In two weeks, the most promising music project of 2002 that bears the name of Marion "Suge" Knight will hit record stores. But the album with the bittersweet title "Better Dayz" is the leftover work of a dead man, and will do very little to rebuild the fading empire that once was Death Row Records.
"Better Dayz" is the latest collection of unreleased Tupac Shakur music and Knight is credited as executive producer, but sources involved say his role in the project was minimal, unlike the glory days when he had his hand in most every aspect of his label's music. The roster of stars he has now is largely unproven, and Knight these days is generating far more interest from police detectives than music fans.
At the height of its powers, Death Row Records (now known, more simply, as Tha Row) was pulling in $100 million a year and proving that hard-core rap could power a hit machine in pop music. The cigar-chomping Knight, a 320-pound repeat felon in heaps of jewelry, was the center of it all, a Capone-like figure of intimidation and dark charisma who had a stable of stars with Shakur, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.
Knight's talent was taking edgy urban music and selling it widely, and his successes with Death Row set the stage for today's mainstream embrace of rap, most evident at the moment in the reign of "8 Mile" as America's top-grossing movie. The path between Knight and Eminem runs through Dre, the Death Row defector who has mentored Eminem's career.
The flip side of the Death Row story is the violence that was the company's trademark in both lyric and life. With the police search Thursday of Knight's office, once again, the so-called "most dangerous man in the music business" finds his name linked to a violent crime investigation.
In the past, the unsavory aspects of Knight's reputation were bundled with his career success, but now his label's future is uncertain. His biggest stars are gone and, though he has some of their unreleased material to tap, his fortunes will be decided by his long-term ability to find new talent and rehabilitate his relationship with industry players.
"Clearly, he is someone who knows how the business works and definitely knows how to build a success," said Violet Brown, the urban music buyer for the Wherehouse chain, Thursday. "He's shown that before."
The 38-year-old Knight grew up in Compton as the son of a janitor and made a name for himself on the high school football field and then as a defensive end at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. His pro football aspirations fizzled and instead he became a bodyguard for R&B; singer Bobby Brown. From that vantage he became mesmerized by the music business and, in 1990, he started his own song publishing company and promoted local rap shows.
Two years later, Death Row, in alliance with Interscope Records, debuted with the hugely successful album "The Chronic." Dre, a founding member of the pivotal rap group N.W.A, was a familiar face from Knight's youth in Compton but he was already under contract to another label, Ruthless Records. In an episode that became part of Death Row lore, Knight allegedly freed Dre from that contract by making a menacing visit to the Ruthless offices of Eric "Eazy E" Wright with some friends, pipes and bats in hand. Knight has denied that account from Wright's lawsuit against Knight and Dre. The suit was settled in 1993.
The defining rap label before the arrival of Death Row in 1992 was Def Jam Recordings, which had East Coast stars such as Run-DMC, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. Death Row's music and spirit were dramatically different -- its template of West Coast gangsta rap, shaped by N.W.A. The East Coast music had mostly been playful, but the sound from Compton and Los Angeles was proudly thuggish and graphic. Knight has kept company with the Mob Piru Bloods, the notorious street gang, and the gang's trademark red has been a design emphasis in Knight's offices and home.
The music itself would stir controversy for its bloodied themes and relentless misogyny, but it also was hugely successful as a commercial and critical force. Dre's "The Chronic" in 1992 was included on most every list of the decade's vital albums, and Snoop Dogg's loping street drawl on hits such as "Gin & Juice" made him a cartoonish rap icon. Shakur, meanwhile, was hailed as a ghetto poet and, along with Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, was cited as the lost spokesman for his generation.
"Death Row reintroduced Dre, they brought in Snoop and Shakur," Emmanuel "E-Man" Coquia said Thursday. Coquia is music director for KPWR-FM (105.9), the leading urban radio station in Los Angeles. "Their music paved the way to gangsta rap on a commercial level and that was when radio opened up to hip-hop and embraced the West Coast music. You just look at those albums. It was a great run."
While Dre and Shakur were undeniable talents, Knight was a specialist at crafting their marketing and a micro-manager in everything from their music videos to their album cover art.
