Live From Death Row (February 1996)
“But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?”
—1 Corinthians 15:35
No one can just drop in on Death Row Records CEO Marion “Suge” Knight Jr. without feeling the magnitude of his reputation. No one.
On a cool Southern California evening, I arrive to see him at the Can-Am Building in Tarzana, a 30-minute drive north of Los Angeles. I’m greeted by a tall, stone-faced, caramel-colored man with a walkie-talkie and a black windbreaker inscribed SECURITY. Rather than letting me into the tiny lobby area, he tells me to wait outside while he alerts someone within the single-story edifice that Suge has a visitor.
The budding legend surrounding 30-year-old Suge Knight is such that damn near everyone-from fellow journalists to former and current Death Row employees all the way to a shoeshine man in West L.A.-warned me that Suge was “the wrong nigga to fuck with.” The mere mention of his name was enough to cause some of the most powerful people in the music business to whisper, change the subject, or beg to be quoted off the record.
This is an especially hectic time for Knight and Death Row, whose “keepin’ it real” mentality has the industry all shook up. Tha Dogg Pound’s controversial debut album, Dogg Food-the breaking point in the relationship between Time Warner and Interscope Records, Death Row’s distributor-was finally released last Halloween and shot to No. 1 on the pop charts. As Snoop Doggy Dogg faced a murder charge in L.A., Knight secured a $1.4 million bond to bail Tupac Shakur out of prison in October and signed him up (both to Death Row Records and Knight’s management arm). Shakur has been working feverishly on his Death Row debut-a double CD all written since Shakur’s release, titled All Eyes on Me (28 cuts including a duet with Snoop called “Two of America’s Most Wanted”)-partly because a return to prison still looms, pending appeals.
Meanwhile, work continues on projects for singers Danny Boy and Nate Dogg, and rappers the Lady of Rage, Jewell, Sam Sneed, and others yet unheard of-to say nothing of the artists for whom Knight now “consults,” including Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, and DJ Quik. Death Row is also backing record labels headed by Snoop (Doggystyle Records) and Tha Dogg Pound (Gotta Get Somewhere Records). Plus there’s Knight’s new Club 662 in Las Vegas and the vision of Dr. Dre directing movies for Death Row Films.
All these things are on my mind as I’m being frisked in the lobby of the Can-Am Building, now the permanent studio for Death Row, where talents as diverse as Bobby Brown, Harry Belafonte, and Barry Manilow once recorded. Around-the-clock protection is provided by a group of off-duty black police officers who work in Los Angeles. While Death Row isn’t the group’s only client, it’s the biggest. According to the guard at the reception desk, “We’re better security because we’re all licensed to carry guns-anywhere.”
Another tall, muscular black man escorts me back to Suge’s office-the building also contains two state-of-the-art studios, a gym, and a space where Suge often sleeps. The man opens the door, and I’m struck by two things: a big, light brown German shepherd rolling on the floor, and the fact that virtually everything in the room-the carpet, the cabinets, the sofa and matching chairs-is a striking blood red. I look at my escort; he reads my facial expression and says nonchalantly, “That’s Damu. He won’t bother you. He’s only trained to kill on command.” On that note, I step gingerly into Suge Knight’s office.
Knight’s imprint is all over: from the sleek stereo system to the air conditioner (set way too cold) to the large-screen TV that doubles as an all-seeing security monitor. Right in front of his big wooden desk, outlined in white on the red carpet, is the Death Row Records logo: a man strapped to an electric chair with a sack over his head. I was told by another journalist that no one steps on the logo. No one.
At six foot four, 315 pounds, sporting a close-cropped haircut and a neatly trimmed beard, Knight strikes a towering pose. When he sits down to face me, with Damu (Swahili for “blood”) now lying by his feet, you can’t help but notice the huge biceps itching to bust through his red-and-black-striped shirt. Muscle, say both his admirers and detractors, is the name of Knight’s game. Speaking with a syrupy drawl, Suge (as in “sugar”) details the original mission of Death Row Records.
