All Eyez on VIBE magazine’s 1996 Death Row cover The only thing wilder than Death Row Records’ rise was its public and violent fall
Appropriately titled “Live From Death Row,” VIBE ’s February 1996 cover featured the already-notorious label’s faces: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Suge Knight and Tupac Shakur in a Goodfellas-inspired collage. To understand the significance of the cover image is to understand the chain of events that led to it — and to the label’s downfall shortly thereafter.
Let’s take it back to an era before the internet, blogs and social media reigned, to when hip-hop magazines were the unrivaled scripture for America’s most beloved, bemoaned culture. By the outset of 1996, two publications were responsible for driving the conversation around hip-hop and R&B, its biggest stars and its most provocative news: VIBE (created by Quincy Jones in 1992) and The Source (launched in 1988). The transcendent XXL didn’t launch until the summer of 1997. These magazines satisfied a pre-Wi-Fi audience’s yearning for news and images about rap’s greatest, most dissected and, at its lowest, most heartbreaking era.
Amid financial disputes, Dr. Dre had split from Eazy E personally, N.W.A as a group and Ruthless Records in 1992. With Knight, a former bodyguard, Dre launched Death Row Records. Dre was already seen as a musical savant, a producer who helped make N.W.A a name America had come to love, loathe and fear. The decision to branch out on his own with a business partner known for violence and gang ties was potential career suicide, a possibility both Dre and The Source milked with its startling November 1992 cover. Then came Dr. Dre’s 1992 The Chronic, one of rap’s most influential albums ever.
A year later, with Doggystyle, Dre’s protégé Snoop Dogg became Death Row’s second bona fide star. Acts like Lady of Rage and The Dogg Pound filled out the roster as Suge Knight assumed a mafia-esque aura: rap’s John Gotti with a cigar. By the fall of 1995, Death Row was worth more than $100 million. This was in part due to urban legends about Suge’s violent style of persuasion and negotiation, as well as a bubbling beef with Sean “Puffy” Combs and Bad Boy Records. Death Row’s rebellious appeal increased as its aura of thuggishness swelled.
Tupac Shakur stewed in New York’s maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility for much of 1995. Less than a year prior, Shakur suffered an attempt on his life that left five bullet wounds in his body, including two to his head. Days after the shooting, he was found guilty of sexual assault. At his sentencing in February 1995, tears streamed down his face as he apologized to the victim, but he remained steadfast about having committed no crime.
“I’m not apologizing for a crime,” he said in court. “I hope in time you’ll come forth and tell the truth.” The thought of being remembered as a sexual deviant had haunted Shakur before his conviction. “I cannot die with people thinking I’m a rapist or a criminal,” he said in a 1994 interview. “I can’t leave until this s— is straight.” Related and unrelated to the conviction, Shakur felt betrayed by some in his circle.
Suge Knight bailed Tupac out of prison on Oct. 19, 1995 — not even the biggest headline of the month, as it arrived roughly two weeks after O.J. Simpson’s divisive not-guilty verdict and only days after the Million Man March on Washington, D.C. Shakur signed a three-page handwritten contract, an agreement worth $3.5 million, for three albums.
Death Row had landed its crown jewel. Tupac was rap’s premier spark plug, perhaps its most eloquent thinker and America’s most controversial and popular artist. His 1995 opus Me Against The World became the first No. 1 album from an incarcerated artist. Death Row had only gotten stronger, thriving despite headlines that would cause most other companies to crumble. Snoop Dogg’s Los Angeles murder trial — he was acquitted of first- and second-degree murder — was still in progress when VIBE’s Death Row cover hit shelves in early 1996.
If N.W.A had planted its flag as the “world’s most dangerous rap crew,” Suge and Death Row not only upped the ante, they drafted an entirely new set of rules. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac were all under contract, becoming at the time the greatest collection of superstar hip-hop talent on one label simultaneously. The cover captured the fleeting moment of Death Row Records at its apex.
The plummet began shortly after the cover’s ink dried.
Remembering how it all came together piece by piece is not necessarily a good time for Alan Light. How the media covered rap’s bloodiest and most territorial years remains a divisive topic. But in late 1995, Light, then editor-in-chief of VIBE, was about staying ahead of the curve. In a short time, the publication had established itself as a definitive hip-hop voice. And the magazine tracked Shakur’s story closer than any other.
“We could’ve put Tupac on the cover every single month and it would’ve sold. There was nobody that our readership cared about and reacted to the way that they responded to him,” said Light. “Every one of the stories we did with him, every cover we did with him was bigger each time. There was nobody who had an impact that was comparable.”
