For nearly five years, Marion (Suge) Knight, the multimillionaire impresario of gangsta rap, has been sitting behind bars in a California prison, dreaming of Death Row. In a matter of days, his time will be up. "The first thing that I'm gonna do when I get out of here is take an hourlong bath," says Knight, the cofounder of the rap label Death Row Records. "I'm sick of showers." Next week, Knight is set to be released from Mule Creek State Prison near Sacramento, after serving five years of a nine-year term on assault-related charges. He'll spend up to two months in a federal halfway house or work-release program (his lawyer doesn't know yet which); by midsummer, he should be home. "Then, I'm going to get me a double cheeseburger and some chili-cheese fries. I've been thinking about them motherf-----s for five years."
It's what Knight plans to do after his first taste of freedom that has the music industry on edge. Not only does Knight's history of violent outbursts have former associates worried--the State Parole Board received several letters requesting he not be released early--the Death Row CEO intends to reassert his stranglehold on hip-hop. "Jail's given me time to put things in perspective," says Knight, 35, downing one of five microwave chicken dinners that he'll eat during an exclusive four-hour interview with NEWSWEEK. "Before I came in, I hung out at clubs all the time, spent a lot of time on the streets," he says. "When I get home, that's going to change. I'll be handling my business, making sure it's back on top." Five years ago Death Row Records was on top, a $100 million-a-year hip-hop powerhouse with a reputation for chart-busting gangsta grooves and gangster-style business tactics. But that ended on Sept. 7, 1996, in a drive-by shooting near the Las Vegas Strip. When it was over, Knight's No. 1 act, Tupac Shakur, was dead. A month later Knight was on his way to prison for violating parole--on a 1994 assault conviction--by joining Shakur in beating up a member of the Crips gang in a Vegas casino just hours before the fatal drive-by. Most of Death Row's acts, including multiplatinum superstar Snoop Dogg, fled the controversial label. That, it seemed, was the death knell for Death Row.
But the label lives on, and so does the myth of Suge Knight. Thanks in large part to the posthumous popularity of Shakur's music--his just-released "Until the End of Time" hit No. 1 its first week--the gangsta-rap mastermind has continued to oversee a thriving business from behind bars. "Suge knows talent, he knows his music, and that and the money are what count in this industry," says Lyor Cohen, president of Def Jam Records, a rival hip-hop label. "The hardest thing for me is not being able to handle the day-to-day business of Death Row," says Knight. "But I still can tell what's hot on the streets. Because, if you think about it, most of the slang off the streets comes from the brothers in jail." Knight has managed to keep up with the half-dozen acts on his label, among them young gangsta rappers J-Valentine and Crooked I; they've all made prison pilgrimages to visit him. Once Knight's out, he intends to produce yet another Tupac album, and plans to spend a lot of time in South-Central L.A., hunting for the next generation of Snoop Dogs and Dr. Dres. "You need some new, young niggas that young girls can have plastered on their walls," says Knight, "not some 40-year-old nigga who can barely dance a step without a cane." Speaking of canes, the 6-foot-2, 310-pound former college football player uses one these days, having broken his ankle in a pickup basketball game in the prison yard last year. "I don't have to do work detail," he says--and he performs a little tap routine to show how well he's recovering.
Knight knows a lot about broken bones. From the moment he entered the music business in 1988, he began developing a reputation for being "the wrong nigga to f--- with," says one former associate. After attending the University of Nevada at Las Vegas with a major in business, Knight tried out for the Los Angeles Rams but didn't make the cut. So he decided to become a celebrity bodyguard, eventually working for R&B singer Bobby Brown. "He'd come by with $500 to give us, and he'd tell us how big he was, and how he was working with all the celebrities," says his father, Marion Knight Sr., over eggs and hash browns at a Denny's in Suge's hometown of Compton, Calif. "We didn't believe him, though. We thought he was just talking because he did that a lot." But Suge really broke into the music industry in 1991, when he helped a producer friend who had worked with Vanilla Ice on his hit album "Ice, Ice Baby." The white rapper had allegedly failed to pay the producer royalties, and Knight paid the young star a visit--and allegedly dangled him from a hotel balcony. Knight walked away with the publishing rights to Vanilla Ice's album.
Knight's next break came when he befriended Dr. Dre, a member of the seminal gangsta-rap group N.W.A, and persuaded him to go solo. "He had the talent to do his own thing--he had the beats," Knight says. Dr. Dre also had an airtight contract with Ruthless Records, owned by N.W.A founder Eric (Eazy E) Wright and his partner Jerry Heller. When the label wouldn't release Dre, Knight paid Eazy E a visit, too, bringing along bats and pipes to persuade him, according to a lawsuit filed by Wright against Knight and Dre. The suit was settled out of court in 1993, two years before Eazy E's death of AIDS.
Knight put up $100,000 of his own to record Dre's solo project, "The Chronic." But major record labels were scared off by Eazy E's allegations and Dre's lengthy rap sheet. Enter Jimmy Iovine and Ted Fields of Interscope Records, which at the time was a struggling label owned by Time Warner. Iovine and Fields signed the duo's new Death Row label. Released in late 1992, "The Chronic" sold more than 5 million copies, becoming the definitive rap album of the decade. Within months, guest artists on the album--among them Snoop Doggy Dogg, Nate Dogg, Kurupt and Daz--became stars in their own right.
