titled “F--- Tha Police,” an angry attack on police harassment that was bitterly criticized by the FBI and police groups, who said it encouraged violence against police officers.
He masterminded N.W.A.'s 1989 breakthrough album, “Straight Outta Compton,” and produced its 1991 crossover hit album, “Efil4zaggin” (“niggaz4life” spelled backward), which was the first hard-core rap collection to reach No. 1 on the pop charts. His productions account for sales of more than 25 million albums.
Housed on the 12th floor of a Westwood high-rise, Death Row was started in 1992 as a $250,000 joint venture by Knight and Dre. Knight struck gold in 1990 from ownership of rights to songs on rapper Vanilla Ice’s hit debut album.
Knight and Young negotiated a $10-million deal in 1992 with Interscope to distribute their records and to finance Death Row’s start-up. In a shrewd move, Knight and Young retained all publishing and recording rights, allowing them to pocket the label’s profits in perpetuity.
Even without Dre, music industry sources expect Death Row to prosper. The company has a stable of the most respected artists and producers in the hip-hop community. Besides rappers Snoop Doggy Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound and Shakur, Death Row plans to expand into rhythm and blues with albums soon to be released by Michel’le, Danny Boy, Jewell and Six Feet Deep.