For Light, Shakur’s signing seemed inevitable. Shakur and Suge had been linked as far back as 1993, but Death Row’s interest in ’Pac peaked at the August 1995 Source Awards. Though remembered for Snoop saying, as he accompanied Dr. Dre on stage for his Producer of the Year Award, “The East Coast don’t love Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg?!” — the first major clue to Suge’s courting of Tupac was when he sent the incarcerated rapper a kite from the stage: “We riding for him.” Suge capitalized on Shakur’s vulnerability.
“I don’t know that it felt shocking,” said Light, an author who was also editor-in-chief of SPIN and now hosts Sirius XM’s popular Debatable. “It felt like, Yeah, OK. Once again, [Suge] had an opportunity and he took it.”Discussions regarding Death Row coverage began in the VIBE offices almost immediately thereafter. The magazine and the label had established a straightforward rapport. “[Death Row] respected you if they trusted you,” said Light. “It’s not like our coverage of Death Row was uncritical. [But] at that time in particular, how could you hurt them?”
Everyone seemingly had a rap sheet to go along with platinum plaques. Dre and Suge had their own run-ins with the law stemming from assault allegations, Dre most notably after his violent encounter with journalist Dee Barnes. Dre told Light, then a journalist for Rolling Stone in 1991, that he “just threw [Barnes] through a door.” (Andre Young released a statement in 2015 apologizing; Dee Barnes accepted.) Johnnie Cochran was representing Snoop at his trial. And ’Pac’s relationship with law enforcement and courtrooms nationwide made him seem like a modern-day Jesse James. “Anything you said about them being threatening or violent or dangerous,” Light said, “was more power to them.”
By the time of the VIBE shoot, the storylines surrounding Death Row were intense. Could Tupac’s All Eyez On Me, unequivocally hip-hop’s most anticipated album, live up to the hype (it went on to sell more than 10 million albums)? How would the rising tensions between two coasts influence the label’s direction? Did the reality of Death Row eclipse its increasingly notorious myth?
Kevin Powell — who wrote VIBE’s first cover story, about Snoop — became Shakur’s unofficial biographer in the years since. He was assigned to the story, providing an in-depth glimpse into the life of rap’s “ferocious first family.” But how to portray them on the cover proved a less straightforward mission. Ken Nahoum was Death Row’s in-house photographer, a gig “the white Jewish guy from New York” stumbled into via a prior relationship with George Pryce, Death Row’s former director of communications and media relations. Pryce had created the short-lived Modern Black Man magazine in the ’80s for which Nahoum had done a series of shoots. Once in the Death Row fold, Nahoum essentially followed its artists everywhere. He’d shot portraits and album-related images for Snoop Dogg and Dogg Pound.
There was an unavoidable sense of tension surrounding the label. Nahoum says he purposely chose not to involve himself in the rumors — about musical rights, about financial back-and-forths — surrounding Suge and the label. Each person approached the VIBE shoot differently.
“Snoop didn’t give a s— about anything but eating his Popeye’s,” says Nahoum. “Dre was quiet, very businesslike … very professional … very serious about the photos. … Suge was sweating, intense about everything. [Tupac] was in his own world, like sort of above the fray.”
Tupac and Suge, Nahoum remembers, wore ankle bracelets. “They all had issues. It was a wild scene. It wasn’t record company business as usual. These were gangsters on the run. Everywhere I went, I went through metal detectors. When I hung out in the recording studio with them, I had to go through metal detectors.”
Nahoum shot them all, although he had no idea how the photos would be used in print. That responsibility fell to Diddo Ramm, VIBE’s lead in art direction for the issue. The shoot was unusual, with VIBE opting not to send its own photo unit to California but rather working with what Death Row sent back, pending an agreement with regard to wardrobe and style semantics.
Ramm pieced together photos; it was not created in Photoshop, as the application was not yet in wide use. “[It was] a composition of four different images in the style of a medieval painting where the kings always used a thinking position and the young princes a more agile position,” said Ramm, now CEO and creative director of RELEVANCE, a media agency based in Hamburg, Germany.
Ramm saw Death Row as a “little bit [of] a house of secrets.” Powell’s piece revealed the inner workings of the label, but Ramm desired a more mysterious ambiance, in the tenor of a secret society. He had the work digitally composed, and darkened so that only part of the light fell on Snoop, Dre, Tupac and Suge’s faces. The trick was to do a lot without doing too much. “The faces are placed like a cross,” said Ramm, “giving a subtle thought of the secret power of the protagonists.”
They were protagonists — rap superheroes to many. So much of what made Death Row a cultural fixture of the mid-’90s was its willingness to create timeless art through the lens of tragedy. Death Row Records was a byproduct of the post-Reaganomics, crack-cocaine era that transformed South Central Los Angeles into a 1980s war zone. The music, profoundly explicit, was the embodiment of neighborhoods and fractured households ripped to shreds by a society that would have forgotten about it had it not been for hip-hop.
