During the ‘90s, Death Row Records linked the sound and do it yourself ethic of Stax and Motown with Hip Hop. It laid the blueprint for No Limit, Roc-A-Fella and a half dozen other independent labels. Along with the trademark sound emerged tales of industry shakedowns, studio beatdowns and a conflict that left two of Hip Hop’s greatest contributors dead. Things got so bad that Dr. Dre then Snoop Dogg and nearly everyone else departed, leaving thousands of unreleased recordings and plenty of drama in their trail. A few who chose to remain occasionally made headlines. As a shell of its former self, Death Row brought in a steady trickle of a couple million dollars annually, until a crippling lawsuit forced the label to sell its assets in a recent auction.
Canada’s WIDEawake Enertainment purchased the remaining Death Row assets for $18 million, simultaneously ending and starting a new era. As questions arose about the reintroducing the label’s analog material in a now digital Hip Hop landscape, the new owners promised a drastic change in the way business was conducted. After nearly a decade of re-releasing bootlegs and b-sides that were better left on the cutting room floor, stories of a board of trustees led by a suburban soccer-mom did little to ease the fears of die-hard Death Row fans.
In an exclusive interview with HipHopDX, WIDEAwake/Death Row CEO Lara Lavi and Senior Vice President John Payne cut through the clichéd press clippings to explain why they can equally relate to the suits who write the checks and the artists who cash them. With ties that reach back to Death Row’s infancy as Future Shock Records, John and Lara have offered a full pardon of sorts for all the artists and music stranded on Death Row. In the following pages, you can judge if they’ll successfully take the hood off of Death Row’s iconic mascot without taking the hood out of the label’s master recordings.
HipHopDX: What initially attracted you to the Death Row purchase?
John Payne: I was actually with Death Row from the very beginning. I did the Deep Cover Soundtrack, and I helped formulate the direction Death Row took before it kind of went a little negative. When the company went bankrupt, I worked with the trustees in identifying everything. I’m involved primarily because I had a very good vibe with Lara; WIDEAwake is a very good company to work with. But I also want to maintain the integrity of the music and keep it in its original state. I want to make sure some of the artists who never came out have a chance to be exposed—some of them never got paid.
Lara Lavi: I am the CEO, president and chief bottle washer of WIDEAwake, and now WIDEAwake/Death Row Entertainment LLC. That’s the US company. I’m American, and now that Barack [Obama] is in office I think I can go back to America. I was recruited up here to put together a new breed of entertainment company with Canadian money. It seemed like a good thing to do with George W. Bush fucking up the United States.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve been intensely incubating, getting our sea legs and figuring out what we wanted to do. Our chairman, who is this somewhat reclusive white guy from Georgetown, Ontario, looked up one day and said, “We need to buy an asset that’s generating income. Go find a good one.” We looked at a lot of publishing catalogs and a host of other [assets]. We saw this as a good opportunity to generate an accelerated cash flow into the company, and build on an area that we have a lot of understanding in. This is an area where we can get ourselves on the map, and it seems to be working.
DX: Just to clarify, did your lot only include music or was the one with the cars and gold records?
John Payne: Those were two separate auctions. The one Wide Awake got was the material; this is strictly the musical catalog. The cars, the [electric] chair and the gold records were personal items which were seized. We have music, video and anything related to artistic items. The other auction was personal items. Just so you know, I was at the auction. There was a box of [Suge Knight’s] dirty underwear, and some guy bought it.
DX: I saw that on TV one night. That was crazy!
John Payne: Yeah, and he was happy to get it too. He went running out of the room screaming, and he called someone on the phone that was probably going to be equally happy later.
DX: Wow…not much you can say after that.
Lara Lavi: That’s some weird shit! But, we didn’t need any of that. I didn’t need Suge’s gold records sitting on my wall. I’m not interested in that silly stuff. I’m interested in a new home for these artists. It’s a new day.
John Payne: We didn’t go for the personal items. We went for the stuff that actually means something—the music. People ask us why we didn’t buy the electric chair, but we just released people from the electric chair. Why would we want it, when we pardoned them from that? We don’t need to decorate our artists with Suge’s possessions. We’ll put new gold and platinum up there and do it from the artist’s perspective.
