Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Although Death Row Records is a shell of its former self, stocked with no-names and kept alive through the artificial respirator of posthumous 2Pac albums and catalog sales, its legend and mythology continues to loom large over gangsta rap, hip-hop, and popular music in general. The quintessential gangsta-rap label, Death Row permanently blurred the line between art and reality, crime and business, and gangsta rap and pop music. A label run like a gang, or perhaps the other way around, Death Row seemed to confirm the public's worst fears about young black men, while simultaneously providing the music world with some of its biggest, brightest, and most controversial stars. The latest release from blaxploitation specialist Xenon Pictures, which scored a major hit with the best-selling 2Pac documentary Thug Immortal, Welcome To Death Row explores the history of rap's most notorious label, from its unlikely Vanilla Ice-assisted beginnings to the epoch-changing night of 2Pac's murder. Along the way, director S. Leigh Savidge uncovers a fascinating rogue's gallery of criminals, artists, and opportunists, including greasy-slick, leather-skinned criminal lawyer David Kenner and schoolmarmish "moral watchdog" C. Delores Tucker, who attempted to leverage her opposition to the label into a prominent position in the music industry. Death Row's story is compelling, rife with Shakespearean themes of jealousy, murder, and betrayal, but it's also a familiar tale explored in countless magazine pieces and television specials, as well as in rap journalist Ronin Ro's bracing, no-nonsense history of the label, Have Gun Will Travel. Welcome To Death Row suffers a bit from familiarity and its sensationalistic approach, but Savidge wisely lets the film's fascinating story and colorful cast of characters carry it. Much of Welcome To Death Row will come as old news to veteran hip-hop fans, but for the uninitiated, it's a brisk, accessible, engaging primer on the turbulent history of a label that changed the face, sound, and image of popular music.

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