To celebrate July 4th, the Weeklings Editorial Board brings you an in-depth look at the least acceptable among us. Although only living figures were considered, space was limited and deliberations were intense. In the end, there were fifteen good men (and women, but mostly men) chosen. God bless this great land.
MOTHER SWEARS the reason fifty-year-old Suge Knight is so angry is because his real name is Marion. “It must be hard to be a gangsta with a girl’s name,” she chuckles. Milling over her pop culture psychology, I think perhaps mom has unearthed the thuggish truth behind the former Death Row Records CEO and his gangsta behavior. Laughing, I reply, “Yeah, I bet if someone filled-up a room with men named Marion, it’ll be a room of some of the toughest motherfuckers on the planet.” For a moment I remember cinematic cowboy John Wayne, another man named Marion who came across as an intimidating bully, but, at least “the Duke” was never charged with murder and attempted murder as Suge was after a fatal hit-and-run in Los Angeles (Compton) in January.
On February 2 of this year, the Los Angeles Times reported his latest deadly encounter: “The confrontation began about 3 p.m. Thursday when Knight and the victims began arguing on the set of Straight Outta Compton, a biopic about the group N.W.A…Knight’s attorney James E. Blatt, told The Times that his client was being assaulted and, while trying to get away from his attackers, accidently ran the two men over.” Having spent the 90s writing about rap music for urban publications The Source, Vibe and Rappages, I knew that Suge Knight never does anything by accident.
A football player in high school and college, Suge played briefly with the L.A. Rams before getting kicked to the curb and becoming a bodyguard for soul singer Bobby Brown and rapper The D.O.C. While working, he was also hustling, learning all he could about the music business. When the six-foot-three, 300-pound bruiser began making moves to stop working for chump change and start making real money as a mogul, everything he did seemed quite calculated. Of course, when it comes to Knight, it usually means someone within close proximity will suffer, or perhaps die.
Since the beginning of Suge Knight’s rein in the music business more than twenty years ago, he has been nothing but trouble. Back in 1991, when he reportedly persuaded rapper and businessman Eazy-E, of Ruthless Records fame, to release producer Dr. Dre (before Beats By, there was g-funk) from his contract, he set into motion a rude boy reputation and gorilla pimp persona that has followed him during his crazy career. As Dave Chappelle would say, Suge was a prime example of when keeping it real goes wrong.
Founding Death Row Records in 1992, with its frying man in an electric chair logo, Suge had a vision of becoming the Berry Gordy of gangsta rap and part of that plan was jackin’ Dre, the man who crafted the brutal West Coast sound of N.W.A. in the late ‘80s, from his label Ruthless Records. Eazy, who died in 1995, always maintained that Suge shook him down with henchmen armed with pistols and pipes; Suge said all he did was talk to the man.
From that moment on, through the rise of Suge’s aptly named Death Row Records, whose releases included the groundbreaking Dre/Snoop Doggy Dog/Tupac albums The Chronic (1992), Doggystyle (1993) and All Eyez on Me (1996) he became one of the most notorious men in hip-hop. Suge seemed to equate mayhem with glamour as he acted-out at industry parties and luxury hotel suites. Whenever he entered the room, people were looking at the bad guy. Referring to other label heads as “bitches and punks,” he tried to steal their artists while neglecting to pay those who were already recording for him. With his bald head, brooding persona and a piranha fish tank in his office, Suge seemed to model himself after a James Bond villain, but was closer to Keyser Soze when it came to devilment.
Marion Knight got the name Suge because it was short for sugar. His daddy swore the kid had a sweet disposition when he was younger; what happened to change that, I haven’t the slightest idea, but he was connected with the wild boy Bloods gang from the time he was a teenager and kept their gang-banging rowdy ways close to his cement heart. He wore red suits, had a red house and swam in a red pool, and obviously didn’t mind getting blood on his hands.
Throughout the 1990s, as his record label made millions, stories of Suge Knight beating-down rivals, slapping-up his own artists (Warren G), pistol whipping people over perceived slights, scaring other executives (Steve Rifkind, Andre Harrell), making a record promoter drink his own piss and threating to kill executives (Dallas Austin) from competing labels, were legendary.
As an art form I’ve followed since the days of my Harlem childhood watching and listening to dj’s spinning in the parks or at block parties, I thought Suge was making rap music looked bad; none of the label bosses and executives I knew were anything like him, but they also weren’t being profiled by Lynn Hirschberg for The New York Times magazine and appearing on the cover of national magazines. Egged on by the press, the pictures, the power, Suge’s ego became bigger than his biceps. The sad part was his behavior gave the mainstream the perfect rap music boogey man who scared and titillated them simultaneously.
