January 25, 2021 – It was way more than just Death Row Records.
From behind bars, L.A. drug kingpin Michael (Harry O) Harris, was wheeling and dealing in the music industry, making deals for himself, his label and his wife with major record companies through most of the 1990s, according to DEA records. The scope of Harris’ vast connections in the industry far exceeded simply bankrolling the birth of the gangster rap genre.
Harry O is well known to have supplied the financing for gangster rap goliath Death Row Records in 1991, some three years after being put in prison for narcotics trafficking and attempted murder. Harris, 59, was released from federal prison last week seven years early on a pardon from departing U.S. President Donald Trump.
In the 1980s, Harry O ran the dope game in L.A. The consummate street politician, Harris maintained strong relationships with both the Bloods and the Crips, using the rival gangs to sell his cocaine in crack form in L.A.’s South Central neighborhood. He looked to diversify and invested $200,000 in what became the trailblazing Houston hip-hop label Rap-A-Lot Records headed by James (Lil’J) Prince and a Broadway play starring a barely-known Denzel Washington called Checkmates.
Prince has repeatedly denied taking any money from Harris to start Rap-A-Lot Records. Harris claims him and Prince feuded in a business dispute involving an east coast rapper in 1995 and stopped speaking. Rap-A-Lot produced the seminal Southern Rap trio The Geto Boys.
After he got locked up, Harry O was determined to continue pursuing interests in the music business. He formed Godfather Entertainment and had his attorney David Kenner (counsel to a series of New York mob figures) arrange a meeting with gangbanging aspiring music-label boss Marion (Suge) Knight. At a sit down held in a prison visiting room in the summer of 1991, Harris agreed to fund Death Row Records with a $1.5 million dollar investment and through his ties in the entertainment world helped broker the deal that got Dr. Dre to sign as the new label’s featured artist.
Death Row Records went on to spawn Dr. Dre’s transcendent rap record The Chronic and soon more iconic classics from the era in Dr. Dre-produced Snoop Dogg and Tupac albums. But Harry O and Suge Knight had a falling out and Harris and his ex-wife Lydia had to sue Knight for back royalties on the million-five he pumped into the label to get it off the ground. Snoop Dogg campaigned for Harry O’s release with the Trump White House.
No longer involved in Death Row, Harry O immediately pivoted to his then wife Lydia’s “Lifestyle” hip hop label. Per a trove of DEA documents related to drugs and the rap world, in 1993, he helped arrange for Lifestyle to get a $150,000 production deal with Motown Records for an artist named Beefy Johnson. That same year, the documents allege, he got her a $250,00 deal from Relativity Records (Sony) for the signing of Lifestyle rapper Blak Czer and a half-million in an artist development deal with Interscope for New York rapper Dana Dane. Between 1994 and 1996, Lifestyle got DJ Battlecat a $200,000 publishing deal with Viacom’s Famous Music label and inked a $2,000,000 recording deal with Madonna’s Maverick Records label for Dana Dane to record his first album.