DX: The sale of Death Row fell through at least two previous times for reasons unrelated to what was actually in the catalog. Did that deter you in any way?
John Payne: I wouldn’t have really worked with another company. The people that I saw who were looking to make the purchase were going to take Death Row in the wrong direction and do a lot of the stuff that’s been done to the 2Pac catalog—overproduce it, wash it out and mix it incorrectly.
We’re going to maintain things and keep it as original as possible, as well as inject some things people haven’t seen while keeping it in its original state. The Death Row catalog is a lot larger and more versatile than people realize. There’s probably 7,000 unreleased tracks. There’s also lots of professional footage as well as home movies. There’s also Gospel and R&B. We want to give people the full picture of Death Row so they can appreciate it. It will also explain how the music came to be and what it was truly about without the negativity. We want to base it around the artists—not around what it was in the past, and not around us personally.
DX: Let’s take Dr. Dre’s The Chronic for example. How does what you have add to something that many people already think is a classic?
John Payne: We have enough product to fully enhance content from every year Death Row was in existence. You look at The Chronic, in the state that it’s in now, we can provide other versions of the songs and songs that didn’t make the album. These aren’t songs that didn’t make it because they weren’t good. They just didn’t make it because there were already enough songs on the album. We can include footage of how these albums were made and versions of the videos that you may not have seen. There are also videos from The Chronic and every other album that didn’t get released.
I’m sure you [as a fan] enjoyed everything that came out, but you got a very one-dimensional perspective of things. And we’ve also got stuff from Crooked I [click to view], Petey Pablo and various artists like that. A lot of people waited to hear Danny Boy, who did a lot of vocals with ‘Pac. Well we have several completed Danny Boy records and videos. So you can get a better idea of what was going on at that time. When you look at All Eyez On Me, you can see what Danny Boy was doing, [or] better understand why Charlie Wilson was a good fit to sing on Snoop Dogg’s [click to read] records.
DX: In your Wall Street Journal interview, you expressed a desire to “get things on a better level” with artists who have catalogs in the assets. Former Death Row executive Daz, said he was willing to cooperate, push product and even possibly film videos.
Lara Lavi: We also want to do some creative things with this catalog, and these artists are going to be invited back to do some fun stuff. Some of them that are still active may want to re-sign. We don’t know; we’ll work our way through it. Eventually we’ll be looking at new artists, but we’ve got so much stuff to deal with now that that’s going to take a while.
John Payne: The fact that I know them all well and have known them all for a long time means I never really stopped being in touch with them. Back in October, I had Snoop and Tha Dogg Pound [click to read] in Australia. So my relationship with them is good. They’re happy that I’m involved. Snoop and Crooked I have met Lara, and they know what we’re about. They know that they’re going to start getting paid again, and some of the stuff they were working on is going to see the light of day. When they left the label, I’m sure they never thought it would happen again. We still have to sit down and work out some things as well as set up things for the future, and they know that too.
DX: In addition to the marquee names, you also have artists like Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez and Petey Pablo. How do you sort them and establishing a pecking order?
Lara Lavi: This is a lot of heavy lifting, and I would not have even considered this without John Payne agreeing to do it with us. When you go to look at the content that Death Row has in storage, it’s like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
John Payne: We have a chronological history that goes from day one up until a couple years ago. There’s an evolution of Death Row that people never got to see. The list that I was dealing with would equate to…When we broke it down into an Excel file it was 40,000 lines. And this was just from the year 2000 going forward. Going back, it would be considerably more.
DX: In the current economic climate, licensing a song for commercial use is an option more and more people are turning to. A lot of people want to make sure we don’t hear an old ‘Pac song on a Trix commercial…
John Payne: That’s not gonna happen. We don’t need that. We can give you a much broader stroke of Death Row without tarnishing the image with remixes and a Snoop Dogg and Barry Manilow compilation. Fortunately, there’s enough material where we don’t have to start diluting it or changing it. Further on down the line, there will be some collaboration with other artists. Right now, we can focus on letting Death Row be Death Row in its purest form. That’s what a lot of people want and have been waiting for. There’s been a lot of watering down of the product and the 2Pac catalog as it stands. For the purists who liked the original material for what it was, we can guarantee that there’s a lot more. We’re also going to seek involvement from the artists. There will be artist participation with products and events we have planned.
