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.
Carney is a contributing writer for Los Angeles
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).
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
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,
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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