Record company executive
A large and imposing figure in the music industry, Suge Knight, also known as “Sugar Bear,” is the cofounder of Death Row Records and a major force in 1990s rap music. Knight’s Death Row musicians garnered three multiplatinum albums between the company’s founding in 1991 and 1994. Grammy-winning Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggy Style, and the Above the Rim soundtrack effectively placed Knight and the burgeoning, multimillion dollar Death Row enterprise on the very tip of the rap music mountain.
Born Marion Knight, Jr., in 1966, Suge was raised in a two-bedroom house in the rough Compton area of Los Angeles. His father, a truck driver originally from Mississippi, was a former college football tackle and R&B singer who inspired Suge’s passion for music and sports. As a child, Knight was given the nickname “Suge” by his father because of his sweet, good-natured temperament. Knight’s mother, Maxine, told Spin magazine’s Chuck Philips, “My son is the type of person who still sends me roses all the time.”
When Knight was in high school, he devoted most of his energy to playing football and securing an athletic scholarship to college, which he hoped would lead to a National Football League (NFL) contract. Knight made the dean’s list at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, and he won the Rookie of the Year title there in 1985 on defense. His former coach told Philips, “He was Super Bowl material, the kind of guy you love having on your side.” After college, Knight went to Japan with the Los Angeles Rams. He quit football, though, in favor of concert promotion work when it became clear that he would not have a stellar career in the NFL.
Knight’s promising future was almost derailed in 1987, when he was arrested for auto theft, carrying a concealed weapon, and attempted murder. He pleaded no contest and was placed on probation. Knight was arrested again in 1990 for battery with a deadly weapon, but the charges were dismissed. He told Philips, “Ain’t nobody perfect in this world except God. We all make mistakes. Sometimes you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
After working as a bodyguard and making a name for himself on the concert circuit for a while, Knight formed a music publishing company in 1989 and assigned composition work to a small group of unknown songwriters. Within a year, he made a significant amount of money from ownership rights to several songs on Vanilla Ice’s successful debut album, which were written by composer Mario Johnson in Texas.
For the Record …
Born Marion Knight, Jr., April 19, 1966, in Los Angeles, CA; professionally known as “Suge” or “Sugar Bear” Knight; son of Marion (a truck driver, former college football tackle, and R&B singer) and Maxine Knight; married wife Sheritha (a rap manager); children: one daughter. Education: Attended University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Cofounder and CEO of Death Row Records, 1991—; founder of Suge Knight Management. Football player in high school and at University of Nevada, Las Vegas; named Rookie of the Year, 1985; worked as a bodyguard and a concert promoter; formed a music publishing company, 1989; held ownership rights to several songs on Vanilla Ice’s debut album; expanded into the artist management field and founded Death Row Records with rapper Dr. Dre, 1991; joined forces with Interscope Records; adapted Murder Was the Case single from Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggy Style album into a short film, 1994.
Death Row musicians garnered three multiplatinum albums between the company’s founding in 1991 and 1994: Grammy-winning Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggy Style and the Above the Rim soundtrack. Artists including Mary J. Bilge, Jodeci, and DeVante Swing signed on with Suge Knight Management, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Death Row Records, 10900 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1240, Los Angeles, CA 90024.
Knight then expanded into the artist management realm of the music business, representing rapper musicians DJ Quik and the D.O.C. Through these musicians, Knight met Dr. Dre, who was then a member of the rap group N.W.A. Dre was popular for creating and producing the material on N.W.A.’s albums Straight Outta Compton and Efil4zaggin; Efil4zaggin was the first hardcore rap album to reach the Number One mark on the nation’s pop chart.
According to Knight, Dre’s contributions had garnered N.W.A.’s record label, Ruthless Records, over six million units in sales, yet both Ice Cube and Dre were short on cash. Ice Cube quit N.W.A. because he felt he wasn’t being compensated properly for his work. Knight somehow obtained a copy of Dre’s contract agreement, which verified what Ice Cube had suspected; Knight also discovered that other Ruthless musicians were being paid less than the standard industry rate for their contributions. He then bypassed Ruthless management and negotiated a deal with their distributor, Priority Records, in 1990.
Knight was able to secure releases for Dre and two other Ruthless musicians which, in the long run, would benefit all of them handsomely. However, the manner in which Knight engineered the releases was a point of contention. Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, president of the Ruthless label, claimed in court that he signed the release contracts under duress after Knight and two henchmen had threatened him—as well as his general manager— with pipes and baseball bats. Musician DeVante Swing was quick to come to Knight’s defense when speaking with Philips: “I know Suge’s gotthis reputation for being a guy who goes around strong-arming, but I think those rumors just come from jealous people. The thing is, he’s a real sharp negotiator, and he won’t let anybody walk over him or any of his artists—and a lot of people resent that.”
After Dre was released from his obligations at Ruthless, he and Knight founded Death Row Records. For almost a year, they searched for a major label willing to distribute their product, eventually landing with Interscope Records. In 1993 the label grossed more than $60 million and released two of the most significant albums of the year: Dre’s The Chronica and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggy Style. In 1994 Death Row released the soundtrack to Above the Rim, which featured Dre’s younger brother, Warren G., and went double-platinum.
Knight was able to convince musicians Mary J. Bilge, Jodeci, and DeVante Swing of MCA-owned Uptown Records to sign West Coast management deals with him. He secured greater creative control for the musicians, landed them substantial retroactive back payments, upgraded their contracts, and doubled their royalty rates. Knight also tossed in a $250,000 white Lamborghini for one of the musicians to sweeten the deal. Snoop Doggy Dogg asserted in the interview with Philips, “Suge is the best businessman I could have ever hoped to hook up with.… He keeps the music real.… He’s got an ear to the street.”
Among Knight’s many plans for the future are the formation of a union for rap musicians and an organization for veteran soul musicians who need financial assistance. Death Row hosted a Mother’s Day celebration in Beverly Hills for 500 single mothers and sponsored toy giveaways at churches and hospitals during the 1994 Christmas holiday. In addition, Knight is working on an anti-gang foundation in Compton and hopes to establish an organization that would put young unemployed people to work in the black community.
Dre began working on an album called Helter Skelter with Ice Cube, his former N.W.A. partner, in late 1994, and the pairing is almost certain to produce double-platinum material for Death Row in 1995. In the meantime, Knight has dabbled in marketing and worked on the adaptation of Murder Was the Case — originally a popular cut from Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggy Style album—into an 18-minute film, complemented by a new-and-improved soundtrack album. Knight is also thinking of publishing a magazine called Death Row Uncut “I make my own rules,” Knight told The Source in 1995.
Newsweek, October 31, 1994.
The Source, January 1995; May 1995.
Spin, August 1994.
Time, July 31, 1995.
—B. Kimberly Taylor