Lydia Harris Helped Build One of the Biggest Labels in Hip Hop History

by Devon Maloney for Vanity Fair

When Lydia Harris has been included in the hip-hop history books, it has mostly been as a wife. Her husband, Michael “Harry-O” Harris, claims he was one of the first to bankroll Death Row Records, the legendary—and legendarily doomed—West Coast label that launched the careers of greats like Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. But if it were up to an industry that has hosted more than its fair share of violence, exploitation, and disrespect of female artists and entrepreneurs over the years, Lydia would have been forgotten altogether.

But times have changed. Battling decades of marginalization, women have begun demanding recognition for their behind-the-scenes contributions, from Dee Barnes’s story coming to the forefront around Straight Outta Compton to the rise of D.J.s and beatmakers such as Speakerfoxxx and Wondagurl. It’s a shift that has also made way for a new pop-culture icon: Cookie Lyon, the ruthless underdog of Empire, Lee Daniels’s music-industry soap. Cookie, played by the formidable Taraji P. Henson, is arguably what made the show such a hit: a former drug dealer, the well-dressed, loudmouthed firebrand co-founded Empire Records with her husband, Lucious, and, following a 17-year prison sentence, has now dedicated her life to regaining control of what’s hers, by whatever means necessary.
Just 10 years ago, though, a character like Cookie might have been ignored by pop culture, the same way Lydia Harris has been ignored.

“I really see my own life [in Cookie’s],” Lydia tells me over the phone. She’s just returned to Houston, her hometown, after dropping her daughter LyDasia off at college in Louisiana, where the 20-year-old studies business. “Her going in the studio, dealing with the day-to-day things, making decisions. The fashion! And the leadership. A lot of the things that she do, I laugh, I’m like, Wow, that I thought would never be explored [on TV].”

Until now, history has painted her as a footnote—“that woman who sued Suge Knight,” at best. But now Lydia wants to be better remembered. Lydia Harris, the Death Row co-investor and shrewd businesswoman. Lydia Harris, the 24/7 business proxy between a jailed drug kingpin and a volatile gangster-rap boss. Lydia Harris, the hip-hop den mother. Lydia Harris, the plaintiff who got hers and helped sink an infamous label boss. Lydia Harris, the all-but-forgotten architect—and casualty—of one of the hardest downfalls in pop-music history.

The story usually goes like this. Death Row Records was founded on two sources of income: court-ordered payments from Vanilla Ice to Mario “Chocolate” Johnson, a friend of Suge Knight who helped ghostwrite “Ice, Ice Baby,” and a $1.5 million investment from a man named Michael Harris, also known as Harry-O.
Michael was a major cocaine kingpin in South Central L.A. looking to legitimize his large fortune through the real-estate and entertainment businesses. Trouble was, he was in jail at the time, serving a 28-year sentence on charges of kidnapping and the attempted shoot-him-and-leave-him-in-the-desert murder of a crew member he suspected of stealing from the business. So he enlisted his lawyer David Kenner (basically rap-game Robert Kardashian) in helping arrange the deal. Michael’s 1991 contribution established Godfather Entertainment, a Death Row parent company to be co-managed by Michael Harris and Knight. That money bankrolled Death Row’s early hits like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (1992) and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle (1993).

All of this is true enough, but leaves out a key element. Who represented Michael in his own company after the initial investment, if he was locked up the whole time? Kenner handled the legal upkeep, certainly, but what about the day to day? The answer, of course, is Lydia Harris.

“There wouldn’t have even been a Death Row Records [without me],” Lydia says. “That’s what everybody’s missing.”

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