Death Row Records founder out of prison after 5 years

Death Row Records' Los Angeles office on Wilshire Boulevard has been bearing a billboard for the last week welcoming the rap music entrepreneur Marion 'Suge' Knight back home.
(Michael Tercha / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

After five years behind bars, rap music mogul Marion “Suge” Knight is back on the streets.

The burly founder of Death Row Records walked out of a Portland, Ore., prison Monday morning and hopped on a plane headed for Los Angeles.

“I’m stress-free,” said Knight in a phone interview hours after being released. “I’m not bitter. I’m blessed. I’m glad to be out. I give thanks to God. I want to try to do better things. You know what they say: ‘Demonstration is better than conversation.’ Watch me. I’m going to the studio tonight.”

After landing at LAX, the 6-foot-3, 315-pound entrepreneur was back running Death Row from his company’s Los Angeles headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard, at the edge of Beverly Hills. For the last week, the label’s office has been dwarfed by a giant billboard overhead bearing Knight’s image and the words: “Welcome Home Suge.”


The controversial rap kingpin has been incarcerated since October 1996 when a judge determined that he had violated his probation by kicking a man during a scuffle at a Las Vegas hotel. The violation stemmed from a 1992 assault case for which he had been placed on state probation after attacking two rappers at a Hollywood recording studio.

“I have no regrets,” said Knight, 36. “Where God puts a period, ain’t no man can put a question mark. I guess God kept me in five years because he felt I had a lot to learn. And I did.”

Knight became famous during the early 1990s for running a small, cutting-edge record label that introduced the world to West Coast rap, launching the solo careers of such stars as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. The first hard-core rap label to achieve mainstream success, Death Row and its stars earned as much notoriety for their controversial lyrics as for their constant run-ins with the law. Knight himself was dogged by rumors of violent behavior even before he ended up in prison on an assault probation violation.

Although Death Row has lost some of its stars, the company is expected to score a Top 20 hit on the pop chart this week with a new collection from Tha Dogg Pound. During Knight’s incarceration, the label signed up a new pack of unknown acts including Crooked I, SKG, the Realest, Doobie and Swoop G.

No longer tied to a major record conglomerate, Death Row has carved out new domestic and international distribution deals with Valley Media’s DNA arm and Ron Winters Productions. Though Death Row is in the process of reissuing its entire back catalog independently, Knight declined to say whether he plans to seek a capital infusion from a major label affiliate again.

“Better days is coming, man,” Knight said. “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. We going to start having some fun again.”


Before entering Sheridan Detention Center in April, Knight served more than four years on a state probation violation at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo and Mule Creek State Prison in Ione. Knight ended up in federal prison because a judge in 1996 determined that the entrepreneur’s involvement in the Las Vegas assault was also a violation of his probation in an earlier federal gun case, under which he pleaded no contest for attempting to purchase handguns in another state for his rap stars.

It’s been more than five years since the Justice Department launched a racketeering probe against Knight, his former lawyer David Kenner and Death Row, focusing on allegations of drug trafficking, money laundering and violent acts. A federal grand jury reviewed allegations that Death Row was a criminal enterprise, but after several years, never issued a single indictment.

The probe has been inactive for nearly a year, but that didn’t deter Rolling Stone magazine and VH1-TV from running stories this summer tying Death Row to drug running and Knight (along with several LAPD officers) to the murders of rap stars Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace and Tupac Shakur.

A confidential informant named in the story sued Rolling Stone last month, accusing the magazine of recklessly exposing him “to immediate and imminent bodily harm.” The informant, a former Death Row bodyguard, also sued the Los Angeles Police Department, naming former LAPD Det. Russell Poole and LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks in the suit.

Knight said he also has consulted a libel attorney and is considering filing his own suits against Poole, Rolling Stone and VH-1.

“I’m God’s child and God always reveals the truth. Those stories are full of lies,” Knight said. “It’s amazing what these people can say about you when you’re in prison.”