“First thing to do was to establish an organization, not just no record company,” he says, his eyes looking straight into mine. “I knew the difference between having a record company and having a production company and a logo. First goal was to own our masters. Without your master tapes you ain’t got shit, period.”
As Knight speaks of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, which laid the foundation for Death Row in 1992, and Snoop’s solo debut, Doggystyle, which proved that Death Row was more than just a vanity label, I can’t help but notice how utterly simple and ghetto-in the sense that the underclass has always done what it takes to survive-his logic is. Ain’t no complicated equations or middle-class maneuvers here, just, according to Knight, people getting what they deserve. And never forgetting where they come from.
“We called it Death Row ’cause most everybody had been involved with the law,” Knight explains. “A majority of our people was parolees or incarcerated-it’s no joke. We got people really was on death row and still is.” Indeed, there is no way to truly comprehend the incredible success of Death Row Records-its estimated worth now tops $100 million-without first understanding the conditions that created the rap game in the first place: few legal economic paths in America’s inner cities, stunted educational opportunities, a pervasive sense of alienation among young black males, black folks’ age-old need to create music, and a typically American hunger for money and power.
The Hip Hop Nation is no different than any other segment of this society in its desire to live the American dream. Hip hop, for better or for worse, has been this generation’s most prominent means for making good on the long-lost promises of the civil rights movement. However, the big question is, Where does this pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps economic nationalism end and the high drama that hovers over Death Row Records begin?
The music industry thrives on rumors, and Death Row is always grist for the gossip mill. Stories run the gamut from Knight and his boys using metal pipes in persuading the late Eazy-E to release Dr. Dre from Ruthless Records, to former Uptown CEO Andre Harrell being strong-armed into restructuring Mary J. Blige’s and Jodeci’s contracts, to an alleged beef between Knight and Bad Boy Entertainment CEO Sean “Puffy” Combs, which some trace to the shooting death of one of Knight’s close friends last October.
That incident, some say, has fueled a growing East Coast vs. West Coast battle, and-so go the rumors-has led to reported threats on Combs’s life. “I heard there was a contract out on my life,” says Combs. “Why do they have so much hatred for me? I ask myself that question every day. I’m ready for them to leave me alone, man.”
In an interview in last April’s VIBE, Shakur suggested that Combs, the Notorious B.I.G., Shakur’s longtime friend Randy “Stretch” Walker, and others behaved suspiciously immediately following Shakur’s shooting in New York on November 30, 1994. Exactly one year to the day after Shakur’s shooting, Walker was murdered execution-style in Queens. (When contacted by phone after the murder, Shakur offered no comment.)
The drama had already intensified when Knight bailed Shakur out last October and brought him to Death Row. Shakur’s “relentless” new double album for Death Row includes a track featuring Faith-one of Combs’s artists and Biggie Smalls’s wife-titled “Wonder Why They Call You Bitch.” According to one source, “Tupac and Faith are now very, very close.” (“Me and Faith don’t have no problems,” says Shakur. When asked about their relationship beyond the studio, he replies, “I ain’t gonna answer that shit, man. You know I don’t kiss and tell.”) While Knight has said repeatedly that he wants Death Row to be “the Motown of the ’90s,” the label’s history is unfolding more like an in-your-face Martin Scorsese film than Berry Gordy’s charm school approach.
I ask Knight about all the rumors. He shifts his weight in his chair and bristles: “When you become the best, it’s more rumors, it’s more people want to stop you, ’cause everybody want to be No. 1.”
“Can we talk about any of these alleged incidents?”
“Say what you want to say.”
I then recount my understanding of the Andre Harrell story as Knight stares at me. Before long, he’s flipped the script, asking me what I would do if I wasn’t receiving a fair deal.
“You should get the best deal you can get in this business,” I respond.
Knight edges forward in his chair, proud he got me to agree. “See, people got this business mixed up,” he says. “They want to go and talk about a person who fixin’ to come and help you. They don’t say nothin’ about the motherfucker who beatin’ people out they money. When you stand up for right, people should tip they hat to you and keep movin’, and mind they own business.”
