S. Leigh Savidge, screenwriter and co-executive producer of the Straight Outta Compton, arrived late Wednesday night at the hip-hop headquarters of Kingz Graphics Design in Orange. He had been invited to do a podcast interview with Wake The Flok Up on the eve of Oscar nominee announcements the next morning. As it turned out, Savidge’s work on the N.W.A. biopic got a bid from the academy for best original screenplay. But the writer might already be plotting a sequel of sorts by returning where it all began. Back in 1998, Savidge began filming the award-winning documentary Welcome to Death Row about the notorious west coast gangsta rap label run by Marion “Suge” Knight. The script for Straight Outta Compton hatched from the project. Now with the film’s success, Savidge released Welcome To Death Row: The Uncensored Oral History of Death Row Records in the Worlds of Those Who Were There in August 2015. The book goes further in depth than the documentary through more than 60 interviews with key players. From Death Row’s start with seed money fronted by convicted drug kingpin Michael Harris to its demise in the wake of Tupac Shakur’s death, Savidge’s work covers it all. Might make for a great film, no?
Before that happens, the Weekly sat down with Savidge to talk Welcome to Death Row. Stay tuned for his podcast interview on Wake the Flok Up with Koncept714 dropping on Monday.
OC Weekly (Gabriel San Roman): How did the documentary “Welcome to Death Row” lead to “Straight Outta Compton” and then circle back to “Welcome to Death Row” the book?
Savidge: The documentary was a three year process and it was very dangerous. The dynamic at the time was there was a federal investigation into Death Row Records and its funding sources, but the period of maximum interest was at that time in 1998. Suge Knight, after essentially losing everything and running it into the ground, goes to jail in 1997 after the kicking incident at the MGM Grand that preceded Tupac Shakur’s death. We started the documentary in June 1998. We were reaching out try to interview anybody who would talk to us. The people coming forward, a lot of them were affiliated with Ruthless Records. We got extensive interviews with people like Alonzo Williams and later Jerry Heller. My lead in to be the original writer of “Straight Outta Compton” was based on those interviews that we did and the credibility that emanated out once “Welcome to Death Row” was completed and released. There was a four year period where I’m toiling in obscurity writing draft after draft. That script was going to have to get to Tomika Wright and she was going to have to give her rights to that script. That’s the process I went through from 2002-2006 when it got sold into New Line. That put it Hollywood’s radar. In January 2015, when they gave a release date for “Straight Outta Compton,” that’s when I really started focusing on the book and trying to put a chronology of the oral history.
The book allows for an expanded view than what the documentary could give. What can readers learn more about in terms the start up of Death Row Records?
It all seeds within Ruthless Records. Cube, Eazy and Dre, these guys are all buddies. Clearly the dramatic success of Ruthless provides an opportunity for the D.O.C’s bodyguard, Suge Knight. He sees what’s going on and sees Dr. Dre as an immensely talented guy. He picks up the scent of these money issues and sees an opportunity for himself. He has some innate business smarts. He opens up a publishing company. One of his writers is Mario Johnson who writes the lyrics for “Ice, Ice Baby” and doesn’t get paid. Suge famously goes after Vanilla Ice in person and may or may not have hung him over a balcony. But the cult of Suge Knight, if you want to pin a moment, that’s where it starts. At some point, Dr. Dre decides that this is the kind of guy that he wants to be in business with. The story is how he lures Dre out of Ruthless Records and presides over this situation where Dre is this magnet for talent. They’re not casting across the country. The core nucleus is really drawn from Southern California. Michael Harris was the model for gangsta rap. Suge had a financier who put $1.5 million in and gave them credibility. When they become successful, he doesn’t see the need to have Harris in the picture anymore so there’s this epic betrayal. Anybody who puts that kind of money, no matter where they got it from, in a record label is going to expect to make a lot of money in the process, even if he’s in prison.
Suge Knight became a hip-hop kingpin in the 90’s. What did your oral history reveal about his methods along the way?
Suge operated in a way that no one in the history of the music business ever operated. Certainly, the mafia had been in the music business for decades but the way he terrified people was unique. And people were scared shitless of him. He would foment rumors and take credit for things he didn’t do and that only fostered this fearsome reputation. There were things he would do but generally he had a gang of people around him. Once the Blood gang culture went in, he became surrounded by that. He was never a gang member himself. It was this crazy thing of being a college graduate, becoming a multimillionaire and then looking to acclimate into gang culture. The Blood sect would never respect somebody that hadn’t gone through the gang rituals coming up but they were happy to be around the fame, money and success. Ultimately, that was his biggest mistake, being misguided enough to bring the gang culture into the office atmosphere. It was certainly critical in Dre’s leaving.
With the climate of fear that he embodied, how did you get interviews for the book?
There’s a little bit of a domino effect. Once you get some people and then the word gets around that nobody got hurt. People did want to talk, it was just the fear. We also had to overcome the fact that many people thought that we were part of some crazy scheme by the government to help bring down Death Row Records. It became clear over time that people realized we had a sincere desire to understand what had happened at the label, how it started, what seeded the success and how it could go so terribly wrong. It’s almost unprecedented when you look at six consecutive multi-platinum albums. It just doesn’t happen. The interesting thing is that it happened at Ruthless. Labels spend millions of dollars fostering acts that end up going nowhere. If you look at that, it really is astonishing the level of success both of these labels had.
Bringing in Tupac Shakur gave Death Row that extra push through the mid 90’s. But doesn’t he also represent the beginning of the end? It’s also been suggested for a long time that Tupac himself was looking to leave Death Row before his murder.
What do you do for an encore? Some say there were discussions almost Death Row signed with Interscope to try to bring Tupac to Death Row. Suge takes almost a monolithic focus on Tupac to the exclusion of almost everyone else. Dre, in particular, got to a point where he couldn’t stand to be around Tupac. And then Tupac sees that Dre’s not in the studio and has Suge whispering in his ear. Tupac becomes this mouthpiece to diss Dre, to communicate what Suge’s feeling. Dre ends up holing up in his house until Jimmy Iovine offers the deal at Aftermath. They come to his house and get the masters. I don’t think Tupac would have stayed in the fold that long. He felt he owed a sincere debt to Suge for getting him out of prison. Makaveli was his label that he formulated. He was probably planning an exit.
What I recall from being a teenager listening to this music at the time was that Suge tried to reinvigorate the label after Tupac’s death and the exodus of certain artists vital to it. Why wasn’t he able to rebuild Death Row?
He got out of prison in 2001. I don’t think he had a fundamental understanding of why he was successful in the first place. It was really this unique configuration of talent around Dre, timing and something in the zeitgeist that had really blown up this gangsta genre that was intoxicating to teenagers of all stripe. When you see him try to pick up the pieces, he goes to Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes. The guys he had left, no disrespect to Daz or some of the other producers, they weren’t at the level of Dre and Dre was the magnet for the talent. Suge had thought it was him. Now he’s a defrocked CEO who has been in prison, he has all these lawsuits, the Harris’ would eventually win a $107 million lawsuit which caused him to put the company into bankruptcy. That was really the end of Death Row. He continued to get in trouble even after he got out of prison. A lot of people had it in for him. There’s going to be a point where there’s a karmic boomerang and it happened.
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.