Lara Lavi: Death Row Records’ New Warden

Since the original Hip-Hop powerhouse Death Row Records was acquired by WIDEawake Entertainment for $18 Million in January 2009, both fans and critics of the iconic label have speculated about its future. Questions have arisen about not only the marketability, …

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Since the original Hip-Hop powerhouse Death Row Records was acquired by WIDEawake Entertainment for $18 Million in January 2009, both fans and critics of the iconic label have speculated about its future. Questions have arisen about not only the marketability, but also the purity and relevancy of a ‘new’ Death Row brand. With managing partner Lara Lavi at the helm, steering Death Row into the digital age, should a renaissance be expected? Owing to a new warden focused on improving the relationship with former inmates and renovating the brand, the Second Coming of Death Row is imminent. So firstly, exactly how

does a self-proclaimed Jewish soccer mom become CEO of Death Row Records?

Lara Lavi:  Well, it’s

a dubious honor being the managing partner of Death Row Records, which

I think is technically my title. I come from the music business (the

musician side and the legal side), I’m almost 50 now and I’ve done

almost every job in the industry, except yours! I’ve been at this

for years and finally some financers decided they wanted to put a new

company together and they recruited me to go up to Canada (I’m American

so I was a little skeptical). A year ago they decided they wanted to

buy something big, I suggested some things that I thought would suit

them and then they decided that, no, they really did want to buy Death

Row Records out of bankruptcy. So I negotiated a deal with my crack

team of lawyers and accountants and in January 2009, the judge said

‘young lady you do realize this has got to be paid in US dollars,’

so I said, ‘ok.’ Many people have grown

up listening to Death Row music, so much so that it has gained an almost

iconic status in hip hop. What are your thoughts on the brand?

Lara Lavi: Yes we all love Death

Row Records. You know what?  I’m actually a fan, I know it sounds

crazy! I love great music and authentic music and I believe that Death

Row embodies that. Death Row was home to

some of hip hop’s elite, including Dr Dre, whose album ‘The Chronic’

is the first to be reissued. What is the current relationship between

Dre and the new Death Row Records?

Lara Lavi: Dr Dre is a genius.

He is an American icon and he is probably the quintessential producer

for hip hop in the world – in my view.  From that perspective,

Dre many years ago mentally moved on from the pain of having to deal

with the departure of him founding Death Row Records and his falling

out with Suge Knight. Now skip ahead and you’ll see he’s done quite

well for himself and the association of the name Death Row for him is

either one of ambivalence or mild hostility. I don’t think he has

anything against me. Our view is that it has to be a very gentle, slow

build to a great relationship. It’s going to take time, but we have

mutual friends like QDIII and lots of folks. The issue is that he wants

to see if we are going to honor our promises. Are we going to pay royalties

on time and be honorable with his music? As an artist, I totally get

it. He has the right to be a little nervous or skeptical, it’s reasonable

I think.

“We have such a great relationship with Amaru

Entertainment and Afeni, which was my first order of business when we

closed on the catalogue. My first thing was to say to those guys, ‘the

negativity ends now. This is day one. I’m going to keep my promises.” –Lara Lavi Let’s face it you can’t

do much worse than the last guy, right?

Lara Lavi: Well, I don’t think

anybody could do as bad as the last guy. Failure to provide royalties

and whatever craziness went on, that’s not my way. It’s ethically

wrong. I can’t do that, but I don’t know the half of it and I wasn’t

there. All I can say is how I do business and how my company will do

business, how my team will work and how my financers look at things.

We intend to be extremely honorable. Just so you know, we’re putting

together an elaborate system to make sure that all the artists and writers

get paid. We partnered with an international company, Evergreen Copyrights,

to handle the administration of the masters and the publishing. We will

be responsible for the royalties due and for the people whose content

we put out. That sounds a vast improvement,

considering the past reputation of Death Row. Speaking of which, have

you actually had any dealings with former CEO, Suge Knight?

