Earlier this summer I received a press release announcing that Dr. Dre's classic album The Chronic was going to be rereleased under Death Row Records. The announcement caught me by surprise, as prior to that the only references to Death Row I had heard for the past couple of years concerned Suge Knight's increasingly dire financial situation and his penchant for getting knocked out by random street brawlers. As it turned out, a group of investors out of Toronto, WIDEawake Enterntainment Group, paid $18 million for the label's back catalog of material, which included the masters for The Chronic and Tupac's All Eyez On Me. The initial press release stated that Lara Lavi, a self described "Jewish soccer mom," would be the CEO of the revamped Death Row.
I was willing to give Ms. Lavi the benefit of the doubt, though - while a "soccer mom" certainly didn't seem like a great fit for a gangster rap label, Ms. Lavi and her husband had been involved in the music industry for quite some time. At the very least it seemed like a reasonably sound business investment, as the only thing that seems guaranteed to sell these days is back catalogs. Yet there was some cause for concern when the announcement for the reissue of The Chronic, "The Chronic Re-Lit," stated that the album would be remastered and would include new verses from "the public." It seemed like a big risk to mess with an album that has been universally hailed as a classic among hip hop fans, so I reached out to Ms. Lavi to ask her about the album, her efforts to make amends with the label's former artists, and the general direction of this new Death Row. Here's what she had to say:
Prior to the purchase of Death Row, the one album WIDEawake had released was from R&B singer Sean Jones. It seems like a drastic shift to go from r&b to old school gangster rap, so what spurred your initial interest in acquiring Death Row?
WIDEawake Entertainment Group Inc. is a separate company from WIDEawake Death Row Entertainment LLC. WIDEawake Entertainment Group signs all sorts of projects and artists from singer songwriters, to children's music. WIDEawake Death Row is strictly about building a future with the legacy of thousands of amazing masters from the Death Row vault and possibly building new relationships with some of the former Death Row artists.
What spurred our interest initially was this was a business decision a year ago to acquire the company out of bankruptcy. As I got more into it and had more contact with the artists and their representatives I realized I was also in a unique position to encourage some karmic restoration with these artists. That is a challenge in and of itself since the artists still don't really trust the name Death Row.
Even though it's been a few years since he's had any association with the label, the name Death Row still carries with it an association to Suge Knight. Given the history of his approach to business - I'm referring specifically to his past use of physical violence in his business dealings - did you have any concerns about becoming involved with Death Row? Again, i realize he is no longer connected to the label but is there any concern that he may try to force his way back in?
No concerns whatsoever, Suge has moved on and we wish him well. In many ways the man was brilliant in what he accomplished. I think even he realizes now that not paying taxes and royalties led to the demise of his reign at Death Row. Death Row must be about the artists, their music and their fans - this is what really drives business and assures these artists get paid and fans get authentic hip hop they are clamoring for daily.
Suge Knight was very much immersed in the culture of the label, in the sense that he had a very hands-on approach to managing his artists, appearing on magazine covers, in videos and on stage with his artists, etc. By your own description - a "Jewish soccer mom" - you would seem to be the polar opposite of Suge. Is it safe to assume, then, that your approach to the business will also be different from his?
I am an artist in my own right. I still write songs, sing songs, produce songs and place songs for film, TV and advertising. I am a singer songwriter and a business woman and the CEO of Death Row Records. My public persona as an artist or celebrity has nothing to do with the image and the music of Death Row. My job is to work my business development management to make this company successful for the artists and the investors. My private life is very different from the former head of Death Row. My image with the Death Row artists makes no sense. Frankly no management should take over the image of the artists in my view - again Death Row is now completely about the artists, their music and their fans and that would stand to reason - their imagery. Which I fully respect but don't need to imitate or try to be something I am not. The Death Row artists i have talked to understand that as an artist I get them, as a business women, I want the best deals for everyone. It is that simple.
The press release made note of the fact that Death Row's history does bring with it some fairly negative connotations - Tupac's death and the gang affiliations of some of its former artists being perhaps the two most significant contributors to that. A lot of that negativity, however, gave Death Row an image that no other label had and, for better or worse, that image helped propel sales of the label's albums. I'm wondering how (or if) you plan to distance the current incarnation of the label from the negativity of the past while still maintaining what made Death Row so unique in the first place.
Well it would be pretty silly in 2009-2010 to start trying to re enact the insanity that was the old Death Row. What really made Death Row unique was the sound - the West Coast original sound developed by the brilliance of Dr. Dre, Snoop, Daz, and many others. This was and is a signature sound like no other. All the rest is hype - at the end of the day this music, the actual music is what is unique and timeless. This is where the real value is.
