Less than 48 hours after ‘Straight Outta Compton’ opened nation wide, Leigh Savidge, screenwriter and co-executive producer of the Universal film, sat down with ReelUrbanNews.com to discuss his new book,Welcome To Death Row: The Uncensored History of the Rise and Fall of Death Row Records in the Words of Those who Were There.
Savidge provides the backstory of how he and his writing partner were able to gain access to a few Death Row Record associates, former label executives and label mates.
Although Savidge was not totally surprised by the ground breaking box office numbers for ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ he does admit he was hopeful. “This is astonishing. ‘Straight Outta Compton’ is tracking at $57 million for the first weekend which basically recoups the production budget and likely the marketing budget. It’s on track to be the biggest movie ever with the principally African American cast. When they finished production and they started testing the film at a 3 plus hour length, the studio was very excited about what they saw and that’s when you started to see this incredible visceral marketing campaign that came around. In Los Angeles it feels like it’s a giant billboard for the movie. Busses and trains and all down La Cienega boulevard, it’s billboard after billboard. This feels more visceral and bigger than a huge mega $200 million dollar movie.”
Savidge is clearly a Hollywood insider. The veteran movie producer is the founder and CEO of Xenon Pictures, the most successful independent film distributors in North America. “I’ve been in the entertainment business for three decades. I am the original writer with Allen Wankerson on the ‘Straight Outta Compton’ project. We started writing the script in 2002. My initial research came out of a documentary call ‘Welcome To Death Row.’Which was about the rise and fall of Death Row Records and is the name of the book that’s released the same day as the film.”
The real challenge for Savidge was not so much in getting firsthand accounts about the inner workings of Death Row Records and those person’s associated with the famed Gangsta Rap label, Savidge knew he had to get Tomica Wright, the widow of Eazy- E, fully on board. “Our main process at that time was how do we get a screenplay that Tomica Wright is going to put her music rights with. At this stage myself and Allen Wankerson are writing a spec script. We were at the start of a very long journey. Given the complexity of the relationships of the various people, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, Tomica and Jerry Heller, at the time we started writing none of these people are really communicating with one another. But we knew initially it had to be an easily focused story because Tomica was the be all end all. Short of her putting her rights to a screen play, this thing was never going to happen.”
Savidge, taking his time, recalls very vividly the initial steps taken toward the finish line to what he has already described as a very long journey. “So it’s starts with ‘Welcome To Death Row.’ That is where I meet Doug Young and Alonzo Williams and Matt McDaniel who is the technical advisor. These guys were absolutely embedded in this from the very beginning. From the time of Macola Records when Jerry was there and M.C. Hammer and Ice Tea are pressing records out of there. This sea change from R&B to Rap and then hardcore Gangsta Rap, this is where it starts really. Through the ‘Welcome To Death Row’ project, we had established relations with critical people. Although they weren’t Dre and they weren’t Cube. You getting interviews with Dre and Cube is not easy…. that’s probably impossible. So what you do is get people who will talk to you. We get those interviews and it’s the rise and fall of Death Row Records. A prequel to the Death Row story is the story of Eazy-E and Ruthless Records. We were in position to examine that.”
Before Savidge and his writing team could advance the veteran movie producer knew he needed to speak with music manager and businessman, Jerry Heller. Heller is best known for managing West Coast super-group and Gangsta Rap pioneers, N.W.A. and Eazy-E. Heller found music fame in the 1960’s and 70’s importing the likes of Elton John and Pink Floyd.
“During ‘Welcome To Death Row’ I tried to interview Jerry Heller. He wouldn’t talk to me. But after he saw the documentary he agreed to talk with me. Heller’s not treated well in the final version of the film but was actually critical as source material for me and developing the original draft of the screenplay which Tomica eventually put her rights too. That draft was about Eazy- E principally but also about his relationship with Jerry Heller, with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre as supporting characters. It was less an N.W.A. focus and more about Ruthless Records, which was an unbelievable success . You probably know JJ Fade’s first album was platinum. Eazy- E’s Eazy Does It and Straight Outta Compton which is when the super group comes out and then the DOC, No One Can Do It Better. The Above The Law and Bone Thugs. This is from a cold start from nothing, this is what Eazy-E built. Our script was really focused on capturing that story.”
Having already successfully captured the story of N.W.A.via the screenplay ‘Straight Outta of Compton,’ Savidge turned his everyman charm and focus on Suge Knight, the Vegas bodyguard turned record producer and music executive.
