Death Row Records exploded on the music scene in 1993 with a gangsta rap sound that took the world by storm. Yet despite its unprecedented success, releasing six consecutive multi-platinum albums- and creating megastars in Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog and Tupac Shakur, the label quickly unraveled in a firestorm of rivalry, greed, violence and scrutiny by the federal government and the media as CEO Marion Suge Knight’s unconventional business practices increasingly mirrored the violent, hard-edged themes of its music.
WELCOME TO DEATH ROW flows directly from events depicted in STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON.
After securing a business arrangement with Jimmy Iovine’s then-upstart label Interscope, Death Row Records releases a previously unprecedented six consecutive multi-platinum albums and turns artists like Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg into household names. But as quickly as it rises to unimagined heights, the label crashes and burns amid allegations of money laundering, murder, gang ties, and the heavy handed business practices of its notorious CEO, Marion “Suge” Knight.
WELCOME TO DEATH ROW brings an insider’s view of what happened at this most unconventional enterprise, answering questions that many observers of the label have been asking for years. Why would Suge Knight seek to bring members of the Blood street gang into the enterprise after it was successful? How did Jimmy Iovine manage his relationship with Knight? How did Death Row’s securing of rapper Tupac Shakur lead to Dr. Dre’s departure and ultimately the label’s demise?
At its core, the Death Row story is a drama worthy of Shakespeare. An ex-football player, turned bodyguard rips the rap industry’s most successful new producer, Dr. Dre, from his contract with Eazy E’s Ruthless Records and takes a $1.5 million investment from Michael “Harry O” Harris —a former crack kingpin serving consecutive life sentences— to fund his company. Since Knight has an extensive criminal past and has a label with artists with criminal records, Harris sets him up with the man handling his appeal for attempted murder: former county prosecutor David Kenner. Over time, Kenner will become Knight’s consigliere and right hand man, and later will conspire with Knight to betray Harris as Death Row becomes the most successful rap label in history.
But Harry O is not the kind of person who will let imprisonment stand in the way of what he sees as rightfully his. As Death Row’s often violent and unconventional business practices lead to its undoing, Harris stiff arms a government investigation into Death Row’s initial funding and eventually wins a $100 million dollar judgment against the label. This leads to a mano-a-mano showdown between Harris and Knight at San Quentin Prison before Suge Knight makes the fateful decision to throw Death Row into bankruptcy.
WELCOME TO DEATH ROW is derived from the 2001 documentary of the same name, and the book, “Welcome to Death Row: The Rise and Fall of Death Row Records” published in 2015. Both are owned and controlled by Xenon Pictures, Inc., where they were created.
2016’s STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON was developed at Xenon Pictures as an offshoot project, with CEO Leigh Savidge garnering an Oscar nomination for best screenplay.
The project is currently in the form of a two hour screenplay which gives a compressed view of a story covering events that happen over a twenty year period from 1986 to 2005. The story can easily be expanded into a six to eight hour limited series as well.
Marion “Suge” Knight – 28
Physically imposing at 6’4” 285 pounds, Suge’s street-level smarts regarding the music business come from years as a bodyguard to artists such as Bobby Brown, The DOC and later, Dr. Dre, listening to them express their dissatisfaction with their record labels and contracts. Not afraid to engage in violence to serve a personal or business end and armed with an ability to—in his words—“talk to a brother”, Suge wills the Death Row label into existence on the back of Dr. Dre’s decision to work with him and his own ability to get other key people to buy into his dream.
But once the dream is obtained and the financial struggles are over, Suge begins to see himself as the star of his own label —with devastating consequences.
Michael “Harry O” Harris, 30
Handsome in the manner of a young Idris Elba, the 6’5”, 250 pound Harry O had been a legendary figure in both South Central Los Angeles, and the legendary nightspots of the Sunset Strip —prior to his incarceration for cocaine trafficking and attempted murder. With a veneer of polish and a reputation for treachery, Harry O made his business bones by doing outsized drug deals with relatives of Pablo Escobar and using the proceeds to fund Houston-based Rap-A-Lot Records and other legitimate businesses.
When Suge runs out of money in Death Row’s early development, he reaches out to Harry O through Harry O’s attorney David Kenner, and an investment of $1.5 million is arranged behind prison walls …for a 50% share of the label.
But Suge soon finds out that Harry O is going to be anything but a passive investor.
David Kenner, Esq. – 43
A brilliant former county prosecutor, Kenner is one of a small coterie of criminal defense attorneys handling high profile criminal cases in downtown Los Angeles. As part of his work, he tends to get very close to his clients, closer than many might consider appropriate. When Harry O sees him in action (defending someone else) in his drug case, he reaches out to him and what appears to be an unshakable bond is quickly formed between them.
At his core, Kenner yearns for a more glamorous life, desperate to impress his wife and kids who often express a dim view of him. In Harry O, he senses a pathway to a new kind of life. Kenner has ambitions to enter the record business…. and needs Harry O’s street cred to make his way. For his part, Harry O needs Kenner’s help with the appeal for his attempted murder conviction. But when Harry O arranges for Kenner to become Suge’s right hand man, where will Kenner’s loyalties lie?
