Rap Pioneer Struggles to Rebuild Label      

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7/20/2003 7:15:57 AM
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Rap Pioneer Struggles to Rebuild Label
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LOS ANGELES - When rap pioneer Marion "Suge" Knight was released from prison two years ago, he vowed to return Death Row Records to the top of the charts.

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At the time, he told The Associated Press that it was "time for great records."

It hasn't happened. Aside from two albums of old Tupac Shakur (news) material, Death Row has produced next to nothing. And for the second time this year Knight was behind bars, awaiting a hearing on a suspected parole violation.

Some wonder if Knight — who helped muscle rap into the mainstream a decade ago with superstars such as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and later Shakur — is still a force in the music industry.

"He has to prove himself all over again," said Erik Parker, music editor of Vibe magazine. "As time slips by, people care less. There's no production, no real hits."

Knight said his company was "going 1,000 mph" after his prison release, but spokesman Jonathan Wolfson acknowledges it has yet to regain its previous notoriety.

"Are we the Death Row of 1994? No," Wolfson said. "But we could easily get to that point again. Suge made it happen once, and sometimes lightning can strike twice."

Knight's label has undergone several name changes and is now officially known as Death Row's Back. It has released three albums since early 2001. Two featured previously unreleased material by Shakur, who was killed in a 1996 drive-by shooting in Las Vegas with Knight by his side.

Shakur's "Until the End of Time" has sold 1.9 million copies since its 2001 release, and last year's "Better Dayz" has sold 1.5 million copies.

While these releases have earned millions for Knight, his stash of Shakur songs is dwindling and there's no replacement in sight. Death Row's only non-Tupac release since 2001 was the "Dysfunktional Family" movie soundtrack, which sold 36,000 copies in limited release.

Death Row's Crooked I has released a single, but his album "Say Hi to the Bad Guy" won't hit stores until at least September. Other records by Kurupt and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, the TLC member who was killed in a car crash last year, don't have firm release dates either.

In April, Knight told MTV that he wasn't going to rush the releases. "We're not under pressure, under the gun or nothing," he said. "Anytime you do something, it's important that you be happy with it."

Wolfson said Knight was not conducting interviews while in jail.

Knight, 37, was jailed on June 27 and could face up to a year in prison if state officials revoke his parole for allegedly punching a parking lot attendant outside a Hollywood nightclub. Attorney Rose Kogeman said Knight was not involved in the altercation.

The state Board of Prison Terms will hold a hearing in the coming weeks to determine whether Knight must return to prison for the second time this year. In February, he completed 61 days behind bars for associating with a known gang member in violation of his probation.

The lost time has taken a toll. "Project

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