Straight Outta Dallas: How Texas Artist D.O.C. Helped Jump-Start Death Row Records
Death Row Records promo photo from 1996.
courtesy of Death Row Records, 1996
In the mid-1980s, Cleo Turner spun records as a Los Angeles DJ, calling himself Dr. Rock. He joined a flamboyant electro-rap group called World Class Wreckin’ Cru. Dr. Dre took his place, and went on to become gangsta rap royalty as part of N.W.A.
Turner’s hip-hop career, however, would stall out. He left California for college in Austin, and later became an on-air personality for Dallas radio station K104. Nowadays Turner owns an Addison mortgage company. But along the way Turner made an amazing discovery, one of the greatest and most storied rappers in Dallas history: Tracy Curry, also known as the D.O.C.
It happened when Turner saw Curry performing live at a Dallas party. “I was blown away,” Turner said. “I thought to myself, ‘This is a guy I’ve got to get on wax.’”
Curry originally called himself Doc, because a rap partner’s sister was a lab technician, and he thought he looked good in her coat. He later started calling himself D.O.C., adding the periods to connect himself with N.W.A. For the time being, however, he joined Dr. Rock and a friend named Fresh K in a group called the Fila Fresh Crew, which appeared on the 1987 compilation album N.W.A. and the Posse.
Dr. Dre had to hear this guy for himself. He first witnessed D.O.C.’s dexterous rapping in L.A. in 1987, where they recorded together, and then came down to Dallas to see him again. Such lyrical acrobatics were unlike anything the West Coast had yet seen up to this point, and it turns out Curry was a master songwriter as well.
“He was like ‘Nigga, you the shit,’” D.O.C. told ThaFormula.com. “‘If you come out to the West Coast, I guarantee you we will be rich.’”
It was ironic, really. Growing up in Dallas, D.O.C. knew nothing about L.A. street culture. He used his naïveté to his advantage. “When I first got to Los Angeles, hip-hop music was a scary thing not only to white America but to middle-class black America. They were afraid of it, they thought it was nigger shit,” D.O.C. said.
D.O.C. soon moved into a Compton house owned by a Dallas acquaintance. Before long, however, Dr. Dre and DJ Yella – now members of N.W.A. — invited him to stay in their two-bedroom apartment in the city of Paramount, just east of Compton. They let D.O.C. crash on the floor of their unfurnished living room, where he didn’t have so much as a sleeping bag.
Despite the spartan accommodations, the guys quickly bonded. “That was my first real connection with Dre — that we both liked to drink,” D.O.C. told me. In the mornings they’d shake off the fog and drive in to the studio in a battered Toyota Corolla, blasting Public Enemy.
At the studio D.O.C. was quickly enveloped into the fold, and became an unofficial member of N.W.A. His first task was writing lyrics for Eazy-E’s solo song “We Want Eazy.” It was D.O.C., with help from N.W.A. member MC Ren, who began fashioning Eazy into the bawdy gangsta character we know today.
D.O.C. was a major writing contributor to N.W.A.’s 1988 debut Straight Outta Compton, as well. N.W.A. wasn’t just the world’s most dangerous group, as they branded themselves. They were also gangstas having fun. D.O.C. said he used Eazy as a “comedian” similar to Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav — to deliver serious messages with humor. With the help of D.O.C. and his songwriting, N.W.A. became bad guys you couldn’t help but root for.
Marion Knight Jr. came onto the gangsta rap scene quietly. Nicknamed “Suge” by his dad — he was said to be sweet like a sugar bear — he was something of a mama’s boy, and regularly sent her roses. His father, who once sang in an R&B group, worked in UCLA’s laundry and housekeeping departments, and later as a truck driver. “No matter how hard he worked, he barely had enough money to buy himself an extra beer,” Suge once told Esquire. “I made up my mind that I wanted everything and nothing would stop me.”
Suge was raised in a Piru Bloods–controlled section of Compton. But he didn’t join any gangs, and they left him alone because he was a football star at Lynwood High School. Suge attended El Camino Community College and later transferred to University of Nevada, Las Vegas, on scholarship, where he was a standout defensive end. “I used to go to football practice in college and see how many teammates I could hurt,” he said.
