U dumps Death Row

With legal and financial troubles mounting and its chairman Marion (Suge) Knight in prison, Death Row Records has been put on life support by execs at Universal Music Group and Interscope Records.

Death Row, which has seen its fortunes decline and one of its star artists murdered in the past year, is being jettisoned by the conglom, which has informed Death Row execs its records will no longer be distributed, according to sources.

Though the move might appear to be Seagram CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr.’s way of distancing the conglom from controversial rap lyrics, industry insiders suggest the shift is being made purely for business reasons. Seagram is the parent of Universal.

Universal execs and David Kenner, attorney for Death Row, declined to comment. But an Interscope spokeswoman said the label’s contract with Death Row is still in effect.

With Snoop Doggy Dogg the label’s remaining principal artist after rapper Dr. Dre ankled to form Aftermath Entertainment, Death Row’s annual billings have slowed considerably from its heyday of more than $80 million.

In the fourth quarter of 1996, releases from Death Row comprised a large part of its distributor Interscope’s total sales. But Interscope has since beefed up its presence in other genres and is no longer as dependent on Death Row’s rap fare as it once was. As a result, it can afford to sever ties with the struggling label.

Death Row is also besieged with lawsuits from creditors, including Shakur’s estate, which is seeking more than $100 million in damages, in addition to royalties the lawsuit claims are owed the late rapper. Shakur’s lawsuit, filed by his mother Afeni, claims Death Row believes Shakur owes the label more than $5 million from advances on recording royalties which the rapper used to buy jewelry and cars (Daily Variety, April 22).

And since Death Row is no longer run by Knight and the label is in disarray, the recording contracts of artists signed to the label could be considered invalid due to the significant changes at the company.

If it no longer has major label distribution, the pacts would certainly be unenforceable. Knight’s estranged wife Sharetha is currently running the label with a handful of execs.

The move by Universal also comes as Death Row is in the middle of a grand jury probe and a federal investigation into the business ties of Knight, who is currently serving a nine-year prison sentence for violating his probation.

Knight was imprisoned as a result of his role in the altercation at a Las Vegas hotel that preceded the shooting death of Shakur.

The federal government is examining the label’s links to an alleged drug dealer to determine whether profits from an illegal enterprise were used to open Death Row.

Universal, then called MCA, came under fire last year by former education secretary William Bennett and activist C. Delores Tucker when it purchased a half interest in Interscope from Warner Music Group. The latter succumbed to stockholder pressure and jettisoned the controversial label.

Tucker, who recently purchased Seagram stock, is expected to attend Seagram’s shareholders gathering in November to again press her complaints.

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