As gritty as a few blocks might be, as bad as some kids may think they are, the west side of Toronto doesn't immediately register as a natural home for Death Row Records and the legacy of Los Angeles gangsta rap.

Nor does a 48-year-old mother and recording artist, who likens her own music to Sheryl Crow's and Sarah McLachlan's, seem an obvious choice to oversee the back catalogues of Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog.

But as Lara Lavi, an American singer-songwriter and media lawyer, said, she was underestimated by some in the industry when she was lured by private investors from the U.S. West Coast to base her music and film start-up in Toronto's Liberty Village area.

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Her company, WIDEawake Entertainment Group, surprised media watchers by making the winning bid for Death Row in court last week, buying the bankrupt, debt-ridden label for $18-million (U.S.) after, according to Lavi, Warner Music shied away from topping WIDEawake's offer. Lavi worked closely with the well-known Toronto-based entertainment lawyer Chris Taylor in securing the deal. This comes after the U.S. company Global Music Group tried to buy Death Row for $25-million, but pulled out after problems arose with the financing.

But WIDEawake's successful bid could wind up being a steal for Lavi's company. There is a vast trove of potentially lucrative, unreleased music and film material by the label's best-selling rap artists, Lavi said. For instance, many of Shakur's recordings released after he was fatally shot in 1996 have gone multiplatinum. But corralling the material and sorting out the royalties have been more work than many suitors were willing to handle. Death Row has been mired in business disputes and bankruptcy for years, and releasing the lost material means working closely with representatives of the artists, living and dead.

"When you're watching the market for acquisitions, there aren't too many good ones out there. And even the Death Row one, though lucrative and generating income now, there's still a tremendous amount of heavy lifting to revitalize this catalogue," Lavi said. "You have to realize that only a fraction of the Death Row catalogue has gone to market."

She noted that "thousands" of videos and music tracks were apparently found in a storage vault in Michigan.

"And I want to underscore something," she added, "I am a fan. I listen to rap music. I listen to Tupac. I own [copies of ]this stuff, and I owned it before this. I don't know what qualifies a person to be a fan, if it's their skin colour or anything. ... I have a huge respect for this genre. I don't worry about the things some of the folks worry about in terms of the misogyny issues and so on. This is America's oral history. This is a very key part of America's popular culture.

"I understand this youth. My nephews were part of this youth. They've all grown up now and are behaving a little better. But this is not something foreign to me at all."

One thing Death Row's new label head doesn't have, however, is the larger-than-life tabloid notoriety of Suge Knight, who co-founded the label with Dr. Dre. Legend has it that Knight and associates threatened N.W.A. rapper Eazy-E and the hip-hop group's manager with baseball bats and pipes to convince them to release Dre from his previous contract.

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Running feuds, disses on disc, gunplay, arrests: They grabbed as many headlines as the music itself. However, Dre's 1992 solo debut album The Chronic helped shifted hip-hop's spotlight away from New York for a time, while making a star out of rapper Snoop Dogg. But when Knight signed Shakur, who had had a falling out with his New York contemporaries, thereby upping the ante in the whole East Coast-West Coast rivalry, it solidified Death Row's prominence. With arresting, double-tracked vocals, Shakur turned the focus of his lyrics inward to personal struggles and persecution, creating the hip-hop sound of the 1990s.

Releasing more of Shakur's lost material means working with his mother Afeni Shakur, who oversees some of his work through the Amaru record label. "The reality of it is that there's new Tupac material that has never been released that falls under the Death Row domain, and there's new material that falls under the Amaru domain," Lavi said.

"The issue is taking over the content and matching it up with the contracts to make sure we have all our paperwork lined up right, which is no small feat - and also making sure we've done (a big priority for me) a major positive outreach to the Death Row artists, who I think have been forgotten in this whole mix.

"It has become about prior management, whether Mr. Knight is in jail this week, and it has not been about the artists. I mean, Death Row is to West Coast rap what Motown is to the Detroit sound. These artists are far more significant and showing [more]longevity than any management that was put in place with Death Row," Lavi said.

Lavi was recruited by a group of private investors to locate in Toronto to develop media projects that would cross into various formats, for example, Hustle City, a graphic-novel project the company has in the works with planned film and music tie-ins. Randy Lennox, who runs Universal Music Canada, was a key figure in bringing Lavi to Toronto, and Universal is signed to distribute the Death Row catalogue in Canada. An all-important distribution deal for the United States is pending.