The Making of The Chronic
DOUG YOUNG: Death Row was bombin' out of control. All you had to do was tell a girl you worked at Death Row Records -- anything you want. Any shop you go into, "I work for Death Row" -- anything you want. Any record store you go into, "I work for Death Row" -- you come back with some promo goods. There was no club, no guest list you weren't on. "We'll fly you here, we'll do this for you, that for you. We'll give you clothes."
JEFFREY JOLSON-COLBURN: Death Row at its peak was making about $150 million a year. For a tiny label, that was a shocking amount.
ALLEN GORDON: There was no control [over spending] at Death Row. Rap Pages printed a story about BL Diamonds, where Death Row got all their jewelry. And we have the invoices of all the jewelry that was purchased there on credit. And you go down the list, and it's "bracelet for wife No. 1 ... cut gold, diamond cufflinks..." And after a while the artists started going there and ordering their own jewelry without the consent of [attorney David] Kenner, Knight or [Death Row publicist] George Pryce, any figure of authority. Suge Knight probably doesn't even know that all these artists went down there and started purchasing this jewelry.
GEORGE PRYCE: The day that I [went in to interview with Knight] he said, 'Look I'm gonna interview you when I can, but it may take a while. So I sat for seven days in the lobby, between all of these huge hip-hop types. ... I sat for seven days -- a solid week. ... On the last day I finally saw Suge. He came down the aisle and said, "Hello, how are you? I'm gonna see you in a few minutes, but first I've got to have a staff meeting. As a matter of fact, come on in to the staff meeting." So when the meeting was called to order, the first words out of his mouth were "Everybody, I'd like you to meet George Pryce -- he's the new publicist, the head of communications and media relations for Death Row Records." No contract, no conversation about salary, nothing. But I knew it was gonna be OK and that's just the way Suge is.
GREGORY ATRON (talent manager): Death Row didn't put out a whole lotta records -- they just sold a lot of the ones that they put out.
ALLEN GORDON: And Death Row's street teams were the best. There wasn't a major urban community where they didn't know Doggystyle or [have] Dogg Food stickers posted up or even Chronic stickers when this was goin' on. I remember being in Omaha, Neb., and seeing a Chronic sticker on the lamppost. 'Cause I didn't think anybody in Nebraska listened to hip-hop.
JEFFREY JOLSON-COLBURN: Radio couldn't play gangsta rap; the four-letter words kept it off conventional radio and conventional TV. Plus, there was Death Row's name, a gruesome little logo of somebody sitting on death row with a hood over his head. That helped.
Eventually, Dr. Dre began having trouble focusing in the raucous Death Row environment.
UNKNOWN DJ: Suge Knight felt the need to have a court around him, and I don't think Dre felt comfortable with that.
FRANK ALEXANDER (Tupac bodyguard): Tupac and Dr. Dre was fine, in the beginning. You didn't see any problems. [But] from the time I worked there in '95 up to '96, Dr. Dre had only been in the studio twice. 'Pac took offense to that.
TUPAC SHAKUR***: He wasn't producing shit. All the niggas were producing the beats on my album. All the niggas were doing the beats and Dre was getting the credit.
|Simone Green / Xenon Pictures|
SUGE KNIGHT: Dre wasn't doing the tracks, and Dre didn't write the lyrics.
KEVIN POWELL: Tupac started becoming the mouthpiece for Suge and started dissing Dre.
TUPAC SHAKUR: [Dre] is a dope producer, but he ain't worked in years. I'm out here in the streets, whooping niggas' asses, starting wars and shit, and this nigga's taking three years to do one song.
SNOOP DOGG: It was not a work atmosphere anymore. Success had kicked in. We were stars, and motherfuckers just loved being around us. And bringing bullshit around us. Dre wasn't for that.
DR. DRE: I just didn't like some of the things that were going on. There was nothing being done to stop it.
SNOOP DOGG: Dre likes to work in an environment where you can create. [Where] everybody's on the creative atmosphere and not about what's goin' on in the 'hood, how many niggas you shot and how much shit you did. He didn't want that.
JEWELL: Suge took over the company. I don't think Dre wanted to be a yes-man for somebody. He wanted his own situation.
JEFFREY JOLSON-COLBURN: Dre says, "I want out of this world. I want to form Aftermath, where I'm not part of Death Row. I want to live."
NATE DOGG: When Dre left Death Row Records, that was the biggest shock. Because I was real confused how you start a label and then leave the label. I figured if you had a problem with someone ... you'd make them leave, and you'd go on with what you're doing. I guess he learned it wasn't his label.
SUGE KNIGHT: Dre's departure wasn't a loss. If you've got a multimillion dollar company -- maybe worth a billion dollars -- and you own 100 percent and don't have a partner, then you don't have to give him nothing but his walking papers. That's great.
ALLEN GORDON: To give up 50 percent of your label and move from a dangerous situation, which Death Row was becoming, was a smart move for him.
Though few imprints have been as successful, Death Row's hit-making run was short. After the departure of Dre, Tupac Shakur became its marquee artist, but his 1996 murder plunged the label into chaos.
Knight was sent to prison for a parole violation and was suspected of orchestrating the hit on Tupac's rival Notorious B.I.G.
Snoop Dogg departed for Master P's No Limit label, while Dr. Dre's Aftermath has become one of hip-hop's most successful imprints, introducing artists such as Eminem, 50 Cent and Kendrick Lamar.
The 6 million copies sold of Dre's 1999 album 2001 eclipsed even the triple-platinum The Chronic. It is the latter album, however, whose influence is still felt most strongly today.
*Dr. Dre quotes taken from a 1999 Behind the Music episode
**Suge Knight quotes taken from a 1996 BET interview
***Tupac Shakur quotes taken from a 1996 U.K. radio interview
Editor's note: A pair of quotes from rapper CPO have been removed from this story, as he asserts he did not make them.
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