[Editor's note: A 2001 documentary from Santa Monica-based production company Xenon Pictures, called Welcome to Death Row, tells the story of Suge Knight's infamous imprint, and Xenon's producers are publishing interviews conducted for the film in a book next year. With their blessing, we're excerpting some of that material, including our cover story on the making of The Chronic and a dissection of the legend of Suge Knight dangling Vanilla Ice off a balcony.]
See also: The Making of The Chronic
Today we revisit the launch party for Death Row, held on February 25, 1992 at erstwhile West Hollywood restaurant Chasen's, a swanky eatery that once hosted Oscar parties. Though he was not able to attend because he was locked up, the money man behind Death Row, Michael “Harry O” Harris, received shout-outs throughout the night from performers like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Intended to introduce and legitimatize the fledgling label (an arm of Harris' Godfather Entertainment), the party was ultra lavish.
JOHN PAYNE: Godfather Entertainment is Michael Harris' company. Look at the Deep Cover soundtrack. It says “Godfather Entertainment.”
LYDIA HARRIS (Harris' wife): [Harris] would call Suge and wake him up. Because Suge would get up late in the morning and Mike would say, “To handle business, you got to get up early.” Suge would get up in the morning and we would handle business. Mike would say “Go do this, go do that.” And he'd do it. Mike would get on the phone with Dre and talk to him about what the people wanted to hear: the music, the lyrics and what he knew would sell. Because the guys listened to it all day in jail.
DAN O'DOWD (cinematographer): So, [Death Row publicist] Norman Winter came up with the brilliant idea to have the kick-off [party] for Death Row at Chasen's and everyone would get “served” with subpoenas as an invitation. And we'd go into [this fancy neighborhood] and rub it in everybody's nose that Death Row is coming out. So, everyone got subpoenas — the biggest names in the record business. And they always show up for Chasen's. Everyone showed up. It was a mad house…Snoop was there. The whole ensemble was there.
NORMAN WINTER: The invitation was printed on a one-sheet, folded to look like a subpoena. “You are hereby ordered to appear before the honorable Dr. Dre and the offices of [Godfather] Entertainment as a guest of the court, witnessing the springing of Death Row Records.” We had it delivered by two large security gentlemen who walked in on people and handed them a summons that looked real. [Attorney] Dave Kenner helped me write the text.
Chasen's was the place in Los Angeles in 1992. All the superstars and every president up 'til Reagan was at that place constantly. Presidents. Society. When you're unknown, you pick the best venue you can get. Even if they don't come to see your act, they come to see and be seen. And sometimes they come back with an earful and eyeful…Not only did [everyone] have a good time, they could not believe the abilities of these performers. The service was impeccable and there were great camera opportunities out front when you arrived. We wanted metal detectors out front, but [Chasen's] thought it could hurt their business.
MICHAEL HARRIS: I wanted to let the city know that we were on our way.
NORMAN WINTER: We invited virtually every major record executive in Los Angeles and New York. We planned on spending $20-25,000 but it turned out to be $35-50,000. We had huge screen monitors showing the Grammys, which were taking place in New York.
JOHN PAYNE (studio engineer): They had enough money behind them and they looked good. All the acts performed that night. Everyone was well-behaved; Mike made sure the all the girls dressed nice. They were wearing $600 dresses. Even the bodyguards were in tuxedos. It could have been the next Motown. Motown groomed their people and gave them self-esteem and respect…Death Row came out of nowhere and had a party at Chasen's on Grammy night which was reserved generally for all the white people.
JOHN PAYNE: Mike thought everybody should look good. He got Suge a Benz, a 500 series. Dave Kenner got a car. I got a Lexus LS — I got David's [old] car. Before that, Suge had a Suzuki Samurai.
DAN O'DOWD: The entire Chasen's event was paid for by Godfather Entertainment. Everyone got a microphone in their face. When it came to David Kenner, he toasted the man who made it all possible, Harry O. Everybody was nodding to a guy named Harry O.
LYDIA HARRIS: The day we did the Chasen's party, they shipped Mike to Tehachapi state penitentiary. It was 60 days before Mike could use a phone.
See also: The Making of The Chronic