He may have been exaggerating; his coach Wayne Nunnely told the Las Vegas Sun that Suge “wasn’t a problem guy at all,” and he “didn’t really see that street roughness about him.” He loved soul music — Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway — as well as hip-hop, and on the weekends he worked at clubs as a security guard.
In 1987 Suge was offered a contract with the San Francisco 49ers, but he lost it after being arrested following an altercation with a friend named Ricardo “Ricky” Crockett, with whom he had a dispute. Las Vegas police accused him of shooting Crockett and then taking his car on Oct. 31 that year, and he was charged with attempted murder and grand theft auto. In the end he pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, receiving three years’ probation and a $1,000 fine.
Suge Knight in a 1996 Death Row Records promotion.
courtesy of Death Row Records, 1996
Suge was devastated about losing his shot with the 49ers, but returned home and successfully tried out for the Los Angeles Rams, joining the team in 1987 for a pair of games when its regular players went on strike. But his NFL career was short-lived; his on-again, off-again girlfriend Sharitha Golden said he skipped out on Rams’ training camp one day and showed up at her mother’s house. He wasn’t invited; they were in a rough patch. She nonetheless agreed to get into his car to talk. “All of the sudden he pulls my ponytail down. He reached back in the seat pocket of the car and he pulls out these scissors,” she said. “He cut my ponytail clean off.” She filed a restraining order against him, but it didn’t totally sour things, and by the end of the '80s they were married.
His football career finished, he worked security at the Forum, then home of the Lakers. He also became R&B singer Bobby Brown’s bodyguard, but his big break would come from meeting D.O.C. They were introduced by a mutual friend, Andre “L.A. Dre” Bolton, who played keyboards on a number of albums put out by N.W.A.’s label, Ruthless Records.
L.A. Dre and Suge would help D.O.C., fresh from Dallas and not yet legal drinking age, get into clubs, D.O.C. said. The rapper was mesmerized by this new scene, populated by celebrities like Eddie Murphy and Prince, and older women who were hitting on him. “It was heaven,” D.O.C. said.
N.W.A.’s manager Jerry Heller has said that Suge was employed by Ruthless as a seventy-dollar-per-day bodyguard, but D.O.C. denied this. He insisted Suge simply latched on to him, serving as his protector more or less because he enjoyed pounding people. “Suge got off on that shit, it was fun to him,” D.O.C. said. “If I got drunk and slapped a girl’s ass, and her guy got upset, Suge would beat the motherfucker up. And then we’d just leave.”
When I sought comment from Suge in 2015, his lawyer said he was not available, owing to his imprisonment; he’s currently facing murder charges over an alleged hit-and-run in Compton last year.
Dr. Dre is one of the most celebrated hip-hop producers in history. In 2014 he sold the headphones company he co-founded, Beats, to Apple for $3 billion. But as a rapper, he’s long contracted out the work of songwriting by employing ghostwriters; in interviews he has said that he sees rapping as just another part of a song’s sound, not necessarily more or less important than the percussion.
Over the years he’s enlisted luminaries including Snoop Dogg, Eminem and Jay-Z to write for him. But D.O.C. has long been his go-to guy.
Tall and good-looking, though not always comfortable in front of cameras, some have called D.O.C. the West Coast’s answer to Rakim, the Long Island rap titan whose complicated rhyme structures altered rap permanently. But D.O.C.’s own dynamic, stutter-step flow is different; he crams whole paragraphs into single lines, varying tempo while somehow maintaining a breezy feel. As a solo performer he goes lighter on the tough guy stuff than N.W.A., preferring instead to boast about his skills on the mic.
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D.O.C. had a go-along-to-get-along attitude, and tended not to rock the boat. “You never saw me in the early videos, never heard about me, but I put a lot of work in,” he said. “I felt shitted on, a little bit, but I never complained about it.” He received a $35,000 advance for his 1989 debut solo album No One Can Do It Better, but almost never signed proper contracts, content to let benefactors like Eazy-E — the owner of Ruthless Records — and Dr. Dre provide him with living expenses and other perks.
But before music industry realities caught up with them, D.O.C. and Dre were having the time of their lives, young men doing their craft at ridiculously high levels. “There’s a synergy with Dre and me,” D.O.C. said. Dre dedicated himself to the making of No One Can Do It Better. Their celebrated collaboration “The Formula” was birthed after Dre and his girlfriend, the singer Michel’le, went out late one evening, returning in the middle of the night when D.O.C. was asleep on the floor. Dre woke D.O.C. up: “I was on my way home and I got caught up in a daydream. It was me and you was bustin’ a song called ‘Tha Formula’ to a Marvin Gaye beat!”
