Death Row Records is a West Coast record label which pushed the genre of gangsta rap to the top of the mainstream charts in the early 1990s. Founded by Marion “Suge” Knight and Andre “Dr. Dre” Young in 1992, the successes of Death Row Records established the legitimacy of rap music.
The origins of Death Row Records can be traced back to Suge Knight. Born and raised in Compton, California, Knight was an aspiring professional football player before his transition into the music industry. Following his athletic career at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Knight was offered a contract with the Los Angeles Rams. His football career came to an end in 1986 when he became a full-time bodyguard for R&B icon Bobby Brown and began making important connections in the music industry.
Knight met Young in 1990 while he was still signed to Ruthless Records as a member of N.W.A. Compton’s N*ggaz Wit Attitude. Alongside Eazy-E and Ice Cube, Young helped introduce gangsta rap to the world with N.W.A.’s controversial 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton Despite the group’s success, Young left N.W.A. in 1991 and was soon released from his contract with Ruthless Records.
Knight and Young then formed Future Shock Records in 1992, eventually changing the name to Death Row Records. The label released its first album, The Chronic, written and produced by Young, in the same year after receiving its first distribution deal with Interscope Records.
Although unknown at the time, Young would become one of the most talented hip-hop producers in the industry who made The Chronic an instant rap classic. Death Row’s first album remained on Billboard’s Top Ten for eight consecutive months, proving that gangsta rap was a highly profitable commodity.
In 1993, Death Row acquired recording artist, Calvin “Snoop Dogg” Broadus, Jr. and released his first album, DoggyStyle. The album sold over 4 million copies and debuted at number one on Billboard’s Top Ten. At the same time, music videos from other Death Row artists were getting regular plays on MTV which was rare for hip-hop music.
By 1995, Death Row had become a dominant label in hip-hop. As gangsta rap became the most popular and marketable form of contemporary music in America, there were also major attempts to protest the vulgar lyrics and graphic images associated with the genre of music, including most notably the efforts of C. Delores Tucker, the former Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
In the fall of 1995, Tupac Shakur signed a deal with Knight and Death Row while serving a 54-month jail sentence. Included in the contract was the $1.4 million necessary for Shakur’s bail. In 1996, Shakur released All Eyez On Me the first rap double album and the fastest-selling rap album in history. Shortly after Young left Death Row in June 1996, Shakur was shot and killed in Las Vegas. Knight was arrested the same night and sentenced to five years for violating parole.
The death of Shakur was a pivotal point for Death Row Records. With all of the stars leaving the label while Knight was incarcerated, Death Row survived through the rest of the 1990s solely by releasing music from its back catalogue.
At the zenith of Death Row’s era, the recording label was an unstoppable force. Although Death Row Records has lost much of its appeal, it has been considered a legacy label for over a decade for its contributions to the global music industry.