(All photos by Brandon Perkins. For full gallery, check out the Death Row Auction slideshow.)
It was perfect. The portrait of Nate Dogg in itself was tacky, but Suge Knight's alleged tweaks to the painting -- black eye and multiple bullet holes -- were priceless. The frameless artifact wasn't the most glamorous or even the most infamous item up for bid at Sunday's "Death Row Auction" in Fullerton, but it was the most poignant. Priceless and poignant, unfortunately, being way out of my price range.
Officially dubbed "Case # 2:06-bk-11205-VZ," the day's festivities were ordered up by the US Bankruptcy Court on behalf of Suge Knight and Death Row Records. As the staple of Los Angeles music and definition of gangster rap for nearly a decade since its 1991 inception, the controversial record label and its fearsome owner ran their pop culture course into the ground shortly after its flagship star, Tupac Shakur, was gunned down in Las Vegas in 1996.
But for nearly 200 bidders at the auction, the spirit of Death Row was still relevant in 2009. The specifics of that relevancy remained varied. For some, it was a chance to make a quick buck. Where else could you buy 17,000 CD copies of Snoop Dogg's Tha Doggfather for four cents a piece? Others were looking for deals...like a pallet full of dated (but working) television sets that sold for $15. And in accord with many of Death Row's notorious business practices, some people were just trying to get their stuff back.
"I wanted to see what the prices were going to be on the some of the pieces that actually belonged to my son, Jay Jenson. He worked for Suge Knight," Diane Jensen said. "I'm trying to buy them back. They actually belong to him, but the bank has them now."
Before the auction began, bidders carefully eyed each other. It was easy to imagine Snoop or Dre sending surrogates for their platinum plaques and VMAs, or even that Suge commissioned troops to make sure certain things stayed unsold. But when the auctioneer commenced the dizzying affair with cases of "Death Row Water" -- for less than the cost of water, to people who clearly had never attended an auction before in their life -- it was apparent that the majority of the day's bidders were there for one thing: Nostalgia.
"I just wanted to be here, I knew it was going to be a one of a kind event," DJ Skee, host of the New Music Show on KIIS, said. "There's been nothing in hip-hop that's quite had its run like Death Row has, that's made so much timeless quality music. You can pop in any of those albums today and they're still relevant...Doggystyle, The Chronic, All Eyez On Me, they're relevant in the club, in the streets, on the radio."
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And Skee -- who really is playing non-commerical music on commercial radio every Sunday night -- held true to his claim by paying over $600 on the art proofs for Tupac's All Eyez On Me CD in the day's first spirited bidding war. And when he stuffed a wall-sized platinum plaque presented to Dr. Dre into the back seat of his BMW convertible, he was officially one of the day's bigger players.
But the same guy that snagged my beloved Nate Dogg portrait also won everything else he attempted, including two of the day's biggest prizes: the "Notorious P.I.G." original painting and Death Row's actual electric chair. His name was Dale and his tattoos spoke louder than he did, explaining that he was a fan of "big businessmen like Suge" and that, yeah, he did have a few good spots to put all this artwork. Dale's seemingly bottomless wallet may have left a few fellow bidders bitter -- he'd just hold his arm in the air until everyone else bowed out -- but if bullying wasn't the mantra of Death Row, then nothing was. (Brandon Perkins)