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The rise and fall of Death Row Records founder Suge Knight seemed drawn from the annals of crime fiction, with its stories of murder, intimidation, rampant corruption and greed. The distinction would have most likely pleased Knight, who allegedly ruled his label, one of the most successful hip-hop labels in music history, like a Mob chieftain, using fear and physical violence to keep his artists and employees in fealty. Despite the reputation of the label and its leader, Death Row released some of the most popular and acclaimed rap albums of the 1990s, including Dr. Dre's The Chronic (1992), Snoop Dogg's Doggystye (1993) and Tupac Shakur's All Eyez on Me (1996). But Knight's grip on the industry and his label began to loosen in 1996 through well-publicized feuds with Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and the subsequent murder of Shakur, which Knight was alleged to have orchestrated. A 1997 parole violation sent Knight to prison for five years, during which his artists revolted against their malevolent ruler, effectively upending Death Row and rendering him broke and widely despised. Knight would ultimately serve as a cautionary tale for aspiring entertainment moguls, as well as those who hewed too closely to the...
The rise and fall of Death Row Records founder Suge Knight seemed drawn from the annals of crime fiction, with its stories of murder, intimidation, rampant corruption and greed. The distinction would have most likely pleased Knight, who allegedly ruled his label, one of the most successful hip-hop labels in music history, like a Mob chieftain, using fear and physical violence to keep his artists and employees in fealty. Despite the reputation of the label and its leader, Death Row released some of the most popular and acclaimed rap albums of the 1990s, including Dr. Dre's The Chronic (1992), Snoop Dogg's Doggystye (1993) and Tupac Shakur's All Eyez on Me (1996). But Knight's grip on the industry and his label began to loosen in 1996 through well-publicized feuds with Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and the subsequent murder of Shakur, which Knight was alleged to have orchestrated. A 1997 parole violation sent Knight to prison for five years, during which his artists revolted against their malevolent ruler, effectively upending Death Row and rendering him broke and widely despised. Knight would ultimately serve as a cautionary tale for aspiring entertainment moguls, as well as those who hewed too closely to the thug-life credo inherent to elements of hip-hop.
Born Marion Hugh Knight, Jr., in Compton, CA on April 19, 1965, he was the son of janitor Marion Knight and his wife, Maxine, an assembly line worker at an electronics factory. Nicknamed "Sugar Bear," which was shortened to "Suge," for his exceptionally sweet disposition as a child, Knight's exceptional height (6'2") and build as a teenager helped him win letters in both football and track while a student at Lynwood High School, as well as a football scholarship to El Camino Community College. He transferred to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 1985, where he was elected defensive captain of the school's football team while also capturing Rookie of the Year and first-team all-conference honors. Off the field, Knight worked as a bouncer while earning a considerable side income from dealing drugs on campus. He left school after being drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, but his tenure with the organization was short-lived: Knight played two games as a replacement player during the 1987 players' strike, but was let go after the conflict was settled.
Knight's dismissal from the Rams was followed by several arrests on felony charges, including assault on a girlfriend and shooting a man who attempted to steal his car. Knight avoided jail time in both cases, and turned his attention towards the music business. He had found work as a bodyguard for such pop stars as Bobby Brown, which had given him a ground-floor introduction to the business. Another client, sports agent Tom Kline, tapped Knight to become a talent scout for his startup entertainment company. Knight attacked his new role with the calculated force and guile that would earn him a reputation as one of the toughest management figures in the hip-hop world. He lured rapper Tracy "The D.OC." Curry away from Eazy-E's Ruthless Records label by preying on his insecurities while hospitalized for a car accident that nearly cost him his voice. Knight insinuated that Eazy was underpaying him for his talents, which swayed The D.O.C. to his side. He also backed up his words by offering a sort of gangster-style protection, which The D.O.C. saw in action when Knight physically thwarted an attempted assault at a nightclub appearance.
