Big Man In The Big House

THE CEO IS IN JAIL. THE FORMER prosecutor's daughter is on the company payroll. The star rapper is dead. The staff works under the threat of both FBI probes and gang violence. The phones, everybody believes, are tapped. And in the next two weeks, the label is set to release two of the biggest albums of the year. In all, a banner moment even in the high-impact five-year history of Death Row Records, America's most notorious $100 million entertainment concern, and its head, Marion (Suge) Knight.

This Tuesday the label releases ""The Don Killuminati--The 7-Day Theory,'' the belligerent last recordings of Tupac Shakur, who was fatally shot in Las Vegas on Sept. 7 while riding in Knight's BMW. The album arrives under the pseudonym Makaveli. Next week comes ""Tha Doggfather,'' the second album by Snoop Doggy Dogg and the first since his acquittal on murder charges. Both albums are expected to be multimillion sellers. But at Death Row these days, the tense speculation is about the fate of the company and its honcho. ""Suge's been avoiding the jail and the cemetery for a while now,'' said a source close to the company. ""Jail has caught up with him, and while [he's] there, who knows what else will.''

In 1992, the year he started the label, Knight was arrested for assaulting two aspiring rappers, beating one with a gun and warning them, according to police records, ""If you talk, I'll have my people kill your family.'' The two filed a civil suit, settling for a $1 million contract with Death Row. In February 1995, Knight pleaded no contest to the assault charges, taking a light hit: a nine-year suspended sentence with five years of probation. The prosecutor who cut the deal was an assistant district attorney named Lawrence M. Longo. This Aug. 9, Knight reportedly failed a mandatory drug test, and--after a three-week disappearance in the Bahamas--he was returned to jail Oct. 22. He faces a bail hearing this week, and a probation hearing Nov. 15. As his case resurfaces, Longo's name has returned with it. Since Memorial Day, Knight has lived in a Malibu Colony home owned by Longo's family; Knight's attorney, David Kenner, leased the property and paid Longo $19,000 per month. The Los Angeles Times reported that in January 1996, Longo's daughter Gina had signed a $25,000 contract with Death Row. She is the only white act on the label. Longo's son, Frank, negotiated both deals, earning commissions on each. Longo's lawyer, Donald Wager, insists that neither deal was a conflict of interest and that Longo's superiors had pushed for Knight's plea bargain. The D.A.'s office continues to investigate--as a personnel matter, says Wager, not as a criminal or ethical probe.

Knight continues to run Death Row from jail. But associates say he has been shaken since Shakur's murder, constantly changing homes and worrying for his life. The Malibu house made him nervous--too big, too many rooms for assassins to hide out in. ""It's been hard for him to focus,'' said a Death Row source. Executives at the label's corporate parent, MCA, now privately consider Death Row to exist in name only. Meanwhile, Knight carries on with business. ""It's important that he get final say'' on everything, says a staffer. As his empire threatens to crumble, says the source, ""you want him happy.'' Which is another way of saying you don't want him mad.

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