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Dominic Santana Studied Hours Of Suge Knight Interviews To Prepare For 'All Eyez On Me' Role

Dominic Santana dishes on playing Suge Knight. 

Suge Knight is the living embodiment of what it means to be infamous, specifically because he’s reportedly serving a life sentence since 2015 for a hit and run style execution in Compton, taking the life of a man named Terry Carter. The incident reportedly took place on the set of Straight Outta Compton that year. Or perhaps because of the swirl of rumors that have since engulfed following the death of his artist, Tupac Amaru Shakur in Las Vegas on September 13, 1996. Knight was in the car with Shakur when he was shot. The latter died of those gunshot wounds at the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada six days later.

Many speculate Knight was responsible for the West Coast rapper’s untimely death. Some people have said their relationship was toxic. Dangerous. Malicious. Manipulative. Others say he wasn’t involved at all and is now being treated unfairly. Throughout the years, his story has changed, and the media has been befuddled by his questionable accounts.

In 2014, Knight told TMZ that Pac wasn’t dead. “Why you think nobody been arrested if they said they the one that killed Tupac? Because Tupac not dead. If he was dead, they’d be arresting those dudes for murder. You know he’s somewhere smoking a Cuban cigar on an island.”

Yet his attorney, Thaddeus Culpepper, signed an affidavit according to The Daily Beastthat states, “Knight has known for many years that Reggie Wright Jr. [the former Death Row Records security chief] and his ex-wife Sharitha were behind the murder of Tupac and attempted murder of Knight.”

Although these stories leave major loopholes, maybe viewers might get a clearer perspective while watching the new Tupac inspired film, All Eyez On Me, which hits theaters nationwide today (June 16), Tupac’s 46th birthday.

In the new film, actor Dominic Santana plays Knight and does a magnificent job at portraying one of the world’s most intriguing antagonists. Like Knight, he has a dominating weight and stature that demands your full attention. The Fayetteville, North Carolina native of African-American and Puerto Rican descent excels at showcasing the real Knight, by any means necessary.

VIBE recently spoke with Santana about his role in the biopic, where he dished on the hot and cold dynamic between Tupac and Knight and revealed a few details the world may not have known about the 51-year-old.

VIBE: Describe your chemistry with Demetrius Shipp Jr. being that you played Suge Knight and he played Tupac?
Dominic Santana:
 I think it kind of freaked people out a little bit (Laughs), just because Suge and Pac from my understanding had a real brotherly relationship, in how they used to interact. I wasn’t around these guys personally when they were running around with each other of course because I was a kid then. But people who were there and do remember; they would see us together and me and him had that same relationship. I’m older than Demetrius, and I’m of course bigger and taller. I’m a little more chilled and laid back, and he is super energetic more like Pac. Even when we weren’t filming we would be at the trailers talking, and stuff like that. It would just weird out the people that really knew them in a good way. We were fortunate when we first met we instantly clicked.

Because Suge Knight is currently incarcerated in California, what was the research process like for this role? Were you able to speak to him?
No, I wasn’t. There was actually a phone call that was supposed to happen. As soon as I came on; the court took away his visitations, and privileges so he wasn’t allowed to speak to anybody but his lawyers. So that conversation unfortunately never got to happen. But he was aware of who I was because LT Hutton (producer) had spoken to him a few times, so he was briefed on what things were looking like, and what was going on. He was never out of the loop so to speak when it comes to that.

So I had to spend hours and hours studying old videos—thank god for YouTube and Google, because you can find nearly anything (Laughs). I just did a lot of digging. Not just the popular videos that everyone is used to seeing, but the more obscure candid videos of just Tupac and Suge interacting. I found this great video of what’s supposed to be an interview of Suge. He’s on the beach, but it’s so amateur that whoever is filming it or doing the interview was so amateur that it was so off that it was basically Suge just talking; whenever he felt like talking. There weren't a lot of questions being asked.

He wasn’t performing for the camera or anything, he was just being himself. I actually took that video, and I watched that one the most. I also made sound-bites of his voice of him talking, so anytime we went to film about 30-40 minutes before I would play that in my headphones, and listen to him talking. So by the time I got to set I had him in my head. I practiced the voice, and then go and film. I didn’t just walk on set. Also, we were fortunate to have guys on set that really knew them and still know him. So I could talk to those guys, and ask them to cross-reference things. I had mini conversations with different ones who gave me their perspective on Suge.

