It took nearly a decade for Straight Outta Compton to get outta Hollywood development hell en route to hitting multiplexes this summer. But after clocking three consecutive No. 1 weekends at the box office and taking in a robust (and growing) $189 million, the film — which dramatizes incendiary rap quintet NWA’s middle finger-like rise to multi-platinum stardom — has Hollywood on the hunt for the next great rap biopic.
Universal is reportedly circling a project based on the Def Jam Recordings origin story; the urban music label blasted out of the underground to launch the careers of the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and LL Cool J.
Even more narrowly targeting gangsta-rap history, two projects — Welcome to Death Row and Dogg Pound 4 Life — are being shopped around Hollywood as spiritual sequels to Compton. In each case, the action picks up after NWA splintered with group co-founder Dr. Dre forming Death Row Records alongside domineering music impresario Suge Knight to reshape mainstream music in their own gang-sign throwing image. Both films feature such figures as Tupac Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dogg.
“I see it as a trilogy à la The Godfather,” says Death Row writer-producer S. Leigh Savidge. “You’ve got the drug business seeding the West Coast rap movement. You’ve got the advent of NWA, the advent of Suge Knight, who’s like a Shakespearean anti-hero. You see rappers getting killed over an East Coast-West Coast beef. The music snowballs into the political spectrum with Bob Dole and C. Dolores Tucker coming out against it. It’s hard to look at in terms of just one film — unless you want to do a four-hour film.”
Dogg Pound writer-producer Daz Dillinger intends to hang the story around the lives and careers of West Coast hip-hop luminaries including Nate Dogg and Warren G, Dillinger’s manager Mike Quinn tells EW. It’s subject matter Dillinger knows well: He was a member of the platinum-anointed G-Funk duo Tha Dogg Pound, who rose to national prominence on Death Row during the label’s mid-‘90s heyday, and he can claim a privileged view of the ‘90s coastal rap feud credited with the deaths of Shakur and rapper Notorious B.I.G.
For his part, Savidge — an executive producer with a story credit on Straight Outta Compton (his deal-making and original script got the film green lighted by New Line Cinema in 2006) — plans to base Welcome to Death Row on the gritty documentary of the same name he co-directed in 2001.
Even so, securing the life rights for filmic depictions of Knight and Shakur could prove tricky. Currently in prison facing murder charges, which he has denied, Knight is not working with producers of Dogg Pound 4 Life and remained opposed to Savidge’s earlier documentary. “Suge did everything he could to stop us during the filming process and then sent letters to prevent the release,” the filmmaker notes.
Equally problematic, Shakur’s estate is moving ahead with its own long-gestating Tupac biopic directed by Carl Franklin, and could view Dogg Pound as a competing interest.
Neither project has secured financing or distribution (the talent agency APA is attempting to put together a package deal for Death Row). But that hasn’t stopped Dogg Pound 4 Life from lining up a cast including Dr. Dre’s son Curtis Young, who’s set to portray his father (a move not dissimilar to O’Shea Jackson Jr. portraying his dad, NWA co-founder Ice Cube, in Straight Outta Compton).
But the real make-or-break issue, says Savidge, is music rights. In 2013, Canadian media conglomerate Entertainment One bought the “master/sync” license to the label’s catalogue, including Tha Dogg Pound’s 1995 debut Dogg Food, and Dr. Dre’s 1993 gangsta rap opus The Chronic. Filmmakers could be forced to broker deals with the company and individual performers and writers — a costly, complex and time consuming process.
“You have to ask what is really driving audience interest,” says Savidge. “Is it more the music or more the story? I believe it’s more story. But the audience is going to be completely dissatisfied if they can’t hear those key tracks.” In other words, music matters for both Life and Death.