Knight, Suge 1966–
Suge Knight 1966–
Record company executive
Large and imposing at 6’4″ and 315 pounds, Suge Knight, also known as “Sugar Bear,” was a major force in rap music. As co-founder of Death Row Records, he swayed 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 multi-platinum albums. Grammy Award-winning artist Dr. Dre’s The Chronic; Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggy Style; and the Above the Rim soundtrack effectively placed Knight and the burgeoning, multimil-lion dollar Death Row enterprise on the very tip of the rap music mountain. The controversial 1995 release of Dogg Food by newcomers The Dogg Pound 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.”
Born Marion Knight, Jr., on April 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: one daughter. Education: Attended University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Career: Worked as a bodyguard and a concert promoter; formed a music publishing company, 1989; Death Row Records, cofounder and CEO, 1991, renamed company The Row, 2001; contracted Inter-scope 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-1nterscope relationship dissolved, 1995; incarcerated, 1995-2001; started the Death Row Prisoner Appeal Fund.
Awards: Multi-platinum Death Row recordings include Grammy Award-winning Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggy Style, and the motion picture soundtrack Above the Rim.
Addresses: Record company —Tha Row Records, 10900 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1240, Los Angeles, CA 90024.
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 white rapper Vanilla Ice’s successful debut album. Knight then expanded into artist management realm, 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 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, benefitted 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. DeVante 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, 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 DeVante 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. All 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. But the relationship was dissolved later in the year, when Time Warner yielded to political pressure over the issue of reducing the prevalence 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 The Dogg Pound. Dogg Food almost immediately charted at number one 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 branched 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 anl8-minute film, complemented by a new-and-improved soundtrack album. “Murder Was the Case” was such a hit that plans were made for Dr. Dre to direct future movies for a possible Death Row film company. On other fronts, both Snoop and The 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 also toyed with the idea of publishing a magazine.
Despite those who accused him of heavy-handedness in his business dealings, Knight was 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 needed financial assistance. Knight already works in an anti-gang foundation in Compton and hoped to establish an organization that would put young unemployed people to work in the black community. One such venture was 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 had 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.”
By 1995, Death Row Records had grown to a $100 million a year hip-hop “powerhouse.” Along with its reputation for producing chart breaking gangsta hits, Death Row also had a reputation for having gangsta business tactics. Knight and all his Death Row artists enjoyed their time in the limelight, but suddenly, the light went out when tragedy hit. On September 7, 1996, Tupac Shakur, one of Death Row’s top acts, was shot while riding with Knight in a drive-by shooting. Just hours before the shooting, Knight, along with Shakur, had engaged in a fight with a Crips gang member. Shakur died several days later, and for fighting, Knight was sent off to prison for violating parole from an earlier conviction. To make things worse, Tupac Shakur’s rap rival, Biggie Smalls, was murdered the following year, in 1997, and there were rumors floating around that Knight was involved.
Death Row faced inevitable financial problems. With Shakur dead, accusations of dirty play, and Knight’s nine-year prison sentence, several of Death Row’s superstars, including Snoop Dog, left the label and went elsewhere. In addition, an earlier federal investigation for racketeering was still underway, and Inter-scope Records cut off its ties with Death Row.
While Knight was in prison, Allison Samuels conducted an interview with him for Newsweek. After Knight described how he was learning to play tennis, taking some business classes and computer classes, and reading books, he talked about being put in solitary confinement. Knight denied that he was put into solitary to protect him from attempts on his life, “That’s what they wanted people to think. They were doing that to break me down, like they did Mike Tyson.” Samuels asked him about his relationship with Shakur and how he felt about Snoop leaving Death Row. Knight took the opportunity to tell how he was there for his friends and artists, how he and Shakur helped each other out, and how he spent four million dollars on a murder charge for Snoop. “When things are going good and the champagne is flowing, you got friends everywhere. But as soon as things get bad, they’re gone.”
Even while Knight was in prison, Death Row had some money coming in, thanks in part, to Shakur’s post-humus popularity. From jail, Knight continued his annual Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas toy giveaways. Most of the giveaways went to South Central Los Angeles, where Death Row got its start, and where many of Death Row’s artists originated. Knight is a convicted man, that is, he is convicted to giving back to the streets because Death Row is “a street label, recording street artists” wrote the entertainment editors for Business Wire. “So when we give back, we give back to where it all came from.”
He also established the Death Row Prisoner Appeal Fund, which provides funding for one prisoner in the State prison system and one prisoner from within the Federal system, to mount an appeal and help to pay attorney fees. And, while watching television in jail one day, Knight saw a news report about a kindergarten playground at the Hillsdale Early Head Start Program in Sacramento that was destroyed by arson. Business Wire quoted Knight, “I saw a report about it on local TV. A playground is the only safe place for kids to play and then somebody comes along and destroys it. A senseless crime that hurts little kids… I called Death Row Records in Los Angeles, told them to find out the cost to rebuild the playground and cut a check to cover it.”
Knight served about five years and was then eligible for release. He looked forward to rebuilding Death Row, but the first thing he wanted was an hour long bath, “I’m sick of showers,” he told Allison Samuels of Newsweek. “Then I’m going to get me a double cheeseburger and some chili-fries.” But Suge Knight may not be able to resist trouble. According to Entertainment Weekly, the generous sweet Shining Knight threw fuel into the rap wars and threatened to release a video, Suge Knight’s The Real Story. Down Low with J. Lo and P. Diddy, featuring Sean “Puffy” Comb’s ex, Jennifer Lopez. Lopez’s lawyers promptly filed a lawsuit to block distribution. He also changed the name of the record label, from Deathrow to Tha Row.
Business Wire, December 20, 2000.
Entertainment Weekly, May 25, 2001, p. 12.
Los Angeles Times, June 30, 1995, p. D4.
Newsweek, October 31, 1994, pp. 62-3; Newsweek, May 18, 1998,
PR Newswire, April 15, 2001.
Spin, August 1994.
The Source, January 1995; May 1995; November 1995, p. 12.
Time, July 31, 1995.
Variety, August 25, 1997, p.26.
Vibe, September, 1995, p. 85; February 1996, pp. 44-50.
Wall Street Journal, August 16, 1995, p. B6.
Tha Row Records, http://www.tharow.com
—B. Kimberly Taylor, Lorna M. Mabunda and Christine Minder Minderovic
"Knight, Suge 1966–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/knight-suge-1966-0
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