Do you care to share what these conversations were like, who did you speak to? What did they say about him?
LT was the main one. He spent a lot of time with him throughout the years. Before we started and did anything else, LT sat me down and we just had a long conversation about how this was going to go. He wanted to make sure that I understood—and this is no shade to any other film companies or films—he was like, 'In this movie, we don’t want to paint a character of Suge as a caveman or just some wild thug for no reason. We wanted to be real, Suge did some crazy things but it was for a real reason. If it was something real or stupid he didn’t waste time with it. So yes, he did go extreme but anything he did it was because of something very serious.’

Then talking to people like Daz Dillinger, his son was in the movie playing him. He was the one that told me, ‘Hey, make sure you throw in that shoulder twitch.’  I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he was like, ‘Suge had a nerve problem on his back, so his shoulder would just twitch for no reason.’ And I had never noticed that. He was like, ‘Yeah watch.’ He brought up this whole TMZ video of Suge talking, and that was one of the videos I studied. I watched the video like 30 times, and I never noticed that. He pointed it out, and I was like, ‘Oh damn his shoulder does this twitch.’ So with little things like that, I was able to incorporate the small little nuances, that the audience may miss but people who really know him would say, ‘Wow he studied for real’ (Laughs). He was laughing about it because when they would be at Death Row, he said it would really kick up when Suge would get mad (Laughs) and yelling.

How will the relationship between Tupac and Suge be perceived by viewers when they see the movie?
I think they’ll see what was intended, which was the reality of their brotherhood. And just like with any brotherhood, siblings and family members you can love them to death it doesn’t mean you won't get into a situation. We all know what happens when you mix family and money. Ten percent of the time that will go smooth, but for all of us normal humans 90 percent of the time there is going to be problems in there that is going to cost a little bit of a problem. And people look at their situations but don’t equate that to their own situations and stuff like that as humans. They had a brotherhood. They both were fire, and each found a running partner in each other. Suge wasn’t an artist. Suge was the CEO of Death Row. Pac happened to be an artist, Suge was a fan of Tupac. He loved his music and found something in him the people who were over his career didn’t see.

They came together and it was like, ‘You’re wild and crazy like me’ (Laughs), but they were impactful and wanted to get stuff done together. I think he found his equal in Tupac, and Tupac did as well; finding someone who was going to let him be free, and be who he was, but also still handle business and make money.

As I was watching the film, I felt you can smell the danger when Suge was around Tupac. I felt there was something that wasn’t right there. Would you agree? What are your thoughts on that?
Even though they had a brotherhood, Suge was the big brother, and he was in a hard position to be in having that kind of relationship. Usually, CEOs are not close friends with the artist or people that work for them. And it was for good reason. I think he always had to maintain this thing of, ‘We’re close but don’t overstep any lines. I’m still that guy that won’t let anybody overstep their boundaries.’ But when you put two fires together it’s hard to maintain it and control it. And talking with the old guys who knew them, not just what the media portrayed over the years, conspiracy theories or what people think—listening to the guys that were really there around them, you hear some crazy stories, but you hear how much they clowned around, and admired each other.

Switching gears to Tupac, do you remember the first time you encountered his music? What are some of your favorite songs?
I honestly never thought about that. I can’t remember the first time because I was a kid back then. The first and only time I actually saw him in person was at a Digital Underground show, which I probably shouldn’t have been at. I was with my stepfather at the time. There was an underground performance there, but he wasn’t Tupac at the time. He was just getting to go into that phase so looking back, it was cool. Everybody was paying attention to Humphrey but no one knew there was a legend coming up.

The first time I heard him I can't even think of it, but one of my favorite songs is “Me Against The World.” That song really resonates with me it’s one of my favorite songs of all time period. “Unconditional Love,” is another one people don’t really look at as their favorite, but is definitely one of my favorites. And “Changes.” Even today when you listen to “Changes,” you’re like, ‘How did Pac know this? (Laughs). There was a lot of things he talked about that we are still dealing with. That was a very impactful song because the issues he spoke of are still so relevant, which is actually a shame 20 years later we’re still having to have these discussions, and deal with these issues.

Would you say he was ahead of his time?
Definitely. I think that was also part of his problem; all of the chaos he would end up around or have around him was the fact that it’s hard for people to understand something that was so above their head. I know it's frustrating for an artist to try to flow and try to create whatever he is trying to create, and he is needing everybody to catch up to all the things that he is doing; to get on to the next thing. So I can imagine his internal battle inside of him saying, “This is what the people can digest right now, but this is what I’m on and want to talk about and put out there.’ I think that was something that made his legacy last so long, and be so powerful is because a lot of his music still holds relevant even today because he did it in a way that was prepared for a later time.

