Back where they began

Clash's Nina Bhadreshwar looks back on her first encounter with Death Row Records and Tha Dogg Pound as she left grey Britain to delve into West Coast hip hop culture of the mid 90s.

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I don’t think I can even now explain how West Coast rap set fire to my imagination and curiosity back in 1992. I was a mixed race teenager in a recession-blighted Blighty, living in grey groggy South Yorkshire. The only thing speaking to me emotionally was the illegal raves and pirate radio but even that was getting tired by then.

Out of the big bad blue, came the L.A. riots in the summer of ’92 after the Rodney King verdict – accompanied by the alternative news commentary of ‘Doggystyle’ and ‘2pacalypse’ – both of them painting vivid microcosms of a world more exotic to me than anything I’d previously seen or heard. With its blatant dark lustful rhythms, bold, arrogant and urgent in both style and delivery, it moved away from the pace and patterns of previous hip hop from the east. It seemed to set its own time.

By 1994, it felt like the world was about to end, or start, and the ones at the bottom had the last word. I felt I belonged to it. That was the only qualification I needed. I packed a bag with spiral bound notepads, a Dictaphone, copies of my magazine, my camera and a one way ticket to L.A. Arriving in this dismal gang and drug-torn wasteland, I was ecstatic.

I made my base in South Central, sleeping on a floor in the house of a pastor of a local church and spending my days observing, interviewing and documenting. Everyone seemed to have time to speak to the weird English girl on the bike, regardless of what set they claimed. I loved South Central, I loved Compton, I loved Long Beach, Inglewood but I adored Watts. Watts was my home. Grape Street. Despite the constant drama, it felt real, it felt warm. Later on, when I had to move closer to Westwood, I missed it even more. Nothing ever felt as real again.

Across the road from the Gang Center where I spent a lot of time off Manchester Blvd, was a hip hop clothes and paraphernalia shop called ‘Desi’s’. Desi was a charismatic cross-eyed thirty something brother who was always into the ‘next big thing’. He was among the few who had been able to (and dared) open shop again after the fire and lootings. He liked my magazine and took it on a Sale or Return basis. He also said he was involved in promotion and could get me into various hip hop gigs in Los Angeles. One Tuesday in January, he told he had got tickets to a Power 106 FM Jam at the Palais on Sunset Blvd. Power 106 was one of the two main hip hop radio stations in the city. I was quick to agree to my first nocturnal excursion out of the ‘hood.

The Palais was packed. I interviewed the Alkaholiks, Fu Schnickens, Funkmaster Flex and some other rappers from the Bay area, met the Lady of Rage (a Death Row artist who had featured on Doggystyle) on the dancefloor. It seemed anyone who was in the hip hop West Coast scene was there that night. I felt like a cardboard cut-out next to the heaving colourful dancing crowd. Desi knew everybody and was here, there and everywhere. I soon lost him and hung about in the foyer, waiting for his return at the end of the night. I spied a long young man with a baby face curled into a snarl, his eyes heavy and red from excessive weed. He stood alone, wearing a doo-rag, his hood of his Adidas hoodie pulled up, his baggy jeans and top blue. In that same moment of recognition, I approached him.

‘Excuse me, are you Kurupt? From That Dogg Pound?’
‘Yeahhh.’
‘I’m Nina from England. I’ve got a magazine, The Real State, and want to interview you and Daz.’
I handed him one of my business cards which he took and looked over.
‘No problem. Just call the office tomorrow and ask for George Pryce.’
‘Oh I know George. I’ve already spoken to him and sent copies of the magazine. He says you’re too busy.’
‘Tell him we’ve talked and it’s fine.’

At that moment, Soopafly, another brother in blue, a member of Tha Dogg Pound, turned up, introduced himself as Daz, scooped up Kurupt and dragged him away.
Desi was as excited as I when I told him my news.
‘See, I told you I could hook you up.’