Going forward, is your plan with Death Row to focus primarily on reissuing the back catalog and unreleased albums? Or are you looking to sign and develop new artists as well?
Eventually we will sign new artists but right now we have our hands full just assessing and logging all the thousands of songs and related contracts in the vault. I have my eye on a couple former Death Row artists who I believe have made sure they are fresh and currently relevant to today's market with the right team behind them. They know who they are. We are talking. [Pure speculation on my part, but I'm guessing one of those artists would be Crooked I.]
My understanding is that you have an agreement with Amaru Entertainment to license Tupac's material, the rights to which have been fought over for years. I'm curious to hear if you have any plans in motion yet to actually begin licensing out his songs. Does your deal with Amaru Entertainment also cover Tupac's unreleased material?
Yes we have an excellent working relationship with the entire Amaru team. I made this a huge priority when we first bought the catalog. We are entitled to an album's worth of unreleased Tupac repertoire which our goal is to put out to honor his birthday in June 2010. I have been very public that this will be as pure a Tupac album as possibly along the lines of All Eyez On Me.
There's been a considerable amount of excitement about this reissue of The Chronic, but some of that excitement has been tempered by the announcement that the songs are going to be digitally remastered. In recent years, "remastering" has meant that the loudness of the track has been increased through dynamic range compression, often diminishing the sound quality from the original. Can you give us a brief explanation of what approach is being taken on remastering these songs, and how you expect that will improve the quality over the originals?
Our financiers chose John Payne [a.k.a. "JP", co-founder of Death Row and the label's original Sound Engineer] to be in charge of the audio quality for the re-lit project. I leave it to him to answer this type of question. He was in charge of audio quality control. Hopefully everyone will be happy with his work.
In an interview from last may, John Payne said that, "there are a couple Dre tracks that had no third verse, and we're going to be seeking people to complete them. We won't go to the entertainment realm. We just want average, everyday people." Is that still the plan, are you going to be adding in new verses? And if so, can you expand on what was meant by "average, everyday people" - does that mean you'll be working with unsigned artists for the new material?
John Payne spoke without knowing where Dr Dre stood on unreleased material. He also indicated he had a very close long term relationship with Dre which encouraged us to hope that he could gain permission from Dre to exploit unreleased Dre material without resistance. We have learned subsequently from Dr Dre's lawyer that we were mistaken. Given the importance of slowly building trust with Dr Dre that we would be wise not to push this issue at this time but rather re visit it once a more positive level of trust is established - it will probably help when all these guys start actually receiving their royalty checks.
Both Dr. Dre and Snoop originally left Death Row on rather bad terms. The press release said that, "our mission is to honor Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and all the Death Row artists who deserve better treatment, by showing our respect and desire to start new dialog." Are they going to have any involvement with the reissue of The Chronic, or any potential involvement with the label going forward from here?
We are patiently waiting for Dre and Snoop and all the Death Row artists to see that I and the company are truly sincere. Again once they start feeling the royalty checks they never got before, the ice will melt a little bit. As an artist, I must remain fully respectful to these artists but I am also accountable to our financiers who have a bottom line they must have me address as well. It is a delicate balance. It will get better.
Now that you own the Death Row catalog, you have access to something a whole lot of hip hop fans have been clamoring for: access to some of the best beats of Dr. Dre's career. Do you have any plans on releasing instrumental versions of some of the older material?
We would love to, but in time, we want peace in the valley with Dr. Dre and his entourage and colleagues. Again the whole point of the Chronic Re-lit and From the Vault is to honor Dre as the greatest hip hop producer of our time, we sincerely hope the fans enjoy the 30 minute Dre interview never before seen and all the rest of the amazing content this package offers on Sept 1, 2009. [From the Vault is a DVD that will be included with the reissue of the Chronic, containing unreleased footage and interviews from the early days of Death Row.]
Cut from this interview was a question I asked Ms. Lavi about the notorious production credit on the original Chronic album for "Big Titty Nicky." Asking the new female CEO of a major record label about someone nicknamed "Big Titty" ranks up as possibly the most awkward question I've ever asked in an interview, but it seemed like a great opportunity to finally get the details behind that story. She didn't have an answer for me, though she did offer to get back to me on it. If anything ever comes of it, I'll post it up here.
Death Row also passed along a couple of links to promo videos that they've put together for the label. The first video recaps some of the early days of the label, including a brief glimpse of Tupac on CNN. The second video's the promo for The Chronic Relit, which will be out on September 1st. Big thanks to Ms. Lavi for doing the interview, and thanks to Sasha Stoltz for helping to make it happen.