View photos from the auction in the Death Row slideshow.
Officially dubbed “Case # 2:06-bk-11205-VZ,” the day’s festivities were ordered up by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court on behalf of Knight and his Death Row Records. A staple of Los Angeles music and the definition of gangsta rap 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 corralled into a warehouse piled with sheet metal and piping, roped off with yellow caution tape, the spirit of Death Row was still relevant in 2009. 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 4 cents a piece? Others were looking for deals…like a pallet of dated (but working) television sets that sold for $15 each. Die-hard hip-hop fans and local kids eyed a museum’s worth of awards, designer shoes (including Knight’s size 13s) and cigar paraphernalia behind chain-link fencing. 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 — he worked for Suge Knight,” said Diane Jensen, whose son Jay was part of Death Row’s marketing department. She was looking for platinum plaques with her son’s name on them. “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 Suge commissioning troops to make sure certain things stayed unsold. But when auctioneer John Connaway 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 in their lives — 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 KIIS’ New Music Show, 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.”
Skee — who plays noncommercial music on commercial radio every Sunday night — held true to his claim by paying more than $600 for the art proofs of Tupac’s All Eyez On Me. And when he stuffed a wall-sized platinum plaque once 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 who snagged my beloved Nate Dogg portrait also won everything else he bid on, including two of the day’s biggest prizes: the Suge-commissioned original painting “Notorious P.I.G.” and Death Row’s actual electric chair. The bidder’s name was Dale and his tattoos spoke louder than he did, even as he explained 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. The electric chair, the symbol of Death Row’s dominance, was the last item auctioned and, like everything else he wanted, Dale just held his hand high until his fellow bidders dropped out. The final price: $2,500, half of what most estimated it would go for. Dale’s seemingly bottomless wallet brutally knocked out his fellow bidders, but if bullying wasn’t the mantra of Death Row, then nothing was.