This isn’t a closed door policy from a company that appears to be running things because they bought a catalog. A corporation did pay for the assets, and we’re going to return their investment. But they’re not dictating we do things a certain way, dilute it and just turn it into a big mess.
Lara Lavi: These investors really trust us, and we want the fans to trust us. We’re making good headway getting the artists to trust us. We want the fans and the artists to feel like this very, very part of important part of American culture gets a chance to be developed and continued in the right way.
DX: There’s an interesting dynamic between your respective resumes and someone in your catalog like Dre or Snoop who are also artists/executives?
Lara Lavi: I’m an artist. I’m an attorney, but I’m very left and right brained. I was on A&M Records, I was a writer for Warner Chappell, and I still put out albums. And, yeah, I’m more in the singer/songwriter vein, but I understand both sides of the microphone. I’ve toured the world with Peter Gabriel and done all sorts of things. John is a producer and engineer. He’s toured the world and worked with lots of different artists in virtually every genre of music. Artists are gonna resonate with us because we are part of their DNA. I know that someone wants to be heard and get paid, and we want to make sure both happen.
DX: Lara, the press that’s been done on you so far paints you as the exact opposite of a typical Death Row fan. No disrespect, but they’re really playing up this “soccer mom” aspect…
Lara Lavi: I’m a 48-year-old, Jewish soccer mom…that’s what I keep reading in the press. I find it funny. I’m also a singer/songwriter, and I’ve made millions of dollars as an artist. I’m an entertainment lawyer, and I’m married to an African-American since forever. I have an army of nieces and nephews who grew up on this stuff. So they think I’m the coolest aunt ever. My world has always had a huge component of black culture. I grew up with The Neville Brothers. Ivan Neville mentored me. These are folks who are a huge part of my fabric. Buddy Guy and The Blues Team…I started singing Blues when I was 17 and performing in clubs with a fake ID.
I come from a place of musicality. One of the fabulous things about music is if you put a bunch of musicians in a room—it doesn’t matter if they’re gangster rappers or opera singers—they only have one criterion. Can you blow? Can you sing? Can you play? Can you perform? Are you real? That transcends race, age and gender. The reason I do okay with these guys is because I don’t try to be like them. I’m not that cool. I drive a Volvo station wagon, and I like my Volvo station wagon. I can toss a lot of soccer balls in the back of that thing. I can also put everybody’s guitars in the back of that thing if necessary. When you sit down with Crooked I, Snoop, what’s the bottom line? They want to be heard, be paid and have their music respected. They get that from me. People will always get that from me. I’m thoroughly enjoying being underestimated.
DX: I don’t know. Do you think you can underestimate someone who pulls the trigger on an $18 million acquisition in the middle of a recession?
Lara Lavi: Absolutely, but I love it. You don’t look at me and see Death Row. But I’m not feeling a lot of haters. We get funny e-mails every now and then from people who say, “Don’t fuck it up, especially the 2Pac stuff.” And we don’t have any intention of fucking it up. We aren’t going to let the tail wag the dog, nor are we going to lose money.
DX: Are you able to answer questions about specific works?
John Payne: From those 7,000 songs you’re talking about unreleased Snoop and unreleased [Dr.] Dre. There are also solo albums from people who worked on the [marquee artist’s] albums. There’s Jewell, who was an original Death Row artist. [Lady of] Rage [click to read] has an album. There are Nate Dogg records. There are numerous Christmas albums. Anybody that you heard connected to Death Row, we have records from them. And there are also people that you’ve never heard of with albums too. We have R&B and Gospel, and nobody knew that Death Row had Gospel.
DX: I’ve gotta say a Gospel artist on Death Row sounds like oil and water.
John Payne: These wouldn’t be people you’ve heard of. But believe me; going through the stuff, the material is very good. I don’t think that a Gospel singer recording then would’ve considered even signing to Death Row based on their image. They wouldn’t have even known Death Row would take them in the first place. They didn’t gravitate toward Death Row, and I don’t think Death Row went out to actively seek Gospel musicians. But Death Row was willing to have people willing to work with them.
