The fall of Death Row Records

It was the record label that promoted the rise of gangsta rap. But it was destined to be destroyed by violence, says Ed Caesar
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As Bushwick Bill, a guest artist on Dr Dre's landmark 1992 album, The Chronic, brings "Stranded on Death Row" to its final beat, he utters some prescient words: "There's three types of people in the world. Those who don't know what happened; those who wonder what happened; and people like us from the streets that make things happen."

In 1992, Death Row Records was making it happen. A fledgling West Coast record label founded by Suge Knight and the producer Dr Dre, it had been in business only a year when, in December 1992, The Chronic exploded on to the stereos of America and the world. In September 1993, Death Row followed up Dre's global smash with a second album - Snoop Doggy Dogg's Doggystyle. All of a sudden, gangsta rap and Death Row Records were huge.

Those two albums alone have sold more than 13 million copies, a testament to not only the immediacy of their music but their enormous social appeal to millions of young men all around the world. Death Row Records not only sold a sound; it sold a lifestyle. But its zenith would last only four years - from December 1992, when Dr Dre's debut album hit record stalls, to 13 September 1996, when a surgeon at the United Medical Hospital in Las Vegas pronounced Tupac Shakur dead.

Knight's empire may have survived the execution of its star artist, but, almost 10 years on from that bloody episode in Las Vegas, it has received a fatal shot. Last year, Knight was ordered to pay $107m to Lydia Harris, whose prison-bound ex-husband, Michael Harris, says he co-financed the birth of Death Row. Last week, Knight sought federal bankruptcy protection.

In its prime, Death Row had the air of the untouchable. In Ronin Ro's 1998 account of Death Row's early years, Have Gun Will Travel, one East Coast music executive recalls Knight and his gang at the 1996 MTV awards: "You could see these guys walking in like they were King Tut. Everybody else waited in line. But these guys just walked right down the aisle."

A fleshy behemoth, Knight attended El Camino Junior College, in California, on an American football scholarship, in 1984, before being picked up by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and winning a contract with the Los Angeles Rams. But, in 1986, he lost that contract and became a bodyguard for the soul singer Bobby Brown. Knight was arrested on Hallowe'en 1987 on charges of attempted murder. He had shot a man in the wrist and the leg after a minor argument. On 6 June 1990, he was charged with assault after breaking a man's jaw, an assault to which he would later plead guilty.

It was around this time that increasingly successful Knight-sponsored events started to crop up in and around Los Angeles.There was a new sound emerging. NWA (Compton's Niggaz with Attitude) had pioneered what would become gangsta rap. Founded by Eazy-E, a South Central drug-dealer, NWA included Ice Cube and Dr Dre. Their 1989 album, Straight Outta Compton, released on Ruthless Records, was as successful as it was controversial, featuring the ghetto anthem "Fuck tha Police". In 1991, Dr Dre left Ruthless to start a label with Knight. Eazy-E would later claim in a lawsuit that Knight threatened him with a baseball bat and pipe to make him release Dre.

Knight and Dre formed Future Shock Records in early 1992 - they soon changed it to Death Row Records - in a collaboration that, the courts recently concluded, was at least partially funded by the known drug mogul Michael "Harry-O" Harris. Dre was soon experimenting with new sounds. Aided and abetted by Snoop Dogg and Warren G, Dre pioneered what would become known as G-funk. It took the form of gun-heavy lyrics delivered over a backing track that featured a slowed funk sample, heavy with female vocals and synthesisers. G-funk dominated America's airwaves for four years.

In 1994, Tupac Shakur, a film star and rapper on Death Row's books, released his Thug Life album, and quickly became one of the West Coast's stellar exports, but he found himself on trial for sexual assault that November. In the same month he was shot five times in a Manhattan studio lobby, and robbed of several thousand dollars' worth of jewellery. The day after he was shot and robbed, he was convicted of sexual abuse. He would serve only eight months of his four-and-a half-year sentence before Suge Knight bailed him out to the tune of $1.4m. In February 1995, Knight got 30 days' jail and five years' probation, having pleaded guilty to a drugs charge.

Notoriety was one of the key attractions of gangsta rap. A little crime-related press did no harm to album sales. Proof that being bad was good for Death Row came with Tupac Shakur's 1996 offering, All Eyez on Me, the first double album in rap and the fastest-selling rap album in history. But Dr Dre recognised that trouble was heading Death Row's way, and left in June 1996. On 7 September, after a Mike Tyson fight, Shakur and Knight were involved in a scuffle with a member of the LA Crips gang. Knight and Shakur were shot later that night. Shakur would die five days later, and Knight would spend the next five years in jail for breach of parole.

From the moment Shakur was murdered, Death Row has been disintegrating. Legal attackshave hurt its finances. Artists have left - most notably Snoop Dogg, in 1997. Even when Knight reappeared from prison in 2001, promising to reinvigorate the label - he even renamed it Tha Row - there was little he could do. Death Row has stayed afloat only by carefully managing its back-catalogue, in particular Shakur's previously unreleased material. It has been a legacy label for a decade.

There are other artists on the US rap scene now. Dr Dre found Eminem. Eminem found 50 Cent. The Game stole some of Fiddy's thunder. And Kanye West now rules the roost. But they all owe something to an ex-footballer with a fine line in persuasion.

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