Riding the Rap

If you've been staying up late recently with only the glow of HBO to comfort you, then you might have seen a straight-to-cable film called Butter, a limp action/thriller whose only saving grace is that New Kid-turned-thespian Donnie Wahlberg plays a shady villain. In the movie, a suave but naive A&R guy recruits talent for a scheming music mogul and his money-laundering hip-hop label. In the span of 24 hours, our hero gets framed for the overdose/murder of his super-diva sister, runs from cops and henchmen, thwarts the mogul's moneymaking scheme, overcomes his fear of heights and beds down Nia Long.

The minute the opening credits have ended, you know this two-bit film is a portrait of Death Row Records, the once-untouchable rap label.

The label has left a Godzilla-sized footprint in contemporary music history. A hit-making haven of "realistic," blood-soaked hip-hop, Death Row reigned as a black music empire a la James Dean: It live too fast and died too young.

But in contrast to Dean's quick slide into oblivion, Death Row is dying in torturous installments. Late last year, CEO Marion "Suge" Knight was sentenced to nine years in prison for violation of parole. In January, the label's parent label, Interscope, severed all ties with Death Row because of pressure from Interscope's owner, the Seagram Co. In recent months, the label has been beset by lawsuits, creditors and investigators.

As if those plagues weren't enough, the label's top talent has defected faster than the cast members of Baywatch. Dr. Dre, the creative mastermind behind the label, left two years ago to form a calmer, safer label, cleverly called Aftermath Entertainment. Tupac Shakur was gunned down in a gang-related shooting (more about that later). Dre's star protege, Snoop Doggy Dogg, who has said he feared for his life at the label, recently made noise by jumping ship to the Gulf Coast-based No Limit Records, owned by hip-hop entity-of-the-moment Master P. Others have left in pretty much the same way: utter disgust.

But the label is going through a denial of sorts, and is still releasing albums. Suge Knight's significant other (and one of Dr. Dre's babies' mamas) Michel'le is scheduled to release an album this summer. And right now, there's Retaliation, Revenge and Get Back, the solo album from The Dogg Pound's Dat Nigga Daz, now known as Daz Dillinger. Cagey yet clamorous, Retaliation, Revenge and Get Back struts all the factors of a Death Row release: ghetto-centric funk grooves punctuating pungent gangland poetry. Admittedly, the album doesn't live up to the Death Row marvels of Dr. Dre's The Chronic (1993), Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle (1993), the Above the Rim soundtrack (1994) and Tupac's All Eyez on Me (1996). Instead, Retaliation sounds more like the label's last will and testament. The album's title suggests that Death Row hasn't lost its fearlessness -- even when it has every reason to fear for its own existence.

Death Row Records gave West Coast-based gangsta rap an appreciative home -- a home rife with fear, paranoia, violence, horror and a tinge of homophobia, but a home nonetheless. And that, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Have Gun, Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records, a new, revealing account of the label that could very well be the final, crushing blow to the crumbling rap empire. Written by freelance rap journalist Ronin Ro, Have Gun, Will Travel is the American Psycho of music-biz tell-alls. Hilarious and horrific, Have Gun, Will Travel retells the brutal myths and legends that surrounded Death Row during its four-and-a-half-year power streak, and also reveals some new ones you probably didn't know about.

Although the label had Dre, Snoop, Tupac and other incendiary, charismatic rappers on its talent roster, Knight was the star of the show. He made it clear he ran the whole operation, from snagging artists to acquiring master tapes to just letting it be known he was someone not to be played like a string quartet. A former pro-football player and personal bodyguard, Knight found his way inside the biz, in the early '90s, by doing security for Bobby Brown and future Death Row inmate (albeit for 15 minutes) M.C. Hammer. Knight struck a friendship with rapper the DOC in hopes of striking a bond with another hot rap commodity: Dr. Dre.

Knight told Dre, then a member of the defining gangsta-rap ensemble N.W.A., how he was getting stiffed on his record contracts; then later advised Dre and other artists from his label to Knight's own new label, which was reportedly financed in part by convicted drug kingpin Michael Harris. As long as Knight had Dre in his corner, he knew he had the makings of a new rap legacy. And by the time Death Row's first album, Dre's The Chronic, sold its first million units, Death Row had become the new source of '90s hip-hop and made gangsta rap a musical genre.

Have Gun, Will Travel shows how Death Row brought terror to the music industry. Knight -- a card-carrying Blood since his days growing up in Compton (he later employed Blood gang members as part of his staff) -- brought the gangsta-rap mentality to record labels' boardroom meetings and power lunches. According to the book, he threatened record execs at gunpoint, dangled rival rappers over balconies, pimp-slapped associates, even bum-rushed members of his own staff. In one memorable passage, Knight is suspected of having kidnapped and tortured a rap-music exec who was later found on the streets of Long Beach, California -- naked, shaven and incoherent. The exec later said he had amnesia and couldn't remember what took place.

Knight didn't just have them shaking in his own part of the world; he started fights in other rap territories. His odd, intense blood feud with East Coast rap impresario Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs led to the identical shootings of their star artists, Shakur and Biggie Smalls. All of this ruckus made people in, out and around the industry fear for their lives. As one music writer brilliantly points out in the book: "White people have been in the record business for years.... But you don't see them trying to fucking shoot each other! You don't see fucking Clive [Davis, head of Arista] trying to steal Mariah Carey from Sony. He says, 'Fuck you, I'll get my own Mariah Carey.' So he got Toni Braxton."

Although most of the participants of this soap opera publicly claimed firsthand experience in the world of gangsta rap, they were merely playing the part. Dr. Dre is shown more as an irresponsible genius: a control freak laying down perfection in each song he produces while making promises to execs, artists and colleagues that he can't vouch for (he's the James Cameron of rap). Tupac Shakur, whose maverick thug veneer made him a James Dean-like icon in his own right, was the biggest poseur out there. A onetime attendant of the renowned Baltimore School for the Arts ("I was fucking white girls," he exclaimed), Shakur used his spongelike intellect to infiltrate the rap world and absorb it -- until it finally absorbed him.

Have Gun, Will Travel documents what we always suspected of the music game: It's an insane, treacherous world. The only thing that matters at the end of the day is who brings home the most record sales. But Suge Knight and Death Row Records took their position as a powerful enterprise of the rap world one chain-shackled step too far. The strong-armed authority they brought to the game, the urge to be at the top by any means necessary, is the tragic flaw that led to their decline. For a brief time, Death Row Records figuratively and literally made a killing.