But the quick money bred hubris. "We let the success go to our heads a little, letting all types of people in that had no business being in a business," Dre says. Like many others in the music industry, Death Row executives reveled in a haze of sex and "chronic" (pot). There was also a menacing edge. Knight maintained his ties to his old Compton 'hood and surrounded himself with members of the Mob Piru Bloods gang there. Knight won't say whether he is a gang member, though he did favor the Bloods' signature red in his clothing, cars and carpeting, and he sported a gold ring with diamonds that spell mob (he says it stands for "Money Over Bitches"). Threats, beat-downs and gunplay were commonplace, say several former Death Row employees. "That was the entertainment for the day: people fighting until you saw blood and an ambulance. If you were late, you didn't know if you were going to get fired or an ass-whipping, or both," says one former employee. In 1993 the FBI launched an investigation into alleged money laundering, drug trafficking and gang activity at the label; former O. J. Simpson attorney Robert Shapiro, now representing Knight, says the probe is still continuing, but has yielded no indictments. In 1994 Knight was convicted of beating two musicians at a Death Row studio with a telephone. At one Death Row party in April 1995, a young man was beaten to death; no one was arrested. Later that year, at a company Christmas party in Beverly Hills, Knight allegedly forced a music producer to drink urine from a champagne glass after the man refused to give him the address of the mother of Sean (Puffy) Combs, who as president of the New York-based Bad Boy Records was Knight's biggest rival. Knight denies such mayhem and adds, "I don't p--- in champagne glasses."
While Suge might have enjoyed his bad-boy reputation, his business partner didn't. "Dre could see early on that he'd made a mistake, that he had gone from the skillet to the frying pan," says one former Death Row employee. Meanwhile, Time Warner was under pressure to drop Interscope Records and Death Row, which it ultimately did in 1995. But it was the arrival of Tupac Shakur that finally pushed Dre out the door. Shakur came to the label in late 1995, after Knight posted $1.4 million to bail him out of jail on sexual-abuse charges in New York. Shakur quickly returned the favor, recording a multiplatinum double-CD for Death Row, "All Eyez On Me." "When Tupac came to Death Row, Knight placed all his attention on him," says one star formerly with the label. Dre split from Death Row in March 1996, leaving behind his master tapes and publishing rights but "taking my peace of mind." Maintaining his ties to Interscope, Dre went on to produce Grammy Award-winning rapper Eminem and a host of other successful hip-hop acts, as well as continuing to crank out his own hits. "I've never seen the need to have anything bad to say about Suge," says Dre. "I just moved on, and I'm not looking back." Knight has only backhanded praise for his former partner. "Dre's a talent--I ain't taking that away from him," he says. "But look how the Grammys and Interscope did him. He put out the best s--- last year with his album and Eminem, who Dre gave credibility. But who did they have onstage? Eminem and that f----t Elton John. Not Dre--didn't even give him a chance to get up and say s--t... I would have made sure he got his time."
Even in prison, Knight kept getting into trouble. A year and a half into his sentence, he became a subject in the investigation of the March 1997 murder of rapper Christopher (Notorious B.I.G.) Wallace, the most successful act on Puffy Combs's label. Though a getaway car linked to the murder was found at one of Knight's houses, the investigation was dropped for lack of evidence. Knight insists that his long-running West Coast-East Coast feud with Puffy has died down. But he still has some choice words on Combs's recent acquittal on gun-related charges. "They don't send a nigga who's wearing shiny suits and hanging out with Martha Stewart to jail. Who is he a threat to? He's just acting a fool. I'm the nigga people are afraid of."
Indeed. The two who may have the most to fear once Knight is sprung are Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. They have been the subject of an almost obsessive barrage of insults on Death Row's musical releases since they left the label. "Motherf--- Snoop Dogg and N.W.A, Death Row could give a f--- about Dr. Dre" is one of the gentler musical sentiments. An informal street gang wearing Death Row T shirts appears at almost every public event that Snoop and Dre attend--the most infamous was last year's Source Awards in Pasadena, Calif., which ended abruptly when the young men stormed the stage. (Knight denies any involvement in the incident. "I can't be in jail and at the Source Awards," he says, laughing.) Snoop has hired extra security in anticipation of Knight's release from prison, but says, "I have to trust in the Lord. I've been hearing Suge was getting out every month since he went in. What I'm supposed to do? Go hide?"
Knight's mother, Maxine Knight, says she doesn't understand why people fear her son. "Suge never gave us any trouble growing up," she says. "We knew he'd do whatever he wanted to do because he had charm, and he could charm anyone. He got that from me." So why is he in prison? "He's just a rich and powerful black man that people couldn't stand to see succeed." Her son agrees. "Most of my artists like Snoop and others would have never left Death Row if I hadn't gone to jail," he says. "A lot of people had a lot to gain by me being away." If Suge Knight has his way, that will soon change.