The most notorious gangsta rap label of the 1990s.
Formed by former football player, gangster and bodyguard Suge Knight, Death Row aggressively signed most of the biggest names on the West Coast hip-hop scene. Starting with Dr. Dre's Tha Chronic album, Death Row made Snoop Doggy Dogg the biggest thing in hip-hop history, and made millions of dollars for and from rappers Dre, Tupac Shakur, Warren G and Tha Dogg Pound (the biggest stars on the label).
Producing car-stereo friendly bumping G-Funk was what Death Row was all about. Producers Dre and Dat Nigga Daz were the best in the business and made sure that Snoop's Doggystyle and Tha Doggfather, and Warren G's Regulate...G Funk Era, along with Tha Dogg Pound's Dogg Food were the biggest-selling rap albums ever - and not just in South Central LA - middle class white kids around the world embraced Death Row's gangsta vision to an extent that 80% of their sales were going to young white kids.
The controversy surrounding Death Row was not merely the fear and loathing for gangsta rap professed by Middle America and the US Government, but also Suge's connections with LA gang The Bloods. Wherever Knight and Death Row went, violence was sure to follow, and Knight, his artists and his entourage were forever embroiled in one criminal proceeding after another - murder, robbery, rape, pimping, dealing - you name it. On top of the constant legal battles, Suge manoeuvered his label and his artists into a violent feud with Sean 'Puffy' Combs and his Bad Boy stable of artists, headed up by Tupac's former friend The Notorious B.I.G (who Shakur blamed for a murder attempt on him several years earlier). The feud went back and forth on vinyl and at awards ceremonies, until 2Pac's Hit 'Em Up spelled out in no uncertain terms that Death Row were gangsters first and musicians second. But before things could go any further, Shakur was tragically shot and killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. Weeks later, Biggie Smalls was also murdered in what most consider to be an act of revenge.
Ironically, it was a parole violation that brought Suge Knight down and spelled the end for Death Row - however by 1996 the tragic shooting of 2Pac and the defection of Snoop and Dre meant that the Row was a shadow of its former self. Suge was released from jail in 2000 and immediately started up Death Row again, under the name of Tha Row.