August 15, 2011 PHOTOGRAPHY ⁄  DEATH ROW GETS SERVED

JUKE did some time on Death Row, hours before the ultimate g-unit pulled the plug on three epic decades of beefin’ and ballin’

When you receive a tip-off that a business is packing up and shifting out, and your source asks, would you like the opportunity to photograph the last few hours of said doomed business, you feel like the ghost at the feast. I had just decided to find more stories that start with a beginning, rather than an end when this call came through the wires. But… this was a difficult offer to refuse.

The company in question pretty much shaped hip-hop in the 90s. Dre, Snoop, Tupac, The D.O.C., to name but a few, were its star players. So here I was, hurtling down the A406 towards the UK offices of Death Row Records, in North West London. My contact and driver, Vas, was driving an early 90s, lowered and proper murdered-out 3-series BMW. Yes, my son!

Death Row was co-founded by Andre ‘Dr Dre’ Young and the more notorious Marion “Suge” Knight, Jr. With album releases such as The Chronic, Snoop’s Doggystyle and multi-platinum award-winning soundtracks for Above The Rim and Gang Related, Death Row was a label powerhouse. Fuelled by allegations of Suge Knight’s involvement in the murder of Biggie Smalls, as well as the alleged dangling of Robert Van Winkle (aka Vanilla Ice) from a fiftieth floor hotel window, Suge certainly brought some ferocious colour to the company.

We parked up. It was crazy to think that all those stars – massive, worldwide, household names – had walked the same grim Neasden concrete. And as we stepped inside the lavish foyer, it dawned on me that this was actually the final day. We made our way through to the offices to find that the desks, chairs, computers, and staff had all but vanished, although a few portraits of Tupac, Dre and Snoop still adorned the walls. Master tapes, hard drives and merchandise lined a wall out of sight and, weirdly, the only piece of furniture that remained – was the infamous electric chair: a cornerstone of the label’s iconic logo. Ron Winter (who, along with Suge imported Death Row to the UK) invited me to take a seat. Strapped in, I imagined Suge bursting out of a cupboard, crocodile-clipped power cables in hand and hooking me up to the mains, screaming and forcing legal ownership for the eyes of my children.

For such an inauspicious day, the few remaining members of staff at the offices seemed quite upbeat. The luxurious and comforting smoke from Ron’s cigar filled the room, and it wasn’t too taxing to imagine the craziness – good and bad – that must have filled these offices throughout the years. Death Row was a company that reached the pinnacle of success. They had delved into the very essence of everyday society and scared the shit out of it, and as a teenager back in the nineties, that felt good.

In 2006 Lydia and Michael Harris sued Suge Knight for unpaid royalties, claiming that Michael Harris had helped found the label. In April 2006, the courts awarded the Harris’s $107 million in arrears, forcing Death Row to file for bankruptcy. Suge Knight had just $11 in his back account at the time following a lengthy incarceration.

Death Row records are now in the hands of Lara Lavi of WIDEawake entertainment Group. Lavi states “The label is no longer destined for death, we have given it a full pardon.”

Call me romantic, but Knight’s thugwave trailblazing brought the ruckus in a decade dominated by Seattle navelgazing and girl power. Whether he was brandishing lead pipes and heavies to secure Dre’s release from his former label; posting Tupac’s bail in return for signing him pre-All Eyez on Me; attempting to sue for misplaced ice at Kanye West’s house party; or undertaking a one-man Puffy smear campaign, the unparalleled music output and violent gangster soap opera of Death Row Records made for some thrilling teenaged viewing. That electric chair is looking pretty sick in my rumpus room.

 

Photos and words: Jonathan Winstone

[For: JUKE Vol.03]