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Live from Death Row by Thomas Carney

Carney is a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine
In keeping with its iconic logo of a hooded figure strapped to an electric chair, Death Row Records, apart from being the prime purveyor of gangsta rap, has also allegedly been the shadowy, hooded presence behind an extensive catalogue of criminal activity, up to and including murder. Recently in Los Angeles, a brick couldn't be thrown in a police investigation without hitting the notorious but highly profitable rap label, or its kingpin, Marion Hugh "Suge" Knight. Tracks of dirty cops reportedly working for the company led even from the bubbling, bottomless tarpit of the Rampart scandal.

Out of L.A.'s Ruthless Records--which in 1988 produced the kick-off gangsta album, "Straight Outta Compton" by N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude)--came Death Row Records, by virtue of a visit from Suge Knight and baseball-bat-wielding thugs to the management at Ruthless which resulted in the release from his contract of rap artist, Andre Young (Doctor Dre).

According to former Death Row employees,  the atmosphere at the  label became toxic with dread of gangster- administered pistol- whippings, ass- kickings and beat- downs...� Backed by Interscope Records, which funded the new label and distributed its product, Dre and Knight proved to be a potent combination: the gifted performer and producer, generally credited with introducing melody to rap; and the 6'4, 330-pound ex-defensive lineman for the former Los Angeles Rams who had an eye for talent and the get-it-done attitude of a born businessman.

This August Suge Knight will be released from a federal correctional facility after serving the second of two sentences for assault and conspiracy to possess a weapon. When I visited him in Mule Creek State Prison this winter, the rap czar seemed to feel as though a cosmic vengeance had been wreaked upon him for all the Death Row rappers his mob of lawyers had managed to keep out of jail. On his fingers, Knight enumerated them: "Nate Dogg, three Taco Bell robberies, and he's ID'd in two of 'em--he should have been in for 15. Snoop Dogg, 25-to-life on murder; we got him off scott free. And Dre should have done about eight on battery and vehicle stuff." And then there was the experience of paying off the parents of an 11-year-old girl raped by another of his former rappers. "This stuff has come home on me," the 34-year-old admitted.

According to the Soundscan tracking system, Death Row Records, since its inception in 1992, has sold 40 million units. In the mid-90s, capitalizing on the popularity of gangsta rap, each of the label's first six releases produced double-platinum-selling albums--an unheard of feat in the record business. Rap, which had originated on the East Coast as an element of the 1970s hip-hop culture that included break-dancing and graffitti, has since become a major component of the worldwide recording industry. This year, lumped into the urban music sector, which also includes rhythmn and blues, rap is expected to rank second only to pop in global record sales, accounting for 20% of revenues in a $40 billion a year business.

Gangsta rap emerged from LA's Compton, a small incorporated city in South Central Los Angeles, in the late 1980s. In Compton, young men fought with each other and fought with the cops. Songs glorifying gunpoint "street" fascism, cop-killing and the physical abuse of women begged the chicken/egg question about the relationship between violent lyrics and violence itself. In racially enclaved Los Angeles where the L.A.P.D. was considered an occupying army by the underclass, rap dirges explicitly avowing murder and drug dealing, like "Fuck Tha Police," and "Cop Killer," became anthemic. Tensions, already high between gangsters and law enforcement, increased.

Suge Knight grew up in Compton, which was controlled by the red-bandanna'd Bloods gang. Because he was a high school and college football star, Knight had had a free pass from the neighborhood gangbangers whose own limited horizons made them happy to associate with anyone successful at anything. When he first struck it rich, the Death Row CEO bought his way into a sort of honorary Blood-hood, and soon local Bloods began hanging around the label offices.

"Some of these people were hard-core dudes, real murderers," says an L.A. Sherriff's Department gang specialist. According to former Death Row employees, the atmosphere at the label became toxic with dread of gangster-administered pistol-whippings, ass-kickings and beat-downs which often resulted in ambulances being called. "We heard that when the rough stuff started, the beatings and such, Suge was not hands on, but then he got real with the attitude problem and started doing it himself," adds the detective.

Furthermore, rap, especially gangsta--termed "legalized drugs" by artists like Ice Cube (one of the original N.W.A. members)--has always had ties to drugs of the illegal kind. According to Sherriff's Department gang specialists, almost every rap label in the country was started by drug dealers: Master P in New Orleans, Jermaine Dupri in Atlanta, James "L'il J" Smith in Houston and Eric "Eazy E" Wright of Ruthless Records in L.A. Supposedly even Larry Hoover of Chicago's ultra-violent Black Gangster Disciples is launching a record company from federal prison in Florence, Colorado. Death Row itself came into being under cloudy circumstances that may have included $1.5 million in seed money from the flamboyant drug-dealer, Michael (Harry-O) Harris, currently serving a 28-year term for conspiracy to murder.

Public awareness of the label was ramped-up by the declaration in 1995 of an East Coast-West Coast rap war, a violent feud attributed to artistic and financial jealousies. The opening shot was fired by Knight at the New York based Bad Boy Entertainment's Sean "Puffy" Combs in a disrespectful aside uttered from the podium at a Source Awards ceremony in Manhattan. Over the next few years, the conflict would result in the deaths of not only chart-busting rappers like Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (Notorious B.I.G.) but half a dozen bodyguards and gangmembers.

