The head of Death Row Records grew famous glamorizing gang violence. He called his artists "inmates." His company logo depicted a hooded convict strapped into an electric chair. His producers grafted violent lyrics onto driving rhythms, punctuated by shotgun blasts and wailing sirens.
That was make-believe mayhem. Now, Knight isbeing stalked by the real thing.
A string of gang shootings has claimed the lives of eight people since 1997, including four of the rap entrepreneur's closest associates. Investigators believe the killers' ultimate target is Knight himself.
In the most recent slaying, gunmen ambushed Wardell "Poochie" Fouse, a longtime Knight confidant, on July 24, firing 10 shots into his back as he rode a motorcycle in Compton.
Previous victims include Knight's best friend and chief bodyguard, who was gunned down at a gas station in Compton, and the creator of the Death Row logo, who was shot dead near a fried-chicken stand in South-Central L.A.
All the killings remain unsolved. Police suspect that at least three were ordered or carried out by a pair of gang members pursuing a vendetta against Knight. One is a former Death Row bodyguard whom Knight fired.
"If I was Suge Knight, I'd be worried someone was out to get me," said Sgt. Fred Reynolds, a gang investigator with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "When so many people so close to you get killed, it's no coincidence. If I was in his shoes, I'd be looking over my shoulder everywhere I went."
Knight, 37, said he intended to do no such thing. He dismissed the idea that his life was in danger but in terms that conveyed resignation more than defiance.
"I don't believe anyone is hunting me. But even if they were, so what?" Knight said over dinner at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills in late May. "The only guarantee a man has in life is that you are born to die. I'm from the ghetto, where black men get killed every day.
"It's like Jesus. Anyone who reads the Bible knows Jesus was no punk. He didn't hide from nobody. The threat of danger didn't stop him from doing what he had to do. That's how it is with me too. I fear no man. Only God."
Knight was arrested in late June on charges that he punched a parking lot attendant outside a Hollywood club. He has been in jail since then. And Thursday, a state parole panel deemed the incident a violation of Knight's parole from an earlier assault conviction and ordered him to serve 10 months in prison.
Through much of the 1990s, Death Row was the nation's No. 1 rap label, home to the biggest hip-hop stars, including Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg.
Knight strutted into award shows draped in gold chains and diamond medallions, puffing on Cuban cigars. He mugged with celebrities and chief executives for magazine covers. He was backed by some of the biggest names in corporate America, including Time Warner and Seagram Co.
Today, all that seems a distant memory. Shakur is dead. Dre and other Death Row artists have long since defected. The label has not introduced a new star in seven years. Knight's latest release, the movie soundtrack "Dysfunktional Family," didn't even register on the national pop charts.
Knight, who has five children from different relationships, owes the Internal Revenue Service $6 million in back taxes. One bank has threatened to seize Death Row's headquarters over delinquent mortgage payments. Another has repossessed Knight's 90-foot Hatteras yacht. Staples Center revoked his luxury box over missed lease payments.
Death Row's Beverly Hills headquarters, which once teemed with employees, artists and their entourages, is silent and mostly empty now. In May, the building was raked by gunfire in the middle of the night, causing no injuries but leaving a bullet-pocked facade.
At the height of his fame, Knight embraced more than the imagery of gang violence. He surrounded himself with gang members and tried to become a player in their world. In so doing, police investigators and gang members say, he became entangled in their feuds and unwittingly made himself a target.
Bodyguard No. 1
The first to fall was Aaron "Heron" Palmer.
Palmer, a bodyguard for Knight, rolled up to a red lightin Compton in a black Toyota 4Runner just before sunset on June 1, 1997. He was on his way home from a Death Row party at Gonzales Park, where a dozen employees had gathered to play touch football.
As he waited for the light to change, a blue van pulled up behind him. Two men jumped out, fired a flurry of shots and sped off. Palmer, 30, died at the scene.
"When Heron went down, we were all like, 'Whoa! What's going on here?' " said Bobby Ladd, a former Compton gang investigator now with the Garden Grove Police Department. "Until that moment, nobody ever had the nerve to take out anyone in Suge's inner circle. This was no ordinary murder. Someone was sending a message."
Football and Music
Knight, the youngest of three children, grew up in a two-bedroom house in Compton, one of the most gang-infested cities in the country. His father, Marion Knight Sr., was a truck driver from Mississippi who played college football and sang tenor in a minor R&B group. He instilled in his son a passion for football and music.