Lara Lavi: No I haven’t, I

think my husband would be uncomfortable with that! But you know, I think

there are 2 Suge Knights. I think there is a gentle soul, focused on

business and I think that there’s another one that is a little frustrated

and that person gets in trouble. The gentler one is pretty brilliant

when it comes to business. He just didn’t factor in the whole thing

of making sure they paid third parties like the IRS and artists! But

in terms of building a brand, he was certainly a part of that. That’s quite an oversight;

surely eradicating such mistakes from Death Row must be a top priority

for you, following the acquisition of the brand?

Lara Lavi: I think that one

of the mistakes that gets made – that I don’t want my team to make

– is, a record label has to be about the artists, their music and

the fans, period. Your readers matter. The music matters. The artists

matter. What I think doesn’t matter. Who I am doesn’t matter. Only

these people matter because the artists are the geniuses creating this

and the fans are making sure that the artists can keep doing it; if

they buy it. That’s where I hope and pray that the fans, who have

been concerned and frustrated that hip hop has become so popular and

integrated in our culture that the beats have become homogenized and

the vocals have become auto-tuned, will come out in droves to buy this

authentic content and in doing so, tell the world that there still is

demand for the real deal, the authentic, original gangsta. That music

was lightning captured in a bottle and we are the only company in the

world that has thousands of unreleased [tracks] from these iconic artists. Speaking of unreleased

material, one artist in particular springs to mind. I seem to recall

Daz Dillinger claiming that Tupac Shakur had left behind a catalogue

of about 700 unreleased songs at the time of his death; is there any

truth in that claim?

Lara Lavi: I think that’s

an exaggeration. I think it’s more like what’s left is a couple

of hundred. Really in terms of unreleased songs, where 2pac is the actual

artist, Death Row is entitled – from a settlement that occurred before

I was around – to an album’s worth of material. Then Afeni Shakur

and Interscope, or whoever she wants to work with, get the balance.

I suspect they’re going to end up with a little less than 75 songs

when we’re all done. We have such a great relationship with Amaru

Entertainment and Afeni, which was my first order of business when we

closed on the catalogue. My first thing was to say to those guys, ‘the

negativity ends now. This is day one. I’m going to keep my promises

and you guys are going to learn to trust.’ We’re two moms talking

about the world; that’s where it’s pretty handy to be a soccer mom.

She gets me, so it’s all good. Ms. Lara Lavi (CEO/President – Wideawake Deathrow LLC) and John Payne (Senior Vice President – Wideawake Deathrow LLC) Will you be hoping to

continue that relationship with Amaru Entertainment and Afeni when that

album, which you are entitled to, is finished?

Lara Lavi: We’re always going

to be joined at the hip. You have to understand that they are in publishing

and we own a bunch of masters and whatever we do in terms of taking

songs for film, TV, advertising and gaming or whatever, we want to do

it together. We both have to approve stuff and frankly we’re watching

out for each other. If I get a request from a publisher – we have the

same company we’re working with – I look at it, if it relates to

2pac I’m checking to see if it is something Afeni would be ok with.

She’s doing the same and I’ve caught a few things that I’ve said,

‘I don’t think she’s going to like this.’ She appreciates that

I’m paying attention on that level. That’s what you do for your

business partners, plus I like her. These are all good people and they

deserve better than years of litigation. So now that the Amaru

Entertainment situation is looking much brighter, could you reveal a

little about the 2pac album in question?

Lara Lavi: I can. I have made

a promise to the fans before we did anything else that, if there was

any remix-type stuff, guest features or any type of manipulation, before

I would even consider anything like that, we are going to put out the

purest 2pac album we physically can. We’re going to focus on Johnny

“J” tracks, Daz tracks and we’re going to try to get this record

as close to how 2pac would’ve liked it as humanly possible. I’m sure our readers

will be very pleased to hear that. So when should they be able to expect

the release?

Lara Lavi: I think we’re looking

at June 2010, that’s our goal. We’re trying to put if out as part

of our birthday celebration of Tupac. It isn’t just the music, what’s

happened in the course of this whole exercise is so many people have

come out of the woodwork for video content that no-one’s ever seen

before and suggestions for playlists etc. The fans have been wonderful.

