Edward Helmore Live by the gun, die by the gun: Tupac Shakur's life emulated his own graffiti (above); is Snoop Doggy Dogg (right) learning from Tupac's mistakes in considering a timely exit from the Death Row record label? Photographs: All Action; LFI
Death Row, the record label that became synonymous with the hardcore music of gangsta rap and was at one point hailed as the Motown for the Nineties, is itself on death row. The fate of the LA-based company that once boasted the combined artistic and financial might of the late Tupac Shakur, Dr Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg has been in the balance ever since Marion "Suge" Knight - the brains and, at 6ft 4in and 330lb, the brawn behind the label - was sentenced to a lengthy jail-term last December.
Since it was founded by Knight and Andre (Dr Dre) Young in 1992, Death Row has sold 26 million records and grossed in excess of $170m, but with Knight in prison, Shakur dead and Dr Dre defected to start his own Aftermath label, the record label is beset with mounting legal problems - including an FBI investigation into suspected drug ties.
Last week it emerged that Death Row is almost certain to be jettisoned by its distributor, the Universal Music Group, a company owned by the heir to Seagram distillers, Edgar Bronfman, after pressure from shareholders and regulators.
"The fundamental problem with Death Row is that those guys watched The Godfather one too many times," says a source familiar with the business. "Now, the whole thing is in shambles and there's nobody running it. Who needs to be in business with a label that is being investigated by the FBI and the IRS?"
As Death Row's long-feuding East Coast rival Bad Boy Entertainment dominates the charts with more mainstream records by Puffy Daddy, the label that has been calling itself "the new and untouchable Death Row" seems unable to find hits. This month, Lady of Rage's "Necessary Roughness" plunged to the bottom of the top 200 within weeks of release. Neither is the label finding new acts easy to come by. A deal with the pop rapper-turned-wannabe- gangsta MC Hammer fell through and the deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles is under investigation for a conflict of interests after his daughter Gina Longo was signed up.
No one at the label knows when slated albums will be released and its last remaining major star, Snoop Doggy Dogg, has postponed a mid-summer release for an undetermined date in the future and is understood to be trying to get off the label altogether. Simply, Death Row has been left behind by the times and it is unlikely to match the success of past triumphs like Shakur's Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, which sold 664,000 in its first week of release.
"The energy of the hip-hop scene is to clean it up and make it mainstream. There is a desire in the African-American community to function at the very centre of American culture," says the rock writer Anthony DeCurtis. "It gets lonely out there on the margins. However much money you are making, being both a target for social reformers and simply a target has worn people out."
And the fortunes of the once-glittering label may dull further - the US Justice Department is investigating Knight and others associated with the company for alleged tax violations and links to street gangs, drug- trafficking, money-laundering and violent acts. The investigation is looking all the way back into whether the seed money used to launch Death Row came from the Los Angeles drug kingpin Michael "Harry-O" Harris, currently in jail for drug dealing and attempted murder. According to the New Yorker, Harris's lawyer David Kenner was instrumental in setting up the label but acts for Knight and helps run the business.
Though the Justice Department will not confirm or deny the existence of the racketeering investigation and its conclusion could be months away, it could result in criminal charges and the label's assets being seized by the authorities, an unprecedented action in the music industry.
The music business has long been home to shady dealings and some in the industry credit Knight with organising the violent world of gangsta rap into a profitable business, but as Death Row has unraveled, more of Knight's bizarre and often threatening business practices are coming to light.
Earlier this year, the white rapper Vanilla Ice told how Knight had forced him to sign over his publishing rights in the late Eighties by dangling him by his feet off a high-rise building. Though Knight denies using such tactics, a suit filed by Ruthless Records alleges that in 1991 he threatened to beat the late rapper and label-owner Easy-E with lead pipes unless he released the creative force of Dr Dre from his existing contract.
As Death Row and the popularity of gangsta rap rapidly grew, Knight did nothing to curb his penchant for strong-arm tactics. The walls of his offices were painted red in a clear signal of his ties with the Bloods street gang, and in 1992 he was convicted of assault for drawing a gun on two rappers, pistol-whipping one and threatening to kill both. In another incident, a New York record producer was forced to strip naked and was beaten with Champagne bottles.
But as long as profits rolled in - a reported $100m in 1995 - the industry seemed happy to turn a blind eye. The problems began when Death Row's distributor Time-Warner came under pressure from shareholders after an outcry over the flagrantly violent and misogynistic lyrics that gangsta rappers like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur tended to favour.
Time-Warner dropped both Death Row and its affiliate Interscope, which were then picked up 18 months ago by the Universal label for $200m with an option not to release any music it deemed objectionable. The money continued to roll in but gangsta rap was already beginning to show signs of overkill.
In March 1996, Dr Dre shed his gangsta skin, renounced the music's violent message, and severed his ties with Knight. To many, that was the end of Death Row but then, in September last year, the label's brightest star, Tupac Shakur, riding in Knight's white BMW, was murdered in Las Vegas after a Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon fight. The killing, widely thought to be the work of a member of LA's In-Hood Crips gang, remains unsolved.
In March this year, Knight was convicted of breaking his probation by participating in a ringside brawl with members of the rival Crips gang on the night of Shakur's shooting and was sentenced to nine years in prison and disqualified from running the business. Death Row has since cut its staff by half and is being run by an associate of Knight with little music business experience, while the label's accountant is reportedly in hiding following death threats after company funds went missing.
Institutional creditors are also eager to know where the money has gone. Knight and Kenner are being sued by American Express for $1.7m they ran up on platinum cards, and Afeni Shakur, Tupac's mother and a former Black Panther, is claiming $150m in damages from Death Row/Interscope after she discovered that her son died $4.9m in debt.
His estate is estimated to be worth $50m and the suit alleges that Tupac was owed at least $9.9m and $7.1m more in expenses he had not incurred, including $120,000 for a house Kenner rented for himself and $23,000 for repairs to Knight's Porsche.
Perhaps the strangest legal action is one brought against Shakur's estate by C Delores Tucker, the chairwoman of the powerful National Congress of Black Women and a longtime gangsta rap foe. She is looking for damages after claiming that Shakur called her a "motherfucker" on his last album, a slight that Tucker claims has ruined her sex life with her husband.
With Death Row in chaos the label no longer holds much appeal and there are few reasons for Universal to retain the alliance. Moreover, it is in the financial interests of Universal's parent company, Seagram, to drop the label: this month, two state pension funds, Texas and Maryland, announced they might pull their investment in any company - namely Seagram - that distributes gangsta rap.
Still, other distributors are keen to step in. Two upcoming Death Row releases, Nate Dogg's "G-Funk Classics" and the soundtrack to the film Gang-Related, will be distributed by the EMI-affiliated Priority Records. However grimly, Death Row has served its purpose and though it could generate millions in revenue on Shakur's posthumous releases and other artists' recordings for years to come, the illusion of a gangsta's paradise has been shattered n