Not totally satisfied with Knight’s response, I wonder why rappers the D.O.C. and RBX are no longer with Death Row Records, and why both have gone on record, literally, complaining of not being paid. But Knight’s already defensive, and I don’t want to get tossed out before I get to bring up other, more important questions.
“What about the methods you used to get Harrell to renegotiate those contracts?” I ask.
“It’s like this. Was you there?”
“Nah.” “Then there’s nothin’ to talk about.”
What Knight will talk about is how important it is for him and Death Row to stay rooted in the streets. The youngest of three children and a proud native of working-class Compton (where he still keeps a house), Knight was a star defensive lineman in high school and at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas before entering the music business in the late 1980s. It’s not clear how he got into the game-some say he was the D.O.C.’s bodyguard during the N.W.A days, while Knight maintains he started a music publishing business that earned a small fortune off Vanilla Ice’s smash 1990 debut. Whatever the case, few individuals have as much drive as Knight: “Ghetto politics teaches you how to win and really be hungry. I never been the one who wanted to work with nobody. ‘Cause I think if a motherfucker get you a paycheck-listen to how it sound, paycheck, like they paying you to stay in check. Can’t nobody keep me in check.”
Time Warner couldn’t. It bowed to political pressure and announced it was selling its 50 percent interest in Death Row’s profitable distributor, Interscope Records. Self-appointed gangsta rap watchdog C. DeLores Tucker couldn’t. She may have helped get Interscope dropped, but she had no effect on Death Row’s progress. In fact, at one point she met with Knight to get a piece of the action. He turned her down.
Despite all the community outreach Suge Knight does-the lavish Mother’s Day dinners for single mothers, the turkey giveaways at Thanksgiving, the Christmas toy giveaways for Compton children-he has to know he puts fear in some hearts, that his I-don’t-give-a-fuck persona unfurls itself long before people ever meet him in the flesh. Hip hop has always been about being straight-up, about being skeptical of the motives of the generation ahead of us, about creating shields (or myths) to protect our world from outsiders-Bob Dole, William Bennett, C. DeLores Tucker-who seek to come in and dominate us. With four-year-old Death Row Records as his sword and an aura Al Pacino’s Scarface would be proud of, Suge Knight epitomizes that mind-set-but at what cost?
Listen to Knight summarize his modus operandi: “Black executives, they get invited to the golf tournaments. I don’t give a fuck about all that. I’m not gonna play golf with you. When you playin’ golf, I’ma be in the studio. While you trying to eat dinner with the other executives in the business, I’ma be havin’ dinner with my family, which is the artists on the label.” He pauses to emphasize his point. “Without your talent, you ain’t shit.”
alent is something 30-year-old Grammy winner Dr. Dre, né Andre Young, has in abundance. On a different day in the Can-Am Building’s studio A, hip hop’s most sought-after producer is waiting for Tupac to show up and continue work on his new album. The Compton-born cofounder (with Knight) and president of Death Row, Dr. Dre has sold 15 million records in the past decade. Six foot one, 200-plus pounds, Dre wears a beige Fila outfit, brown Timberlands, and a gold Rolex saturated with diamonds. If that isn’t enough, a chunk of diamond and gold glitters on one of his fingers. Those adornments aside, I’m surprised how soft-spoken and shy the baby-faced Dr. Dre is in person, his eyes avoiding mine for much of the interview. To break the ice, I ask about the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, his first group back in the early 1980s.
“Wreckin’ Cru was a DJ crew. They used to call it that because it was the guys that came in after the party was over and broke down the equipment,” Dre says, leaning closer to my tape recorder as he warms to the topic.
“We eventually made a record, and we had the costumes on and what have you. Back then, everybody had their little getups, you know, like SoulSonic Force, UTFO.” Dre laughs at the memory. “That shit haunted me, but you know, I ain’t ashamed of my past.”
Dre grew disillusioned with the Wreckin’ Cru’s style and teamed up with a teenage rapper named Ice Cube. They performed live at clubs and skating rinks. “We used to take people’s songs, you know, and change them and make them dirty. Like `My Adidas’ was-” Dre laughs hard from the gut up. “Cube had this thing called `My Penis.’ We rocked it, and people would go crazy. So we just took that and started making records with it. And with me being a DJ, I used to sit in the club during the week and make up beats just to play in the club. I would take somebody else’s song and re-create it and make it an instrumental. So that’s how I basically got into producing.”