If you could give Suge Knight any word of advice what would you say?
Never forget what you accomplished and what you brought to the world. And don’t let anyone make it seem like you didn’t do those things, which were gigantic accomplishments. But also just continue to learn, and be better. If he gets out of jail, do things to leave a better legacy than the bad things people tend to remember. Be remembered by great stuff, doing good by people.

How would Tupac receive the film if he was alive today?
I think he would smile ear to ear, and probably shed a tear. I think he would feel like he was done justice. LT Hutton, the main producer of the film always said, ‘Tupac wrote his own story.’ We didn’t have to sugar coat it and spruce it up to make it more entertaining. All we had to do was a POV telling of Tupac’s story that he already set out. It’s very much in the vein of Tupac Shakur. It’s not just a movie of Tupac Shakur. It’s of the things he focused on. I think he’d be very proud of it.

What did you learn about Tupac that you didn't know prior to making this film?
I knew he had an activist side of him, but I didn’t quite know how deep it was. We heard stories about his mother being a part of the Black Panthers, but it was always glossed over like it was only for a short period of time. It was something that was toyed with lightly but had he stayed in that direction he might have ended up a politician or something—a black leader fighting for civil rights if he didn’t go into hip hop.

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Music Sermon: Forget The King of R&B, Raphael Saadiq Is The Son Of Soul

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

This week, Cash Money artist Jacquees set off an internet firestorm when he proclaimed himself to be the “King” of R&B “for (his) generation.” The comment led artists, executives, music fans and #BlackTwitter in general to debate: who is the King of R&B? (Spoiler alert - it’s not Jacquees.)

While a consensus was never reached, the heated discussion illustrated how much the definitions and ideas of R&B and R&B stars varies between age groups. Ironically, one name that seldom appeared in the convo belongs to one of the most consistent and prolific presences in soul and R&B music for the last 30 years: Raphael Saadiq.

Saadiq has become like a stealth superhero of soul for the last several years of his career, moving to the background as more writer/composer/musician, so the impulse for many might be to label him as an “old school” artist. But that’d be a misnomer, as he’s still had his hand in some of the most influential music for the current generation. Perhaps he transcends a simple R&B conversation as a self-identified Son of Soul (the difference between R&B and Soul is a topic for another day), but however you want to categorize him, he is not widely-enough acknowledged for how he’s kept us jamming, constantly, for three decades.

Let’s explore the iterations through which “Ray Ray” has blessed us over the years.

TONY! TONI! TONÉ!

During the birth and rise of New Jack Swing and then the subsequent evolution to Hip-Hop Soul, Tony! Toni! Toné! was one of the last of a dying R&B breed: the band. They – and a few years later Mint Condition - were standouts as live musicians in an R&B landscape turning to sample-based production. This set both groups apart, establishing them early on as serious soul acts, and making them forerunners of the neo soul sound to come in the late ‘90s.

Like almost every black musician and/or producer of note in his peer group, Saadiq developed and honed his musical chops in the church. Exposure to Motown and Stax by his blues singer father led him to the bass and served as inspiration for his future style. But he, brother Dwayne and cousin Timothy Christian received their formal Tony! Toni! Toné! training on the road: Raphael and Christian toured as part of Sheila E’s band on Prince’s Parade Tour and Dwayne with gospel great Tramaine Hawkins.

Having been properly trained, educated and tested in blues, soul, gospel, and funk, the three formed Tony! Toni! Toné!. Their first album was a modest success, achieving gold status from the RIAA, but wasn’t a standout. The trio started taking the reins on writing and production on their sophomore effort, and the Tonys as we now know them showed up. They announced both their musical background and intentions with their album titles: The Revival, Sons of Soul, House of Music. They were not there for catchy, formulaic R&B. They developed a signature blues, soul, gospel and funk hybrid, rolled up in modern R&B and hip-hop fusion.

The Revival is arguably a new jack swing album – “Feels Good” is a must-have on any new jack playlist – but they were taking the existing marriage of R&B and hip-hop and adding an even deeper soul element, reaching back to ‘70s sonic roots. It was the sonic equivalent of taking new jack swing chicken and shaking it in a paper bag of old-school musically-seasoned flour.

The group still had the kind of jammin’ uptempos found on their debut, Who?, but started to establish themselves as producers of some of the greatest R&B ballads of the ‘90s.

