"When Michael Fuchs from Time Warner offered me $80 million and to build me two state-of the art studios to leave Interscope and go strictly with Time Warner, I turned him down, because I started with Jimmy and Ted."
—Suge Knight


Spokesman Denies It, but Visual Cues on "Welcome Home" Billboard, Website Tell Tale
It’s practically identical. Just remove the first two letters of the first word and rearrange the remaining letters, and "Death Row" becomes "Tha Row." Hardly anything to write home about, right?

But the symbolic impact of what appears to be an imminent name change for the once-undisputed powerhouse of gangsta rap could prove important for CEO Marion "Suge" Knight, whose release from prison after serving five years was first reported Tuesday morning. In fact, given the recent spate of press alleging his involvement in the murders of both Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., it would seem a reasonable reaction to soft-pedal the label’s violent history as Knight begins the rebuilding process.

A Death Row spokesman denies a name change is in the works, saying "Tha Row" is merely a nickname for Death Row and pointing to a press release issued today under the headline, "Suge Knight Returns to Death Row." However, when asked about the "Welcome Home Suge" billboard that currently hangs over the company’s Beverly Hills office, on which "Tha Row" is written in place of "Death Row" and even appears in the label’s familiar hooded-guy-in-the-electric-chair logo, the spokesman would say only, "That’s something Suge would address."

Of course, using a nickname in a welcome-back message by itself wouldn’t lead one to believe a major shift in corporate identity is in the works, but when the nickname displaces the "real" name in the logo, it’s a fair question.

Adding weight to said question is the company’s website (www.deathrowrecords2000.com), which, on a full-screen splash page, says, "Welcome Back Big Suge," sports the same "Tha Row" logo as the billboard, and bids visitors to click to enter "Tha Row." Once inside the reworked site, each window opened says "Tha Row>>Official Site!" in its title bar and sports an additional "Tha Row" logo. The words "Death Row" aren’t anywhere to be found.

While some might say losing the "Death" part of Death Row might constitute selling out or going soft, it’s hard to argue with any sign of positivity coming from a label that made its reputation for being harder than hard. Indeed, numerous incidents of violence (alleged and otherwise) involving Knight and Death Row personnel over the years culminated in the 1996 shooting death of Tupac in Las Vegas. A separate incident at the MGM Grand hotel that night eventually led to Knight’s incarceration when a judge ruled he had violated his probation for an unrelated 1992 assault.

"I’m stress free," Knight told the L.A. Times' Chuck Philips, hinting at a less-ferocious persona. "Better days is coming, man," he continued. "It’s like we’re getting ready for the Super Bowl…We’re going to win the big one. Going to sign some new young producers to come up with some tough new stuff. We going to start having some fun again."

During the last year of his incarceration, Knight managed to up his profile by mounting an ingenious campaign that included a playful 30-second spot advertising Death Row’s "Too Gangsta for Radio" compilation during last year’s violence-tainted Source Hip-Hop Awards, which pictured Knight surreptitiously manufacturing CDs from his cell and turning on a hot female prison guard. Death Row also openly mocked label defector Snoop Dogg, releasing the provocatively titled cutting-room-floor compilation "Dead Man Walkin’" about a month ahead of Snoop’s new album, "Tha Last Meal" on No Limit. At that time, Death Row’s website taunted the rapper with barbs including "Death Row Records knows that success for a Snoop Doggy Dogg album means $$$$ for Suge Knight. Keep it up because you know Suge Knight eats off your next three albums as well as your previous seven albums." Death Row even posted downloadable MP3s of Snoop’s No Limit album in an apparent attempt to get his goat.

But if what we’re now seeing is a rehabilitated Suge Knight ready to rebuild his business and let the past lie, the process will be far from a slam dunk. Death Row still faces legal struggles, including a $4.3 million fraud verdict entered against it last December in a suit filed by former managers of rapper Kurupt; a May suit by diva Jennifer Lopez over an alleged sex tape in Knight’s possession; and a $2 million breach-of-contract suit brought by Tha Dogg Pound’s Daz Dillinger filed last week. Add to that the recent Rolling Stone article and VH1 Behind the Music installment alleging Knight and Death Row were in bed with the LAPD (charges Knight has repeatedly denied), and it's a long Row to hoe indeed.

Some indication of Knight’s determination can be found on Tha Row’s website, which includes an eight-part jailhouse interview with Knight (produced by Death Row). In the interview, Knight takes a very self-possessed "I don’t have anything bad to say about anybody" attitude, while still managing to tell tales, as when he says Dr. Dre approached him with a desperate wish to "be white." Knight also takes issue with his former partners at Interscope: "I don’t have nothing negative to say about Interscope, but at the same time, when Michael Fuchs from Time Warner offered me $80 million and to build me two state-of the art studios to leave Interscope and go strictly with Time Warner, I turned him down, because I started with Jimmy and Ted. But if you ask what have they done for me since I’ve been incarcerated, then the answer is, a book of stamps, a pair of shoes. So I guess a lot of people don’t understand no loyalty."

Knight goes on to repeatedly attest that he wishes Snoop and Dre nothing but the best. "But as a man," he concludes, "anything you say once, you have to be able to say twice. There’s a difference between being a man and a male, and a rider and a coward."

Stand by for what the big man says next.

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