The next morning, I did call Death Row Records. I had spoken to George Pryce before as I’d sent magazines there and had featured Snoop when he, Rage and Tha Dogg Pound came to London in April 1994. George had previously told me Daz and Kurupt were not available for interview or that he hadn’t been able to contact them. I took that to mean Daz and Kurupt were truculent, non-cooperative artists who didn’t like to be interviewed. But this time, George told me a date and time to come up and interview the artists.

I was excited but scared. I had to get several buses from Watts to Westwood. It felt like travelling to another country; nah, it WAS another country. Within just a few miles, the chicken wire fences and projects had gone. In their stead were huge white mansions, long pink driveways, palm trees. Hollywood. L.A. The postcard and the dream. I got out at 10900 Wilshire Blvd and stared up at the tall red building, blinding me with its black windows in the sun. To this day, I’ve never been so nervous.

I got out from the elevator on the twelfth floor. Twenty feet to my left were the pale bleached wood doors of Interscope Records; twenty feet to my right were a pair of dark narrow doors. No sign told me it was Death Row but instinctively I moved towards them and pushed the intercom buzzer.

‘Hello. Death Row Records.’
I stuttered out my name and the magazine. The door buzzed and opened so I entered.

I’d become interested in Death Row Records in late 1992 following Snoop’s debut release ‘Doggystyle’. It was just different to any other rap I’d heard: the whole laidback style, the long plaits, the gang uniform, the worlds he described. Rampage, a London-based promotions company, brought Snoop over in 1993 and told me they’d get me a press pass for the next time he came over. I was in the process of putting the magazine to print in Sheffield but managed to get a press pass through the record company arranging his 1994 tour. I gave it to Neka, a knowledgeable hip hop fan, dj and law student from North London. She took photos and wrote up the review which got into print.

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Just after the release of ‘Doggystyle’, Snoop had been charged with murder following his bodyguard, McKinley Lee’s, shooting and killing of Philip Woldemarian, the son of Ethiopian emigrants and a gang member who had been threatening Snoop. Snoop had been driving the jeep McKinley had fired from. If convicted, Snoop could spend at least the rest of his life in jail – and that wasn’t the worst case scenario. All the negative publicity, however, only helped fuel record sales. Tha Dogg Pound were part of his crew. Dr. Dre, formerly of N.W.A., was the producer and co-founder of Death Row Records and Snoop did not go anywhere without a thick posse. In the early ‘90s. Snoop Doggy Dogg and Death Row Records were synonymous and, apparently, invincible, the underdog and the underbelly of America. White kids saw an anti-hero, black kids saw a role model and someone who had broke out of ‘the system’ and the Government and Dionne Warwick’s brigade saw a scapegoat. I was intrigued by their style, the way they told such brutal stories in a melodic, funky way. There was something real there – I could feel it. Something raw, vital, vulnerable and desperate about them. Something I recognised.

A couple of months earlier in an issue of The Source magazine, I had read a feature on ‘Big Men in hip hop and their rides’. There was a high angle shot of a big black man in a huge white t-shirt standing next to a flash white car. Apparently this was Suge Knight, the CEO of Death Row Records and the most important figure behind hip hop at that moment in time. This came as a surprise to me – I thought Dre was behind it all. Who was Suge Knight?

And that’s all I knew about Death Row Records at the time when I went up to the office.

