Back at the video shoot, as another TV crew tapes him, a hyper Tupac spreads out a stack of $100 bills just handed him by Knight, who stands in the background talking on a cellular phone. „This is why I signed to Death Row,“ says Pac to the cameras, „right here.“
Shakur’s antics hit me as poignant because-perhaps unwittingly-he’s playing right into the hands of people who view rappers as foulmouthed, money-sex-and-violence-crazed lowlifes who are poisoning America’s youth. Of course, one of the beauties of the hip hop generation is that we really don’t give a fuck what „outsiders“ think about us. But in not giving a fuck, in having no agenda but our own selfish needs, are we ultimately fucking all the people (family, real friends, ardent supporters) who see us as representative of dreams so often deferred?
I’m still pondering this a week later at the Los Angeles County Criminal Court Building. The washed-out, gray 19-story structure looks as intimidating as any other courthouse, but this one is notable for its famous defendants: O.J. Simpson, Heidi Fleiss, Michael Jackson. I’m here to witness the People vs. Calvin Broadus (a.k.a. Snoop Doggy Dogg) murder trial.
On the ninth floor, in department 110, room No. 9-302, Judge Paul G. Flynn is presiding over jury selection. Some 500 prospective jurors have been interviewed, and 11 have tentatively been agreed upon by the prosecution and defense. While the search for No. 12 continues, my eyes are on Snoop and his codefendant McKinley Lee-the accused triggerman-a dark-skinned young man with a shiny bald head and a thin goatee. In the interviews, Rodney King and O.J. Simpson come up often, as does the issue of race. While Lee pays close attention, especially to questions about potential jurors‘ views on rap music, Snoop, his permed hair pulled back into a bun, hunches over a legal pad, scribbling, looking up only when his lawyer David Kenner whispers into his ear.
During the lunch break, Snoop leaves the building with his bodyguard and friends (he’s free to walk the streets because Knight bailed him out). Meanwhile, Kenner, a short, cock-diesel man with jet black hair, offers that Lee and Snoop acted in self-defense in the fatal shooting of Philip Woldemariam in August 1993. If convicted, both men face life imprisonment.
Kenner, who represents Death Row on both entertainment and criminal matters, insists that „Snoop Doggy Dogg is not on trial here; Calvin Broadus is. When you reach to a performer’s interviews or their songs,“ Kenner says, „and try to extrapolate from that perceptions that you want to draw about the real person, to me it would be no different than saying Arnold Schwarzenegger is a cold-blooded murderer because of his last movie.“
That point aside, Kenner expects the prosecution to bring Snoop’s lyrics, videos, and interviews into evidence. Several people who have had contact with Snoop over the past three years, including this writer, have been subpoenaed as material witnesses. Just a few days earlier, charges against a third codefendant, Sean Abrams, were dropped. Kenner also asserts that serious questions of missing evidence have yet to be answered.
Returning just before proceedings resume, Snoop, as rawboned as ever in a dark green double-breasted suit, pauses to speak with me. „I’m straight, you know,“ he says, picking at the strands of hair cupping his chin. „Everybody’s praying for me, and I want them to continue to pray for me.“
I ask Snoop if he feels rap music is on trial. His eyes meet mine and narrow. „Yeah, it is. I can’t really speak about it, but listen to me, it is.“
What about critics who say this trial shows what rap music is all about-violence?
„It’s God, giving us obstacles to get through,“ he replies. „He puts everybody that’s successful through obstacles to see if they’ll maintain and become successful years down the line. So I’m ready for whatever.„
„What do you say to people who look up to you as a hero?“ I ask him.
„Keep God first. Visualize a goal and try to reach it, and if you can’t reach it, find something else other than the negative. Because that negative is a long stretch behind the wall-trust me.“
There’s no ignoring the violence pervading hip hop culture. Particularly when it seems to be reaching up to executive levels. In my interview with Suge Knight, I ask him about the murder in Atlanta of his close friend. Does he really believe Puffy Combs, the biggest hitmaker on the East Coast, actually had something to do with it? Unnerved by the question, Knight changes the subject, and it isn’t brought up again. However, when it’s clear the interview is over, he says he has some things he wants to discuss with me.
For the first time that evening, Damu the dog raises up off the red carpet and turns in my direction. „I didn’t like them questions you was asking me about the dead,“ Knight says, anger curling the corners of his mouth. „You mean the questions about Eazy-E?“ I ask cautiously.
„Nah, that was my homeboy that was killed down there in Atlanta. I felt you was being disrespectful, and I don’t forget things like that,“ Knight says matter-of-factly, his eyes boring into mine.
As Knight lectures me, the possible seeds of this supposed feud between Knight and Combs come to mind: Tupac Shakur wondering in VIBE last year whether Combs and Biggie Smalls may have known something about his being shot; rumors (strongly denied) that Shakur was raped in jail; Knight publicly dissing Combs-„You don’t need no executive producer who’s all over your record and in the videos„-at last year’s televised Source Awards in New York; and finally, the murder of Knight’s buddy in Atlanta.
The Atlanta story, according to eyewitnesses, goes a little something like this: SoSoDef Records CEO Jermaine Dupri had a birthday party, which Knight and Combs attended. Later, both showed up at an after-party at the Platinum House. An argument started outside the club, and Knight’s friend was killed. According to Combs, Knight turned to him after the shooting and said, „You had to have something to do with this.“ Given the high profiles of both Knight and Combs, it’s ironic that there was barely any mention of the incident in the media.
Interestingly enough, both Knight and Combs are on record denying there’s a beef. Knight: „For what? I’m a man. How does that look for me to go and have a beef with another person who’s not a threat to me?“ Combs: „I’m not a gangsta, and I don’t have no rivalry with no person in the industry whatsoever. The whole shit is stupid-tryin‘ to make an East Coast/West Coast war. East Coast, West Coast, Death Row, Def Jam, or Uptown, I feel nothing but proud for anybody young and black and making money. [Some people] want us to be at each other, at war with each other. Acting like a bunch of ignorant niggas, y’know what I’m sayin‘?„
But there’s no denying that tension’s in the air. Some folks say it’s the start of a hip hop civil war. I remember Dr. Dre saying, „If it keeps going this way, pretty soon niggaz from the East Coast ain’t gonna be able to come out here and be safe. And vice versa.„
Back in the office, when Knight feels he’s gotten his point across, he and Damu turn and head over to his desk. I rise slowly, then exit.
Out in the night air, I sigh hard. This has not been an easy article to deal with. Too many people have warned me about what to say and what not to say, and that, to me, is not what hip hop is about. But then again, it’s 1996 and shit is thick for black folks. When a people feel like social, political, or economic outcasts, it gets easier to consider taking one another out-even over the pettiest beefs-in the name of survival. Not even journalists are immune to this logic.
The tragedy here is that two of the most successful young black entrepreneurs ever could possibly end up hurt or dead over God only knows what. As VIBE went to press, there was talk of involving people such as Minister Louis Farrakhan or Ben Chavis in an effort to get both sides to make peace. The future of hip hop may ultimately depend on such a meeting.
How long Death Row Records will live remains to be seen. But like a true player setting his rules for the game, Knight predicts, perhaps not recognizing the double meaning of his words, „Death Row’s going to be here forever.“