Even as a teen, Knight cutan imposing figure. He stood 6 feet 3 and weighed more than 300 pounds. But his temperament was sweet, prompting his father to give him the nickname Sugar Bear, recalled his mother, Maxine.
While many of his friendsin Compton were running the streets, Knight was getting his aggression out on the football field. He starred at Lynwood High and El Camino Community College before being recruited in 1985 by the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where he was an all-conference defensive lineman for two seasons.
Knight left UNLV a few credits shy of graduation in 1987. His efforts to catch on with a National Football League team fizzled. Discouraged, he took a job as a bouncer for a Las Vegas nightclub and quickly got in trouble with the law.
From 1987 to 1992, he was arrested eight times on charges such as carrying a concealed handgun and assault and battery with a deadly weapon. In each case, he pleaded no contest and was given a suspended sentence and probation.
Knight went to work as a bodyguard for a Los Angeles concert promoter and got an inside look at the music business. It didn't take him long to realize that most concert performers and studio musicians earned little for their creative efforts.
Artists typically signed over the copyrights to their songs and master recordings in exchange for a royalty of about 12% of sales. Major record labels and music publishing companies reaped the bulk of the profits, often collecting millions of dollars annually by packaging and repackaging the same music.
Knight bore these lessons in mind when he went out on his own in 1990 as a talent manager, representing a handful of relatively unknown songwriters. Reports of his peculiar negotiating style spread through the industry.
In 1991, pop star Vanilla Ice claimed that Knight dangled him from the balcony of a Beverly Hills hotel during a dispute over royalties. Afterward, the rapper agreed to increase payments to a songwriter whom Knight represented.
In a 1992 lawsuit, rap entrepreneur Eric "Eazy-E" Wright asserted that Knight and two thugs burst into a Hollywood studio, threatened him with baseball bats and lead pipes and forced him to release Dr. Dre from a recording contract. The suit was settled out of court under confidential terms, but Dre, Wright's brightest star, defected to Death Row, despite owing Wright four albums.
A few months later, inthe same studio, Knight pistol-whipped aspiring rappers George and Lynwood Stanley, court documents show. They had used a studio telephone without asking Knight's permission — an action he interpreted as a sign of disrespect. Knight pleaded no contest to assault and was given a nine-year suspended sentence, plus five years' probation.
In the Beginning
Death Row Records opened in the winter of 1992. Knight and his partner, Dre, hired unknown artists from the ghetto, many with criminal records.
Knight financed the label with funds from Time Warner's Interscope division under a novel arrangement that allowed him to retain ownership of Death Row's master recordings and song publishing rights. Knight enjoyed a monopoly over the label's creative assets, managing the careers of his artists and controlling the rights to their compositions and recordings.
"The Chronic," Death Row's 1992 debut release by Dre, sold more than 5 million copies and made the critics' lists of the decade's vital albums. A year later, Snoop's "Doggystyle" broke the industry record for first-week sales. In 1996, Shakur's "All Eyez on Me," the first rap double CD, sold 5 million copies.
Knight and his artists catapulted hard-core hip-hop into the mainstream, transforming it from a ghetto fad into a global cultural phenomenon. At its peak, the company generated $100 million a year in album sales on the strength of songs that glorified street vengeance, drug dealing and gang warfare.
Real violence, meanwhile, was close at hand.
In 1992, Dre pleaded no contest to assaulting a producer and breaking his jaw. In 1993, Snoop was charged with murder after his bodyguard, firing his gun from a Jeep that Snoop was driving, killed a man in a West Los Angeles park. The rap star and his bodyguard claimed the shooting was in self-defense and were acquitted.
Knight promoted his stars' real-life dramas to juice up sales. Major companies that once refused to do business with him launched copycat labels. The heavyset kid from Compton was now a millionaire with estates in Malibu and Las Vegas.
"All the rap you hear today came out of what Death Row started," Knight said. "Nobody can deny that. In the beginning, corporations told us they didn't want to deal with Death Row because our rappers cussed on records and were too aggressive. Now, every major corporation puts out aggressive records with cussing."
It wasn't enough for him to create a label that outsold industry rivals 10 times its size. People close to Knight say he secretly longed for the approval of his childhood pals from Compton, many of whom had turned into hardened criminals. Knight began to flaunt his connection to an obscure street gang called the Mob Piru Bloods.
