But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?
-1 Corinthians 15:35
o one can just drop in on Death Row Records CEO Marion „Suge“ Knight Jr. without feeling the magnitude of his reputation. No one.
On a cool Southern California evening, I arrive to see him at the Can-Am Building in Tarzana, a 30-minute drive north of Los Angeles. I’m greeted by a tall, stone-faced, caramel-colored man with a walkie-talkie and a black windbreaker inscribed SECURITY. Rather than letting me into the tiny lobby area, he tells me to wait outside while he alerts someone within the single-story edifice that Suge has a visitor.
The budding legend surrounding 30-year-old Suge Knight is such that damn near everyone-from fellow journalists to former and current Death Row employees all the way to a shoeshine man in West L.A.-warned me that Suge was „the wrong nigga to fuck with.“ The mere mention of his name was enough to cause some of the most powerful people in the music business to whisper, change the subject, or beg to be quoted off the record.
This is an especially hectic time for Knight and Death Row, whose „keepin‘ it real“ mentality has the industry all shook up. Tha Dogg Pound’s controversial debut album, Dogg Food-the breaking point in the relationship between Time Warner and Interscope Records, Death Row’s distributor-was finally released last Halloween and shot to No. 1 on the pop charts. As Snoop Doggy Dogg faced a murder charge in L.A., Knight secured a $1.4 million bond to bail Tupac Shakur out of prison in October and signed him up (both to Death Row Records and Knight’s management arm). Shakur has been working feverishly on his Death Row debut-a double CD all written since Shakur’s release, titled All Eyes on Me (28 cuts including a duet with Snoop called „Two of America’s Most Wanted“)-partly because a return to prison still looms, pending appeals.
Meanwhile, work continues on projects for singers Danny Boy and Nate Dogg, and rappers the Lady of Rage, Jewell, Sam Sneed, and others yet unheard of-to say nothing of the artists for whom Knight now „consults,“ including Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, and DJ Quik. Death Row is also backing record labels headed by Snoop (Doggystyle Records) and Tha Dogg Pound (Gotta Get Somewhere Records). Plus there’s Knight’s new Club 662 in Las Vegas and the vision of Dr. Dre directing movies for Death Row Films.
All these things are on my mind as I’m being frisked in the lobby of the Can-Am Building, now the permanent studio for Death Row, where talents as diverse as Bobby Brown, Harry Belafonte, and Barry Manilow once recorded. Around-the-clock protection is provided by a group of off-duty black police officers who work in Los Angeles. While Death Row isn’t the group’s only client, it’s the biggest. According to the guard at the reception desk, „We’re better security because we’re all licensed to carry guns-anywhere.„
Another tall, muscular black man escorts me back to Suge’s office-the building also contains two state-of-the-art studios, a gym, and a space where Suge often sleeps. The man opens the door, and I’m struck by two things: a big, light brown German shepherd rolling on the floor, and the fact that virtually everything in the room-the carpet, the cabinets, the sofa and matching chairs-is a striking blood red. I look at my escort; he reads my facial expression and says nonchalantly, „That’s Damu. He won’t bother you. He’s only trained to kill on command.“ On that note, I step gingerly into Suge Knight’s office.
Knight’s imprint is all over: from the sleek stereo system to the air conditioner (set way too cold) to the large-screen TV that doubles as an all-seeing security monitor. Right in front of his big wooden desk, outlined in white on the red carpet, is the Death Row Records logo: a man strapped to an electric chair with a sack over his head. I was told by another journalist that no one steps on the logo. No one.
At six foot four, 315 pounds, sporting a close-cropped haircut and a neatly trimmed beard, Knight strikes a towering pose. When he sits down to face me, with Damu (Swahili for „blood„) now lying by his feet, you can’t help but notice the huge biceps itching to bust through his red-and-black-striped shirt. Muscle, say both his admirers and detractors, is the name of Knight’s game. Speaking with a syrupy drawl, Suge (as in „sugar„) details the original mission of Death Row Records.
„First thing to do was to establish an organization, not just no record company,“ he says, his eyes looking straight into mine. „I knew the difference between having a record company and having a production company and a logo. First goal was to own our masters. Without your master tapes you ain’t got shit, period.“
As Knight speaks of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, which laid the foundation for Death Row in 1992, and Snoop’s solo debut, Doggystyle, which proved that Death Row was more than just a vanity label, I can’t help but notice how utterly simple and ghetto-in the sense that the underclass has always done what it takes to survive-his logic is. Ain’t no complicated equations or middle-class maneuvers here, just, according to Knight, people getting what they deserve. And never forgetting where they come from.
„We called it Death Row ‚cause most everybody had been involved with the law,“ Knight explains. „A majority of our people was parolees or incarcerated-it’s no joke. We got people really was on death row and still is.“ Indeed, there is no way to truly comprehend the incredible success of Death Row Records-its estimated worth now tops $100 million-without first understanding the conditions that created the rap game in the first place: few legal economic paths in America’s inner cities, stunted educational opportunities, a pervasive sense of alienation among young black males, black folks‘ age-old need to create music, and a typically American hunger for money and power.
The Hip Hop Nation is no different than any other segment of this society in its desire to live the American dream. Hip hop, for better or for worse, has been this generation’s most prominent means for making good on the long-lost promises of the civil rights movement. However, the big question is, Where does this pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps economic nationalism end and the high drama that hovers over Death Row Records begin?
The music industry thrives on rumors, and Death Row is always grist for the gossip mill. Stories run the gamut from Knight and his boys using metal pipes in persuading the late Eazy-E to release Dr. Dre from Ruthless Records, to former Uptown CEO Andre Harrell being strong-armed into restructuring Mary J. Blige’s and Jodeci’s contracts, to an alleged beef between Knight and Bad Boy Entertainment CEO Sean „Puffy“ Combs, which some trace to the shooting death of one of Knight’s close friends last October.