The release will include a huge DVD of unreleased, never before seen

video also. 

“I don’t think

anybody could do as bad as the last guy. Failure to provide royalties

and whatever craziness went on, that’s not my way. It’s ethically

wrong. I can’t do that.” – Lara Lavi To move onto a slightly

smaller focus but nonetheless another very iconic artist, Lisa ‘Left-Eye’

Lopez was of course signed to Death Row at the time of her tragic death.

What is the situation with her material?

Lara Lavi: I’m a huge fan

of hers actually. As a woman, I’m personally very excited about Lisa.

We’re sitting on more than an album’s worth of stuff of hers and

I think that people are going to love this. We’re going to put a few

things out of hers, the box set to start teasing people, but when the

whole thing comes out I think it is going to be terrific. Could you give us an idea

of the dates for these projects?

Lara Lavi: It’ll come out

2010 probably. We’re also doing a ‘Women on Death Row’ compilation

and doing an album that’s just Left-Eye. We’re doing a Danny Boy

thing. We’ll get into something with Crooked I, but we’re also interested

in his new material so trying to balance that out. Right now I’m focused

on the deals that we’re doing right now to get ‘The Chronic Re-Lit’

out and getting our European and Rest of World distribution together.

‘The Chronic Re-Lit comes out in North America on September 1st

and then October 13th we have Snoop Doggy Dogg’s ‘The

Lost Sessions Vol. 1,’ which has some fantastic gems on it that nobody’s

ever heard. The box set will come out around American Thanksgiving and

then we just keep marching. You mentioned about Danny

Boy and Crooked I, the details about their status within the label have

always been rather sketchy. Is there currently anybody signed to Death

Row Records?

Lara Lavi: No with everybody

on the roster, those deals expired in the nineties. The only two really

are Crooked I and Danny Boy right now; they’re always really technically

on the roster. We’re negotiating with them right now to do a new contract

signing because they both have current projects. Danny has an R&B

album and a Gospel album and Crooked I has an amazing project with King

Tech, supported by Sway. We’re getting it together. I actually get

on very well with the artists because they know that I know what it

feels like to be them. The challenge is dealing with the bankers because

it’s a delicate balance of commerce and art! With a renewed focus primarily

on the artists, will you be looking to add any new additions to the

Death Row roster in the near future?

Lara Lavi: I think we will ultimately

but we have to get through digesting all of the music and contracts

that go with it and then from there take a look. I’m very excited

and I hope everyone will participate; we’re doing a contest. If people

go to, they can enter to win a trip to Los Angeles

by naming the mystery artist from seventh of the free downloads or they

can enter the remix contest. Download the stems from ‘Nuthin’ But

A G Thang’ and the accapella, remix it and send it back to us. I think

that there’ll be tonnes of people doing the remix and we’ll have

a lot of fun with it. Crooked-I: Still Stranded On Death Row? Obviously these online

contests are helping to introduce the brand into the digital age. Will

the internet play a significant part in marketing the new Death Row?

Lara Lavi: It has to otherwise

you ignore the elephant in the room. We have to look also at different

ways to make money from this brand and the content, so the artists can

continue to get paid. Naturally we want the fans to buy the music and

not download it for free but we’re not naïve; the bigger we build

the brand, the more activity will occur on BitTorrent and Limewire,

we understand that. So we have to look at other things like placing

the music in films, building our own films, gaming, graphic novels and

anything we can possibly come up with. So would you say that

Death Row is still a viable and marketable brand?

Lara Lavi: Well the market is

telling us that. I wouldn’t matter what I think, it matters what the

market says. Distributors, retailers, marketers, merchandisers, publishers,

film companies, they tell us. I also think that the world is coming

back around to place of organic authenticity and more cathartic music,

as opposed to the canned stuff. I think everything in music comes around

in cycles and I think we’re coming back around to truth.