When you think of the Tonys’ music, aside from “Feels Good,” the first song that comes to mind is probably a slow jam. Most acts are fortunate to get one true signature song in their career. Tony! Toni! Toné! has several, and they’re timeless. Put them on today and see if you don’t hit a body roll.

They also established themselves as formidable soundtrack players (as any 90s act worth their salt did. Remember soundtracks, by the way?). They had cuts on the House Party II and Boyz in the Hood albums.

By Sons of Soul they’d found their pocket, and they pushed the sonic limits of contemporary R&B to the extent that some outlets classified the album as jazz, it was such an outlier. Saadiq recognized that they were doing something important for genre. Something that was connecting old style and new. In an interview about the album in 1994, he expressed what he saw as the group’s role in music. "We've been very blessed to be able to be a group that writes our own songs and people have accepted us from both sides, hip-hop and the R&B…I feel very fortunate to be able to do that here in 1993-94, because like you know, it was starting to be a dying thing that was happening. But I guess we were like the bridge between hip-hop and soul and R&B.”

Going back to the aforementioned King of R&B discussion, Diddy chimed in the conversation (he knows a little something about the topic) to run down some criterion to even be considered. His list included vulnerability and adoration in the lyrics and subject matter, the ability to sing a woman’s “draws” off, and the pen game to write hits. Check, check and check. Sons of Soul deservedly landed at or near the top of a gang of 1994 year-end lists and the Tonys continued to raise the bar for the ballad game. Real talk, the last four and a half minutes of the “Anniversary” album cut are better than some entire R&B albums.

With House of Music, the group sought to even more fully showcase all their influences and inspirations: the Al Green-esque “Thinking of You;” the Stylistics-inspired “Holy Smokes & Gee Wiz;” the Bay Area connect with DJ Quik for some G-Funk with “Let’s Get Down;” the straight-up church moment of the “Lovin’ You” reprise closing out the album, with Christian putting all that good anointing on the Hammond B3 organ. This was our clearest glimpse what Saadiq had in store for the future.

LUCY PEARL

When Tony! Toni! Toné! broke up and Saadiq put together supergroup Lucy Pearl, we realized he was on some other sh*t. First, the very idea to bring En Vogue’s Dawn Lewis, A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Saadiq together was genius. Then, oh…what’s this sound? Tony! Toni! Toné! with a little somethin’ extra on it? Saadiq revealed his ability to reinvent himself, stylistically and sonically, and play in different music spaces. Successfully. Hits, check.

WRITER/COMPOSER/PRODUCER/MUSICIAN

After Lucy Pearl, Saadiq embarked on his first solo projects. We’ll get to those, but the more remarkable part of this era was his expansive work as a writer, producer and session musician for others. As mentioned earlier, Tony! Toni! Tone! was an inspiration for neo soul (a term Saadiq loathes), which pulled from ‘60s and ‘70s influences, paired with the return to live instrumentation, mixed with hip-hop swag. Saadiq was a sometime member of Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and J Dilla’s Ummah production collective, but had also been working on outside projects since the Tonys were active. Through either the Ummah or alone, Ray was behind hits you may have attributed to someone else.

-D’Angelo, "Lady:" Saadiq co-wrote, co-arranged and co-produced the still-perfect ode to #WCEs (Women Crush Everydays) with D’Angelo.

-Bilal, "Soul Sista:" Soul and R&B great Mtume on the pen, Saadiq on production.

-Angie Stone, "Brotha:" OK, who’s gonna create the 2018 “Unproblematic” edit of the “Brotha” video?

-Total, "Kissing You:" No, this wasn’t Stevie J. Now, imagine this as a Tony! Toni! Toné! song. You can absolutely hear it, right?

-Erykah Badu and Common, "Love Of My Life (An Ode To Hip Hop):" Saadiq again proving he’s a master of the perfect fusion of hip-hop and an old soul groove.

-D’Angelo, "Untitled (How Does It Feel):" Saadiq has admitted he later realized he was channeling Jay Dee’s style throughout the D’Angelo session.

SOLO SAADIQ

As a solo artist, Saadiq has accomplished what few can: continuously evolving his sound and aesthetic while yet managing to still always sound like himself. The retro-influence has been a constant in his work, but that influence ranges between decades and musical eras. He’d given us a taste of solo Ray through “Ask of You” from the Higher Learning soundtrack, but that could easily pass as a Tony! Toni! Toné! song.

With Instant Vintage (again letting you know what he came to do with the title), Saadiq expanded on his existing signature sound of soul, funk, gospel and R&B; a sound he coined “Gospaldelic.”

