Filling in the Gaps, Gaining Perspective: S. LEIGH SAVIDGE’S “Welcome to Death Row: The Uncensored History of the Rise & Fall of Death Row Records in the Words of Those Who Were There”
Xenon Press – September 2015
For anyone with an interest in how the issues of race, money and power play out in American life, S. Leigh Savidge’s “Welcome to Death Row: The Uncensored History of the Rise & Fall of Death Row Records in the Words of Those Who Were There” is required reading. The book details a breathtakingly complicated saga of talent, fame, greed and hubris of a particularly American variety, one that exposes the intricate layering of a money-based social system whereby one man’s privilege and entitlement is another man’s guarantee of a never-ending cycle of violence and poverty. At a moment when America is confronting racial tensions and socioeconomic inequity as serious as ever before in the country’s history, the book acts as both a watershed and a bridge to understanding the reality and effects of the ongoing racial and economic stratification of American society.
Savidge is also the producer and distributor of the award-winning 2001 documentary “Welcome to Death Row”. The film and the book – written a decade-and-a-half later – are essential companion pieces, because – while the film is a riveting whodunit documenting the tumultuous rise and fall of an American music phenomenon that changed the world – Savidge kept himself and the incredibly difficult and dangerous process of making the documentary out of the film; the book fills in the gaps and adds details considered too controversial for the film on its release in 2001. Both the film and the book are exceptionally well-done, but the two taken together create a much larger and more complete picture than either does separately. And in this case the filmmaker’s journey is just as key to the overall story as the film’s subject matter, because both stories speak to the racial dynamics at play over the last 50 years, while at the same time illuminating the intersection at which black and white inevitably come together.
In person Savidge is courtly and soft-spoken, and the first question that springs to mind is why on earth would this tall, blue-eyed blond-haired white guy from Seattle spend almost two decades bringing the rise and fall of hip hop’s most notorious and controversial label to light in film and print, risking life, limb and financial ruin along the way? Having established a unique niche for his company, Xenon Films, as a leading distributor of film and video for a young black audience in the 80’s, Savidge felt as if he had an understanding of the world Death Row was rooted in, and he wanted the challenge of bringing that understanding to a wider audience. As he describes it, it also felt like a bit of a dare to him; Death Row was the water cooler topic of the day, as well as being the biggest story in the music industry, and yet there was the sense that it was far too dangerous for anyone to take on. But Savidge was determined, even though – as he freely admits today – at the time he had little actual understanding of the peril and difficulty taking the project on would present. Time and time again, he and his partners felt that they’d made a terrible mistake in trying to make the film, and he despaired of how he would ever get them all out of it intact.
But he never gave up, and that determination speaks to the underlying reasons Savidge wanted to do the film, above and beyond just the challenge aspect. He is modest about the fact that his company was the first to distribute black material, saying that in doing so he was just a businessman who saw a niche that needed to be filled, but one gets the impression from meeting him in person that whatever Savidge undertakes carries some sense of social mission with it, an impression both the book and the film underscore.