Lydia Harris – 27
Lydia meets Harry O in her native Houston in the mid-80’s when he is in town conducting business with Rap-A-Lot Records. In Lydia, Harry O finds a quality not shared by the many women he’s been with previously: a loyalist willing to embrace dangerous situations to serve a business end for him. When Harry O is convicted of both attempted homicide and federal drug charges, Lydia stays the course, setting up shop at Death Row Records to help oversee Harry O’s interests there.
But amid all the machinations at Death Row and its aftermath, can she possibly stay loyal to her husband?
(Lydia is considered by many to be the model for Empire’s “Cookie Lyon”)
Sharitha Knight – 23
Low key, kind-hearted and blinded by the charms of her first love, Suge Knight’s first wife has known Suge since they dated in high school when he was a football star with dreams of playing pro ball. But when those dreams are dashed amid a gun charge, Sharitha soon finds herself involved somewhat reluctantly in the violent world of the emerging west coast rap movement, assisting Suge when he needs her to serve a business end and looking the other way during his many dalliances with other women.
But when Suge makes a successful play for Dr. Dre’s ex-girlfriend, singer Michele, Sharitha must gather the courage to move on.
Dick Griffey – 58
The founder CEO of Solar Records, a successful R & B label from the 80’s, Griffey’s career is on a downslide when he offers Suge Knight the use of his North Hollywood recording studio. For Dr Dre, the fact that Griffey has a highly prized SSL board helps seal his decision to throw his lot in with Suge.
But Griffey’s old school views about the music business and about music in general soon put him in conflict with Suge who quickly brings a dangerous gang element into Griffey’s more genteel R & B studio world. When Griffey can’t get a record deal for Dre’s album The Chronic done with Sony, Suge will maneuver to push Griffey out of Death Row’s future prospects.
Jimmy Iovine – 45
A superstar music producer, Iovine is partnered with billionaire entrepreneur Ted Field in Interscope Records which has had only modest success prior to its embrace of Dr. Dre’s album The Chronic. As a music industry veteran, Iovine has seen it all when it comes to aberrant and toxic behavior.
But in trying to help Suge Knight and Death Row navigate their business in the face of the label’s astonishing success, this son of a Brooklyn longshoreman will face situations and dilemmas he’s never seen before.
Dr. Dre – 24
A former DJ and NWA group member, Dr. Dre has found his calling as the producer of a series of successful releases from Eazy E’s upstart label, Ruthless Records including the seminal album “Straight Outta Compton”. A stubborn perfectionist who’s feeling underappreciated by Eazy E and Eazy’s manager, Jerry Heller, Dre yields to Suge’s ambition and —under financially trying and often violent circumstances— creates the albums that transition Death Row from obscurity to notoriety.
But as Death Row flourishes, Dre finds himself increasingly at loggerheads with Suge Knight’s violent and often unscrupulous business practices. Then Suge positions himself as the face of the label, even though it is Dre’s reputation and production that has created its success. When Suge is able to get superstar rapper, Tupac Shakur sprung from prison and onto the label, the seeds of Dre’s departure will be sown.
Snoop Doggy Dogg – 23
6’4” with a voice as smooth as silk, Long Beach native Snoop becomes the first star created by Death Row via the Dre-produced Deep Cover soundtrack and later releases including “Doggystyle”. But Snoop’s time at Death Row will largely be an extended nightmare as he fights to beat a murder rap against a gang member who —jealous of his success— had profiled and taunted him to try and earn his stripes.
Tupac Shakur – 23
Locked up and facing years in prison on a rape charge, notorious rapper Tupac Shakur is offered a get out of jail early card. Suge Knight will post his million dollar bail if Shakur gives Death Row Records his next three albums.
When Shakur accepts, Suge devotes the lion’s share of his time to the rapper. Soon, he’s immersing himself in the mercurial Shakur’s beefs with former friend, rapper Biggie Smalls and his label head, Puffy Combs, resulting in a war of words that will turn deadly.
Suge will also use Shakur as a vehicle to further the growing wedge between himself and Dr. Dre. Shakur’s appearance in the story will set the stage for Death Row’s ultimate paradox: he’ll create the greatest music of his career while engaging in activities that will ultimately cost him his life and destroy the Death Row label.
Biggie Smalls and his label head, Sean Puffy Combs.
2001’s Welcome to Death Row was the first journalistic work to lay out the complete rise and fall of Suge Knight and Death Row Records. At the time, in the midst of raging feuds and under the scrutiny of the FBI, there were very few people who would speak to the filmmakers –some even assumed they were cops.
But eventually they won the trust of more and more insiders, and obtained unprecedented access to the inner workings of the label and its formation. Of the stories they learned, some were nefarious, some funny, and some downright scary.
Altogether though, it convinced them of one thing: this was a hell of a story.
2001 DOCUMENTARY SCREENER
Apologies: We have had to remove the contact section of the site. Some a**hats have decided to use it to desminate all manner of absurd spam.
Creeps like them are why the rest of us can’t have nice things.