By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
As a career vehicle, however, Escape From Death Row comes across less as a getaway car than as a dial-a-ride van. Everybody onboard is so full of civic pride—so true to the gangsta-driven lyrical themes and rough-edged-oldies sound that made Long Beach hip-hop famous—that most of the songs drive by very familiar territory. But to interpret the album's retro-provincialism entirely as an artistic limitation is to miss out on the inspiration that drives the collection. There's a sense of mission at work, an attempt to revive the dream of shared success by a community that was denied and splintered by the pick-and-choose music industry.
The fact is the residue of the success of many Long Beach stars has been deep, sometimes dangerous resentment. "Hollywood came in and caused a lot of division with the crowd in Long Beach," Landrum asserts. "The artists weren't pulling together anymore. The guys who made it never reached out and helped the guys who used to be their friends. After some of these guys got free—Daz and Kurupt and the rest—I had a long talk with them. I said, 'Now's your chance to start something special. Now's your chance to make your fame mean something beyond yourself. Why don't you use your talent to bring out some of the undiscovered talent in Long Beach? Now's your chance to put to rest the rumors that you don't give back to the hood.'"
Consequently, many of the tracks on Escape From Death Row are collaborations between name artists and those hoping to make a name, and the excitement on both sides is often palpable. Some of the freshest voices are female. Q more than holds her own on three songs, most notably alongside the long-respected skills of Kurupt and the always-underrated Tray-D on the bouncy "Back on tha Smash"; with two other women, Ebony-E and Toni Hill, on "Dance Wit Me"; and with Landrum's son, Young Life, on "Life." Similarly, Cognac trades rhymes with Daz on "What Cha Gonna Do."
"This is about simple affiliations," summarizes Daz, who four years ago was influencing presidential politics and corporate restructuring when his salty multiplatinum collaboration with Kurupt of Death Row's Dogg Pound drew comment from Bob Dole and prompted Time Warner to temporarily divest itself of hardcore rap labels. "Of course, it's about making money, too."
The first half of that mission is accomplished. The Long Beach hip-hop community is so sincere about unity that Chris Bowden—a.k.a. Big C-Style, a much respected former gang leader who heads the independent label 19th Street records, named after the street he used to run—used his industry connections to help Landrum get a distribution deal. But a big payday remains a big question. And the answer boils down to whether the local fervor of Long Beach hip-hop still has the power to win converts beyond the city limits.