Imagine writing a book about groups of men who exist to battle each other, to humiliate each other in a form of modernized Genghis Kahn style warfare on the streets of America. Men with wealth, power and women. Men who kill each other in public Mafia style executions, beat each other in back room brawls, slander each other in major music magazines and occasionally rape each other in ultimate displays of power. But now imagine that these men are not Italian Mafia leaders but lovable, fuzzy rappers we all know and admire: Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Tupac Shakur and Death Row Records magnate himself, Suge (Sugar Bear) Knight.
Well, you can imagine all you want, because Ronin Ro imagined it all before you and wrote the book. So you might as well put away your pipe dreams of being an author and go back to whatever dull, vapid occupation you call a job and get on with your meaningless existence. Just keep counting the days till you finally expire, unloved and alone.
As I was saying, Ronin Ro wrote the book and called it Have Gun Will Travel - The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Death Row Records. It is, if I say so myself, a spectacular read. Indeed, it would be hard not write a fascinating book when armed with the violent and thugish past of Death Row Records and its founder (though that title is debated in the book) Suge Knight. The labelís short history (while technically Death Row is still around, itís mired in debt.) was rife with violence (from Mike Tyson style brawls to Suge threatening to hang Vanilla Ice from a hotel balcony (every cloud has its etc.) to a sizable chunk of the Death Row artist roster attacking small time rapper Sam Sneed during an office meeting) and scandal (rapes, dubious contract negotiations and Sugeís numerous run-ins with the law.)
Have Gun Will Travel also a engaging breakdown of the various rappers who did time on the Death Row label. Most come out flawed at best: Dre seems uncomfortable with the gangsta role he created for himself during his tenure with N.W.A and eventually comes to regret the violent posturing on those early albums. Tupac Shakur seems reminiscent of Woody Allenís Zelig: a chameleon presence intent on fitting in with the crowd. (The fact that the crowd heís trying to fit in with are street hardened L.A gangstas proves his undoing.) The Dogg Poundís Daz is dismissed as being short on talent and big with attitude, while his partner Kurupt is a verbal genius but lacking business acumen. Out of everyone, Snoop Dogg comes out looking the best: a gangsta rapper with some genuine gangsta in his past, but also a loyal friend and negotiator.
Various other rappers and rap institutions also fail to hold up to their media created images. D.J Quik seems so intent on carrying on a feud with Eazy-E that he slanders Eazy even after the former N.W.A member has passed away from A.I.D.S. Puff Daddy comes across as having tremendous business savvy but no street credibility. (Like we need a book to tell us that.) Both the Source and Quincy Joneís Vibe magazine take heat for having contributed to the ongoing East/West Coast feud that has claimed many lives. In the book, a former Vibe employee says about the rap press "Nobody ever wants to take responsibility... They may be thinking ĎOh my God! Tupac and Biggie are dead. We gotta say something.í But why the fuck didnít you say something a year ago?"
In terms of writing ability, Ronin Ro is a competent reporter. At times passages seem repetitive, as if biographies and histories are being repeated, but I decided that Ro was creating these feelings of deja vu intentionally, to insure that readers would be able to keep the wide cast of characters straight in their head. Ro is best when he lets the rappers rich use of language give the book its personality. Check out this priceless quote from Dr. Dre, referring to Suge Knights attempt to get some master tapes from him. "Iím violated, disrespected. Suge can come to my house at any time and heís more than welcome. Thereís no need to bring eight or nine motherfuckers with him. If he wants some shit I got thatís his? Iíll give it to him. But when he came over with all his guys, automatically I thought heís trying to bring the noise. But I ainít trippiní cause I ainít that kind of nigga."
In fact, each chapter begins with a tasty quote from the situations about to ensue, including "Dre picks me up by my hair and starts slamming my face against a brick wall" (Denise Barnes describing her well publicized altercation with Dr. Dre) and "I need to wear a diaper on that day. I was real scared." (Vanilla Ice describing his reaction to Suge Knightís "request" that he sign over songwriting royalties to an affiliate.)
Obviously, if you care nothing about Gangsta Rap, than this is not the book for you (for that matter, neither is this review.) But if you found Gangsta Rapís rise and fall over the past ten years one of the most fascinating periods in Pop music history, Have Gun Will Travel provides an enthralling look at the genre's pre-eminent label.