Suge Knight ignited the infamous East Coast/West Coast rap war at The Source Awards on August 3, 1995 when he dissed Bad Boy Records/Puff Daddy from the stage in New York City. As immature as it might sound today, many people, including the rap press, took it seriously and the silly feud grew and grew until it exploded. In the end Dr. Dre left the label, Tupac Shakur was killed and Snoop signed with No Limit Records. The night Pac was shot (he died six days later), Suge was grazed in the head with bullet fragments, but, like any good demon, simply refused to die.
“That’s because the Lord don’t want him, and the devil don’t want him either,” I thought as Robert Johnson played guitar in my mind.
Years later, talking about Knight’s latest arrest with fellow middle-aged rap fans who clearly remembered the dark shadow Suge cast over the genre back in the ‘90s, more than a few wondered, “Why the hell is he still wandering the streets anyway?” Another former “hip-hop writer” repeated the internet rumors that Suge might be a snitch for the F.B.I., which was why he never stayed locked-up for long. “It would make sense, man, because if me or you did half the shit that he’s supposedly done, we’d be so far under the jail no one would ever hear from us again.” Nevertheless, like every movie monster you’ve ever feared, Suge Knight just keeps coming back.
Locked-up in 1996 on parole violations that streamed from a fight in Las Vegas the same night Tupac was shot, he was released in 2001. It’s safe to guess that he didn’t become born again or a follower of Allah.
Of course, Suge Knight isn’t the first gangster to get into the music business. Wherever there is cash to be made, there will be some bad boys in the mix. From the time the first piece of sheet music sold, the groove merchants have always been a shady bunch who thinks that lying to artists, stealing publishing, making double books and other unscrupulous practices was just business as usual. To paraphrase John Travolta in Be Cool, film people might think they’re gangsters, but music people really are gangsters.
However, as far as I was concerned, Suge Knight just took the shit too far. He didn’t just want to harm you, but he wanted to humiliate you and then hurt your mother. The late record executive Chris Lighty once told me how he had to help former Def Jam boss Lyor Cohn escape from a party, because Suge wanted to harm him for signing West Coast rapper, and former Death Row associate, Warren G. “For some reason he respected me,” Lighty, a hard bro from the Bronx, said, “but, he wanted to kill Lyor.”
While the ‘90s was one of rap’s golden eras, it was also prime time for young writers interested in documenting the hip-hop scene for The Source, Vibe, Rappages, Ego Trip and other publications. Yet, unlike my contemporaries (most of whom I was at least ten years older than) Dream Hampton, Kevin Powell, Danyel Smith, Cheo Hodari Coker, Joan Morgan and others, I never had any desire to interview Suge or anyone else in the Death Row camp. I became an entertainment journalist to write about the music I loved, not be threatened or “bitched out” for fun by gang members.
Looking at Suge sucking on a cigar in magazine spreads, he seemed to think he was the symbol of the American Dream and a Scorsese character at the same time, but, in reality, dude wasn’t nothing but a vicious bully. Suge wasn’t sweet no more, but just another troubled man taking out his anger on others. I was a fan of Death Row’s music, blaring the funky blunted misogynistic gunplay tracks on eleven and getting lost in the g-funk sound, but when their gangsta shit started spilling over into real life it was a different story completely. According to Ronin Ro’s scandalous Have Gun Will Travel (The Spectacular Rise and Violet Fall of Death Row Records), Suge once threatened a New Yorker writer by telling the person he would put their face in his piranha tank.
In 1996, journalist Kevin Powell wrote a brilliant cover story on the Death Row family for Vibe. Interviewing Suge in his mostly red office, a big German shepherd named Damu was laid on the floor next to Kevin’s chair. “He won’t bother you,” a bodyguard told him, “he’s only trained to kill on command.” Documenting this era of his career in the upcoming autobiography The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood, I remember, shortly after the piece was originally published, I stopped by his office to give him props for textually painting such a vivid portrait of evil.
“You should interview Suge one of these days,” Kevin said. “He’s an interesting guy.” I laughed. At the time I was working on a story about trip-hop star Tricky, an artist more about blunts than bullets. “Man, I’m not impressed by that Suge shit,” I replied; “in fact that shit is scary.”
Minutes later, a dude from the mailroom dropped a box off for Kevin. Looking at the return address, the package was sent from Death Row. “Would you like to open this?” Kevin asked as I was stood-up to leave. Looking at the box, I said, “I pass. In fact, try not to open it up until after I leave the building.” I was only half-joking.
Years ago, I was buddies with a guy named Stacy who told me when he was a kid he forced his friends to call him by his nickname Pic. “But, Stacy is your name,” I insisted. “I didn’t care,” he answered, “anybody who called me by that girl name got punched in the face.” As he matured, Stacy learned to accept his fem-sounding name and became a respectable member of society who no longer punched people in the face. Marion Knight, on the other hand, is still tormenting people in that scary monster style he has perfected through decades of practice.