With Ray Ray, he delivered a modern blaxploitation soundtrack. But then, in 2008, he went all the way back to Motown and the purest soul sound for The Way I See It. Saadiq was committed to an authentic return to ‘60s soul for the entire process. He eschewed slick, modern production techniques for old-school practices, including vintage equipment, all live instrumentation and single-take recordings. He donned slim-cut suits and classic frames for his look, and delivered a retro soul package via the 45 inch LP box set. But it still sounded incredibly fresh and modern, and that is his gift.

His last solo album, 2011’s Stone Rolling, was a progression of The Way I See It, staying in the same retro soul pocket, bringing some funk and rock’n’roll back into.

Or did he?

MILLENNIAL RAY

The thing about Saadiq is that he doesn’t just look a perpetual 30 years old (he’s 52. It don’t crack.). Unlike a lot of “old heads,” he keeps his ear current, as well. Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Anderson Paak, and BJ the Chicago Kid are his musical nephews. He praises them and their music often in interviews, heralding them as the current bridge-builders between eras and urban genres. Labelmate Leon Bridges adapted his The Way I See It and Stone Rolling formulas - from the sound to the ‘60s-style dress and imaging - for his own, and had Saadiq’s enthusiastic blessing. He listens to SZA, PJ Morton and Daniel Caesar. And he still has his finger on the pulse of current urban musical movements.

Saadiq was an executive producer on Solange Knowles’ 2016 A Seat at the Table, garnering a Grammy for the anthemic “Cranes in the Sky.”

He’s also helped to bring the full authenticity of the West Coast to Insecure for the past three seasons, serving as the show’s composer.

And he hasn’t abandoned his peers and contemporaries, garnering a “Best Song” Oscar nomination last year with Mary J. Blige for Mudbound’s “Mighty River,” and just recently executive producing John Legend’s first Christmas album, A Legendary Christmas. Only time will tell what he brings on the forthcoming solo album he told VIBE about, titled Jimmy Lee.

Whether his name is included in King of R&B conversations or not, Saadiq has been booked and busy in every area of black music since before 1988, keeping both aunties and nieces grooving, with no signs of slowing or stopping.

RELATED: Raphael Saadiq Talks New Music, 'Insecure,' And Why Tony! Toni! Toné! Won't Reunite

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Nick Rice

25 Hip-Hop Albums By Bomb Womxn Of 2018

The female voice in hip-hop has always been present whether we've noticed it or not. The late Sylvia Robinson birthed the hip-hop music industry with the formation of Sugar Hill Records (and fostering "Rapper's Delight"), Roxanne Shante's 55 lyrical responses to fellow rappers were the first diss tracks and Missy Elliott's bold and striking music and visuals inspired men and women in the game to step outside of their comfort zones.

These pillars and many more have allowed the next generation of emcees to be unapologetically brash, truthful and confident in their music. Cardi B's Invasion of Privacy and Nicki Minaj's Queen might've been the most mainstream albums by womxn in rap this year, but there was a long list of creatives who brought the noise like Rico Nasty, Tierra Whack, Noname and Bbymutha. Blame laziness or the heavy onslaught of music hitting streaming sites this year, but many of the artists on this list have hibernated under the radar for far too long.

VIBE decided to switch things up but also highlighting rap albums by womxn who came strong in their respectively debut albums, mixtapes, EPs. We also had to give props to those who dropped standout singles, leaving us wanting more.

READ MORE: 15 R&B Songs We Obsessed Over Most In 2018

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VIBE / Nick Rice

10 Most Important Hip-Hop Artists Of 2018

We’ve reached another end to an eventful year in hip-hop. From rap beefs to new music releases and milestones, 2018 has been forged in the history books as a year to remember. But more important than the events that happened over the span of 12 months are the people who made them happen.

While fans received a large dose of music from our favorite artists and celebrated some of the most iconic album anniversaries, there are a few names that stood out as the culture pushers, sh*t starters, and all-around most significant artists of the year.

For your enjoyment, VIBE compiled a list of the top 10 most important hip-hop artists of 2018 based on a series of qualifications: 1) public actions - good, bad, and ugly; 2) music releases; 3) philanthropic/humanitarian work; and 4) trending moments.

Be clear: This list isn’t about the most influential, the most talented, who had the best music or tours. While we are commemorating artists for the work they’ve contributed to this year’s music cycle, we’re looking beyond that and evaluating how these particular artists have shaped conversations and pushed hip-hop culture forward.

READ MORE: 15 R&B Songs We Obsessed Over Most In 2018

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