On opening the door, I entered a small windowless room with several doors leading off from it. Seated behind a black desk immediately behind the entrance was a cropped haired, sophisticated black receptionist who introduced herself as Phyllis. I took a seat on a black leather sofa. Above me was amounted frame of the platinum discs for ‘Doggystyle’. The carpet was crimson and the Death Row logo (the infamous electric chair motif) hung on the walls. Another double door opened and George’s assistant, a slight black girl, beckoned me in. I don’t know what I was expecting but not what I got: a fiery, balding white guy in his 50s, dressed immaculately all in black, chain-smoking elegant cigarettes, camp and vicious as a viper. Yet his sharp eyes also had a brown softness to them. He was astute, didn’t miss a beat and, for some reason, he liked me. Twenty minutes’ later, Kurupt came bounding in with a swagger. His girlfriend, Andrea, a petite pretty girl, sat in the foyer, eating a MacDonalds. I sat down with my notepad. Kurupt, dressed in a blue baseball cap, baggy grey sweatshirt, blue jeans and box-fresh trainers, paced the room, picking up random objects from George’s desk. George was on the phone, swivelling round in his chair, staring out of the window over Westwood village. My glasses were slipping down my nose.

‘Whassup?’ Kurupt nodded at me. I was still in the habit of taking this literally and giving full responses.
‘Not that much really. I’m just here to interview you – thanks so much for agreeing at the party, I…’ Sensing his puzzlement, I launched straight into the questions in desperation.
‘Where does your inspiration come from?’
‘My inspiration comes from being around Daz, Snoop, Nate Dogg – we all inspire each other. Daz and I were in Tha Dogg Pound from the start. Then, when the time was right, we put it down on record. We were with Snoop from before he got recognised and blew up.’
I watched him, perched on the arm of the sofa across the room from me.
‘Has South Central influenced you at all in your rhymes?’
‘South Central taught me how to survive. It gave me a survival instinct that I got from my homeboys out there. I can never forget that so my music is always representing for them. When I rap about guns, I’m rapping their tales and I’m rapping reality. Rap for me is entertainment and I’m an entertainer – that’s my job: to get someone to listen and to learn. Rap is the outlet, the dimension where the whole story can be told. I’ll tell a tale about something my homeboy’s been through but from my perspective. Or I’ll talk about some things that have occurred, may have occurred or things that will occur if patterns don’t change.’


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I discovered he’d been born in Philadelphia on the East Coast but been moved out by an exasperated parent to stay in South Central. He’d been through some of the toughest schools in rap and street warfare. After working his way through the obligatory MC battles since he was in Junior High and throughout his time a Leuzinger School, he finally got wise to the fact that battling MCs don’t make ends. Running the streets of South Central, however, gave him a determination to survive which propelled him to a greater destiny than the less motivated. Growing up in the fiercest gang city in the USA, he realised it was a dog-eat-dog world and worked at being the most feared mc and the most paid mc.
‘MCs need to walk up and realise that there’s a whole world out there that could be theirs if they’d stop all this battling shit and start using their brains and imagination.’
Ironically, it was his gang affiliation, not music which brought him into contact with Daz, Snoop’s cousin. They formed Tha Dogg Pound along with several others. But it was Daz and Kurupt who decided to put it on the record and represent Tha Pound.
‘Battling and doing all that rhyming as an mc is all very well but that’s not what’s going to get you paid. You’ve got to convert that energy into something that’s going to work for you. Forming Tha Dogg Pound helped me to focus on making songs with Daz – songs that are the bomb and that will appeal to everyone. If you’ve got the skills, the capacity you’re aiming at is so great and so diverse, why limit yourself in your music? The DPG is all about making the bomb, making hits every time. Daz and I realised we could clique Tha Dogg Pound. That we could be Tha Dogg Pound Gangsters (the DPG) and represent.’

‘Thanks so much, Kurupt.’ I looked at my watch. We’d been talking nearly forty minutes and still no sign of Daz. ‘It’s a shame Daz isn’t here.’
‘You wanna talk to Daz?’ He leaned over to the assistant’s phone and punched in a number.
‘Yo, there’s the English magazine girl here wants to holla at you.’
Kurupt passed me the phone, gave me the briefest of smiles and a nod and bounced out the room before I could even get a response together. I focused on the phone.
‘Hi, Daz? I’m Nina from the Real State magazine. I’ve been trying to interview you for ages! Are you ok to do this by phone?’
‘Yeah. You from England?’
‘Yes. Well, why did you start rapping?’

