With larger-than-life characters, violent feuds, a dramatic rise and a public fall, the story of Death Row Records reads like a classic epic novel or Greek morality play.
"It's one of those stories that's iconic and, quite frankly, ironic," said Keith Murphy, associate senior editor of Vibe magazine.
Co-founded in 1991 by controversial music mogul Marion "Suge" Knight, the label was home to some of the biggest names in rap — Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur — and became one of hip-hop's most influential and profitable labels in its '90s heyday.
"Despite what people might have thought of Suge Knight, it was a very pivotal label," said Gail Mitchell, senior correspondent for R&B and hip-hop at Billboard magazine. "That label, along with Def Jam, was one of the pivotal building blocks of the genre."
But after losing his stable of platinum-record-selling artists and being dogged by legal troubles, mismanagement and debt, Knight was forced to file bankruptcy in 2006. Last week, the label was sold in a court-ordered auction for the starting bid of $24 million to Nashville-based Global Music Group Inc. The sale concluded Knight's reign as one of the most powerful and feared figures in the music industry.
How did Death Row go from cranking out millions of records to being on the auction block? How did Knight fall so low, ending up with what he said was just $11 in his pocket and his bloodied face plastered across the Internet after he was knocked unconscious in March during a disagreement outside a nightclub?
"He was hip-hop's boogeyman," Murphy said. "You make the bed you lie in. You go around disrespecting people, and things are going to come back to you."
Murphy added, "As quick as he rose, he fell that fast, but in slow motion almost. We saw everything that happened with his demise."
Calls to Knight for comment were not returned.
The Rise and the Fall
Knight's rise to the top ranks of the music industry is remarkable considering he grew up in Compton, a Los Angeles suburb notorious for gang-related violence. Though he has never admitted to being a member of a gang, Knight, whose childhood nickname Sugar Bear he later shortened to Suge, was often seen wearing the red colors of the Bloods street gang that dominated his neighborhood.
"To survive in a place like Compton, it's not easy," said writer David Fisher, who started working with Knight on his memoir since 2003. "The requirements of survival in a place like Compton are different. There's a different set of rules."
"Suge is both the best and the worst of what you're going to get from a place like that," Fisher said.
One way Knight stood out was as an excellent student and athlete. He earned a football scholarship to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and after college played briefly for the Los Angeles Rams. When that didn't work out, he got a job as a bodyguard for celebrities, including Bobby Brown.
"Suge represents the American dream better than a lot of people in this business do," Murphy said. "The guy started out as bodyguard for Bobby Brown and ended up being head of one of the most influential and bankable labels."