When was the last time a piece of jewellery scared you?
Sounds like a weird question right? Well, what if it was sitting on the chest of the now-incarcerated crime lord/rap mogul/overall terrifying human being; Suge Knight? See, now you can understand why it’s scary…
Here are some facts on how said medallion earned its intimidating reputation:
1) It’s the first piece of jewellery in the history of the rap game that practically became gang insignia.
2) It was a medallion that represented the gangsta rap lifestyle so much that certain West Coast public schools began to ban the logo.
3) Death Row Records’ classic mark became a modern day skull and crossbones. It was pretty much a swastika to conservative America.
But it’s just a label, right? Not exactly. Death Row was far from traditional.
Word around town was that Eazy E’s Ruthless Records was being shady with money. When Suge Knight heard about the fuckery that was going on, he began talks with Dr. Dre and The D.O.C on starting a new label. Suge promised to procure the contracts from Ruthless, and needless to say he delivered. Suge allegedly bullied Eazy for Dre and The D.O.C’s contracts (I’m saying allegedly, but that’s obviously what went down).
Anyway, when it was time to fund the newly- created label, Suge decided to skip the hard work and just rob Vanilla Ice. Seriously – Suge was managing a writer by the name of Mario Jones who was collaborating with Ice at the time. Suge told Vanilla Ice that he needed to sign the rights over for ‘Ice Ice Baby’ to Death Row, which eventually funded the label. Genius, right?
So now that all of the facts are on the table, think about what that medallion represents; strong-arm tactics, Vanilla Ice getting dangled above a hotel balcony (allegedly), the entire genre of gangsta rap and oh yeah, one more little thing; Tupac.
When Suge bailed ‘Pac out of jail and signed him, the label went from a G-funk, gangsta rap-factory to a musical force to be reckoned with. The Death Row chain went from gold to platinum and the records made that same transition. With 100 million dollars a year in revenue, movie deals and hit records, Suge and ‘Pac were swimming in the fame. But they were also swimming in trouble.
Rap beefs started, legends died and you know the rest of the story… ‘Pac’s demise was the start of a long slide to the bottom for Death Row Records. Why? Because who was ready to sign to a label where you might just die? Who was ready to wear a chain that might as well have been a target?
Maybe the emblem, featuring a man sitting in an electric chair, was symbolic of more than success.
Illustration by Mariah Greenwood
Words by Chris Mendez
This is an extract from the Spring Summer 16 Issue of Viper Magazine. Read more from the magazine here. Buy physical and digital copies here.