Dre played D.O.C. a tape of the song in question — Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” — and then promptly passed out. D.O.C. roused himself and stayed up until five thirty in the morning putting the track together.
The album went platinum, Jay-Z later shouted it out on his 2003 song “Public Service Announcement,” and D.O.C. bought a house in the Conejo Valley. He was feeling like a rock star. By late 1989 it began to seem like big paydays were around every corner, including an upcoming tour. The fame and fortune went to his head, and his substance abuse was unchecked. “I was a young man completely out of control,” he said.
One night in mid-November 1989, he was filming a pair of videos in East Los Angeles, “Beautiful But Deadly” and “The Formula.” In the latter, Eazy and Dre hold rapper tryouts with wannabes with names like MC Mallet and New Kids in the Hood. But Dre isn’t satisfied until, in a haze, he imagines crafting his “perfect rapper” in the lab — D.O.C.
Filming two videos at the same time was a long, arduous process. D.O.C. drank and smoked weed practically all day, running on fumes that night when he finally got into his car to make the long drive to his Agoura Hills home, westbound on the 101. He fell asleep and his car spun out, throwing him through the back window. His car collided with a tree.
Once the medics arrived, they couldn’t sedate him because they didn’t know what drugs he had in his system, he said. Still intoxicated, he fought back as they tried to insert a breathing tube, scarring his larynx.
D.O.C. was taken to Kaiser Hospital, and then Cedars-Sinai. His hospital bills came to more than $60,000, Jerry Heller wrote in his memoir, which Eazy “paid for out of his own pocket.” D.O.C. would make a full recovery but for one, very serious problem: He lost his voice. He could still talk, but it sounded raspy, something like a stage whisper. For a man known for acrobatic turns of phrase, this was a massive blow. “My mother begged me to come home after the wreck but I couldn’t, I felt defeated. I was ashamed to go home,” he said.
Suge and D.O.C. grew especially close following the crash, with Suge doting on him every day in the hospital. “Whatever I needed him to do, he handled,” D.O.C. said. Suge also helped him set up autograph sessions and other revenue-generating appearances.
Suge mainly stayed out of the limelight, however, at least at first. Rapper Krazy Dee, an N.W.A. affiliate, had no idea who he was when he encountered him in April 1990 at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim. Hanging out backstage, Krazy Dee approached D.O.C. “What’s up, nigga?” he said. He hadn’t meant anything by the comment; he was simply making conversation.
But Suge, six-foot-two and over three hundred pounds, seemed to think Krazy Dee was talking trash. Their conversation grew heated, and Krazy Dee threatened to call for reinforcements. At that point Suge knocked Krazy Dee “through a closed door,” remembered eyewitness DJ Speed. Krazy Dee said Suge sucker punched him as hard as he could, right in the face. “He hit me really hard,” he said, adding that his face became swollen and his eye turned black. “Some of my teeth shifted.”
Suge may have been a bully, but he was not a common thug. Around 1989 he started spending time with the Ruthless artists and closely observing what was going on behind the scenes. “I investigated and found out, ‘Who do the writing and the music?’ and, ‘How do they get paid?’” he remembered to journalist Stephanie Frederic.
Suge soon linked up with an agent named Tom Kline, who represented athletes and was trying to branch out into the music industry. The two of them, with D.O.C., planned to start a label called Funky Enough Records, named after the D.O.C. hit song. (At this point, D.O.C. believed his voice could still potentially be rehabilitated.) Suge began auditioning rappers out of Kline’s Beverly Hills office, even recruiting up-and-coming rapper-producer DJ Quik for the label.
But D.O.C. was getting cold feet about the venture. To succeed, he felt they needed something more. They needed Dr. Dre. So, Suge began strategizing how to get the producer on board. He quickly surmised that Dre was disgruntled with his contract.
Dre gradually began confiding in Suge about his financial concerns, and Suge eventually began managing him. Why would the well-established Dre suddenly get in cahoots with an undistinguished, shadowy newcomer? “He was an aggressive person that cleared the way for me to go in and do what I had to do,”
Dre told VH1, of Suge. “By any means necessary.”
