Working At Death Row Records - The Reality, Crazier Than The Myth

An insider's view
Death Row Uncut sample magazine cover
Clash's Nina Bhadreshwar spent the mid 90s in L.A. working for influential Hip Hop label Death Row Records, read on for the story of how she landed the job working with label boss Suge Knight.

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If there was a job spec. for an assistant to Death Row’s CEO, Suge Knight, in the early 90s, I would have been so off the spectrum of possibles to be impossible.

Then again, if you were to select one person in the whole world most likely to get ‘Best Boss’ award, Suge Knight would not be expecting to make the shortlist.

Yet sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. Although fiction does sell records…

I was a painfully shy, plain, half-grown British Baptist Bible- believing mixed race Kings College-educated girl. One of the reasons I’d started my own magazine was I couldn’t get a job in the recession-hit racist UK press. How and why I was at Death Row Records is a whole other story but my time there transformed, not only me, but my generation and the ones since. I left of my own free will just when it began to be infiltrated by more undercover cops, snitches and vultures than South Central itself. Still, when Death Row was working, it was good, it was crazy, it was doing the impossible. It was worth every second.

Death Row upturned social values and infuriated the black middle classes, the religious moralists as much as white folk because it was actually doing what they had been just preaching about for years. And Suge was funny. He got jokes, made jokes, had a very quick, sharp wit about him. When I first met him, he judged a person by their ‘heart’: what their real motives were – very quickly and accurately too. His vocabulary was closer to that of the locker room than a gang – not to say he wasn’t ‘street’ but his whole frame of reference was ‘the game’, loyalty to the team and winning. He was the coach and when he gave orders that was the final word. But, just as his own football career turned dirty, so did his ideals for the top rap team turn dirty. Somewhere along the line, his agenda moved from promoting the artists to promoting the label and himself.

But, in the beginning, everything was sweet. And, for me, he was the best boss. If, as people say, he is my enemy then I would still rather have one enemy like Suge Knight than a thousand of the electable ‘friends’ in Hollywood. Nothing anyone can write, prove or say about him will change that. It’s about recognition, it’s about respect.

When I first arrived, there was no computer, no system, just a lot of street teams out sweating clubs to play the music. I was shown my office – a small, windowless box of a room with a red carpet and a phone on the floor in the corner. That was it. But I was ecstatic! That’s all I needed. I sat on that floor with my notepad and pen and a pile of one hundred thousand illiterate embarrassing press-cards prepared by the previous editor for the launch of Death Row’s own magazine, Death Row Uncut. I hustled day in, day out. I sent out copies of my own magazine, The Real State, which had got me my job in the first place and soon artists were believing this was a proper set up, not a Death Row gimmick, and agreeing to interviews. I would get on with writing up reviews, calling London and later New York offices, agents, artists and advertisers, rewriting features, reading through material and new releases, writing up or rewriting biographies and press releases for Death Row artists for George Pryce. I did countless interviews with all the then hot names or up-and-coming acts including OutKast, the Goodie Mob (Cee-Lo’s first posse), Warren G, Leon, Dru Down, Black Moon, Duck Down, Tha Twinz, Mack 10, Ice Cube, Kaution, Patra, Jodeci, the Wu Tang Clan… Within a week, I had a desk, chair and an inbox. I had stacks of energy because this was something I loved: black music, culture, art, a new world based around Californian gang culture, my real world. I interviewed by phone, face-to-face in the office, went to video shoots and record company offices round Los Angeles, went to clubs, to screenings. I had Suge’s trust and new friends at Death Row in whom I could finally confide. I was doing a job I loved, which I was good at. And I was being recognised for it. I had never felt happier. When I flew to New York, I went to the annual Reggae Awards. Then some hip hop clubs at night where I met Crazy Legs and some underground djs, interviewing everyone and reviewing everything. My nerves waned as I got used to saying, ’I’m Nina from Death Row Uncut magazine.’ People would do a double take – ‘What the-? But you’re not black and you have an English accent!’ But they accepted it – I think they believed Death Row Records would do whatever it wanted; indeed, in 1995, it would appear it could.

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Offer of employment letter



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I was at work for 7.30am – 8am working through til eight or nine at night, sometimes later if there was a screening or video shoot where I’d been sent to interview a star. The whole celebrity thing did not affect me at all; I was just euphoric to be in Los Angeles working. I’d rather interview a ‘real live gangster’ than some phony millionaire cover-page-of Rolling-Stone rap star or actress. I was still on my obsessive mission to discover ‘the real’.

I found the turnover of staff a bit bewildering. People were hired and fired so swiftly, it was scary and never really explained. Roy, George, Black, B Man and Norris stayed constant but finally I was the only girl there.