With The D.O.C. now under his wing, Knight began assembling a talent roster for his label, which was initially called Funky Enough Records. He soon added David Blake, who performed under the moniker of DJ Quik, and brought with him a connection to the notorious Tree-Top Pirus Compton gang, which later served as Knight's bodyguards. Rapper Mario "Chocolate" Johnson was wooed to Funky Enough after Knight intimidated Vanilla Ice into giving over part of his publishing royalties for his hit single "Ice Ice Baby" to Johnson, who claimed part authorship on the song. According to industry legend, Knight threatened to throw Ice off the balcony of his 15th-floor hotel room, a charge later denied by the record mogul, who later settled the dispute in court. Knight also reportedly carried out a full-fledged terroristic campaign against Ruthless Records co-owner Jerry Heller that included murder threats and other physical intimidation, with the goal of securing one of the label's biggest artists, rapper-songwriter Dr. Dre of the controversial group N.W.A. Dre had grown distant from Eazy over alleged mishandling of contracts, and Knight took advantage of the disconnect by securing Dre's interest with an offer to produce the soundtrack for the motion picture "Deep Cover" (1991), which he had secured through a connection with Solar Records chief Dick Griffey. Sony Records agreed to release the album only if Knight could extricate Dre from Ruthless and secure his publishing rights for the material. Knight allegedly achieved this goal by arriving in Dre's stead with a cadre of pipe-wielding members of the Bloods gang at a meeting with Eazy, who was himself a former member of the Bloods' sworn enemies, the Crips. Knight left the meeting with not only Dre but the contracts for Ruthless' top four artists, while Eazy was given only a percentage of Dre's next album, which would be released by Knight's label, now known as Death Row Records.
Knight had secured the seed money to launch Death Row through his connections with defense attorney David Kenner. Among Kenner's clients were drug dealer Michael "Harry-O" Harris, who provided $1.5 million in seed money for the label while serving time for kidnapping and attempted murder. A silent partnership between Knight, Kenner, Harris and his wife, Lydia Harris, was established under the guise of a multimedia company called GF Entertainment, which oversaw not only Death Row but also movie production and pay-per-view imprints. In reality, the company served as a money-laundering operation for Harris' drug business, which continued to flourish while he served out his sentence. Death Row served as a perfect front for the business, thanks in part to the success of the "Deep Cover" soundtrack, which not only established Dre as a solo artist with the title song, but introduced rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, later known as Snoop Dogg, to a national audience. While Dre set to work on his first solo record, Knight and Kenner began a complicated scheme to extricate Death Row from both the Harrises and Solar Records, which had served as the company's distributor. The move spurred a massive lawsuit from Solar's parent company, Sony, which struck at the same time as a suit from Ruthless over payments for Dre's work. Finding himself backed into a corner, Knight took an offer from Interscope Records, a new company owned by Time Warner and launched by Ted Fields and Jimmy Iovine that had offered to serve as Death Row's new distributor. Corporate papers were then drawn up that listed Knight and Dre as the owners of Death Row, effectively removing the Harrises from the business.
The subsequent release of The Chronic (1992), saw triple-platinum sales, and Snoop Dogg's debut album, Doggystyle (1993), which sold over four million copies, established Death Row as the leading hip-hop label in America while distancing them from any connection to illegal operations. But as the label rose to power, Knight continued to run afoul of the police. A 1992 charge of assault and robbery involving producers George and Lynwood Stanley, who were beaten and threatened with murder by Knight at the Solar Records offices, led to a 1995 conviction, but again, Knight served no time, having spent the previous three years wooing the Stanleys with recording contracts at Death Row. Kenner and his legal associate, Johnnie Cochran, managed to win a five-year suspended sentence for Knight, who soon returned to Death Row, where the Stanleys soon found themselves shut out of their contracts. The incident was just one of many that furthered Knight's reputation as a Godfather-like figure, immune to arrest and able to deliver swift and violent reprisals against anyone who threatened his name or company. A vast network of gang members, cronies and even off-duty police officers carried out his wishes. Among those who found themselves on the wrong side of Knight's temper were Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew, Dre's half-brother, Warren G, and Cyprus Hill manager Happy Walters, who disappeared after an altercation with Knight over soundtrack participation, only to resurface days later, covered in cigarette burns and no memory of previous events. Though Knight faced both a federal investigation into his association with the drug trade and the ire of activist C. Delores Tucker, who successfully lobbied Time Warner to drop Interscope from its roster over Death Row content, his business continued to dominate the hip-hop scene.
