Knight, Suge 1966—
Suge Knight 1966—
Record company executive
Large and imposing-he’s a menacing 6’4” and 315 pounds--Suge Knight, also known as “Sugar Bear,” is a major force in rap music. As cofounder of Death Row Records, he has been able to sway established fan favorites to join his label while successfully signing new talents. Within three years of the company’s founding in 1991, Knight’s clients garnered three multiplatinum albums. Grammy Award-winning artist Dr. Dre’s The Chronic; Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggy Style; and the Above the Rim soundtrack have effectively placed Knight and the burgeoning, multimillion dollar Death Row enterprise on the very tip of the rap music mountain. The controversial 1995 release of Dogg Food by newcomers Tha Dogg Pound has helped keep Death Row at the peak.
Suge was born Marion Knight, Jr. in 1966; he was raised, along with his two older sisters, 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 in 1985 he won the Rookie of the Year title there 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 for a pre-season exhibition game. 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 this time 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.
At a Glance…
Bom Marion Knight, Jr., Aprii 19, 1966, in Los Angeles, CA; professionally known as “Suge”- short for “Sugar Bear’-Knight; son of Marion (a truck driver, former college football player, and R&B singer) and Maxine Knight; married Sheritha (a rap manager); children; onedaughter. Education: Attended University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Worked as a bodyguard and a concert promoter; formed amusicpublishingcompany, 1989; Death Row Records, cofounder and CEO, 1991; contracted Interscope Records as a distributor, c. 1992; Suge Knight Management, founder, 1994; adapted “Murder Was the Case” single from Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggy Style album into a short film, 1994; Let Me Ride Hydraulics (car customization shop), cofounder, 1994; Club 662, Las Vegas, NV, owner, c 1994; signed with Time Warner, 1995; Time Warner-lnterscope relationship dissolved, 1995.
Awards: Multi platinum Death Row recordings include Grammy Award-winning Dr. Dre’sThe Chronic; Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggy Style, and the motion picture soundtrack Above the Rim.
Addresses: Record company-Death Row Records, 10900 Wiishire Blvd., Suite 1240, Los Angeles, CA 90024.
Within a year, he made a significant amount of money from ownership rights to several songs on white rapper Vanilla Ice’s successful debut album. Knight then expanded into the artist management realm of the music business, representing turntable maestro DJ Quik and solo artist the D.O.C. Through these musicians, Knight met Dr. Dre, who was then a member of the rap group N.W.A. [Niggers With Attitude]. Dre was popular for creating and producing the material on N.W.A.’s albums Straight Outta Compton and Efil4zaggin, the first number one hardcore rap album on the nation’s pop chart.
According to Knight, Dre’s contributions had garnered more than six million units in sales for N.W.A.’s record label, Ruthless Records, yet Dre and fellow group member Ice Cube were short on cash. Ice Cube quit N.W.A. because he felt he was not being properly compensated for his work. Knight was able to verify Ice Cube’s suspicions. Discovering that other Ruthless musicians were being paid less than the standard industry rate for their contributions, Knight bypassed Ruthless’s 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. The manner in which Knight engineered the releases was a point of contention, however. Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, former N.W.A. member and then-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. De Vante Swing of the R&B group Jodeci was quick to come to Knight’s defense when speaking with Philips: “I know Suge’s got this 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, complete with a logo featuring a man strapped to an electric chair, his face hidden by a sack covering his head. “We called it Death Row,” Knight told Vibe’s Kevin Powell, ’”cause most everybody had been involved with the law. A majority of our people was parolees or incarcerated…. “For nearly one year, they searched for a major label willing to distribute their product, eventually landing a deal with Interscope Records.
In 1993 the label grossed more than $60 million and had released two of the most significant rap albums of the year: Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggy Style.The following year, Death Row released the motion picture soundtrack Above the Rim.The album featured Dre’s younger brother, Warren G. and sold more than two million copies to earn double-platinum status. The three albums set the stage for Knight’s vision of Death Row as “the Motown of the ’90s,” referring to the formerly Detroit-based empire whose releases of the 1960s and 1970s once dominated the airwaves. Well on its way, Vibe has since described Death Row as “the most profitable, independently owned African American hip hop label of the 1990s.”
