Snoop Dogg‘s got big plans to bring Death Row Records into the metaverse after acquiring the brand earlier this month, but the rap star will likely be moving forward without some of the label’s biggest recordings.
When the initial deal for the Death Row brand was announced Feb. 9 — just days before Snoop Dogg’s Super Bowl halftime show performance with Dr. Dre and other stars — a source told Billboard that the purchase of the label’s recording catalog was expected to close soon. Now, almost two weeks later, sources say that deal for the label’s catalog is still being negotiated. That means that the Death Row recordings are still owned by MNRK Music and its parent company Blackstone, which acquired the eOne Music label for $385 million in April 2021 (eOne changed its name to MNRK last September). And when that deal does finally close, it won’t include some of the label’s biggest albums.
As of Jan. 1, 2022, 2Pac‘s two 1996 Death Row albums, All Eyez On Me and The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory — the latter serving as the rapper’s first posthumous release and issued under the alias “Makavelli” — are no longer on the label. Those two albums respectively generated 393,000 and 66,000 album consumption units in 2021, while All Eyez On Me was the label’s biggest mover last year — ahead of the 15 Years On Death Row compilation by some 9,000 units. In total, 2Pac’s recordings accounted for 25% to 40% of Death Row’s total activity.
Now, both those albums appear to be on Interscope Records, based on metadata from various digital music services. For its part, MNRK refused to disclose whether ownership over those albums changed and wouldn’t confirm what albums it still controls through the Death Row label. Blackstone and Snoop Dogg’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
The Death Row catalog has changed ownership several times over the past two decades. When Suge Knight, the label’s original owner, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2006, it was sold to WideAwake Entertainment. In 2013, eOne Music — which had long distributed the label — acquired the catalog after WideAwake Entertainment also filed for bankruptcy.
Interestingly, even though MNRK appears to have given the 2Pac albums back to the late rapper’s estate, a June 11, 2018, ruling on a lawsuit between the label and the estate appears to favor eOne Music. In that lawsuit, 2Pac’s estate, AMARU Entertainment, laid out eight causes of action and for some of them asked Judge Stephanie Bowick to make declarations — which the judge denied. The estate had sought declarations stating it owned the 2Pac albums’ copyrights and that eOne did not own the 2Pac recordings and instead only held them and any unreleased masters as a trust — which they argued eOne was obligated to identify and turn over to the estate.
Aside from that particular lawsuit, there has been a long trail of costly litigation around the 2Pac recordings, according to sources, and eOne Music executives more than once considered returning 2Pac’s music to the estate if the right deal could be struck. Similar discussions took place among eOne executives concerning the Dr. Dre recordings, those sources added.
As it turns out, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic is also scheduled to be returned as soon as 2023, multiple sources tell Billboard. Currently, that album and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle appear to be the catalog’s biggest sellers, excluding compilations, with each earning nearly 169,000 album consumption units in 2021.
When the Dr. Dre album is returned, that will leave Snoop Dogg as the best-selling artist on the Death Row label. In addition to Doggystyle, Snoop Dogg appears to have two other albums on Death Row: 1996’s Doggfather, which generated 8,000 album consumption units in 2021, and his latest album BODR, which was released two days before his Super Bowl performance on Feb. 11. BODR, which is an abbreviation for Back on Death Row, has so far collected 10,000 album consumption units in its debut week.
Besides Snoop Dogg, the remaining Death Row catalog includes film soundtracks such as Above The Rim and Gridlock’d, compilation albums including Christmas on Death Row and albums by Lady of Rage, Daz Dillinger and Kurupt.
With 2Pac already gone and Dr. Dre’s music pending departure from Death Row, more than 50% of the catalog’s activity is evaporating — and this may impact the label’s compilation albums too. Death Row’s Greatest Hits generated 264,000 album consumption units in 2021, while 15 Years on Death Row totaled 384,000 units, according to MRC Data— though that total likely includes some double counting of streams and track downloads from songs on other Death Row albums. Consequently, without 2Pac and Dre tracks, the two compilation albums might not be sustainable as a collective, which means another chunk of sales and streaming activity could evaporate.
Billboard estimates that the Death Row catalog, including the two 2Pac albums and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, generated about $15 million in revenue for MNRK in 2021. Without those albums, Billboard estimates the remaining catalog is producing about $6 million a year in revenue, with Snoop Dogg’s albums accounting for $2 million to $3 million of that.
Snoop Dogg’s new ownership of Death Row no doubt adds a new cultural cachet to the iconic brand, whatever the acquisition actually covers. This was not lost on eOne executives. One of the previous strategies for the brand, sources say, was to sell to Snoop Dogg but under the corporate umbrella by possibly keeping a minority stake in the catalog and tying the sale to a distribution deal.
With the sale of the brand to Snoop Dogg earlier this month, one thing changed almost immediately on the Death Row website: The pages selling the label’s CD and vinyl albums quickly disappeared and have not come back online since, indicating that the deal over the catalog acquisition is not yet complete.
Bill Donahue provided assistance in preparing this story.