And so, when Dre asked him to take a look at his contract in early 1991, Suge simply showed up one day unannounced at Ruthless’ lawyer’s office, grabbed what he wanted and departed the premises. “Ruthless was taking Dre for a ride,” Suge told Spin. “And not just Dre, every other artist on the roster, too.” (N.W.A.’s manager Jerry Heller denied any wrongdoing.)
D.O.C. said Dre left Ruthless at his behest, so they could start a label together. He, Dre and Suge did, in fact, soon quietly launch a label called Futureshock, named for a Curtis Mayfield song. Their fourth partner in the venture was Dick Griffey, the cofounder of Soul Train Records and founder of Solar Records. The name wouldn’t stick. “Futureshock Records?” Suge said. “That sounds like some bullshit. It’s gonna be called Death Row. Because once you get on this label, that’s the end.”
D.O.C. said their original deal for the company that became the colossus Death Row Records gave 35 percent ownership to him, 35 percent to Dre, 15 percent to Suge, and 15 percent to Dick Griffey. Griffey was a key player in the deal because he had national distribution with CBS Records, and Death Row was to be brought into the fold under that partnership. Suge, Dre and D.O.C. also pooled their money to buy the Galaxy Studios from Dick Griffey, in his Solar Records building in Hollywood. Suge’s wife Sharitha said she wrote out Suge’s $25,000 check, and that Dre and D.O.C. paid the same amount.
Presenting a flashy image was part of Death Row’s game plan. In February 1992 they threw a lavish launch party at the swanky Chasen’s restaurant in West Hollywood, to promote the label and its emergent artists, most notably Dr. Dre. The tuxedoed male attendees and women in expensive dresses included some of the industry’s biggest names; the invitations they received looked like subpoenas.
Industry expectations for Death Row were high, and it was indeed a great place to work, at least at first. Flush with financial and creative capital, Suge fostered his artists. His young rappers had access to first-rate equipment. With their room and board accounted for, they could focus on their craft.
Behind the scenes, however, Death Row was financially fraught at its inception. D.O.C. said his supposed 35 percent ownership stake in the label was not honored. The speed with which Suge had turned on D.O.C. is shocking in retrospect. The man who had been the D.O.C.’s biggest advocate only a few years before — who’d doted on him at his hospital bedside after his car accident — had cast him off.
Dick Griffey, also an original Death Row founder, later testified that Suge Knight “secretly incorporated” Death Row and “transferred into it all of the assets” from their original partnership. In 1997 — with Suge behind bars — Griffey and D.O.C. successfully sued Death Row, alleging that they’d been cut out of the label’s profits. D.O.C. said his cut was about $350,000, which amounts to a pittance, considering Death Row profited tens of millions off albums like The Chronic, Doggystyle and All Eyez on Me.
D.O.C. said he was initially reluctant to pursue his Death Row ownership stake because he didn’t want to mess with Suge. “I didn’t want to be killed,” he said.
D.O.C.’s voice would never recover. He said an operation to expedite the healing process was botched, though he also blames himself for not following through with his rehab sessions. In the wake of his accident, he descended further into drug and alcohol abuse, which would continue for much of the '90s. “I used to ask Dre for five grand every three or four days for about two years and would get it and then go spend it up on dope,” he said. He was drunk at all hours of the day, stumbling around parties, once brandishing a sawed-off shotgun, shirtless and threatening people.
After N.W.A split up, D.O.C. continued working with Dr. Dre and even mounted something of a solo comeback in 2015. Out of nowhere, his voice — which failed him after his car accident more than twenty-five years earlier — started to improve.
The D.O.C. performs at The Bomb Factory in 2015.
It’s not back to its original strength, but he felt confident enough to perform at The Bomb Factory in October 2015. Backed by platinum R&B singer Erykah Badu, who’s the mother of his daughter Puma, and Scarface from the Geto Boys, the show was rapturously received.
Blessed with unearthly talents, D.O.C. had them stripped away, and has spent twenty-seven years wondering "what if." What if he hadn’t crashed his car, hadn’t lost his voice? Maybe he, like Dre’s later stars Snoop Dogg and Eminem, would have taken over mainstream America.
“I'm probably one of the best motherfuckers to ever pick up a microphone and spit in it,” he said in 2011. “But you'd never really know that because I never really got a chance to show you.”
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