Knight was able to convince R&B musicians Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, and De Vante Swing of MCA-owned Uptown Records to sign west coast management deals with him. In addition to doubling their royalty rates, Knight secured greater creative control for the musicians, landed them substantial back payments, and upgraded their contracts. 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.”
Knight is not without his detractors, however. Besides Eazy E’s shouts of foul play, the D.O.C, and rapper RBX left Death Row alleging nonpayment. But as top-selling rapper and actor Tupac Shakur assessed in an interview with Vibe’s Powell, “Suge’s cool. A lot of cowards are trying to make like Suge’s the scourge of the industry. AH Suge’s doing is … making it so rappers can get what they deserve. “Shakur was bailed out of prison by Knight in October of 1995; shortly thereafter, he signed with Death Row and Knight’s management, adding yet another gold brick to the Death Row foundation. Shakur told Powell, “Death Row to me is like a machine. The biggest, strongest superpower in the hip hop world.”
In 1995, shortly before Time Warner received serious criticisms for its links to “gangsta rap,” the entertainment conglomerate signed Knight to a lucrative, long-term contract via Interscope Records. The short-lived relationship was dissolved later in the year, however, when Time Warner yielded to political pressure over the issue of reducing the prevelance of violence, misogyny, and pornographic reference in entertainment; Death Row’s output was deemed a big offender.
The motivating factor in the headline grabbing break up was the debut effort by Tha Dogg Pound. Dogg Food almost immediately charted at no. 1 in the popular music category. Ironically, the album’s success was at least partly spurred by the outcry of such anti-rap denizens as U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Republican conservative William Bennett, and National Political Congress of Black Women chairwoman C. Delores Tucker.
Knight actually met with Tucker and others in the summer of 1995 and was urged to make “rap songs more responsible to the black community, “according to Bakari Kitwana of The Source.The clashes over what Knight and similar-minded considered censorship eventually led Death Row and Interscope to bring charges of racketeering and extortion against Tucker, who claimed, “Those who say that want to keep Suge and me from talking to each other.” Meanwhile, Death Row was headed toward an estimated worth of more than $100 million, and Knight’s artist roster, boosted by Shakur, continued to grow.
In keeping with Knight’s goal to “establish an organization, not just no record company,” as he stated in Vibe, Death Row has been branching out beyond record production. Knight worked on adapting “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. “Murder Was the Case” was such a hit that plans are in the works for Dr. Dre to direct future movies for a possible Death Row film company. On other fronts, both Snoop and Tha Dogg Pound have formed record labels backed by Death Row-Doggystyle Records and Gotta Get Somewhere Records, respectively-and Knight runs a night spot in Las Vegas known as Club 662. He has also toyed with the idea of publishing a magazine.
Despite those who accuse him of heavy-handedness in his business dealings, Knight is generous towards his community. His many plans for the future include the formation of a union for rap musicians and an organization for veteran soul musicians who need financial assistance. Knight already works in an anti-gang foundation in Compton and hopes to establish an organization that would put young unemployed people to work in the black community. One such venture is Let Me Ride Hydraulics, a car customization shop he formed with Dr. Dre in 1994. During that year’s Christmas holiday, Death Row hosted a Mother’s Day celebration in Beverly Hills, California, for 500 single mothers, sponsored toy giveaways at churches and hospitals, and doled out turkeys to the needy for Thanksgiving Day.
Regardless of how one feels about it, Suge Knight and Death Row have an undeniable presence in the popular culture of the 1990s. Knight’s drive and skill is an almost unbeatable, unstoppable combination. As Vibe’s Kevin Powell has proclaimed: “Suge Knight has the muscle. Dr. Dre has the skills. And with Snoop [Doggy Dog] and now Tupac, Death Row Records has the music industry all shook up.”
Los Angeles Times, June 30, 1995, p. D4.
Newsweek, October 31, 1994, pp. 62–63.
The Source, January 1995; May 1995; November 1995, p. 12.
Spin, August 1994.
Time, July 31, 1995.
Vibe, September, 1995, p. 85; February 1996, pp. 44–50.
Wall Street Journal, August 16, 1995, p. B6.
—B. Kimberly Taylor and Lorna M. Mabunda
"Knight, Suge 1966—." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/knight-suge-1966
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