He traded in his blue jeans and work boots for manicured suits and bowler hats made of red silk — the color worn by the Bloods. He bought crimson carpet for his studio office. He drained the pool at his Las Vegas mansion and had the tiled bottom painted scarlet.
Knight hired Bloods from three feuding factions — the Mob Pirus, the Leuders Park and the Fruit Town Pirus — to answer his phones, market his records and provide security at his office and studio. For some, he bought cars. For others, he paid the rent.
"Suge's bodyguards were feared by everybody because people knew what they had done in the past," said Ladd, the Garden Grove gang investigator. "They weren't afraid to kill — and they let it be known."
Knight put a different spin on it. He bragged that his company offered a second chance to people shunned by society. Many of his employees had never held a job before.
For the Bloods, Death Row offered entree to a world of privilege — chauffeured limousines, chartered planes, backstage passes, escort girls. The men in Knight's posse turned heads as they strolled into the Grammy Awards and other events decked out in silk suits. For the gang members, Death Row wasn't just a paycheck. It was a nonstop party where they, and their weapons, were always welcome.
In 1995, authorities beganinvestigating Death Row employees in connection with a series of assaults, robberies and murders in Compton. The victims, in many cases, had had run-ins with Knight. Police suspected that Knight was orchestrating the crimes but could not find sufficient evidence to charge him. Knight denied any wrongdoing.
In 1996, his empire began to crumble. Dre left to launch his own label. Shakur was fatally wounded in a drive-by shooting on the Las Vegas Strip, with Knight at his side. Death Row's corporate investors and distributors grew uncomfortable with the negative publicity.
And the gang members who provided Knight's security began fighting among themselves.
People familiar with the situation say Knight tried to control the rival Bloods factions with money and gifts. But his largess often provoked resentment. He lent luxury cars and apartments to his favorites, only to revoke the perks on a whim. He told associates that if they stuck by him, someday they too would have big houses in the suburbs. When it didn't happen, his hangers-on grew embittered.
In the summer of 1996, one of Knight's bodyguards refused to return two Death Row cars. In response, several other bodyguards tried to abduct and kill the man, according to people with knowledge of the dispute. The bodyguard escaped but was shot in the buttocks.
Knight later fired the rogue bodyguard, after authorities told him that the man had ordered several gang killings. Informants have told police that the man vowed revenge.
"Suge Knight has made a lot of enemies over the years," said Tim Brennan, a former Compton gang investigator now with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "Some of the very people who worked for Suge have now turned against him."
Police believe the fired employee embarked on a campaign of violence against Knight's inner circle. He enlisted associates to carry out some shootings and was the getaway driver at least once, according to gang members and investigators.
The original grievance against Knight became tangled up with other gang feuds. The estranged bodyguard is said to have found an ally in his vendetta — a drug dealer and fellow Blood who believed Knight had ordered the killing of one of his friends.
Evidence against the two men is scant, in part because key witnesses to the killings of Knight's friends have refused to cooperate with authorities. The Times is withholding the two suspects' names because they have not been charged and because efforts to learn their side of the story were unsuccessful.
"The roots for these feuds run very deep in Compton," said Det. Michael Caouette, a gang investigator for the Sheriff's Department. "Gang members don't forget a grudge. Word on the street is there's a hit out on Suge Knight."
Typically, gang members take vengeance swiftly. In this case, the killers worked patiently, leaving long intervals between hits. It was as if whoever was responsible wanted Knight to wait, and to worry.
After the first shooting — of "Heron" Palmer in June 1997 — there was a lull in the violence. On April, 4, 2000, the bloodshed resumed.
"Poochie" Fouse, a Knight associate, and Fouse's friend William "Chin" Walker were sitting in a white Chevrolet van on North Matthisen Avenue, a dead-end street in Compton. Just after midnight, two men rushed up, opened fire andfled.
Walker, 37, who was in the driver's seat, died an hour later. Fouse, 40, was severely injured and confined to a wheelchair for three months. He refused to cooperate with police.
Three weeks later, the body of Vence "V" Buchanan, 35, an alleged drug dealer and Bloods gang member, was found near a Compton graveyard, with a gunshot wound to the back of the head.
Buchanan's killers, disguised as police officers, had abducted him in a dark Cadillac at Central and 135th avenues. The kidnappers cuffed his hands behind his back, then brutalized him and videotaped his execution, informants have told police. The killers dumped his body outside a cemetery at Greenleaf Boulevard and Central Avenue.