Daz laughed. He had a deep voice and was a lucid and articulate but it took me a while to fathom out his thick Missisippi/Californian drawl.
‘Because I was black! No. I was an observer. I observed what was going on around me and took it into my own consideration to do what I had to do. From 1985, I was always creating beats and rhythms from the feel of being with people. If I’m with a person and I’m thinking with him then I’ll be making the beat out of that vibe. We are creating a song together so you’re just vibing together.’
‘How’s the album going?’
‘We’ve got 12-16 songs ready to be put on Tha Dogg Pound’s first album. We’re going to have a whole new formula cuz it gets worn out or stolen if you keep to the same. You’ve got to be constantly pushing forward. The name of the album is ‘Dogg Food’. It was going to be ‘After all this, what do you have?’ relating to what’s of real importance if you die. Tomorrow – it’s not worth it to do all that shit. After all the gangs, after all the drugs and tales, what do you have? You’ve still got to go home and face the bullshit. If you die, you can’t take all that with you. Just enjoy your life and what you have while you have it now. Or maybe we’ll call the album just ‘Some More Doggy Shit’ or maybe just a question mark!’
‘Is it just you and Kurupt on the album?’
‘Nah. We’re bringing out Li’l Style, Tray Deee, Slip Capone, Enemy and Grench on this album and are starting a label with Snoop called ‘Murder Incorporated’ and also a production company called ‘C-Style Productions’ with C-Style, Priest ‘Soopafly’ Brooks and Dave Nice. Kurupt and I have just finished a track with Li’l Malik.’
‘What’s your ultimate goal?’
George had come off the phone now and was watching me scribble my illegible shorthand.
‘My aim is to sit behind a desk! I’ve got to have a business out of this shit.’
‘Aren’t you interested in film?’
‘We’ve just finished making a video for the single ‘What would You do?’ but we plan on making a large scale movie called ‘From The Heart of the Ghetto’. That’s going to be about lives on the streets, in the Pen., gang life, death, everything and, most importantly, how we all came into his rap game. When I get up every day, there’s a story. Every morning, one of my homies has a story to tell me. I’m still as involved in life out there as possible. The movie will come in time. It has a lot of feelings and a lot about the real side to what goes on.’
‘How do you feel about the ghettoes in and around California?’
‘To all the homies out there – thanks for your support and just maintain as Gs. Me myself I’m just a G maintainer.’

I took a deep breath. ‘What do you think about all the trouble in South Central, Long Beach and Watts?’
‘I think you’ve got to deal with it and you got to handle it like a G. You’ve got to handle your position.’
‘Thank you, Daz.’
‘No problem. Anytime.’
The line went dead. Once I’d hung up the phone, George leaned back in his chair and lit a cigarette.
‘Well, you’re the first to get an interview like that from those two. They are so ghetto! Never turn up. Uncooperative. I wouldn’t mind a copy of that. In fact, maybe you could write biographies of all our artists? We’ll pay you for it. Just interview them and write up a short bio on each one.’

So my interview with Tha Dogg Pound was arguably how my own career at Death Row started. But really Kurupt and Daz continued to include me as if I was part of their posse, bringing me to the studio during all their recordings, taking me with them when they bought their dogs, or on their weekend jaunts to family events and casinos, inviting me to parties and baby showers, barbecues and picnics. I never felt like the lonely English girl; they embraced me fully as part of their own clan and were entertained by my random anecdotes of confusion. They were my first friends in L. A. Suge didn’t like it but they didn’t stop it. I observed that, while the gang affiliation and stories were real, so was their determination to break out and away from it all – to become proper artists and businessmen. Both came from good families and were trying to navigate a path in a very dangerous time. But most days all they were thinking about was survival. I didn’t get this at first. They were 22! At first I put it down to paranoia from all the weed smoked. But later I came to understand how their fears were justified.

Words by Nina Bhadreshwar
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