We’re also doing a ‘Women on Death Row’ compilation

and doing an album that’s just Left-Eye. We’re doing a Danny Boy

thing. We’ll get into something with Crooked I, but we’re also interested

in his new material so trying to balance that out.-Lara Lavi Do you think that the

changing demographic has played a part in that desire to return to authenticity

and truth?

Lara Lavi: First of all, there

are two classes of fans. There’s the people that grew up with this

music as the soundtrack to their lives and they are collectors. They

are people that physically want to hold the music and are not interested

in just populating their iPods with disposable music. Those people make

up a good chunk of the audience. The second fan group is the people

that don’t know yet and these are the young people, who didn’t grow

up with Death Row but like their counterparts in rock have a deep respect

for the classic elements and the iconic artists. So these are people

that understand about Dre (sort of) and 2pac (sort of). As they get

educated – we’re trying to do it socially-responsibly by placing the

music in ‘Boyz N the Hood’ type films so that we’re not glorifying

misogyny and gang violence – that’s when we think we’ll start

seeing a younger audience with an appetite for this. They will have

a collector’s mentality because they will look at this music as authentic,

classic and not disposable like a lot of the stuff they download free.

That’s our theory; we’re hoping your readers agree with us, because

we sure to want to give them this music. You mentioned about the

increasing social awareness; is building this new image a priority for

Death Row?

Lara Lavi: Well, you cannot

white-wash this music. It is a snapshot of a socio-economic time that

was very serious, especially in Southern California. You had a very

disenfranchised Black youth, you had the LA riots and all sorts of madness

going on. In the middle of this you had street poets, who had figured

out how to articulate what was around them, literally bringing what

they saw on the street to tape. So I would never be interested in homogenizing

that. What I would be interested in, is through film, telling the stories

against the backdrop of this authentic music but putting it in the context

of where this really sits and where you land if these songs play out.

I think ‘Boyz N the Hood’ was a perfect example; it would not have

been the same had they not have used hip hop music. I welcome your readers

to tell us what they think too. So, do you think that

the original Death Row fans will warm to this image?

Lara Lavi: Well, I think the

Death Row fans want what they want. I don’t really care whether they

give a rat’s a** about me. I didn’t write this music; my job is

to get it out there to them. My job is to read what they want and give

it to them and ask them to please buy it so we can pay the artists.

That’s it. My job is not to let this music get bastardized by the

wrong producers. My job is to protect this music, to watch out for the

artists, to respect the bankers who pulled it out of bankruptcy and

to listen to the fans; that’s my job. I think that the fans

will certainly respect that and personally, I think it’s great to

see a woman at the helm.

Lara Lavi: Well, it’s a dubious

honor. You wake up in the morning and you go, “hmm what should the

song be for today, ‘H* Hopping’ or ‘I’d Rather Pay For the P***y

Than Deal With This B***h,’ I don’t know, what do you think honey?”

There are days where it just seems crazy but artists are artists. I’ve

had one really good conversation with Snoop, where we really talked

deeply and I’ve had quite a few conversations with many of the other

artists. I really like Lady of Rage and I just think that Robin is on

to something with her acting career also. It’s about respect and when

people feel respected and honored for what they do, then they’re

going to be cool, and if they don’t, then they’re going to be p****d.

It’s that simple, I feel that way, so why shouldn’t the artist. You hit the nail on the

head there. So finally, do you think that even with all these changes,

Death Row can continue to have the same cultural impact on society?

Lara Lavi: I think it’s going

to be a different cultural impact because it’s going to be about applying

this music to human stories, as we talked about. It’s always going

to have some kind of rebellious element but it’s hard to tell. All

I know is that I want to be socially responsible in how we go about

this. I think there’s a balancing act between art and commerce and

I think by making sure we put proper things in place by paying the artists

and listening to the fans – and don’t f**k up this music – I think

we’ll have a good business. It will be a good model for others and

maybe inspire a whole line of more organic hip hop. Please tell the

fans that I am there for them, I just need them to be there for me,

so we can show the world that people really do want the authentic O.G.

Death Row’s 

latest release ‘The Chronic Re-Lit & From the Vault’ will be

available in stores from September 1st 2009.

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