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May the Best Brand Win: Bad Boy Records vs. Death Row Records


LA takes on New York; only some live to regret it.

While there's no denying that hip-hop sprang from the streets of New York -- though in which borough is debatable -- the question of where hip-hop was perfected was the source of both intense debate and violence throughout the mid-1990s. At the forefront of this rivalry were Los Angeles' Death Row Records and New York City's Bad Boy Records - which made it, as the media was quick to point out, a war between East and West.

Death Row was founded by Suge Knight and Andre Young - better known as Dr. Dre. Dre backed out of his contract with Ruthless Records -- through physical threats, according to some sources -- and began work on what would be Death Row's first and flagship release, The Chronic. The album went on to sell over 3 million copies and ushered in collaborator Snoop Dogg's 1993 solo effort Doggystyle, which sold over 12 million copies worldwide.

Though West Coast gangsta rap had emerged during the 1980s thanks to Ice-T and N.W.A., Death Row was largely responsible for popularizing the movement - and drawing the ire of parents and political figures. The label's thuggish image was enhanced by Suge Knight's decision to employ friends he met in jail as his security guards.

Shortly after Doggystyle's meteoric rise, former A&R executive and producer Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs founded East Coast outfit Bad Boy Records in 1993. The label quickly gained success and notoriety with releases from Biggie Smalls and Craig Mack.

Tension between the 2 labels began simmering following the 1995 Source Awards in New York. During the ceremony, Suge Knight took the stage and made inflammatory remarks toward Sean Combs and Bad Boy Records. Knight chided Combs for his tendency to appear in all of Bad Boy's music videos, and urged artists to sign with Death Row.

Navigation The New York crowd booed Knight's comments, as well as a performance by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, who said, "The East Coast ain't got no love for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and Death Row!"

If the hostility from the Source Awards was the powder keg, the addition of 2Pac to Death Row was the match.

A year following the awards show, 2Pac released a scathing diss track entitled "Hit 'Em Up." In the song, 2Pac alleged that he had an affair with Biggie Smalls' wife Faith Evans and, threatened his life along with Sean Combs'.

By 1997, as the rivalry escalated and 2 shocking deaths -- Tupac "2Pac" Shakur and Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace -- made headlines, both sides agreed to end the violence. Dr. Dre began an exodus from the label; other artists soon followed suit.

The animosity eventually dissipated, but the fans soon departed as well, effectively pulling thug-life-focused gangsta rap out of the limelight. After a decade of decline, Death Row Records was auctioned off to WIDEawake Entertainment Group Inc. for $18 million, leaving Bad Boy Records the only one still standing.

Death Row officially folded in January 2009. In the meantime, Bad Boy Records continues to enjoy moderate success with artists like Cassie, Yung Joc and Danity Kane. Though the label may not carry the clout it did in the mid-'90s, it seems Bad Boy is here to stay.
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