FOUR YEARS AFTER it was founded in 1992, Death Row Records had sold more than 18 million albums and grossed over $325 million. As the rough-and-ready home of Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and Tupac Shakur, Death Row became the first rap label to place its videos in MTV's regular rotation, and the company can be directly credited with transforming gangsta rap into a mainstream art form. Today, Death Row should not only be remembered as one of the most successful black-owned record labels in history but also one of the most profitable and controversial record labels of all time.
Ronin Ro, a music writer at the Source and Vibe, addresses the legend and legacy of Death Row Records in Have Gun Will Travel and explores the backroom dealings that made Death Row Records an industry force. Filling that back room with a combination of business savvy, threats, and sheer mass was Death Row CEO Suge Knight, referred to here as "the most intimidating executive that the music industry has ever seen." Upon founding his label, Knight, who recently began serving a nine-year sentence for a parole violation, quickly became renowned for his thug-like approach to competition in the always treacherous music industry: He was a wolverine among weasels.
An L.A. gang member himself, as a member of the Tree Top Pirus (affiliated with the Bloods), Knight employed members of the Bloods and Crips alike in the day-to-day management of the label. In one well-reported instance, Vanilla Ice signed over publishing rights to a disputed song after the CEO allegedly held him over a hotel balcony and threatened to throw him over. Police reports document another case where former Death Row artists, George and Stanley Lynwood, were beaten after they made the mistake of assuming that they could use Knight's private phone line.
Since Knight's imprisonment, many former Death Row staff members, artists, and competitors have come forward to express their fears of being beaten, tortured, or worse in the course of doing business with the CEO. Ro details more than a dozen instances where Knight or his immediate henchmen physically assaulted--and even, in one case, raped--Death Row employees and artists, often in the presence of a large cohort. Employees even tell the author of making frequent excuses to run errands outside the office in order to avoid hearing the torture sessions in the company storeroom. Here and throughout, Ro reports the story with admirable intrepidity.
Ultimately, the reader need not be a hip-hop fan to appreciate Have Gun Will Travel. This is a violent and gossip-filled journey into a music and a culture--at once a tale of near-comic thuggery and, in the case of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., a tragedy.