Knight's reputation in the industry also grew as a hardball businessman who was willing to let his 6-foot-3 stature and imposing ways become part of his boardroom approach. In 1990, he allegedly dangled the rapper Vanilla Ice from the balcony of a Beverly Hills hotel to encourage his cooperation in a business deal. Knight has alternately denied and encouraged the spread of that account, just as he has recounted his youthful street escapades that have made him a colorful, intimidating character. Knight was convicted in 1994 of using a telephone to pummel two men at the Death Row studios.
The most famous images of Knight are from a security video and a photograph, both from Sept. 7, 1996, when he was in Las Vegas with Shakur to attend a heavyweight boxing match at the MGM Grand Hotel. The video shows Shakur, Knight and their bodyguards beating down a rival in a casino. The photograph, snapped hours later, shows Shakur in the passenger seat of Knight's black BMW and the music mogul at the wheel. The rapper was shot in a hail of bullets minutes later.
That murder, still unsolved by police, and the murder six months later of Notorious B.I.G. in Los Angeles were the flash points of the East Coast-West Coast rap rivalry that went from a war of words to a conflict with a body count. Knight is, to many observers, a central character in the strange rivalry, but the nature and extent of his role in the hostilities remains a topic of hot debate.
By the time the burly Knight was in a Los Angeles courtroom in March 1997 to face sentencing for the Las Vegas attack, the mogul and his label were fighting on many fronts. He was under investigation not only by local police but also by the IRS, the Justice Department, the FBI and the DEA. A federal grand jury was eyeing the company as an alleged criminal enterprise and creditors were lining up to sue the label.
Knight was sentenced to nine years in prison for the casino assault, a violation of his parole on previous crimes, which included battery, assault with a firearm and federal weapons charges. After a stint at Mule Creek State Prison and other facilities, he walked out a free man in August 2001. A billboard with "Welcome Home Suge" stood above his Wilshire Boulevard offices, but Knight returned to a humbled record label. Shakur was dead and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg had defected, but Knight's confidence seemed unaffected.
"Better days is coming," he told The Times the day he was released from custody. "It's like we're getting ready for the Super Bowl. Preparing for the game. We're going to win the big one. Going to sign some new young producers to come up with some tough new stuff."
The company also is releasing tough old stuff. Dre and Snoop Dogg may be gone, but Tha Row has released albums of their older material, to the chagrin of both rappers. Knight has lashed out against both of his former artists in interviews, too. Knight and Snoop Dogg also had a fleeting encounter at a recent awards show which onlookers described as hostile.
Tha Row is now a label under construction. Its roster includes Kurupt, a second-tier star in rap circles, and some performers who are largely unknown, such as Eastwood, Crooked I and Spider. The label also has a solo album in the can from N.I.N.A., an alias for the late Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, the TLC star who died in a car crash in Honduras in April.
"It's going to be all about the music, so we have to wait until next year for that," said Brown of Wherehouse, which has about 600 music stores nationwide. "He has the Left Eye album, Kurupt will always have interest in his music and Eastwood has been talked about a lot. But we have to wait for the music. That's all that really matters in this business."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Key events in the history of Death Row/Tha Row Records
Death Row is founded by Marion "Suge" Knight and Andre "Dr. Dre" Young.
Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" becomes a bestseller, with 4.4 million copies sold.
Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Doggystyle" is released, selling 5.4 million units.
Jake Robles, bodyguard of Knight, is shot to death in an Atlanta nightclub.
Rapper Randy Walker is killed in a drive-by shooting in Queens, N.Y.
Rapper Tupac Shakur's "All Eyez on Me" is released and sells 4.4 million copies.
Shakur dies six days after being shot in Las Vegas while riding in a car with Knight.
Already incarcerated for violating probation, Knight is sentenced to nine years.
Dwayne Dupree, a bodyguard for rapper Ricardo "Kurupt" Brown, and record producer Delmar "Daz" Arnaud are shot and killed in Atwater Village. Brown and Arnaud were formerly signed to Death Row Records.
Knight is released from prison after serving five years.
Alton McDonald, an associate of Knight's, is shot to death in Compton.
Eric Letheal Daniel, a reputed gang member, is shot to death in Compton in what investigators believe was retaliation for McDonald's killing.
Henry "Hendog" Smith, an employee of Tha Row Records, is shot to death in Los Angeles.
Police serve Knight and some associates with search warrants and make three arrests related to an alleged plot to murder Daniel.
Sources: Billboard, Soundscan and Los Angeles Times
Researched by Los Angeles Times librarians Penny Love, John Jackson and Jacci Cenacveira
Los Angeles Times