Buchanan had been friendly with the disgruntled Death Row bodyguard and the drug dealer allied against Knight. They suspected that Knight orchestrated the slaying to avenge the shooting of Fouse and Walker, informants have told police. The two men allegedly set out to retaliate.
One of their targets was Alton "Buntry" McDonald, Knight's best friend. McDonald and a buddy, David "Brim Dave" Dudley, were rumored to have played a videotape of Buchanan's execution for an audience of friends at McDonald's home in Compton.
On March 25, 2001, nearly a year after Buchanan's death, Dudley was shot and killed in front of McDonald's house.
Knight was behind bars as this drama of revenge unfolded. In 1997, a judge had sentenced him to nine years in prison for violating terms of his probation from his earlier assault case.
Knight said he had no role in Buchanan's murder and did nothing to provoke the attacks on his friends.
"This feud they say is going on has nothing to do with me. I was in prison when these episodes took place," he said.
McDonald's family said he was not involved in the Buchanan killing, either.
With credit for good behavior, Knight was released from prison in August 2001, after serving less than five years. His world had been shaken, but he felt secure in the presence of McDonald. They had known each other since childhood, and McDonald was now Knight's chief bodyguard.
Eight months later, "Buntry" was cut down.
Bodyguard No. 2
It happened at a crowded Shell station at Rosecrans and Atlantic avenues on April 3, 2002. McDonald, 37, pulled in about 2:30 p.m. to fill up his black GMC Denali. He had paid the station attendant and was about to start pumping his gas when two men walked up and drew pistols.
McDonald was shot four times in the chest. The assailants fled in a pickup truck driven by a man with a ponytail.
Police released sketches of two suspects based on witnesses' descriptions. No one has been arrested.
"We think the same suspects who killed Alton McDonald were involved in the murder of David Dudley at Alton's house a year before — as well as the shooting of William Walker and Wardell Fouse a year before that," said Sheriff's homicide detective Beth Smith. "There are very unique identifiers that link these three cases together."
On Oct. 16, Henry "Hen Dog" Smith, another close friend of Knight's, was shot to death in the middle of the afternoon. Investigators say the connection to the earlier slayings is unclear.
Smith, 33, had been a fixture at Death Row for years and had designed the label's logo. He was sitting in a burgundy Jeep near a fried-chicken stand in South-Central L.A. while his girlfriend used a pay phone. A Death Row medallion hung from his neck. His girlfriend's baby was resting in the back seat when a young man leaned into the truck and fired six shots at Smith.
The attacker, fleeing on a bicycle, dropped his pistol. Witnesses said he stopped, bent over to pick up the gun and calmly resumed pedaling.
On July 24, unknown assailants again tried to kill Fouse, who had been wounded in a shooting three years earlier. This time, they succeeded.
Fouse was riding a motorcycle on Central Avenue in the early evening when a car rushed up behind him. Fouse was riddled with gunfire at Central and Stockwell Street.
The Next Chapter
At 2:30 a.m. May 27, armed assailants staged a drive-by attack on Death Row's headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard, tearing holes in the stucco and shattering windows.
Knight professes not to be concerned.
"Listen, if somebody's planning to hunt me down, they are going to have to be more serious about their business," said Knight, chuckling. "How scary are these guys? They drive by my building at 2:30 in the morning and shoot the front windows out. Look out! They killed my windows. Who do they think they're kidding? You can't stop cowards from doing cowardly things."
Still, the bullet-ridden facade is a reminder of how far Knight has fallen. The lobby at Death Row's offices is barren these days, the hallways empty. Music executives duck Knight's calls.
Under his parole restrictions, Knight could not leave California without permission. That's why he had stopped attending prizefights in Las Vegas, music showcases in Atlanta and industry events in New York.
He also has been barred from associating with gang members. That ruled out social contact with almost everyone he grew up with in Compton.
To hear Knight tell it, he is ready to close the door on that chapter of his life anyway.
He is writing an autobiography and hopes to produce a film about the "true story" of Death Row. He talks about volunteering as a football coach at his alma mater, El Camino Community College.
But his biggest aspiration these days, he says, is to live long enough to become a grandfather.
"The thing I most look forward to is seeing my kids have their own kids. Man, that would make everything worthwhile," Knight said. "You know, in the generation before mine, most guys died from cancer, heartattacks and old age. But mygeneration, we die from bullets. Murders. It's not just my friends getting killed. Black men get murdered every day in the ghetto. I'm not nervous. I gotno reason to be scared."