July 21, 2008— -- 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."
How Knight got his start in the music business, with a music-publishing company in 1989, has been the stuff of legend. According to one famous story, he made his first big fortune when he dangled Vanilla Ice upside down by his ankles from a 20th-floor balcony and got him to sign over his royalties from "Ice Ice Baby" for music material he supposedly lifted from one of Knight's associates.
Vanilla Ice, whose real name is Rob Van Winkle, told the washingtonpost.com a few years ago that the story had been grossly exaggerated, though he knew Knight meant business.
"I was on the balcony and had signed over a lot of contractual money to him and felt like I did the right thing," he said. "In a weird way, he was nice but firm with me. He took me to the balcony and talked to me. ... I got the clue. I'm no idiot."
In 1991, Knight joined forces with Dr. Dre, a rapper and producer, who was eager to leave his group N.W.A. and its label Ruthless Records. Again, there were rumors that Knight threatened violence against Eazy-E, another member of N.W.A., and the group's manager Jerry Heller in order to get Dre released from his contract.
To fund his new venture, Knight borrowed $1.5 million from drug kingpin Michael Harris and his wife, Lydia, according to Murphy. At the end of 1992, Knight had cut a deal with Interscope Records and Harris was sent to prison, but that would not be the last Knight heard from Harris.
Meanwhile, Death Row Records began churning out multiplatinum hits, starting with Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" and later his protégé Snoop Dogg's "Doggystyle." Then, in 1995, Knight offered to pay the $1.4 million bail for the already successful rapper Tupac Shakur, who was in jail on a sexual abuse charge — but only if Shakur signed with his label.
Shakur agreed and his first release, the double album "All Eyez on Me," sold more than nine million copies.
"Suge gave these guys an avenue to make themselves even bigger than they ever could have dreamed of," Murphy said.
The company's fortunes began to slide when Shakur was shot and killed in September 1996 in Las Vegas while riding in the passenger seat of a car driven by Knight. Earlier that evening the pair and their entourage were involved in a brawl at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Shakur's killer has never been found.
After the fight and shooting, Knight, who was on probation for an assorted number of charges including auto theft, attempted murder and carrying a concealed weapon, was sent to prison for five years for violating his parole. In his absence, the company was badly mismanaged and his biggest acts had moved on. After his release in August 2001, he was never able to replicate his earlier success.
The Comeback and the Fallout
Trouble continued to follow Knight. He returned to jail twice in 2003 for associating with gang members and punching a parking attendant. The following year, when Knight attended the Vibe awards, a man threw a punch at Dr. Dre, who was there to receive a lifetime achievement award, and fingers were pointed at Knight. And in 2005, he was shot at a bash hosted by Kanye West.
Fisher, Knight's co-writer, had read about his scary reputation and was surprised to see a very different side of the man when they met in 2003. "When he walks into a room, people smile," he said. "Everybody comes up to him. He's always open and friendly."
Knight began the book project because "he wanted to have his say," Fisher said. They have finished about 90 percent of it, but two years ago Knight took a break from it and now it's not clear when he'll return.
In the meantime, Knight lost control of his company, when Michael Harris and his now ex-wife Lydia sued, claiming they helped start the record empire and were owed $107 million in royalties. The judge agreed and awarded their claim in 2005. Knight filed for bankruptcy the following year, telling his creditors that his bank account contained just $11.
Fisher believes Knight didn't fight very hard to save his company. "He didn't even contest it [the lawsuit]," he said. "He was in and out of prison. I think he thought they were fighting over a shell that didn't exist and he wanted to start clean."
So is that the last of Suge Knight?
"I think he decided to do this book to reinvent himself in a major way," Fisher said. "He's unbelievably charismatic, and a lot smarter than people give him credit for. If he wants a mainstream career, it's there waiting for him. I'm sure Suge will be back and he might be bigger than ever."