New life for death row

Even with a new Canadian headquarters and a ‘soccer mom’ in charge, the notorious rap music label is still shrouded in mystery

New life for death rowTry as you might, it’s impossible to imagine Lara Lavi dangling Vanilla Ice off a 15th-floor hotel balcony. Or negotiating a record contract with a lead pipe in her hand, pistol-whipping artists, engaging in nightclub gunplay, or really duplicating any of the countless misdeeds—large and small—attributed to the founder of the company she now runs. The self-described “Jewish soccer mom” is more granola than gangsta, given to flowing scarves, her speech peppered with “mans,” “dudes” and “awesomes.” She even flashes a peace sign by way of goodbye. And that makes it all the stranger that the 48-year-old American, and her little-known Toronto-based company, WIDEawake Entertainment Group, are now the keepers of the dubious legacy of Marion “Suge” Knight Jr. and his infamous rap label Death Row Records.

In mid-January, WIDEawake stunned industry watchers by beating out big name competition like Warner Music in a Los Angeles bankruptcy court auction for the rights to the Death Row brand, and its back catalogue of recordings by urban music heavyweights including Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Doggy Dogg. The US$18-million bid—several million more than the competition—from a company that boasts exactly one other artist on its roster, soul singer Sean Jones, raised eyebrows. Hobbled by Knight’s feuds with talent, financial woes, and periodic jail sentences, Death Row hadn’t released any new material since 2005. And shoddy record-keeping during its early-1990s heyday made it almost impossible to say what remained to be mined from the vaults. But Lavi and her associates say they have a plan to “monetize” an asset that has been heavily used and abused. (Since Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas in September 1996, at age 25, there have been over a dozen posthumous albums.) It revolves around giving the scariest outpost in the music business a Mr. Rogers-style makeover.

On company press releases the label’s iconic logo—a hooded man strapped to the electric chair—is now accompanied by an ink stamp reading “Full Pardon.” “We want to make good with the artists,” explains Lavi. “We’re very determined to allow them to get paid and heard.” Before any of the Death Row recordings are issued, WIDEawake intends to approach the rappers for their input, give them a chance to complete or polish unfinished tracks, and coordinate timing to avoid conflicts with any new releases. Payments will be made—although the company says it has no such legal obligation, as it owns the songs lock, stock and barrel. And nothing will be rushed. It will take two years to organize the storage vaults, stuffed with so much material that they look like “that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark,” says Lavi. It’s ample time to build new and lasting relationships.

That work has already started. In February, she began efforts to patch things up with the family of Shakur—still Death Row’s most marketable commodity—travelling to Atlanta to meet with his aunt who, along with his mother, controls the estate which has long been at odds with the label. Lavi also paid a visit to their Tupac Amaru Shakur Center for the Arts & Peace Garden in nearby Stone Mountain, Ga. Vern Cambridge, the centre’s director, says he’s hopeful that WIDEawake will find new ways to promote the organization’s after-school dance and acting programs, and summer camps. Some money would help, too. “We get funds from the community and the fans, but we lack support from the industry,” says Cambridge.

And, with Death Row’s catalogue having effectively been out of commission for two years, there does seem to be some pent-up demand. (Knight sought Chapter 11 protection in April 2006, after Lydia Harris, the ex-wife of original investor Michael Harris—currently serving a 28-year sentence for drug dealing and attempted murder—won a US$107- million default judgment.) A Tupac song, Can’t C Me, has been licensed to EA Games for the 2010 edition of the popular Madden NFL game. VH1 came calling for Snoop and Dr. Dre videos for a “Black to the Future” special. John Payne, who worked at Death Row as a recording engineer in the early days, and now serves as WIDEawake’s senior VP of A. & R. and content, says the “fresh start” and the firm’s Canadian origins are opening a lot of previously closed doors. “It’s the fact that now we’re a more user-friendly company,” he says euphemistically. “People have always known the value, but had reasons why they couldn’t, or shouldn’t be involved.” There is also the promise of what may still be in the vaults. A few weeks ago, WIDEawake issued a tetchy press release about “misquotes” in a Billboard story claiming the label has unreleased recordings by R & B superstar Beyoncé. But it stopped well short of denying that such tracks exist: “When the company is prepared to issue a comprehensive statement regarding the listings of artists of previously unreleased master recordings owned by Death Row, it will do so.”

