Death Row Records changed music and the music industry. The Los Angeles-based company, formed in 1991 and now celebrating its 30th anniversary, catapulted gangster rap into mainstream consciousness, housed a number of superstars, and showed how successful black-owned rap labels could be.
Owned and operated by Dr. Dre and Marion “Suge” Knight, Death Row Records made an instantand dramatic impact in 1992 when Dr. Dre and his new protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg appeared on the title track of the Deep Cover soundtrack. Death Row built on that promise with its first full-length project, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. The album changed the sound and the direction of rapas a whole and gangster rap in particular, as Dr. Dre flipped the aggressive, loud, and angry feel of the music into something that was crisp and sometimes smooth, almost inviting. Similarly, Dr.Dre largely eschewed the gruff, menacing type of delivery he flexed on much of N.W.A’s material for a tone that was still muscular and powerful, but much less aggressive. Snoop Doggy Dogg, who appeared on more than half of The Chronic’s 15 selections, rapped on several songswith a laid-back, conversational presentation that was as distinctive as it was chill.
One such track was the lead single “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang.” The song arrived with a breez ysonic vibe, ditching the menace of the ghetto streets for the feel-good vibes of a summer barbeque, an aura that carried over to the song’s landmark music video. The Chronic’s other singles “Let Me Ride” and “__ Wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)” showcased bright and heavy funk sonics, respectively. On the former, Dre and Snoop detail a day cruising in the streets of Los Angeles, while on the latter they admonish their rivals.
The Chronic stands an artistic milestone and a commercial juggernaut, selling more than 3million copies less than a year after its December 15, 1992 release date. The new sound was so starkly different, so mesmerizing that it was instantly recognized as a line of sonic demarcation. “We made records during the crack era, where everything was hyped up, sped up and zoned out,” Public Enemy’s Chuck D said. “Dre came with ‘G’ Thang’ and slowed the whole genredown. He took hip-hop from the crack era to the weed era.”
The Chronic is one of the most acclaimed releases in music history, earning a spot on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time list, Spin’s “90 Greatest Albums of the ‘90s,” and one of Time magazine’s 100 greatest albums of all time.
The Chronic also soared thanks to the rappers who joined Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg throughout the LP. Initially branded as Tha Dogg Pound, these artists showed that this was not a two-person operation. Rather, the lyrically sharp Kurupt, rapper-producer Dat Nigga Daz (now known as Daz Dillinger or simply Daz), the esoteric RBX, and the no-nonsense The Lady Of Rage formed the core of Death Row’s initial roster of acts, displaying a remarkable stylistic range.
Death Row showed it was no fluke with the October 1993 release of Snoop Doggy Dogg’s debut single, “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” The tune was as much a coronation of Snoop Dogg as the new face of rap in general and gangster rap specifically as it was a celebration of Snoop Dogg himself. The song’s uptempo, funky vibe was deliberately fun and celebratory, and it rocketed up the charts. The Dr. Dre-produced song hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chartand No. 8 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart, identifying it as the eighth most popular song that week in any genre of music, not just rap.
The song was the perfect set up for the Long Beach rapper’s debut LP. Released November1993, the Dr. Dre-produced Doggystyle made history by being the first debut album in music history to enter the Billboard charts at No. 1. In other words, despite never having released an album, Snoop Dogg had the best-selling album in all of music the first week Doggystyle arrived in stores.
Subsequent Doggystyle single “Gin And Juice” became rap’s first smash party gangster rap cut,an anthem at house parties and frat parties alike. Snoop was a perfect blend of street, cool and fun, a combination that appeals to a universal audience. He wasn’t viewed as menacing or anti-white like other gangster rappers, though his lyrics suggested he should definitely be looked at as the former. Snoop Dogg was just cool. He cemented that part of his persona in the video for his next single, “Doggy Dogg World,” which paid homage to the Blacksploitation films of the1970s and ‘80s.
With its initial buzz and the additional push from radio and videos, Doggystyle became one of the the most acclaimed and best-selling rap albums of all time, moving more than four million copies in less than seven months. “Snoop is classic,” Compton rapper and fellow Dr. Dre protégé The Game said. “Doggystyle, that was the only album he needed to solidify him in West Coast gangster rap forever.”
With the release of its first two albums, Death Row was now rap’s preeminent company. In 1994, the imprint expanded to soundtracks. The Above The Rim soundtrack sold more than 2 million copies on the strength of Warren G and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate” and The Lady Of Rage’s “Afro Puffs.” Also in 1994, Death Row Records took the innovative step (in the rap world, at least) of releasing a Murder Was The Case short film and soundtrack. The latter moved 2 million units on the strength of former N.W.A members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s reunion for the searing “Natural Born Killaz” and Tha Dogg Pound’s pulsating “What Would U Do?”
The hits kept coming. In 1995, Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food album moved 2 million thanks to the smash singles “Let’s Play House” and “New York, New York,” which showcased group members Kurupt and Daz’s smooth and hardcore sides, respectively.
Already on top of the musical world, Death Row had a breakthrough year in 1996 thanks in large part to its newest act, 2Pac. The massive “California Love” single produced by Dr. Dre and featuring Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman stands as one of the decade’s most enduring songs. 2Pac’s first Death Row album, 1996’s All Eyez On Me, spawned the hit singles “How Do U Want It” with KC and JoJo, and “2 Of Amerikaz Most Wanted” with Snoop Dogg, on its way to earning Diamond certification, meaning that it was 10-times platinum.
2Pac’s posthumous album as Makaveli, The Don Killuminati (The 7 Day Theory), was another massive hit for the company, with songs such as “To Live & Die In LA,” “Me And My Girlfriend,” and “Hail Mary” pushing the project past 4 million copies sold.
Also, in 1996, Snoop Dogg returned with his second LP, Tha Doggfather, and the label released the Gridlock’d soundtrack and the Christmas On Death Row holiday album. In one year alone, Death Row Records sold more than 16 million albums, an unprecedented mark for an independent black-owned company.
Subsequent years featured the release of the acclaimed Gang Related soundtrack, The Lady Of Rage’s Necessary Roughness album and 2Pac’s Greatest Hits LP, among other projects.
Several Death Row Records artists – Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and 2Pac – remain as relevant and influential as they did when they made history in the 1990s. In fact, as the music industry shifted to the digital era in the 2000s, Death Row’s catalog went with it, amassing more than 5 billion streams collectively with 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle leading the way. With a combination of phenomenal music, groundbreaking production, larger-than-life artists,and remarkable business savvy, Death Row Records stands as one of the music business’s success stories.