Art can be tame and compliant or violent and seditious, and any variation in between. All of it is art, the key being that each variation serves its purpose according to a particular time and place in society. As a student of the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King – with whom he shared an alma mater in Boston University – Savidge felt that the story of Death Row Records was, at its core, the story of non-violent protest through art, in this case music, of poor young inner-city blacks who could, with no assistance from government, social services or legitimate business interests, rise out of their circumstances through unstoppable talent and sheer force of will:
“In my view, the Death Row Records story offered a significant forum for the examination of, and the problems attached to, the transition of inner city kids into positions of economic power in American society. But this was a discussion that virtually no one I knew wanted to hear or see. When I tried to make the connection between Dr. King and the Death Row Records story, people just couldn’t make the leap. I’d remind them that Dr. King’s whole message was about assisting the progress of poor Blacks. This story was about poor Blacks with exceptional talent fighting to take their place at America’s financial table sans the guidance you might get in a normalized corporate structure. What I’d get back from a lot of people both White and Black was that Dr. King would be mortified by the idea of a Tupac Shakur — the underlying implication being that Black progress could only be measured by the number of Black people who took regular jobs and played by society’s rules — by what polite society viewed as appropriate accomplishments. Most of the people we were interviewing had an edge to them. They were angry. The music they were talking about was angry. In their daily lives, they lived in fear. Violence was simply a fact of their lives. They existed in corridors of America where, unless you lived there, you never went there. They lived in a society where great wealth surrounded them and none if it was coming their way. And part of the reason was that there was simply no Steve Jobs overseeing a well-funded infrastructure whose mandate was to help inner city kids elevate their economic station. The job of employing people in the inner city had been left to guys like Harry O (Michael Harris, the incarcerated drug dealer whose money funded the startup of Death Row) who was using proceeds from a drug business to employ Black people in his legitimate businesses. Too many people with wealth, power and influence simply didn’t give a shit. It was axiomatic that if you never went into America’s ghettos, you could never be in position to grasp the issues there. If you didn’t have to look at it, it was an out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation. You didn’t have to see the pain and suffering and the pathology in your own backyard that Dr. King wanted to eradicate. With the Death Row story, you had to look at all of this. You had to look at inner city America in all its raw, jagged glory.” Savidge, S. Leigh (2015-08-14). Welcome to Death Row: The Uncensored History of the Rise & Fall of Death Row Records in the Words of Those Who Were There. (p. 153). Xenon Press.
It was also, in Savidge’s estimation, a cautionary tale of how tremendous success could be gained and squandered in breathtakingly short order.
The book covers the same ground as the documentary and the recently released feature “Straight Outta Compton” – which Savidge wrote the first draft of – but in much greater detail. The interviewees in the doc often seemed afraid to elaborate on the more gruesome details of life at Death Row, and the feature – which, while well done, is in every respect a “big G” general audience picture – glosses over the truly ugly side of things and reduces complex characters to thugs (Suge Knight) and artistic savants (Dr Dre). The book, conversely and satisfyingly, gives far more detail and thus a much wider perspective at all levels – personal, social, racial, emotional, financial.
Shooting the documentary was fraught with difficulty from the beginning, and the enormous and often dangerous challenges faced by Savidge and his team during the making of the film are parceled out in terse but telling language. From extortion and armed physical confrontation on the set to legal challenges and death threats, the obstacles Savidge and his crew faced often appeared insurmountable. Savidge felt sufficiently endangered that he essentially put his life on hold for the duration of the project. To wit, a bachelor who under any other circumstance would be considered a pretty eligible catch, Savidge – who is now engaged to be married – eschewed dating for the duration of the project, afraid that anyone who was close to him would be vulnerable to the threats being made against him and his company because of his involvement with the film. At one point he describes a confrontation between himself and Lydia Harris, Michael Harris’ wife – who had showed Savidge and everyone else connected to the project the loaded gun she always carried in her purse – as she demands money to hire a new lawyer to try and get Harris exonerated:
“As I studied Lydia’s ice cold eyes, I felt she could snap at any second. I sensed that this was one of those moments where, if I did one thing, I’d live and if I did another thing I might die. I was not going to gamble with my life. There was no way I was going die on the sidewalk in front of my office . . . That was not going to be how it ended for me. And so a few days later, I wrote Lydia Harris a check for $100,000, modifying my agreement with the Harrises for a fourth time.”
And so it went, until Savidge and his crew despaired of ever coming out the other end of what seemed to be an impossibly long – and very dark – tunnel.