I would go to the studios to do interviews. Non-performing artists, Warren G, Nate, Soopafly or Joe Cool, would chat and buy me food when the runners came round for orders. Most of the time was spent playing cards, dice, video games, or they’d be drinking beer, smoking indo in between going in and out of the studio. Other characters I got to know were their dogs – from the puppies to the fully grown ones. Thankfully, the dogs liked me otherwise I’d have had a hard time. One particular, Killer (Snoop’s main dog) used to lie over my feet and I daren’t ever move. He snapped at most of the others. So that would be me stapled to the studio or the kitchen until Snoop appeared or called him.

Suge’s trust in me was strange. He included me from day one. No explanation, no long conversations. Just bang. You’re in. Get on with it. He watched, listened. He noticed what I was doing when other people just patted me on the head and thought I was cute with my British accent and corny ways. He took me seriously. It was the first and only job I was treated just like a man, like a player. He gave me no special treatment just because I was a female. I might not agree with everything he said or did but to me he was always fair, always let me have my say. We had big rows, bigger than anyone else’s, at staff meetings but I always felt I could be real with him. I was given the job of minuting the meetings. David Kenner, his lawyer, an orange-tanned Latino in sharp suits with a stiff black quiff, would whisper to Suge when he had to tell me not to minute something on rare occasions – like when he was threatening someone or giving some instruction regarding the ‘street team’ and their promotional ‘techniques’…..’How To Get DJs To Play Our Records All Night’ etc.

Before I came, apparently none of the meetings were minuted. At my first Death Row staff meeting, held in the big end room (Suge’s office) at 10900 Wilshire Blvd., Karen, the previous magazine editor, had told me to take notes of all the stuff that was said pertaining to the magazine. I was sat next to her, melting into a black leather sofa as the sun blazed through the window. Everyone else was standing in a semi circle behind us while Suge ate his hotwings at the desk in front of the windows. Hot grease and sweat hung in the air like in an army barracks. He barked out instructions, asked questions, made threats. I wrote and wrote.

‘What are you writing, Nina?’

I looked up, my face flushed. ‘Sorry. It’s just what you are saying about the magazine. Karen told me to so we don’t forget.’

‘Oh.’ For one moment, I thought he was going to scream at me. His face was dark and his brow furrowed. No one breathed. Then he tossed a hotwing in his mouth and cracked its bones.

‘Alright.’ His mouth full. I exhaled. He chomped for a while before nodding his head as if he had just had a brilliant idea.

‘You can write up this whole meeting then and give it to Roy. In fact, do it for every meeting. Give two copies to Roy – one for him, one for me.’

‘OK.’

I scribbled down everything, word for word, not daring to miss anything. I had to find out a new outline for words such as ‘shit’, ‘fuck’ and ‘mothafucka’ as they were constants. If two people were trying to talk in a meeting, Suge would make a T sign with his hands and yell, ‘Time out!’ Being from England, it took me a while to understand what this meant. At first, I thought he was timing everyone.

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Back cover of the sample Death Row Uncut



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The staff meetings were locker room debriefs. Suge would call on each player(staff) to justify their actions, decide which player (artist and staff) to pull in or pull out. No one was left in any doubt that it was Suge, not statistics or paper, who decided the game plan. In the past ten years, people have spoken about how he ran Death Row like a gang but, from my perspective, it was more like a grimy locker room. Because the game was dirty. But it takes game to recognise game and most people saw what they wanted to see: a thug and the godfather wannabe. I was familiar with gang terminology and politics, not with locker rooms; but the way Suge dealt with me pushed me out of myself. He always challenged me and it actually made me fiercer and stronger. No one had ever been like that with me before; they’d always treated me like I was something delicate, inferior or incapable.

As soon as each meeting was over, I would have barely half an hour to transcribe it and print out a copy for Roy in bullet points so that Suge could ensure that all his points were followed up on. I would rush back to my airless office, hammer out the memo, print if off and take it to Roy.

And this was important as the agenda always changed every meeting; Suge didn’t stick to one priority project or any order. He reneged on promises. Every day our phones were busy with irate, frustrated artists trying to get in touch with Suge. They had been told THEIR album, or THEIR video was next…what was happening? Why wasn’t their record being played on The Beat or The Box? Why couldn’t they get studio time? What was going on?

My first few weeks at Death Row were a massive learning curve.

