FLASHBACK: It was 1996 and Dr. Dre record label was born; here’s what happened

By Logan Willard – June 5, 2022

In a move that will reorder the way things were in the hip hop music business, rapper Dr. Dre, the top producer at that time in the booming hip-hop music market, was parting ways from Death Row Records, the controversial record label he co-founded in 1991 with partner Suge Knight.

Dr. Dre, whose real name is Andre Young, launched a new record label, Aftermath Entertainment, that was originally funded in part and distributed by Westwood-based Interscope Records, according to sources. Dr.Dre which he was 30 at the time, named himself chief executive and produce records exclusively for his new label.

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Death Row Records, was also based in Westwood, had at that time sold more than 18 million albums and was dominating the nation’s pop charts for three consecutive years with gangsta rap music by such superstars as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound and Tupac Shakur.

Death Row Records attracted nationwide attention in 1995 after sexually explicit and violent lyrics released by Death Row recording artists set off a political uproar which at the time caused Time Warner to separate from the label’s distributor, Interscope. (MCA then purchased 50% of Interscope.)

Dr. Dre walked away from and put Death Row Records solely in the hands of Suge Knight who was 30 at the time, a power hungry entrepreneur from Compton, California who is credited with putting together the blueprint for the company’s transformation from an unknown start-up label into a successful and respected company that was generating more than $100 million in revenue annually.

With Dre leaving and Knight’s decision to purchase the remaining 50% of Death Row the agreement was finalized and Death Row and Dr. Dre would moved on as Interscope continued distribute Death Row Records artists.

At that time neither Dr. Dre nor Suge Knight could be reached for comment. But sources familiar with Dre’s departure said tension was building for at least last six months over the creative direction of the enterprise. Sources also mentioned Suge Knight and other Death Row associates were disappointed that Dr. Dre didn’t show up to support rapper Snoop Dogg at his then murder trial. Snoop Dogg, whose real name is Calvin Broadus, was acquitted of the most serious charges and will not be retried.

Death Row was raising eyebrows in the music business not only because it was the first record company to successfully market gangsta rap singles to the top of pop radio playlists, but also because of a consecutive string of violent incidents supposed to have been associated with its artists and management. Both Suge Knight and Dr. Dre have had run-ins with the law stemming from assault claims. Also at that time Tupac Shakur was out on bail as he appealed a conviction on a charge of sexual abuse.

Regardless of their legal problems, Dre and Knight created a black-owned and operated business whose success surpassed any hip hop company in the business. The rapper is credited with producing several hits that have cemented his reputation as the hip hop equivalent of Phil Spector, the genius rock producer congratulated for his work in the 1960s.

Dr. Dre is known as a gifted innovator who created a new sound by smoothing out hip hop’s pile-driver beat with an overlay of 1970s-style funk. His talents in the studio attracted frequent offers from pop stars such as Madonna. But strategically chose to work with unknown artists, who often wrote the controversial lyrics to his songs.

He began his career as a disc jockey in Compton dance clubs, learning the beginning of record engineering while several of his friends were busy gangbanging in the nearby neighborhoods. The hip hop star later helped assemble the rap group N.W.A. It rose to stardom with an underground hit titled “F— Tha Police,” an angry attack on police brutality that was bitterly criticized by the FBI and police groups, who said it motivated others to inflict violence against police officers.

He also masterminded N.W.A.’s 1989 breakthrough album, “Straight Outta Compton,” as well as produced its 1991 crossover album, “Efil4zaggin” (“niggaz4life” spelled backward), which was the first hard-core hip hop collection to rise to No. 1 on the pop charts. Dre’s productions at that time accounted for sales of more than 25 million albums.

Housed on the 12th floor of a Westwood high-rise, Death Row was started in 1991 as a $250,000 joint venture by Suge Knight and Andre Young. Knight entered the big leagues in 1990 from ownership of rights to songs on hip hop artist Vanilla Ice’s hit debut album.

Andre and Suge negotiated a $10-million deal in 1992 with Interscope to distribute their records and to finance Death Row Records start-up. In a power move, Knight and Young retained all publishing and recording rights, allowing them to pocket the label’s profits in perpetuity.

Even without Dr. Dre, music industry sources expected Death Row to continue to prosper. The company has some of the most respected artists and producers in the hip-hop industry. Besides rappers Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound and 2Pac, Death Row had planned to expand into R&B with albums released by Michel’le, Danny Boy, Jewell and Six Feet Deep.

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