Essential trawl through one of the most important back catalogues in hip-hop...
The global impact of Suge Knight’s Death Row label cannot be underestimated. Apart from the establishment of West Coast artists as a potent force in hip-hop, it also stood alone as an independently owned African-American label, who single-handedly exposed the world to the deep and often dangerous underbelly of the Californian Dream Factory and sold in excess of 26 million records in the process.
The ghettos of South Central Los Angeles, Watts and Compton weren’t unknown before NWA came along; it’s just the way the outside public’s perceptions were challenged by that seminal group that was so important. There was no compromise – harsh, gritty street reportage and excellent beats. Dr Dre was a foundation stone of NWA, and his unparalleled productions formed the bedrock for Death Row’s eventual rise and supposed fall.
Yes, there were rumours of extreme business practices, and 2Pac’s untimely death was needless and shameful, but when the street meets corporations, sparks fly. And this here document should come with a government health warning : these beats and the honesty of the rappers might just stain your soul forever.
Death Row was also about fun and good times, and when you check Dr Dre’s ‘Nuthin’ But A G Thang’ – which introduced lanky young Snoop Doggy Dogg to the world – or groove to Snoop’s ‘Gin And Juice’; or even turn cartwheels to Pac’s ‘Me Against The World’, there was always a balance held between reality and fantasy. As well as a line drawn between shiny, futuristic beats that mangled up a soul and funk past, and all other competition.
The undertow of sadness and horror that haunts the ghetto wasn’t flinched at either. Dre’s ‘Lil’ Ghetto Boy’ exposed the truth encoded in Donny Hathaway’s original and 2Pac’s letter to African American women, ‘Keep Your Head Up’ also showed a fierce conscience.
When you pushed Death Row, though, retaliation was swift – on record at least. Tragedy only occurred when various parties couldn’t differentiate between reality and fantasy. And to hear Pac’s ‘Hit ‘Em Up’ now, with hindsight, points to three dead artists as an indirect result – him and two others (Outlawz member Tragedy Khadaffi and the subject of the song, ex best friend Notorious B.I.G).
So, here are 33 cuts preserved in aspic, each with a story to tell. And it’s an evolving story that isn’t by any means over yet.