‘Welcome To Death Row’ is the sequel to ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ By that I mean it’s the story of Suge Knight on one hand and Michael Harris on the other who is an imprisoned former drug kingpin serving back to back sentences for attempted murder and Federal drug change. Michael steps in at a very critical time after Suge basically rips the guts out of Ruthless Records. Meaning that he takes Dre and this is after Cube has left and he positioned himself in Dick Griffey’s Solar Studio’s in North Hollywood. Griffey is from the R&B era and he kinda has one foot in Hip Hop and one foot in Rap. He’s old school. Solar was a very successful label in the late 70’s and 80’s. The Whispers, Baby Face, etc. This gives Suge legitimacy and Dr. Dre is finally in a position to do the kind of music he really wants in a scenario where he’s a 50/50 partner in the business. Or at least he feels that way.”
While Suge is surging up the music business ladder, he realizes that it take cash and lots of it to make it in the music business. “Your money is tight. You’ve got Snoop and all the other super talented people in the fold there. But you need cash flow. Suge has legal cases from when was a bodyguard in Vegas. The guy handling his appeal is a guy named David Kenner and Michael Harris in addition to going into partnership with Suge introduces him to David Kenner who then becomes Suges right hand man and consigliere and ultimately betrays Michael Harris.
With almost two decades of research into the main architect of West Coast Gangsta Rap music, Savidge showed no emotion when asked if he was surprised that Suge Knight is currently behind bars, charged with murder. “Not especially. He’s a guy that’s always going to be in the foundation of Hip Hop. In the book, ‘Welcome to Death Row’ I liken him to ‘Iago,’ the character in Shakespeare’s Othello. Which is someone at one time who is a soldier in arms with Dr. Dre. But at some point he decides to betray Dre and others that have enabled him and his success. It becomes Suge’s undoing. That’s the shakespearian element to this whole story.
While conducting research for ‘Welcome To Death Row’ Savidge interviewed Terry Carter, the Compton resident Suge Knight is caught on tape allegedly running over nearly five months ago.
“My analysis of Suge Knight is that he’s just in denial. He’s a guy that blames other people and rather looking inwardly at himself and saying ‘I’ve got to check the way I behave and act.’ Suge’s M.O. showing up unannounced with a gang of people that served him well for a period of time. There was no one in the history of the music business that acted in the kinda crazy samurai way that he did. Especially through the Death Row period. He got away with it. And that tape is still running in his head that he can still operate that way.”
Although Savidge didn’t witness the hit and run of Terry Carter first hand, because of the vast knowledge of Suge Knight and the manner in which he conducts himself, Savidge provides a prospective. “The details of this are that Suge showed up and said that he came in peace. But the problem is that there is such a long history with him not coming in peace that people are checking for the guy. They had security there at that promotional shoot specifically there to deal with Suge Knight if he happened to show up unannounced.”
Recalling the relationship between Michael Harris and Terry Carter, Savidge discussed his interaction with both Harris and Carter. “I look at the news footage, Michael Harris and Terry Carter were people who know one another. I had an occasion to talk with Terry Carter a few times. I know Carter was somebody that Mike talked with quite a bit. He was a good guy. It’s too bad. I look at the video like everyone else and I think he (Suge) could have clearly avoided hitting him. I think a reasonable person would look at that and extrapolate that from the news video.”
As our time with Leigh Savidge came to a close, he shared his thoughts on what the reader should gain from reading his new book, ‘Welcome To Death Row.’
“The reader should walk away with a perspective on America. People always say it’s a Black story. It’s not a Black story, it’s an American story. The larger issue which I think gets lost in the lyrics and crazy behavior is that this is about a transition of kids from hood or inner city into a different economic station. The Death Row book and the Death Row story ask America to look at and say this is what’s happening in America. And this music is about what’s happening in the inner city. Examin that. I think the book will shine a light on Michael Harris and the critical role he had in the development of the Death Row Records.
In the same manner Savidge penned the original screenplay, ‘Straight Outta Compton’, his aspirations are the same for ‘Welcome To Death Row.’ “My main focus is getting the book out there and then doing a screen adaptation of the book and then getting that project set up as a sequel to compton. That’s my main objective right now.”
It remains a mystery to most as to just how Leigh Savidge, a middle aged white male was able to conduct personal interviews that has lead to two compelling and remarkable urban tells.
“People are very surprised when they see me or meet me in person. It really starts with developing America’s first Black Home Entertainment Label in 1986. It wasn’t like I had some grand scheme. I identified it as something that was missing. I had a front row seat how things were changing for Black entertainers as a result of the Hip Hop music movement. And that lead me to the Death Row Records story. It was the biggest story in Los Angeles in the music business at the time.