Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Death Row Greatest Hits

“I held a copy of Death Row Greatest Hits for you.” Brad told me bluntly over the phone. His tone suggested that I had ordered this from the record store he worked for in Iowa City.

The thing was, I hadn’t ordered Death Row Greatest Hits at all.

The record itself was already a few years old, and I had aligned myself with the “East Coast” faction of rap music, or as least as much as a middle-aged white guy from Iowa could.

Sure, I was entertained by many of Death Row’s hits, especially when you heard them played on a loud system in a club.

It was hard not to resist them.

But I wasn’t motivated enough to really seek out their output beyond The Chronic. Snoop seemed more of a character to me, the stoner trash talker who was more of his environment than a legitimate threat.

And Tupac too. With every bit of bravado, I was old enough to remember that he was in the Digital Underground at one point, thereby neutering any bit of gangsta shtick.

Then, things started getting weird within the Death Row camp, and you could watch the artists initiate their mass exodus from the label. You’d hear rumors about the label head, Suge Knight, and you’d chuckle over the visual of Vanilla Ice hanging out a window, ankles held by Death Row thugs until he signed over the rights to “Ice Ice Baby.”

Snoop got arrested for murder. He delivered “Murder Was The Case” on some awards show like he meant it. You could see his stoic demeanor change to a scared man as he pleaded “I’m innocent….I’m innocent” at the end of the song.

Tupac got shot.

And guess who was by his side when the bullets entered?

I remember flying back to Iowa from Arizona after he was murdered. I sat next to a white kid with a huge folder of cds (this was the 90’s), all of it rap music. His jaw opened when I told him that I had walked by the place where Tupac was shot just a few weeks before. It was obvious that this guy had more of an impact on our youth than just some simple ruffian.

This meant the same thing to them as the death of Lennon or Cobain did for me.

And then there was Dre himself, certainly the main contractor of Death Row’s sound, who just walked away from the nonsense completely, leaving the rumblings of Suge’s inner circle to cast him out in the only way they could. I imagined that Dre heard the static of “faggot” and “pussy,” and I also bet that he beefed up his security in preparation for something more than just words.

It’s hard to fathom now, but all of this shit was going down in clear view of everyone. You’d watch MTV News breaks on the hour about these kinds of shenanigans.

Suddenly it all fell apart.

“Meet the new boss,” Pete Townshend said, “Same as the old boss.” And this was true at Death Row.

Before long, Suge was in jail himself.

Other staff members too.

And then Death Row was overtaken by white guys.


Just like before.

Iowa City was about an hour-and-a-half from where I lived at the time. It was a place that I’d frequent maybe once a month to get the collegiate oddity. But my job had placed my travels from the southern most tip of the state to the southern half of the I-80 line, so it wasn’t unusual for me to visit the I.C. at least once a week. The time made perfect fodder for the “I’m gonna stop by a record store” kind, and since Brad’s place was close to the interstate, what the hell.

But I swear to God that I never ordered Death Row Greatest Hits even though he had assured me of its awesomeness. I never debated the statement either, because a legitimate greatest hits compilation of Death Row Record’s best singles would undoubtedly be awesome.

Without question.

So with that being said, Death Row Greatest Hits does contain every hit the label presented during the label’s incredible rags-to-riches-to-rags story and it is undoubtedly awesome.

Without question.

Yeah, some of the songs have been tinkered with a bit and a few songs repeat through the 2-disc set as a result, but you could simply hit play on disc one, let the seventeen tracks run through, reach the end and wonder how an hour-long jam like that could be any better.

Side two-although a bit weaker track by track-is still pretty close to perfect, which makes Death Row Greatest Hits a nearly flawless compilation that’s hard to stop once you hit play.

And I can’t think of another label compilation of similar composure that rates as consistently good, something where you can set it and forget it without worrying if a dud is going to affect your audio decorations.

“G Thang,” “Gin & Juice,” “Dear Mama,” it’s all in here. Even the hardcore shit-the kind when it wasn’t embarrassing to say “Ice Cube,” out loud. It’s in there too.

Back to the story: Even though I never asked him to hold a copy of Death Row Greatest Hits, he saved one for me anyway. For nearly a year, he had reminded me that D.R.G.H. had fallen out of print because of all the legal wrangling of the label’s C.E.O., Suge Knight.

I’d always assumed that the release would be a cornerstone to that label’s catalogue. But evidently, they had temporarily let this classic record fall out of print. There was no telling what whitey would end up doing to this label that had its credibility firmly on the streets that they promised to uphold, so yeah, it was entirely believable that this album could have been forgotten, especially if someone else was running its getaway car.

They would have chopped it up into box sets, setting categories for each disc (“No Vaseline” for Disc Beef while “Murder Was The Case” fell with Disc five-o).

They would have added bonus tracks or ‘recently found’ 2Pac rhymes.

They would have removed that awesome family portrait painting from the fold-out cover.

Although I’m sure that the record found its way back into print, thereby ending Brad’s theory of a rare commodity (who knows, comment if you know if this record is worth anything in its original state) while leaving me with an unequaled cornerstone, not just for Death Row, but for any self-respecting record collector looking for square one when it comes to West Coast Rap of the 1990’s.

It’s a bargain even at full price.

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