“Christmas on Death Row” and a Stormy Season for Historic Rap Label

“Christmas on Death Row” broke the streak. Starting with Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” in 1992, every album released by Death Row Records went at least platinum, but the gangster rap label’s vacation album wasn’t exactly a huge hit. The LP – containing rap tracks with Snoop Dogg, OFTB and Tha Dogg Pound surrounded by seasonal favorites performed by the artists who sang the hooks of Death Row hip-hop releases – didn’t even go gold when when it was released in 1996.

If the LP has not been successful, it should not be reduced to a novelty. “Christmas on Death Row” has more to it than its title suggests – and the story of its creation speaks volumes about a crucial chapter in the history of one of hip-hop’s most famous labels.

But first: how was this record even made?

Rap songs about the holidays had already been released. “Christmas Rappin ‘” by Kurtis Blow was the first hip-hop record on a major label when Mercury released it in 1979, and “Xmas Rap” by the Treacherous Three, “Cold Chillin ‘Christmas” by Juice Crew and the Touchstone of Run-DMC “Christmas in Hollis” followed. The full album “A LaFace Family Christmas” arrived in 1993 with Outkast’s debut single, “Player’s Ball”. “West Coast Bad Boyz: High fo Xmas”, a compilation from Master P’s No Limit label, was released the following year. Death Row, with its mystique built on oxen and gang associations, was different, but a vacation outing probably seemed like a safe bet.

Daz Dillinger, half of the Tha Dogg Pound duo (with Kurupt), claims credit for the idea. “I saw that others were releasing Christmas albums and I thought we should too,” he said in an interview.

Vocalist Daniel Steward, who records as Danny Boy, recalled Death Row general manager Suge Knight’s enthusiasm for the idea, and said the two had discussed it more than once. times “while driving the car”. Knight is currently in prison and has not responded to requests for an interview.

Tha Dogg Pound cut his track at the end of 1995 and set the tone for the album. “I Wish” does not ask for gifts, but reverts to the “I wish I had love” realization over and over again.

“The main thing we wanted at Christmas was love, and that’s what we got from our mothers and that’s what we got from our fathers,” Kurupt said in an interview. In his mind, the song and album presented something precious for a label known for its elaborate stories of drugs and violence: “It shows people that we are human. We have hearts. We have families. This Christmas album gave us the opportunity to show them another side of us.

The idea of ​​having a Christmas song of their creation reach those he loved as a child, like “Happy Holidays to You” by the Whispers and “This Christmas” by Donny Hathaway, filled Kurupt with pride. “These are classic and classic records that we grew up with,” he said. “I looked at him like, ‘We star now. We made a Christmas album, because. ‘”

(Snoop Dogg took an alternate route for “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto,” in which he counts some of the 12 days of Christmas and how he will get drunk on each one.)

Recording continued throughout 1996, even after one of the label’s biggest stars, Tupac Shakur, was filmed in Las Vegas in September. Knight booked additional sessions in the Bahamas following Shakur’s death. “Suge wanted to run away,” Danny Boy said.

Kevyn Lewis, the son of jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis and producer on the album, formed a band and traveled to Compass Point Studios to record additional tracks, including Danny Boy singing versions of “The Christmas Song” from Nat King Cole, Hathaway’s “This Christmas” and an original tune, “Peaceful Christmas,” which he wrote with Lewis. The song reflected his mood at the time as he sang, “Sounds like I’m missing joy / Santa doesn’t know me anymore.”

“It really told the story of what we were going through at that point,” Danny Boy said.

Overall, the album presents itself as a hip-hop version of Christmas in Compton – half black humor, half melodrama – punctuated by the traditional songs of the season (“Silver Bells” sung by Michel’le; ” Christmas in the Ghetto ”produced by the OFTB). Its mix of genres structure, and extends beyond rap, provides a glimpse of what Death Row would have been if so much hadn’t changed for the label the year it was released.

Critics often point to the R&B versions of holiday favorites as filler, but these songs reveal a less heard side of Death Row. Suge Knight said he wanted the label to be “90s Motown”, and in 1996, Dr Dre told Vibe that the label diversifies into rock, reggae and jazz. The soundtrack of the 1994 film “Above the Rim” hinted at a different possible future for Death Row. Warren G and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate” was the flagship single, but R&B groups such as SWV, H-Town, Sweet Sable and 2nd II None dominated the album.

“Death Row was very versatile,” John Payne, known as JP, said in an interview. Payne was on Death Row’s founding team in 1991, and he believes the label has become “one-dimensional” by focusing on hip-hop at the expense of other talent he signed. “There was a lot going on that people never realized,” he said. “Look what’s in the safe. There’s gospel, there’s R&B, there’s all kinds of stuff.

In 1996, Shakur’s death wasn’t the only blow that rocked Death Row. Dr. Dre, the rapper and responsible producer of blockbusters like Snoop Dogg’s “Doggystyle” and his own showcase “The Chronic”, left the label in March after clashing with Knight over contracts and personnel issues. In October, Knight went to jail for a probation violation related to an altercation with a rival in Las Vegas.

When “Christmas on Death Row” arrived on December 3rd, the label was in chaos. There were only three weeks left for the album to sell before the holidays, and the label team, mourning Shakur, were unable to promote it.

“We were upset,” Kurupt said. “Everyone was angry and hurt.

With Knight’s incarceration, the label’s chief security officer, Reggie Wright Jr., took over operations, despite his poor business background. While Knight kept a sparse release schedule, Wright released three albums in November 1996 alone: ​​”The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory” by Makaveli (better known as Shakur), “The Doggfather” by Snoop Doggy Dogg and “Death Row Greatest Hits.” When “Christmas on Death Row” came out a week later, he had to compete with the label’s biggest artists for fan money.

Bill Adler, former Def Jam executive and hip-hop author and archivist, said business considerations weren’t the only reason the album failed to connect. “This album was not produced by Dr. Dre, and that makes all the difference,” he said. Without the producer’s signature G-funk, it didn’t feel like Death Row.

Writer Dan Charnas, author of “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop,” agreed that the loss of Dr. Dre was a devastating setback for the label because of his musical credibility and his sense of the hit. offered a balance. for Chevalier. “He was an entertainment executive who liked to watch hard and play hard,” Charnas said of Knight. “Looking tough and scary was a big part of the mystique of Death Row. This way of doing business tends to implode on itself.

In many ways, the arrival of “Christmas on Death Row” coincided with the start of the label’s final chapters.

“No Suge, no Dr Dre. That’s the key to the game, ”Kurupt said. “Tupac was the icing on the cake. It was all gone.

Death row did not end in 1996; he limped until 2006, when he and Knight filed for bankruptcy. After that, the rights to the label and its catalog went through a number of corporate hands to the MNRK label group, now celebrating Death Row’s 30th anniversary, focusing on digital spaces that did not exist. at the peak of the label.

Death Row’s Instagram account invites visitors to tell the stories of the first time they heard key songs or share the tracks they would use to start themed playlists. He also posts vintage photos of the most charismatic stars of Shakur, Snoop and Death Row. The photos of Knight, which gave Death Row its “unstoppable, invincible evil mystique,” Charnas said. (In 2018, Knight pleaded guilty to manslaughter, hit and run in 2015 after a dispute over the movie “Straight Outta Compton,” and was sentenced to 28 years.)

This is the tension that “Christmas on Death Row” struggled to overcome back then, and it makes the album fascinating now. “This really, really scary outfit applied to this pop culture phenomenon, Christmas music, which is amazing,” Charnas said. “It’s a Christmas miracle! “

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