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The Endless Fall of Suge Knight

Tupac Shakur has been convicted of sexually abusing a fan in a New York hotel room, and has done prison time. Dre recently served a five-month work-release sentence for violating probation on an earlier assault charge. But like a latter-day Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, Suge treats his artists like beloved children, even when they break the law.

He protects them, gets them legal help, bails them out. When you sign with Death Row, it's almost a blood bond. This is not just a company -- it's Suge's gang, and he's on call 24 hours a day. And aint't nobody gonna change that. It's October, about 9 P. Red is the color of the Bloods and the team color of Death Row -- red carpet, red walls, red clothes, red. He is wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt and huge sneakers, which are climbing up the wall in front of him. Suge's portable phone, which rings every two or three minutes, rings. He flips it open and cradles the phone, which looks like a tiny toy in his hand next to his ear.

Nearly all his conversations are this short -- nobody, it seems, wants to waste Suge's time. He works constantly, usually at Can-Am, which Death Row owns.

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Suge's office is large but sparsely decorated. The bookshelves hold only a few sports trophies, there are platinum records on the walls and the Death Row logo -- a hooded prisoner about to die in the electric chair -- is emblazoned in white on the red carpeting.

There are model cars on the desk and a large fish tank, which contains piranhas. The entire studio, including the office, is monitored by cameras. Six stacked TV screens in the office show all the comings and goings throughout the building, and the office door remains locked. If Suge doesn't know you, you don't get in. Though Suge often sleeps in a small room next to his office, in a bed with maroon satin sheets, the office has the feel of a fortress.

And for good reason: there are, according to published reports, three contracts out on Suge's life. This could be rumor, part of the usual Death Row gangster myth, but why not be careful?

Early life

Suge is vague about the threats on his life. They're scared. People like to say stuff to get a conversation going. My program's the same: I'm in my office working, at my studio working. If someone wants to meet with me, they can. I'm not a person who's hiding. You can't worry about it. If you worry, you'll never get anywhere. Suge pauses. This talk of violence doesn't seem to bother him. In fact, he's oddly imperturbable, almost unnaturally calm. His attention is elsewhere, almost always on business.

We're not getting distracted.

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  8. We're going to get our prize. An assistant is buzzed into the office bearing a stack of five foil takeout trays -- Suge's dinner. There's chicken-fried steak and greens and cornbread and chicken rice and macaroni and cheese and a paper cup full of gravy. The assistant goes to find some. This is the way Suge always eats, as if he were an athlete, loading up on fuel. When Suge was a teen-ager, sports seemed to be his route up and out.

    The youngest of three and the only boy, Suge, named Marion after his father, was always looking to get ahead. He could get anything he wanted.

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    Suge always liked gold, and he was careful about his appearance, and he always said, 'Mom, one day I'm going to live in a house with a second floor and I'll have a lot of cars. Suge's father, a truck driver who had played college football, encouraged him to play defensive end; his uncles would reward him with hot dogs and money when he took the quarterback's head off.

    He was a high-school football star in Compton, went on to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and later played part of a season for the Los Angeles Rams.


    He had always been interested in music and began promoting shows in L. In , Knight formed a music publishing company.

    When the white rap novelty Vanilla Ice recorded seven of the songs Suge owned, he learned an early lesson: even though the songs were hits, his company saw little profit. Suge had a plan: he had known Dr. Dre for years, since childhood in Compton. When he was a member of N. Suge recognized his potential, and saw that he could make him -- and, through him, the music -- into a phenomenon.

    source url There was only one problem: Dre had signed a contract with Ruthless Records, the label owned by Eazy-E another member of N. Dre came to think the contract was unfair. He was in debt, and Ruthless was withholding back pay. Dre wanted out, and Suge wanted him out, too. According to court documents, Suge went to the Ruthless office with a couple of guys and some baseball bats and pipes. Without a major label deal of any kind, Dre recorded "The Chronic," which featured an appearance by Snoop Doggy Dogg, who was then unknown. Several major record labels were interested in releasing the album, but Suge wanted the right deal, one that would establish Death Row.

    So for nearly a year "The Chronic" went unreleased. Their brand-new label was financed in part and distributed by Warner Music Group, a division of Time Warner. Interscope saw no reason not to take a chance on gangsta rap, and by "The Chronic" had sold more than two million copies and Death Row was the biggest rap label in the world. Death Row broke other boundaries. For years, MTV had ghettoized rap videos, clumping them together on shows like "Yo! MTV Raps.

    Album: Death Row Records: Too Gangsta 4 Radio

    And that was pure Suge. From the start, he was on top of everything at Death Row -- from choosing artwork, promotional materials, singles and the track for the B side, to hiring the video director and the girls to be in the video, to deciding where the party should be and who should be invited, to what Snoop should wear.

    All of this is about shaping street culture for consumption by the youth of America, which is Suge's real genius. Suge knows how to take care of business, from start to finish. He smiles and cuts a piece of steak. He has arranged the trays around him and looks like a happy kid. I can. There are lots of slicksters out there. Beat me out of my money and I'll kick your drawers up your behind.

    Treat me fair and I'll treat you fair.

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