There were a lot of interviews I had to do in Tarzana. It was hard to guess that this was the location of one of the foremost hip hop labels of the time. Despite Suge’s earlier warning, I spent a lot of time interviewing Tha Dogg Pound, Snoop , Nate and various producers there on their request. They were very accepting and just adopted me as a sister and trusted me from Day One. They bought me food, patted me on the head, were always asking if I was ok or needed anything. Nate said, ‘Why don’t you talk much?’ I replied,

‘Because I haven’t got anything to say.’ Quite correct at that stage. I wasn’t there to shine; I was there to listen and observe. Nate was the one who asked me about myself and my background. He seemed genuinely interested in understanding what I was doing here and how I felt. Gangsters are vain. Only a few are true, a very few. The majority do it for the fame and personal vanity and I got used to the protocol. But Nate was genuine. Everything about him was bona fide.

When they offered me some weed or a beer and I informed them I didn’t smoke or drink, they were cool with it. I didn’t have any of the aggro I get in England when I relay such information. In fact, they seemed kind of glad. I got to know my way round most of the maze of studios as I got to know how to get them working before they got too high or too drunk or too wrapped up in their video games. They weren’t rushing anything for anybody. Their dogs would be in there and their homeboys would hang out in the kitchen, playing cards and drinking. Sometimes it seemed like they were incarcerated in those studios for weeks at a time.

On Suge’s birthday, sometime in the spring, he held a ‘gathering’ up at Monty’s, his favourite restaurant just across the road in Westwood. All of the staff and artists were supposed to attend and bring presents. The only artists who showed up were Danny Boy and Jewell. Everyone feared displeasing Suge. Some had bought some really expensive gifts: clothes, colognes, cigars. I hadn’t a clue and hadn’t much money either. I was living off my savings til my permit came through. I had bought Suge some peanut brittle or something edible like that which I had heard he was partial to. I was, I admit, terrified of him opening it. However, instead of the usual mute nod, he smiled and waved it. ‘Good looking out, Nina!’ he exclaimed with apparently real pleasure. There were other occasions too which demonstrated his real personality. Markedly absent were any of the Long Beach based guys or Dre.

Around that time, at the Mother’s Day event held in Beverly Hills (Suge always invited single black mothers from the ‘hood to a slap-up meal, concert and gifts at a Hollywood hotel every Mother’s Day) when I had thanked him for my job and for treating me like family, he hugged me and said, ‘We all family, Nina.’ Again, none of the Long Beach guys or Dre were present.

One day in June, Suge called me up on my phone in the small office. This was quite an honour. No one got a one-on-one with Suge. Even if they were sacked, it was always via Roy.

‘Nina.’

‘Hello.’

‘How you doing? I know you have been working really hard on the magazine and also helping Roy and George out in the office. You’ve worked very hard indeed. And I also know Karen hasn’t been doing anything; you’ve been doing all the work and she’s just been wasting my time. I know she’s not done half of what you have. I’m going to fire her and put the magazine on hold for a while til I find a new editor.’

‘Oh.’ What did that mean? I was fired too? Without the magazine Death Row Uncut, I had no job.

‘I want you to work with Roy in my office helping him with all the record production side. Doing more of what you already have been doing. Using your contact with the artists. And I’m going to put you on the pay roll so you’re staff.’

‘Thank you. But, if you don’t mind, I’d rather wait til my papers come through from the I.N.S. so I don’t get into trouble.’

‘I’ll pay you under the table then. Alright, Nina. Put me onto Roy.’

I transferred Suge to Roy and sat back, my heart pounding. I didn’t know what to think; the magazine which I had worked so hard on was now no longer. And I was now going to be working in Suge’s office. What about my papers? They said I was a magazine editor. Still, I felt thrilled to have been recognised and praised by Suge. He had noticed me.

Nobody seemed to be Death Row’s friend. Time Warner, Interscope’s distributor, was under pressure as C. Dolores Tucker and Dionne Warwick were constantly slamming us and it wasn’t a good time to launch the magazine, Death Row Uncut. At that time, everyone was in fear and fiercely jealous of Death Row Records, namely Suge. When I was out and about, other celebrities and wannabes or industry insiders were always scoping for gossip or warning me about Death Row but I never had anything to say: Death Row was my family, they looked out for me. When I was sexually harassed, it was Suge who sorted it out. When I sold a script, it was Suge who noticed it and made me a script reader. When some people from Watts where I used to live tried to scam me on a car, it was Death Row guys who ‘sorted’ that out. When I was being bothered by Death Row groupies, it was Death Row’s Roy, Suge’s right hand man, who told me the mantra: ‘Just tell ‘em to fuck off, Nina. They’re trouble.’

During all this time, however, I had been receiving mail from Tupac in jail and sending him weekly letters along with fanmail I had found in a bin at Interscope. This is when things started to change. That and two particularly big rows with Suge…

Words by Nina Bhadreshwar

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