In 1995, Death Row signed rapper Tupac Shakur, who would prove to be its biggest and most controversial act. Knight had piqued Shakur's interest by openly insulting Bad Boy Records founder Sean "P. Diddy" Combs by offering to sign his acts to Death Row, and later sealed the deal by offering to pay $1.4 million in bail for Shakur, who had been incarcerated on sexual abuse charges, if he signed with the label. Shakur's debut for Death Row, the multi-platinum-selling All Eyez on Me (1996), set the tone for a vicious war of words between Death Row and Bad Boy that often fueled physical violence between representatives of the label; a New York-based video shoot for Tha Dogg Pound's single "New York, New York" was fired upon by unknown assailants, while Knight reportedly forced promoter and Combs' friend Mark Anthony Bell to drink urine after refusing to give up the Bad Boy founder's home address. But as Knight grew rich from Shakur's music, the rapper had become disenchanted with Death Row, primarily over the decision to credit Dr. Dre as executive producer on All Eyez on Me, despite only limited involvement with the album. Shakur soon distanced himself from the label and its talents, producing The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (1996), the follow-up to All Eyez, without Death Row talent, while Dre, weary of infighting within the label, left to form Aftermath Entertainment.
Keenly aware that his iron grip on the label and its artists was beginning to weaken, Knight decamped to Las Vegas, where he sequestered himself in a 1.33 acre home that had served as a location in Martin Scorsese's "Casino" (1996). He took over a club on the Strip and began associating with known members of organized crime families. On Sept. 7, 1996, Knight and Shakur attended the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon boxing match at the MGM Grand, where they encountered Orlando Anderson, a member of the Crips who had robbed a Death Row associate earlier that same year. Shakur, Knight and their entourage beat Anderson in a melee that was captured by the hotel's surveillance cameras. Later that night, while riding in Knight's car, unknown assailants opened fire on Shakur, mortally wounding him. Knight was only grazed by shrapnel, fueling rumors that he had somehow allegedly been involved in the murder. Knight's involvement in the brawl with Anderson resulted in a conviction for parole violation that spawned a sentence of nine years. Interscope subsequently dropped the label from its distribution roster, and a host of former and current talent, employees and associates descended with lawsuits that quickly depleted Death Row's coffers.
Though Knight would emerge from federal prison in 2001 after only serving five years of his sentence, his reputation had been demolished due to his association with the murder of Shakur, as well as the subsequent murder of longtime rival The Notorious B.I.G. and Justice Department investigations into his connection to drug and weapons trafficking. Upon his release, Knight attempted to bring Death Row back to prominence with records by former TLC member Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and albums based on unreleased recordings by Dre, Snoop and Shakur. But by 2006, Knight had filed for bankruptcy, which resulted in the sale of the label to the New York-based Global Music Group. His legal woes continued unabated, with numerous arrests for assault, weapons possession and robbery joining his vast rap sheet. He attempted to launch a new label, Blackball Records, which failed to generate any interest from a rap audience that had long since lost its respect for the fallen mogul. In 2012, Knight was on three months of unsupervised probation for driving with an expired license.
Early on the morning of Sunday, August 24, 2014, Suge Knight was attending a pre-party for that night's MTV Video Music Awards, hosted by R&B singer Chris Brown at West Hollywood's 10ak nightclub. While sitting at Brown's table, Knight was approached by a gunman who shot him six times at close range. Knight suffered severe life-threatening injuries, but after emergency surgery at Cedars-Sinai Hospital was expected to live. No motive for the shooting was immediately available. Only a few months later, on January 29, 2015, Knight was arrested on suspicion of murder following a hit and run accident that killed a man namedTerry Carter (not the African-American character actor of that name, as some news organizations initially incorrectly reported) after an incident on the set of the film "Stright Outta Compton."By Paul Gaita
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