"These are businessmen living by gang rules," says a long-time Los Angeles Sherriff's Department prison-gang intelligence expert.

In 1995 a Rolling 60s Crip, Kelly Jamerson, was stomped to death at a Death Row party at the El Rey theatre in Los Angeles. Then, during the Christmas holidays, a New York record promoter, Mark Anthony Bell, was allegedly beaten with champagne bottles by Death Row artists and hangers-on and forced by Knight to drink urine from a glass--all in an attempt to get Bell to reveal the addresses of Puffy Combs and his mother. The label settled with the promoter for $600,000 and he declined to press charges. (Knight later denied that the incident occured, telling Newsweek, "I don't piss in champagne glasses.")

In 1996, David Kenner, a well-connected defense attorney in Knight's employ, won Snoop Dogg, the seminal Long Beach rapper, an acquittal in a murder case. He also popped open a legal log-jam keeping Tupac Shakur in prison on a sexual abuse conviction. In gratitude, the star-crossed rapper signed a recording deal with Death Row. Within months however, Shakur was dead--in a car-to-car shooting on the Las Vegas Strip--and Knight himself, who had joined in a brawl caught on videotape in the MGM Grand the night of the murder, was in prison for violating probationary conditions on his 1992 no-contest plea to pistol-whipping two aspiring rappers. Seven other criminal charges against the music executive, mostly on assault, battery and gun counts, had been previously pled out to, nolo contendere'd or otherwise juiced out of the justice system by Kenner.

With this much smoke swirling around the label, joint task forces from an alphabet of law enforcement agencies began directing probes at Death Row in hopes of finding fire. In 1996, a few weeks after the death of Tupac Shakur, the FBI revealed it was trying to determine whether the company was involved in money laundering, drug trafficking and racketeering. The probe was part of a larger investigation of Southern California street gangs. In 1997, after alerting Interscope Records of his intention to sue for profits, Michael Harris testified before a federal grand jury looking into the alleged drug-trade roots of the label. (Interscope would sever its ties with Death Row a year later.) No indictments arose from the grand jury proceeding, however, and the FBI probe was discontinued.

In March of 1997, East Coast rapper Biggie Smalls was fatally wounded by four shots fired through the door of the green GMC Suburban in which he was departing a music industry party in L.A.'s Wilshire District. To observers, one of them an off-duty Inglewood cop handling security for Smalls, the hit had seemed professional: a lone gunman using a .9mm semi-automatic who seemed to know in exactly which tinted-window vehicle Smalls was riding before pulling up alongside in a dark Chevy Impala and firing a nice tight pattern of shots through the SUV's door.

"We kept hearing rogue cops were involved in this," says Russ Poole, a Robbery/Homicide detective who recently retired just short of a 20-year pension in protest of how he and Rampart-related evidence he uncovered in the Smalls investigation were treated by the L.A.P.D..

Before the Smalls murder, Poole had led an investigation into a road rage incident that resulted in the shooting death of Kevin Gaines, an off duty L.A.P.D. officer. Poole had discovered that Gaines, besides living way beyond his police-salary means, was also living with Suge Knight's ex-wife, Sharitha. Poole believes Gaines, along with David Mack, an L.A.P.D. officer who is now serving time on bank robbery charges, and future Rampart-scandal bellwether, Rafael Perez, provided security for Death Row during various criminal enterprises--advising gangbangers associated with the label on police tactics, and serving as lookouts on drug deals.

In April of 1999, Robbery/Homicide detectives led by Poole seized Death Row cars and financial records, searching for evidence linking Knight to the Smalls slaying. And then in the fall of 2000, with the imprisoned executive scheduled to be released in the spring, rumors surfaced that a joint federal and state task force was examining Knight's connection not only to the Smalls murder but to several other killings in South Central. All of these probes, however, have gone inactive.

"If Suge Knight was some low-profile gangster he would have been prosecuted for three or four murders," says one criminal courts insider. "As it is, he won't be touched." And so the Smalls homicide continues to languish, running through its third set of L.A.P.D. investigators and second set of FBI in four years. And neither the feds nor the Las Vegas PD are nailing any scalps to the wall on behalf of Tupac Shakur, whose murder is still unsolved.

Though Suge Knight is scheduled to be released this summer, 2001, there are L.A.P.D. and Sherriffs Department detectives who will keep trying to put him, deservedly or not, back in jail. In the tightly circumscribed worlds of ghetto and gangsta, rumor sits next door to truth, and in the absence of hard facts, a tendency exists in Los Angeles law enforcement to imagine all kings in this land of milk and honey to be seated on thrones of blood. Then again, the Darwinian wilds of the entertainment industry can seem to claim more casualties than the criminal justice system, which is why the local law enforcement often appears content to let the big fish swim away. Suge Knight is one of those big fish. Having paid his debt to society he is simply, for now at least, too big to touch.

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