Brown v. Suge Knight, Death Row Records

In yet another blow, the once-untouchable gangsta-rap label is forced to pay a former star's managers for jacking their talent. You call this a comeback?

by Bruce Haring | Wednesday, December 06, 2000 04:23 p.m. | (published by Inside.com)

A Los Angeles jury yesterday granted a $4.3 million verdict against Death Row Records and its co-founder, Marion ''Suge'' Knight, a move that raises new questions about the future of one of the most notorious companies in music industry history.

The jury found that brothers Lamont and Ken Brumfield, the former managers, producers and publishers for recording artist Ricardo E. Brown Jr., a k a Kurupt, were defrauded and had their contractual and other economic relationships interfered with by Death Row and Knight.

The $4,344,000 in damages breaks down to roughly $3,279,000 against Death Row and $1,065,000 million against Knight, who is currently serving out a nine-year prison sentence for violating parole on a 1992 assault on two aspiring rappers in a Hollywood recording studio. Knight violated that parole in a 1996 assault at a Las Vegas casino.

Despite Knight's recantation of the violent life in multiple parole hearings, Death Row's aura of menace has barely faded. At the Kurupt civil trial, Knight testified via videotaped deposition because California Superior Court Judge Emilie H. Elias feared for the safety and security of the jury if Knight was present in the courtroom. Nevertheless, Knight was a constant presence on the phone, even speaking on a cell connection to former Death Row recording star Dr. Dre in the courthouse hallway. On the stand, Dre -- whom Knight has, in published reports, called ''a faggot'' -- said they talked about his new record.

The trial was marked by testimony from a who's who of 1990s gangsta rap. Among the original defendants was Suge's ex-wife Sharitha Knight, who, like Dr. Dre, was dismissed from the case before it went to the jury. Similarly, former Death Row protégé Snoop Dogg, charged with influencing Kurupt to break his deal with the Brumfields, was released from the case in an earlier procedure. Interscope Records, originally a defendant in the suit thanks to its distribution association with Death Row, settled with the plaintiffs for an undisclosed amount before the jury verdict.

David Kenner, the lead counsel for Death Row and Knight, did not return calls seeking comment.

While the case can still potentially be settled out of court, the verdict is yet another obstacle for Death Row, which has struggled to rebuild itself after years of chaos that saw Knight's conviction, the death of Tupac Shakur and the defections of marquee acts Snoop Dogg and Dre.

Kurupt was originally signed by Lamont Brumfield's Rapp Central Productions and Ken Brumfield's Hoodsta-4-Life Publishing, with Ken (who is now serving a 20-year prison term for cocaine trafficking) also serving as Kurupt's manager.

Court testimony in the civil suit against Death Row et al. contended that Kurupt made his Death Row bones after being invited to a 1993 party held at Dr. Dre's Calabasas, Calif., estate. Dre remembered Kurupt from an earlier tape, and challenged him to a contest: if Kurupt could hold his own in a rap battle against various guests -- including Snoop and other MCs from Death Row's stable -- he'd get a deal with Death Row. If not, he would wind up in Dre's pool. Kurupt impressed, stayed dry and won his Death Row deal.

But Kurupt did not immediately share his good fortune with the Brumfields. The brothers claimed that despite promises to the contrary, compensation for Kurupt's services and their own deal with Death Row never materialized, even as the rapper began appearing on Death Row recordings that helped make the company the Microsoft of the gangsta-rap industry.

Los Angeles attorney John Smith, representing the Brumfields, attempted to work out an agreement, sometimes submitting to bizarre meetings.

According to his court testimony, Smith once attended a meeting with Knight at which the 6'3'', 330-pound exec -- apparently borrowing intimidation tactics from Jabba the Hutt -- devoured an entire bucket of fried chicken while negotiating, languidly stripping meat off the bones and never once offering any to the attorney.

On other occasions, both Smith and the Brumfields attempted to meet with Knight, but were kept away by bus-sized bodyguards, who phalanxed Knight both in the studio and in his offices.

As negotiations dragged fruitlessly on for the Brumfields, Kurupt apparently came under the sway of the Death Row scene. Despite his existing contracts with the Brumfields, Kurupt eventually signed a recording contract with Death Row, a publishing contract with Suge Music and a management agreement with Sharitha Knight, who ran Knightlife Management.

