That incident, some say, has fueled a growing East Coast vs. West Coast battle, and-so go the rumors-has led to reported threats on Combs’s life. „I heard there was a contract out on my life,“ says Combs. „Why do they have so much hatred for me? I ask myself that question every day. I’m ready for them to leave me alone, man.“
In an interview in last April’s VIBE, Shakur suggested that Combs, the Notorious B.I.G., Shakur’s longtime friend Randy „Stretch“ Walker, and others behaved suspiciously immediately following Shakur’s shooting in New York on November 30, 1994. Exactly one year to the day after Shakur’s shooting, Walker was murdered execution-style in Queens. (When contacted by phone after the murder, Shakur offered no comment.)
The drama had already intensified when Knight bailed Shakur out last October and brought him to Death Row. Shakur’s „relentless“ new double album for Death Row includes a track featuring Faith-one of Combs’s artists and Biggie Smalls’s wife-titled „Wonder Why They Call You Bitch.“ According to one source, „Tupac and Faith are now very, very close.“ („Me and Faith don’t have no problems,“ says Shakur. When asked about their relationship beyond the studio, he replies, „I ain’t gonna answer that shit, man. You know I don’t kiss and tell.“) While Knight has said repeatedly that he wants Death Row to be „the Motown of the ’90s,“ the label’s history is unfolding more like an in-your-face Martin Scorsese film than Berry Gordy’s charm school approach.
I ask Knight about all the rumors. He shifts his weight in his chair and bristles: „When you become the best, it’s more rumors, it’s more people want to stop you, ‚cause everybody want to be No. 1.“
„Can we talk about any of these alleged incidents?„
„Say what you want to say.„
I then recount my understanding of the Andre Harrell story as Knight stares at me. Before long, he’s flipped the script, asking me what I would do if I wasn’t receiving a fair deal.
„You should get the best deal you can get in this business,“ I respond.
Knight edges forward in his chair, proud he got me to agree. „See, people got this business mixed up,“ he says. „They want to go and talk about a person who fixin‘ to come and help you. They don’t say nothin‘ about the motherfucker who beatin‘ people out they money. When you stand up for right, people should tip they hat to you and keep movin‘, and mind they own business.“
Not totally satisfied with Knight’s response, I wonder why rappers the D.O.C. and RBX are no longer with Death Row Records, and why both have gone on record, literally, complaining of not being paid. But Knight’s already defensive, and I don’t want to get tossed out before I get to bring up other, more important questions.
„What about the methods you used to get Harrell to renegotiate those contracts?“ I ask.
„It’s like this. Was you there?„
„Nah.“ „Then there’s nothin‘ to talk about.“ .
What Knight will talk about is how important it is for him and Death Row to stay rooted in the streets. The youngest of three children and a proud native of working-class Compton (where he still keeps a house), Knight was a star defensive lineman in high school and at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas before entering the music business in the late 1980s. It’s not clear how he got into the game-some say he was the D.O.C.’s bodyguard during the N.W.A days, while Knight maintains he started a music publishing business that earned a small fortune off Vanilla Ice’s smash 1990 debut. Whatever the case, few individuals have as much drive as Knight: „Ghetto politics teaches you how to win and really be hungry. I never been the one who wanted to work with nobody. ‚Cause I think if a motherfucker get you a paycheck-listen to how it sound, paycheck, like they paying you to stay in check. Can’t nobody keep me in check.„
Time Warner couldn’t. It bowed to political pressure and announced it was selling its 50 percent interest in Death Row’s profitable distributor, Interscope Records. Self-appointed gangsta rap watchdog C. DeLores Tucker couldn’t. She may have helped get Interscope dropped, but she had no effect on Death Row’s progress. In fact, at one point she met with Knight to get a piece of the action. He turned her down.
Despite all the community outreach Suge Knight does-the lavish Mother’s Day dinners for single mothers, the turkey giveaways at Thanksgiving, the Christmas toy giveaways for Compton children-he has to know he puts fear in some hearts, that his I-don’t-give-a-fuck persona unfurls itself long before people ever meet him in the flesh. Hip hop has always been about being straight-up, about being skeptical of the motives of the generation ahead of us, about creating shields (or myths) to protect our world from outsiders-Bob Dole, William Bennett, C. DeLores Tucker-who seek to come in and dominate us. With four-year-old Death Row Records as his sword and an aura Al Pacino’s Scarface would be proud of, Suge Knight epitomizes that mind-set-but at what cost?
Listen to Knight summarize his modus operandi: „Black executives, they get invited to the golf tournaments. I don’t give a fuck about all that. I’m not gonna play golf with you. When you playin‘ golf, I’ma be in the studio. While you trying to eat dinner with the other executives in the business, I’ma be havin‘ dinner with my family, which is the artists on the label.“ He pauses to emphasize his point. „Without your talent, you ain’t shit.„
Talent is something 30-year-old Grammy winner Dr. Dre, né Andre Young, has in abundance. On a different day in the Can-Am Building’s studio A, hip hop’s most sought-after producer is waiting for Tupac to show up and continue work on his new album. The Compton-born cofounder (with Knight) and president of Death Row, Dr. Dre has sold 15 million records in the past decade. Six foot one, 200-plus pounds, Dre wears a beige Fila outfit, brown Timberlands, and a gold Rolex saturated with diamonds. If that isn’t enough, a chunk of diamond and gold glitters on one of his fingers. Those adornments aside, I’m surprised how soft-spoken and shy the baby-faced Dr. Dre is in person, his eyes avoiding mine for much of the interview. To break the ice, I ask about the World Class Wreckin‘ Cru, his first group back in the early 1980s.
„Wreckin‘ Cru was a DJ crew. They used to call it that because it was the guys that came in after the party was over and broke down the equipment,“ Dre says, leaning closer to my tape recorder as he warms to the topic.
„We eventually made a record, and we had the costumes on and what have you. Back then, everybody had their little getups, you know, like SoulSonic Force, UTFO.“ Dre laughs at the memory. „That shit haunted me, but you know, I ain’t ashamed of my past.“