Lara Lavi: On the Gospel stuff, the fact that we own it doesn’t mean it has to come out under Death Row. WIDEAwake is a company with many, many genres of music. One of our projects, which isn’t Hip Hop at all is Sean Jones, who comes from a Gospel family. He’s done some stuff on our Christmas albums that would just vocally blow your mind. We own a whole company within a company, within a company, so there will be a home for everything. It’ll be alright.
DX: There’s a kind of mythology about lost Death Row recordings. Can you clear some of that up?
John Payne: I’ll try. There are certain records that may exist, but they may have existed under a different title. But just kick some names out, and we’ll see if any of them ring a bell.
DX: 2Pac supposedly made a diss song entitled “Hit ‘Em Up 2.”
John Payne: Oh yeah, I’ve heard that
DX: Daz Dillinger says he has at least one whole album with 2Pac entitled Don’t Go to Sleep [click to read].
John Payne: Yes. And there’s also a couple Kurupt [click to read] and 2Pac records. There’s material with 2Pac and Left Eye recording under the name of N.I.N.A.
DX: Just out of random curiosity, did MC Hammer really record material for Death Row?
John Payne: Actually, I do recall seeing something. Hammer and his brother, Louis Burrell, were connected with the label in the late ’90s. I don’t know if there’s a complete record, but I do recall seeing something in the catalog list. There’s a good chance that if it’s not a complete album, there’s probably some finished tracks. That’s purely from a visual observation.
DX: Aside from that, what are some of the more surprising things you ran across?
Lara Lavi: I’m excited about Left Eye. I’m a fan of hers, and I’m excited to see there’s some material there. I’m excited about some of the stuff I’ve heard from Crooked I…some of the stuff from Petey Pablo. With that being said, we’re still sifting through a lot of the stuff and getting it organized.
John Payne: And the quality of the material is very good, especially the R&B. You have your Hip Hop versions of R&B, and then you have your more straight versions of R&B. And we have that too, because some of them are collaborations. The fact that people only saw Death Row as gangster rap will cause them to be surprised when the rest of this stuff is released. But it shouldn’t be surprising. If you look at the people who were involved in The Chronic, it was people involved in all genres of music.
DX: As great as the Death Row music is, it seems some people can’t mention the label without its former owner coming up. Is Suge always going to be the proverbial elephant in the room?
Lara Lavi: This label is not going to be about the tabloid elements of Mr. Knight’s exploits anymore. It’s going back to being about the artists and fans. It’s not about me, and it’s not about John. It’s about these fantastic, iconic, groundbreaking Folk artists who helped shaped what is now the American fabric of urban music. And Suge, God bless him, we don’t wish him anything negative at all. But if this continues onward with people just being fixated with “who beat him up,” “who did he beat up this week,” and “when is he going to jail,” “when is he getting out of jail,” and “oh by the way, this is Death Row,” that isn’t serving the artists, fans or our company. So I hope you can respect that the days of everyone equating Death Row with Suge Knight have got to end. The only way that’s going to happen is if responsible media coverage helps us shift this so that the focus is on the artists. That’s the only thing we ask.
I want these artists heard and respected. I’m tired of [hearing], “Suge Knight, Suge Knight, Suge Knight.” I don’t have a negative word to say about the man. I’ve never met him; I probably never will. So it isn’t about hating on anybody, but these artists deserve better.
John Payne: We just don’t want to dwell on that. We want it to be about the artists and the music. That’s what we’re promoting. I’ve known Suge a long time. We’ve got nothing bad to say about him. Let him move on as well. It doesn’t belong to him anymore, and we’re returning it to fans and to the artists.
DX: What specifically are you working on now?
John Payne: A lot of these questions about what’s going on and what we’re going to do will get answered, but we’ve only had the company for a month. It seems like a lot longer, but it’s really only been a month. Outside of addressing regular business, contracts with the artists and those things, we’re addressing MTV and various other media outlets.
DX: Can you put any definitive timetable on when some of this will be released?
Lara Lavi: Sure. I think in 2010, we’ll put three or four different types of releases out. Initially, we’ll focus on box sets and compilation packaging. We’ll be enhancing those releases with a robust amount of video that we have, so people get a bonus DVD with the CD and some additional artwork. We’ve got rows and rows of flat art that we still have to go through and digitize. Some of it we’ll use for branding and merchandising, and some of it we’ll find other uses for. I think people should expect more multimedia packaging. That’s what resonates with the fans and consumers, and it allows us to enhance things. We’ve also got to make sure all this material is remastered and brightened up.