Adding that little touch of mystery to the mix also seems to be part of the label’s plans. Lavi has been deliberately vague about just who owns the private company, saying only that the principals had connections to Sextant Records, a now-defunct Toronto label that was once home to Nickelback, the Irish Descendants, and rapper Choclair. That opacity has been maddening for New Solutions Capital Group, the Mississauga, Ont., investment firm financing the acquisition. Since its name appeared on court filings, the firm has been deluged with calls from rap entrepreneurs trying to sell them on the next big thing. “We’re not the owners and we have no desire to be in that position,” says Robert Thompson-So, New Solution’s managing director of investments. Still, the firm thinks it has backed a winner. Thompson-So draws comparisons between Death Row’s catalogue and the early Motown years. “Effectively, it’s like dropping a cash register into the company.”

Lavi’s own path into the executive suite—in this case, a corner of a loft in Toronto’s Liberty Village, draped with gauzy red fabric like a sultan’s tent—is similarly murky. Brought in as a consultant in the fall of 2005, Randy Lennox, the head of Universal Music Canada, which had a relationship with the mystery investors, helped get her the job. She took over when WIDEawake was formed out of the ashes of Sextant in January 2006. A lawyer by trade, Lavi has a bio that reads like a film script. Growing up in Pittsburgh, she was a child prodigy on the piano and violin. But after a “silver spoon” upbringing, she fell out with her father, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, over her desire to pursue her passion for music, and choice of college major—animal behaviour. Financially cut off and needing to find a way to pay her tuition at the University of Chicago, she took a job waitressing at the famed Kingston Mines blues bar. Eventually, she found her way onto the stage, and soaked up what she could from performers like Jimmy Johnson. “He kind of adopted me. We would literally sit in his old black Cadillac and I would sing blues licks and he would correct me,” says Lavi, busting out a verse of Stormy Monday. (Johnson, now 80, can’t quite place the name. “I probably did that,” he says from his home in Harvey, Ill., south of Chicago. “That sounds like something I would do.”)

During law school at the University of Oregon in the mid-1980s, she befriended sax player Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers, giving him a place to stay when he was kicking heroin. They formed a band, and toured the West Coast. Lavi went on to a solo career, putting out two albums, and eventually reunited with Neville in the Songcatchers, a group that fused contemporary and Native American sounds. All the while, she continued to practise law, first for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, south of Seattle, then as a corporate attorney for a digital music firm. “Maybe you call it a renaissance person,” she says. “I go where my heart sends me.”

WIDEawake has a similarly eclectic range of projects on the go. Work has just begun on a recording and video/film production studio in its loft space. Lavi and a co-worker have written a script for a Marvin Gaye biopic, and are hoping to cast Sean Jones (WIDEawake’s sole/soul artist) in the title role, although securing rights to the late Motown singer’s music is proving to be a big hurdle. And Lavi is readying herself to go back into the studio and record an album of children’s lullabies called Little Dreamers, with planned spinoffs including illustrated books and “branded multi-ethnic characters” for animated films and merchandising.

Still, it all brings one back to the question that Lavi herself poses: “What’s a nice Jewish woman like me doing with a gangsta rap label like this?” She talks about a recent four-hour drive from Nashville to Atlanta that she spent listening to Tupac. Along with the anger, there is poetry, growth, and even “epiphanies” in songs like Never Call You Bitch Again. “Art springs from humanity. The Death Row artists were speaking truth,” says Lavi. “To me, it’s folk art in its truest form.” It’s evidence of a genuine zeal to rehabilitate a musical genre that is best known for its glorification of drugs, guns, and violence, and the bad behaviour of its once guiding force. And payback, of sorts, for her artistic life. “I have had an army of older black men who have mentored me,” says Lavi. “[Buying Death Row] may not make a lot of sense to people looking in from the outside, but it makes perfect sense to me.”