1990s rap wasn’t a perfect art form, but neither were the conditions birthing it. When VIBE’s February 1996 issue hit shelves, spearheaded by its simple yet intoxicating cover, art would soon become life. Death Row’s end wasn’t far behind. “There was just no way,” said Light, “that all of that energy and madness could hold for very long.”
It’s impossible for Light to look at the cover the same way he did when he helped lead the charge. In the moment, Death Row had Tupac’s charisma, Dre’s vision, Snoop’s charm and Suge’s muscle. “That, to me,” Light said, “represents the absolute pinnacle moment, top of mountain for Death Row. At the time they felt unstoppable. You didn’t look at it then as, ‘We better do this right now because all hell’s gonna continue to break loose.’ But I feel like [the cover] was something that even months, if not weeks, later you wouldn’t have been able to pull off.”
He’s right. The cover had to happen then. Two months after the magazine’s release, Death Row experienced the first significant dent in its armor. On March 22, 1996, Dr. Dre officially split, opting to create his own imprint under Interscope. This label would eventually become Aftermath/Interscope, which went on to make Eminem and 50 Cent international superstars.
Music industry watchers expected the label to shake off the loss. Snoop Dogg had been acquitted a month earlier. Tupac’s All Eyez On Me — his defiant, post-prison, double-disc diatribe — introduced a more venomous and expectedly paranoid Shakur. It was his biggest album to date. Death Row’s, too.
The success came with a price tag. Tupac’s 1996 “Hit ’Em Up” — his now-legendary diss record to The Notorious B.I.G., Puffy, Bad Boy Records, Mobb Deep, Junior Mafia and more — planted the Death Row flag in a bicoastal war that had surfaced months earlier at The Source Awards. Chaos swallowed civility. The media covered what became an “East Coast vs. West Coast” rivalry.
Six months after Dre’s departure, Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas, 331 days after he was released from Clinton Correctional.
In less than a year with the label, Tupac recorded two albums and filmed two movies (Gridlock’d and Gang Related). A third film, Bullet, was released less than a month following his death, and was filmed before he went to prison. By March 1997 — ironically, a week before the murder of The Notorious B.I.G. — Suge, on a probation violation, was sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in stomping Orlando Anderson the night Tupac was shot. Only Snoop stood with the label (until his departure in early 1998 when Master P visited Knight in prison, where he agreed to buy out Snoop’s contract, signing him to No Limit Records). Hip-hop’s ferocious first family had caved in on itself.
In the 21 years since the February 1996 VIBE issue, Dr. Dre and Snoop have both seen their celebrity increase tenfold. Despite the stains of yester-decade, Dre has stayed relatively out of the spotlight, allowing business to speak for him. Snoop’s career transformation is unparalleled, having gone from Newsweek cover demon to sportsman to host of a cooking show with Martha Stewart. It’s difficult to think of a rapper who has been as popular for as long as Snoop Dogg. Tupac, in death, is the Hall of Fame patron saint of hip-hop, a martyr. The Benny Boom-directed film about Shakur’s life, called All Eyez on Me, is due in June, on his birthday.
In fact, the only diminished legacy is Suge’s. Death Row never rose again. During the week of his 52nd birthday, he is still awaiting trial for murder. He is accused by the state of California of running over a man with his vehicle in 2015 while visiting a Straight Outta Compton filming location.
These days, another Compton-created startup, Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment, dominates discussion, although Snoop deaded those comparisons years back. For Death Row, it was kill or, as the label experienced firsthand, be killed.
“[Death Row] did it with a gangster approach,” Snoop said in 2013. (He would later tell TDE member Ab-Soul the group was a “mini Death Row.”) “We were smashing on n—, we was f— people up. We was determined to be the hardest, meanest, coldest, roughest, toughest in the game. That was our mission.”
Perhaps the brainchild of Suge Knight and Dr. Dre wasn’t supposed to live any longer than it did, roughly the equivalent of one presidential term. A business model based on violence, intimidation and manipulation doesn’t have a long shelf life. Get in. Get out. And hopefully leave with your life and dignity intact. Very few leave with both. The VIBE cover is a reminder. Two did. Two didn’t.
“Tupac was a poet. He was a person with a great vision in life,” Nahoum said. “Snoop is a pot smoker who lives life minute to minute. Dre was the businessman and artist. And Suge was a gangsta.
“They were four different people. But I would have to say Death Row … ”
Nahoum’s voice trails off. His life is a lot different these days. He wasn’t even aware of Suge’s current legal situation, although he wasn’t surprised to find out.
“It’s too bad it didn’t continue,” he said. “It had such an energy for a couple of years … they could have ruled the business. They had the whole world in their hands, and they gave it right up.”