by Ronin Ro ‧ RELEASE DATE: March 1, 1998
A sloppy but repellently gripping history of the once eminent, now moribund Death Row record label. Hip-hop journalist Ro (Gangsta: Merchandising the Rhymes of Violence, 1996) charts CEO Marion ""Suge"" Knight's progress from an impoverished childhood in L.A.'s Compton ghetto through his tenure as hooligan-in-chief of gangster-ridden Death Row and his ultimate imprisonment on charges of violating probation after an assault conviction. Having started Death Row with money provided by an incarcerated L.A. drug kingpin, Knight, according to Ro, used threats and intimidation to extract Dr. Dre, of the bestselling gangsta-rap group N.W.A, from his contract with Ruthless Records in 1991. Dre, rap's most influential producer, enlisted the unknown Snoop Doggy Dogg to rap on his The Chronic, which became one of the biggest-selling rap albums ever. While Snoop's solo album continued Death Row's winning streak, the enormous Knight and his entourage of Bloods routinely handled perceived business problems with physical attacks, at least one of which, Ro reports, resulted in death: ""Death Row employees went about their filing and faxing as blood-curdling shrieks filled the office. They saw the doorknob jerking, knowing that people were desperately trying to escape a beating."" Ro lets various Crips, Bloods, and other observers testify to the pattern of violent retaliation that usually kept Knight's victims from seeking legal redress. Knight did his best to foment the East Coast/West Coast hip-hop feud that, according to Ro, is possibly to blame for the murders of stars Tupac Shakur (who was shot while riding in Knight's car) and the Notorious B.I.G. Artists with platinum records routinely went unpaid, and by 1997, when Knight received his nine-year prison sentence, lawsuits and government investigations aimed at Death Row had virtually halted the label's activities. Unfortunately, Ro's writing is infuriatingly haphazard: In some places crucial information is scrambled or omitted, but elsewhere he feels the need to identify ""pop singer Madonna Ciccone."" Still, a surrealistic tale of high-stakes thuggery.
Pub Date: March 1, 1998
Page Count: 372
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1998
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