Gradually, things went awry. Death Row entered a period marked by Knight's legal problems and Shakur's death; Kurupt declared bankruptcy in 1996, voiding all his recording and management contracts, including those held by the Brumfields.

However, by that time he had appeared on 17 albums and one single for Death Row, racking up a discography that included featured artist credits on million-selling rap classics like Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle and Dr. Dre's epochal The Chronic. The Brumfields have, to date, received no money in compensation.

Pamela Koslyn, the co-lead counsel for the Brumfields, said there was a ''high likelihood'' of a settlement of the civil matter. One scenario being floated has a revived Death Row possibly releasing a Kurupt album of unreleased material and channeling most of the proceeds to the Brumfields. (Kurupt's most recent album, Tha Streetz Iz A Mutha, was released last year by Antra/Artemis.)

If no settlement is reached, however, Death Row may be faced with some hard financial choices, ones that potentially could undermine any attempts at jump-starting the company.

Knight, who may be freed from his stint at San Luis Obispo men's colony as early as next year, has expressed hopes in interviews of resurrecting his dominance in the rap scene. In an over-the-top TV spot which aired during this year's Source Hip-Hop Music Awards telecast (an event marred by the kind of thuggery which was once allegedly standard operating procedure for Death Row), Knight was depicted burning new Death Row CDs on the proverbial down-low in his prison cell. Ostensibly an advertisement for the Death Row compilation, Too Gangsta For Radio, the spot played more like an attempt by Knight to assert his (and Death Row's) continued primacy in the hip-hop world. But to convert that hype into fact, Knight and Death Row have some huge obstacles to overcome.

Death Row representatives have privately said that the company currently has no assets and is insolvent. Facing a jury verdict for damages, Death Row and Knight could be forced to publicly open their books and reveal their financial state. If it turns out that Death Row does, in fact, have assets, other artists, producers and managers, many of them potentially in the same financial position as the Brumfields, may come forward to collect.

But if Death Row's financial picture does not include a source of revenue, then the firm could be forced to declare bankruptcy and potentially lose the rights to its interests in its recording masters and publishing assets, which were licensed to Interscope and Warner/Chappell Music, respectively.

Much of Death Row's recent output has consisted of compilations based on studio outtakes accumulated during the mid-'90s, when gangsta was in flower. The label's most recent offering, Dead Man Walking, billed as a new Snoop Dogg album, is actually a collection of leftover Snoop studio work from the Death Row days. Snoop, who left Death Row for the comparative comfort of Master P's No Limit Records back in 1998, reportedly objected to the release of the album, and sought to keep it from succeeding by threatening to deny interviews and personal appearances to radio stations if they added singles from the record. Whether Snoop had anything to do with it or not, the album has faltered, selling a disappointing 117,000 copies since its release on Oct. 31. To date, the Too Gangsta compilation, which features two unreleased Tupac Shakur songs alongside new tracks (read: current Death Row rappers spraying invective at the label's enemies, including Dr. Dre and protégé Eminem), has sold only 46,000 copies.

For now, insolvent or not, Death Row remains a wild card. In a move that may demonstrate the company's continuing commitment to legally questionable hell-raising, the label recently launched a a rather odd promotion for Dead Man Walking, posting the album in streaming-audio format on its Web site alongside bootleg MP3s of Snoop's upcoming No Limit album Tha Last Meal, inviting visitors to compare and contrast the two records. The message of the stunt: Even if Death Row walks the last mile, it'll kick up some dust along the way.

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Brown v. Suge Knight, Death Row Records

Complete Appellate Decision, Case No. B149561
Case No. B149561

Case Conclusion Date: May 16, 2001

Practice Area: Entertainment

Outcome: $14.3 million verdict, including $10M in punitive damages

Description: Music production company and music publisher's lawsuit against Death Row Records owner and company regarding artist and publishing royalties from the artist Kurupt. On claims for intereference with contract, the jury's verdict was $4.3M in compensatory damages, $10M in punitive damages. This was the 8th largest punitive damage award in CA during 2000. Read more here.

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