We are not exactly lacking for content celebrating what this proudly biased Gen-Xer would call the glory days of hip-hop: the era when Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Tupac Shakur, A Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, Biggie Smalls, the Pharcyde, Gang Starr, and many others ruled the radio — there used to be a thing called a radio, a small electronic device that played the same music at the same time to entire cities.
We’ve had recent documentaries on Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie: The Life of Notorious B.I.G.) and Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine (The Defiant Ones), we’ve looked at Tupac’s murder via both straight documentary (Who Killed Tupac?) and scripted series (USA’s upcoming Unsolved: Biggie and Tupac). But we have yet to really delve into the most interesting story of the era: the rise and fall of Death Row Records, home to Dr. Dre, Snoop, and Tupac. That is, until now.
Death Row Chronicles, a three-night event starting tonight on BET, takes a fine-tooth comb to the story in six parts (two per night). I have only seen the first two, but it was enough that I can vouch for the rest. Using new and archival interviews, including commentary by label founder Suge Knight apparently given over the phone from prison where he is awaiting trial on a 2015 murder charge, contemporaneous footage and, crucially, the original music that took over the world in the early ‘90s, the doc traces Death Row from its prehistory, through its founding, massive growth and attendant notoriety, the murders of rival label Bad Boy records’ Notorious B.I.G. and Death Row’s own Tupac Shakur (long assumed to be related, given the victims’ personal beef as well as their labels’), and Death Row’s eventual decline under Knight’s alternately erratic and absentee leadership.
We don’t waste much time before we get to the good stuff. After tracing Knight’s youth — he was a good student and went to UNLV on a football scholarship — we see how he methodically injected himself into the music business by attaching himself to a series of benefactors, starting with becoming Bobby Brown’s bodyguard, parlaying that into managing acts like Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, and a fellow named Mario “Chocolate” Johnson, and then winning writing credit and royalties for Johnson, who worked on Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby.” Exactly how Knight got that concession is a matter of dispute. Vanilla Ice famously claimed Knight hung him over a 15th-story balcony, while witnesses say Knight simply stared threateningly, but the legend has remained for decades. His reputation and ambition growing, Knight then set his sights on the hottest talent in hip-hop, an undercompensated and underappreciated young producer called Dr. Dre, and funded the operation by partnering with an established but fading dance label, Solar Records, while getting a $1.5 million investment from an incarcerated drug dealer named Michael “Harry-O” Harris.
In episode 2, we get to see how Dre created the album that took hip-hop fully mainstream, The Chronic, as well as Dre’s working relationship with the rapper that would write the bulk of that album and become the label’s biggest star: Snoop Doggy Dogg, who despite revolutionizing the sound of hip-hop by delivering his rhymes in a lazy drawl rather than a shout, brought his share of controversy to the label with his misogynist lyrics, tendency to glamorize the drug-dealing gangster lifestyle, and of course the fact that he was indicted for murder the same week as his first solo album, Doggystyle, was released.
I plan to devour the remaining chapters of this documentary — there’s still a lot of story to get to, including Tupac’s arrival at the label, his friendship and then rivalry with Notorious B.I.G., the murders that may or may not have been related to that rivalry, and of course the decline, bankruptcy, and sale of Death Row. (SPOILER ALERT: threatening violence or death to employees and partners alike as a daily matter of course is not a super sustainable business strategy.)
Death Row Chronicles airs two episodes at 10pm ET Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week; all new episodes will be available the next day on-demand.