Eventually Dre decided to form a group, but he needed a financial backer. In 1986, he met Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, a former drug dealer and fellow Compton resident looking to pump his money into something legal. Dre produced an Eazy single called “Boyz-N-the Hood,” and it was on. “We hustled the record every day for eight months,” says Dre, “riding around in a jeep, selling it from record store to record store ourselves.”
DJ Yella, an old Wreckin’ Cru partner, joined Dre, Eazy, Cube, MC Ren, and short-term member Arabian Prince to form arguably the most influential rap act ever. N.W.A’s 1989 landmark, Straight Outta Compton, introduced an entire nation to urban blight, West Coast style. The album, produced largely by Dr. Dre and released on the underground label Ruthless Records, went double platinum with virtually no radio play. Dre says he and Eazy started Ruthless, although it was Eazy and Jerry Heller-a middle-aged white man who’d previously worked with Elton John and Pink Floyd-who gained credit for building America’s first multimillion-dollar hardcore rap label.
Despite his meteoric success, Dre grows bitter when describing the disintegration of Ruthless Records and his relationship with Eazy-E. “The split came when Jerry Heller got involved,” he recalls. “He played the divide-and-conquer game. He picked one nigga to take care of, instead of taking care of everybody, and that was Eazy. And Eazy was just, like, `Well, shit, I’m taken care of, so fuck it.’ “
When I reach Heller later by telephone, he reluctantly admits that Dre “was probably right. You know, Dre was a producer and a member of the group,” he says. “Eazy was interested in being Berry Gordy, so more of my time was spent with Eazy.”
During the production of N.W.A’s Efil4zaggin album, Dre decided he wanted out of his contract. He almost spits out the recollection: “I was gettin’ like two points for my production on albums. I still have the contracts framed.” Dre adjusts his Rolex. “I’m not no egotistical person. I just want what I’m supposed to get. Not a penny more, not a penny less.”
That’s where Knight came in. “Suge brought it to my attention that I was being cheated,” he says. “I wanted to do my own thing anyway. I was going to do it with Ruthless, but there was some sheisty shit, so I had to get ghost.” Exactly how Knight helped Dre “get ghost” depends on whom you ask. When I mention to Jerry Heller that Knight maintains he’s never threatened or beaten up anyone to make a gain in the music business, Heller cracks an eerie laugh reminiscent of Vincent Price’s on Michael Jackson’s Thriller, then says, “I would say he’s taking poetic license.”
Dre gives Knight credit for coming up with the plan for Death Row in 1991. He assures me he and Knight are “fifty-fifty partners. You know, me and Suge, we like brothers and shit.” These two buddies figured Dr. Dre’s name was bankable enough to start a record label and get a distribution deal, but unbelievably, there were no takers at first. Finally Interscope took a chance and Death Row (the label was going to be called Future Shock, after an old Curtis Mayfield single, until Dre and Knight purchased the more dramatic handle from one of Dre’s homeboys) has become the most profitable independently owned African-American hip hop label of the 1990s.
Death Row’s first release, The Chronic, dissed Eazy-E and Jerry Heller numerous times. But when conversation turns to Eazy’s death from AIDS last March, Dre grows solemn: “I didn’t believe it till I went to the hospital.” He sighs, rubs his chin, and collects his thoughts. “He looked normal. That’s what makes the shit so fuckin’ scary, man. But he was unconscious, so he didn’t even know I was there.” Obviously, adds Dre, the ensuing battle over ownership of Ruthless Records will affect Eazy’s seven children. “That’s who’s really going to suffer from this. We were talking about doing an N.W.A album and giving Eazy’s share to his kids.”
Dre’s words stop suddenly. He’s looking off somewhere, palming the back of his neck, perhaps reliving all the years of his life, personal and public: the Wreckin’ Cru, N.W.A, his run-ins with the law, Death Row, all the awards and accolades, the offers to produce superstars such as Madonna, his and Ice Cube’s long-awaited Helter Skelter album, Snoop’s trial….
