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Having Gun on Death Row

Gangsta rap was born in the Bronx when KRS-One cut "My 9-mm Goes Bang" in 1988. But it took ex-L.A. Ram and reputed West Coast gang member Marion "Suge" Knight to turn it into an industry. Starting in 1992, Knight built Death Row Records into one of the most profitable and controversial labels ever--until he was sentenced to a nine-year jail term last November for a parole violation stemming from repeated episodes of criminal violence. Veteran New York music journalist Ronin Ro chronicles Suge Knight's gangsta rap empire in a remarkable new book, "Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records" (Doubleday).

The music may have been new, but the business wasn't: Death Row could have been any of the small labels that birthed rock and roll in the '50s. With illicit backing, Suge Knight set up an independent label selling black music to white kids. He poached talent from competing indies--Death Row house producer Dr. Dre was already signed with Ruthless Records, a jailed Tupac Shakur left Interscope after Death Row posted his million-dollar bail and, in time-honored fashion, Knight used jewlery, clothing, and cars to dupe groundbreaking artists out of publishing rights and record royalties.

What set Death Row apart was its success and the violence which followed. Suge Knight's label put gangsta rap at the top of the charts, selling over 18 million records to the tune of over $100 million annually for its first four years. Drive-by anthems rocked America's radios and gangbangers ran amok on MTV's heavy rotation.

Ronin Ro's "Have Gun Will Tavel" allows unprecedented access to the violent gang culture Suge Knight introduced to the music industry. Bloods and Crips ran Death Row's offices and studios in a tense truce. Business deals were a matter of physical intimidation, and disputes were settled with bloody beatings. Artists recorded, not so much for royalties, but for membership in "the Row."

"Have Gun Will Travel" demonstrates how the fatal feud between East and West Coast rappers was Death Row-driven, part of Suge Knight's campaign for rap industry dominance--especially over New York's rival Bad Boy label. Ro's explication of the shooting deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. brings us no closer to solving their murders, but shows us how the killings were inevitable. Ronin Ro cuts though circulation-boosting rumors peddled by rap magazines by documenting events and by bravely naming names.

Perhaps that's why promotion for "Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records" has been limited to two controlled New York broadcast appearances. There are none of the usual book signings or receptions. When reached by Rockbeat, publicists at Ronin Ro's publisher, Doubleday, would only offer to relay questions to the author, politely declining to provide his contact number.

Live Nightlife Gets Results

When Mayor Guiliani created the multi-agency Nightclub Enforcement Task Force to crack down on clubs as part of his "Quality of Life" 1997 campaign, music venue owners formed the New York Nightlife Association to counteract the coming attacks. Former Irving Plaza co-owner Andrew Rasiej united with aproximately 75 other cabaret license holders to make the case for live music and dancing establishments.

The New York Nightlife Association's agenda was straightfoward: improve the industry's image; initiate communication between clubs, the community, and elected officials; and issue the first-ever report on the "Economic Impact of The Nightlife Industry on New York City."

N.Y.N.A. instituted a "Good Neighbor Policy"--standardized rules to preserve the quality-of-life in areas where member establishments are located, and commissioned a study by George Wachtel's Audience Research and Analysis, the outfit renowned for documenting the Broadway theatre industry's economic clout.

What is the economic impact of an industry that draws approximately 24.3 million people to some 300 New York City music and dance clubs, exceeding the combined attendance of Broadway theaters, city sports teams, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Empire State Building?

According to the Audience Research and Analysis report released on March 12, in 1997 the New York nightclub industry contributed $2.9 billion to the city's economy--almost three times the amount initially projected--as well as providing 27,040 jobs and $800 million in wages. Taxpayers and politicians take note: nightlife activity generated $109 million in city and $110 million in state taxes. Contrary to the media-celebrated underage club kid boho, the average patron is 27, college educated, and has a mean income of $44,000. Additionally, 79 percent of those polled voted in last year's city election.

Will the mayor's "Quality of Life" campaign ever allow for quality nightlife? New York Nightlife Association legal counsel Robert Bookman told Rockbeat," There has be no political reaction so far. Maybe it has to take more time, but the New York Nightlife Association will continue our efforts." Rockbeat's calls to Mayor Guiliani's office went unreturned.

Greg Garing's Alphabet City Opry

As an outsider to Nashville's country music industry, Greg Garing left for New York to make rock and roll. His debut album "Alone" (Paladin/Revolution) combines dirt-road country guitar, high lonesome vocals and, yes, atmospheric dance floor samples. Garing's genre-defying fusion has drawn critical acclaim as well as some industry consternation, and has jump-started a career that was flagging south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Ironically, his next project is Greg Garing's Alphabet City Opry at Bar Code, Mondays 9:30pm till 2am. Garing leads a dozen or so itinerant downtown musicians celebrating hardcore honky tonk. Admission is free, and word of mouth has drawn out an increasing number of dedicated regulars on what is ordinarily the week's slowest night. Greg Garing's Alphabet City Opry marks a flourishing new outpost in New York's underground urban country scene.

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