Escape From Death Row!
The changing tastes of popular hip-hop seem to have left the recently acclaimed Long Beach Sound far behind. Artists who lined up to become the second- and third-wave successors to the city's breakthrough superstars have been left stranded. Not that most Long Beach rappers have accepted this. They remain convinced that the stories of their legendary predecessors are parables of success that can still be applied to their own lives.
"For the kids around here, it's not just a dream—it's the dream," says Bobby Neal, a hair stylist whose shop has been doing business near the heart of the Long Beach hip-hop scene for a dozen years. "I've watched 'em all struggle. They've worked harder than lots of people who've been on a regular job for 20 or 30 years."
These are the faithful, the true believers. And one of them, William E. "Big Life" Landrum, has brought some of them together to say their latest prayer, a compilation CD called Escape From Death Row, just released on his record label, Low Life Records.
Landrum, a 48-year-old truck driver, spent his life savings to found Low Life Records in the mid-1990s; he still spends more time behind the steering wheel than behind a mixing board. His experience with the independent label parallels the rise and fall—and perhaps rise again—of Long Beach rap. Now living in Oregon, Landrum gave birth to Low Life Records in the holy land of Long Beach hip-hop, a divine place and time when seemingly all the kids in the neighborhoods around Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway believed they were on their way to rap stardom—and some of them were actually making it.
"Back then, I went into Low Life Records for my kids," says Landrum. "Like everybody else, when my kids saw what Snoop [Dogg] did, they wanted to be rappers. To tell you the truth, I didn't really want them even listening to hip-hop. But it seemed like a road they were going to go down with or without me. I was worried about them —the things they were doing, the people who weren't treating them right—so not really knowing what I was doing, I built them a studio."
Landrum positioned Low Life Records on the vortex of a gritty old strip mall, with the V.I.P. record shop on one side and the Pee & Gee Fish Market and Bobby Neal's Classic Hair Styles on the other. It made sense: almost every Long Beach rapper who got off the ground had ascended from this sacred launching pad.
Neal remembers them very well. "Snoop, Warren G., Nate Dogg—all of 'em came through this corner to buy their records, to get their hair cut, whatever," he recalls. "Sometimes they still do. Warren comes around all the time."
Snoop Dogg cut his first demo in V.I.P.'s backroom; his first video was shot on the roof. "A few years back, the Twinz did one of their videos right here in my shop," Neal recalls with enthusiasm. "It seems like yesterday."
But it's more like ancient history. In fact, the glory days were already starting to fade by the time Low Life Records arrived. Most of Long Beach's overnight sensations had been dispersed to big-splash labels with major distribution. Snoop, Nate and Daz Dillinger were on Death Row Records (Time Warner). Warren G. was with Def Jam (Polygram). Even Domino had gone multiplatinum—remember "Ghetto Jam"?—with Outburst Records (Columbia/ Sony). Then, as unexpectedly as it had started, the pipeline that connected inner-city Long Beach MCs with the top of the international record charts stopped pumping.
"I spent $60,000 on my studio—sold my house and my car to do it—and we produced our first project, and Def Jam almost signed us," Landrum recounts. "But at the last minute, they signed somebody else. Then we did another project, and it was good, too, but at about that time, we got broken into. Everything was stolen."
Landrum admits that the title Escape From Death Row works on a number of levels, although he takes a roundabout way to get to the most obvious: several of the artists on the album—Daz Dillinger, Kurupt, Soopafly, Tray-D and RBX—have recorded for the once-mighty Death Row Records, which recently crashed and burned amid myriad charges of legal and ethical sins.
"When we called it Escape From Death Row, we were not talking about Death Row Records," Landrum begins. "Our record has nothing to do with Death Row. It's the hood we're talking about. The hood has become a death row to a lot of people. And this album is intended to give them the opportunity to pick up a mic instead of a gun, to choose music over a life of crime, imprisonment or even death row."
On the other hand, the confusion doesn't exactly hurt the project's chances of getting attention. Landrum acknowledges that it may have even helped Low Life team up with Private I Records, through which Escape From Death Row is receiving major distribution from Mercury/Universal. "There is that double meaning. You know and I know that big labels like that marketing hook," Landrum says slyly. "We're not telling people to read anything into the name, but people are going to do that. We're just gonna let everybody get what they want out of it. But it doesn't hurt us at all, you know? In reality, where I'm coming from is helping the kids coming out of the hood."
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.
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