By now the basic beats of the Death Row story are well known. In 1986, small-time dealer Eric “Eazy-E” Wright bankrolled Ruthless Records to distribute records for N.W.A., whose members included himself, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson. Guided by Eazy’s business manager and mentor Jerry Heller, the group had major success, while at the same time generating huge controversy for inflammatory lyrics that appeared to push the limits of free speech. Dre gained a reputation as a producing genius, the creative force who turned everything the others did into gold. When money became an issue – not helped by Heller’s questionable accounting practices – the members went at each other’s throats and the group broke down. Styling himself as a savvy business manager and enforcer, Suge Knight – who learned what he knew about the music business from hovering in the background for years as a bodyguard – convinced Dre to join him in starting Death Row Records. But first, Suge had to secure Dre’s release from Ruthless, and it was here that Suge’s particular brand of business tactics – which would ultimately lead to the fall of the Death Row empire – first revealed themselves.
The story goes that Eazy had to “be persuaded” to release Dre from his contract – i.e., in order to get Eazy to sign Dre’s release, Suge took heavies with baseball bats to the meeting and beat Eazy’s signature out of him. As the late Jeffrey Jolson-Colburn – The Hollywood Reporter’s music critic at the time – states matter-of-factly in the book and the film “From day one, this label was born amidst a controversy that involved violence.”
Death Row had gargantuan success; bought and distributed by Warner-owned Interscope Records, the label generated hundreds of millions of dollars. Suge ruled the company like a brutal mafia don until the street-level thug life Suge allowed to overrun the Death Row offices drove Dre out the door. Suge ended up doing jail time as a direct result of his “business” methods.
In the film Savidge lays out the chronology of the story via interviews with those who were there from the beginning. It’s a effective technique limited only by the fear on the part of the interviewees, which is visible and genuine and certainly informs the story. In the book, on the other hand, Savidge is free to add his own observations and experience, and the additions deepen the story – and the tragedy – many times over. His writing is cogent, unapologetic and direct, a smart, no-holds-barred voice uniquely suited to its subject matter. And it is probably accurate to say that, by waiting nearly fifteen years between shooting the film and writing the book, Savidge has an overarching perspective unlike anyone else’s.
During our interview Savidge made the comparison between the way Death Row was financed – via the money from Michael Harris’ successful drug-dealing operations – and the great American tradition of turning ill-gotten gains into legitimate business empires.
Says Savidge, “He (Michael Harris) is very upfront about how sorry he was over the damage he did with his drug dealing. He always saw it as a short-term thing to seed legitimate businesses – not unlike the Kennedys, the Bronfmans, and so many others who later became pillars of society. That’s just the fabric of the United States. If people want to marginalize or demonize it because it’s happening in South Central – well, it’s the same damn thing. That’s America. And to think that Harry O seeded all the culture-changing power that then came out of the hip hop music business – that makes it an even bigger story.”
The fact that so much time passed between the making of the film and the writing of the book gives the book another special edge; it is when Savidge and Harris come together again during a visit Savidge makes to Lompoc prison more than a decade after the making and release of the documentary, that the many threads comprising the story finally come together. The story of “Harry O” – a man apparently framed by an over-zealous LA detective with a long-time vendetta against him, incarcerated for decades and yet business-savvy and capable enough to move mountains in the outside world – is set against the story of Suge Knight – the beneficiary of Harris’s money and acumen – who had it all, including his freedom, and threw it away through an over-reaching arrogance and hubris worthy of a character in a Shakespearean tragedy, undercutting success by sowing the seeds of his own downfall with virtually every action.
The story is in equal parts moving, disturbing and illuminating. America is at a critical watershed moment; the whole country needs to own and acknowledge the racial and economic inequities that are woven deeply into its DNA. Yes, there is a Black man in the White House, and yes, more and more Black faces appear in public life every year – but the stark realities of the Black kid growing up on the street, the Black/White racial tensions and the drastic economic inequity between classes and races remain much as they were when N.W.A. came blasting out of Compton on a wave of unstoppable energy and raw talent that forever changed American culture, and the world.
In the tradition of American artists and thinkers who told the truth as they saw it, whether or not those insights were popular or financially advantageous, Savidge’s contribution to the country’s current turning point is both estimable and courageous, and as such it deserves a wide audience.