Even though Death Row Records has been wounded by the death of star 2Pac, the imprisonment of label head Marion "Suge" Knight and the departure of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg in the last five years, the Los Angeles rap label has managed to survive.
But with Knight incarcerated, who's been steering the frigate? For about a year and a half, the man behind the music has been Big Hutch, the lead rapper and producer of veteran rap group Above the Law.
After more than a decade in the music industry, working with the likes of Eazy-E (Above the Law released three albums and an EP on Eazy's Ruthless Records) and Dr. Dre (Hutch co-produced Above the Law's first album with Dre), Hutch finally got his long-awaited opportunity when Knight asked the Pomona, California, artist to direct the musical vision of Death Row.
"I'm the head of production over there," said Hutch, who is also known as Cold 187um. "I'm like Dre was. Everything that goes down, I've got my hands in it. I make sure that sh--'s sharp."
For example, on Until the End of Time, the most recent posthumous release of 2Pac's work, Hutch and the Outlawz's E.D.I. were credited as music supervisors. In this capacity, Hutch produced, remixed, mixed and appeared on the double-disc set, which has sold more than 1.6 million copies, according to SoundScan.
"I listened to all of the songs, decided where to put a horn, when to have a male or female vocalist," Hutch said. "That's a major part of production, knowing what things need in order to sound cohesive. I was taught by Dre and learned by working with Eazy how to make albums be albums. That's why I was put on, and that's really my position at Death Row."
Although Above the Law were loyal to Eazy-E, staying with Ruthless after the departure of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, Hutch never had a problem with Knight, who allegedly got Dr. Dre out of his Ruthless contract by threatening Eazy-E with bodily harm.
"That's their arch rival," Hutch said, noting that Knight managed Above the Law at one point in the early 1990s. "We've always had a relationship. It's not like something that just popped up. The man called me from the penitentiary and asked me would I like to come aboard and do some real serious record business."
When Knight is released from federal prison — on August 9, according to his label — Hutch said he will fill an increasingly important position with Death Row, handling more than just the music side of the label.
As an artist, Hutch is signed to Death Row as both a producer and a member of Above the Law, which also includes rapper KMG and DJ K-Oss. Diary of a Drug Dealer, the trio's follow-up to 1999's Forever: Rich Thugs, is slated for an October release. Hutch said the collection will be grounded in the type of incendiary street reporting that made Eazy-E and N.W.A infamous.
"It's definitely controversial," he said. "You're going to get it straight to your face, how the streets really are built up. It's not popping Cristal, bling-blinging and f---ing with project hos. You're going to get the real deal about the game, the struggle. Not the bubble, the struggle. It's basically the drug game unfolded, situations and scenarios that you go through when you're a drug dealer. A lot of groups nowadays, they're great as far as being songwriters and getting you out there shaking your ass in the club, but there's really no one telling you how it is in the ghetto anymore."
The other artists on Death Row are likely to follow the same formula. Forthcoming albums from female rapper SKG and R&B singer J. Valentine will remain rooted in the streets, while seasoned underground battle rapper Crooked I will take his ferocious rhyming skills national with a debut album expected by October.
"He's the deadliest MC that's living," Hutch said of Crooked I. "He's the most vital young MC that you've seen in a long time. That's going to be a really big album for us."