The digital compilation could be an area where we can have a lot of fun with your site. Maybe we all pick 20 songs from 10 different artists that we want the community to hear, and we almost treat it like a focus group.
John Payne: We may put a list or something like that on your site. Then your readers can just pick a bunch of songs, and create a compilation that way.
DX: No argument from us there. 2Pac is obviously a big draw, but after six posthumous albums, some of these pieced together projects are starting to sound worse and worse.
Lara Lavi: I don’t think you’ll see a 2Pac album before spring 2010, at the earliest. I think there’s a lot of 2Pac product out there, and we want the market to really be wanting a nice, pure, special 2Pac release.
DX: Things haven’t always been peaceful between the Shakur Estate and Death Row. Did you inherit that problem?
Lara Lavi: We are not in any kind of negative environment with the Shakur Estate. There is nothing negative. As a matter of fact, my son and I are going to visit Afeni [Shakur] in North Carolina in the beginning of April. There’s a lot of healing that’s been going on right now, because the face of Death Row is partially a mom. I’m not having any of that, and I’ve been clear that the old days are over.
We are going to come up with ways to support the Tupac Amaru Center in Atlanta and its spin-offs in different cities. When I say support, I mean financially through the income generated by the 2Pac material that we control and hands-on support from my husband and I. We plan on working with their board, and helping them realize dreams that they’ve had a little bit of a challenge getting to. I’m not interested in negativity.
DX: Given negativity associated with Death Row and the fact that many of these artists are household names now, did you ever consider releasing product independent of the Death Row label?
John Payne: No, because that would be wrong. Death Row is a good brand. It’s a reliable brand that people around the world know. It will eventually evolve to mean something more positive. It’s going to evolve to be a label that actually did some good things. Death Row started a whole new way of making records, and it made a tremendous statement. We’re just going to reduce the negative side of that name and turn it into a positive.
Lara Lavi: Another way to look at that is WIDEAwake has a children’s division, a Rock division and so on. If we were to resign any of these artists—if we were to do something with Crooked, for example—we would probably take a look at where they wanted to be. We’d see how they felt about the positioning. Do you want to be at WIDEAwake/Death Row, or just under WIDEAwake? They probably wouldn’t want to be in the children’s division, but you know, you give them all options.
For Death Row, I would say there’s going to be some modification. I’d like to create an animation where they guy [in the Death Row logo] is pardoned. The hood comes off and he’s free. We want to give people the sense that Death Row still exists, but nobody’s getting electrocuted anymore. It’s gonna take time. And the one thing we’re not going to do is be abrupt. We don’t want to be perceived as having scrubbed it [clean] either. Part of the allure of Death Row is that, during its peak, the people at Death Row were not little angels. There was an element of rebellion, and I don’t want to take that out. I don’t want everyone shooting each other, any rifts or anyone embracing negativity.
DX: People like C. Delores Tucker and Tipper Gore always pointed to how Death Row artists used the words “bitch” and “hoe.” Times have changed, but do you think you will inherit that criticism also?
Lara Lavi: As a mom, I’m not a big fan of misogyny per se. But I do understand that culture has many, many vocabulary words that are not the same as white, corporate America. Misogyny exists in many ways in this world, and it’s not just from a bunch of black guys in the hood. I sit in board meetings everyday with an army of white guys, and you don’t think those guys are misogynistic in their own way because I’m the only woman in there?
I don’t use the N-word. I’m a Jewish woman, and I don’t have the right to use that word, but you do because you know what you’re saying. You’re not using it the same way the Klu Klux Klan says it. You’re saying because it’s a piece of your fabric, and how you say it is different from how that guy says it.
We’re not going to censor this stuff. I’m not even interested in clean versions. We keep getting approached by Wal-Mart to scrub it up and sell clean versions. Why? That shit isn’t gonna sell! People wanted to clean it up and sell it in China. China has some of the strictest censorship laws in the world. Do you know what that’s going to sound like? Beep, beep, mother beep all day; it’s gonna be silly. The bottom line is that it is what it is, and it’s going to have a chance to have a much happier life.