I pull Dre back into conversation by asking, “Would Death Row exist without you?” His expression becomes blank, then he begins to speak but stops himself and thinks for a moment. “Wherever I am, whatever I do is going to be the bomb shit. And people are going to benefit from it. I dunno, there might be another Dr. Dre out there somewhere.”
He laughs uneasily.
I ask him about his greatest fear. “I’m not afraid of anything at the moment,” he replies. “Actually, I’m afraid of two things: God and the IRS.” He laughs again. “That’s it. You know, I get butterflies every time a record comes out. I’m, like, I hope people like it. I hope people buy it. But it’s never no serious fear.”
What matters most to Dr. Dre is the digestion and creation of music: “A lot of times when I’m at home kickin’ it, I don’t even listen to hip hop,” he says. “I listen to all types of music.” (He promises Death Row ventures into rock, reggae, and jazz.) Pushing forward in his chair, Dre, who’s recently taken up the trumpet, taps his fingers on his left knee excitedly. “My personal opinion is, the ’70s is when the best music was made. Some motherfuckers had orchestras! Had string sections and they’d have to sit there and orchestrate a song. And put some vocals to it. So they really got into it. Curtis Mayfield, that motherfucker was bad as shit. Isaac Hayes, Barry White, y’knowhumsayin’? Them brothers was in there doing it.”
Out in the crisp air of El Mirage Desert Dry Lake Bed (a grueling 100-mile trek north from Los Angeles) stands the $600,000 video set of “California Love,” Tupac’s phat first single (corapped and produced by Dr. Dre) from All Eyes on Me. The video, directed by
Hype Williams, is loosely based on the flick Mad Max: Helicopters fly overhead, dirt bikes kick up sand, and everyone in the shoot-including Tupac, Dre, comedian/actor Chris Tucker, and a plethora of male and female extras-is wearing black leather shirts, vests, gloves, hats, and pants with metal spikes. Desert dust coats their faces, hands, and arms.
I haven’t spoken with or seen Tupac Shakur since our Rikers Island interview last January. I make my way to his trailer and knock. The door swings open, releasing a powerful gust of chronic smoke. There he is, the big eyes shining brightly, the smile still childlike and broad as an ocean, his exposed muscles-probably due to his 11-month bid-bigger than ever.
As Shakur is whisked away to a TV interview, I ask, “What do you think about this whole East Coast vs. West Coast thing? Tupac smiles that wicked smile and says, “It’s gonna get deep.”
What is even deeper is the way the word family has been mentioned by everyone associated with Death Row, including newcomers like teenage R&B singer Danny Boy and rapper/producer Sam Sneed. In this often cruel and unjust world, it can’t be argued enough how important it is to have people who’ve got your back. To have, as we say, “fam with ya.” Shakur’s journey-from Harlem and the Bronx to Baltimore to the Bay Area to Los Angeles to Atlanta and back to New York and now back to Los Angeles-has always been about that need for family.
A few weeks later I speak with Shakur via telephone [see “All Eyes on Him,” right]. “The family part, to me-I’m not gonna be corny and be, like, `Everybody on Death Row love each other,’ ” he says. “It’s not like that. Nobody has beef internally. And if we do, we handle it internally.
“More than a family, Death Row to me is like a machine. The biggest, strongest superpower in the hip hop world. In order to do the things that I gotta do, we gotta have that superpower. Now we gotta expand and show exactly what a superpower is.
“At Death Row I don’t have to worry about embarrassing nobody or standing out or doing something they don’t want me to do. I’m still Tupac. At Death Row, I got my own shit. I’m independent. But this is the machine that I roll with.
“As for me and Suge, right now-as of today-we’re the perfect couple. I can see this is what I’ve been looking for, managementwise. He rides like I ride. With Suge as my manager, I gotta do less. ‘Cause before, niggas wasn’t scared of me. So I brought fear to them. Now I don’t have to do all that to get respect. ‘Cause motherfuckers is scared shitless of Suge. I don’t know why, cause Suge’s cool. A lot of cowards are trying to make it like Suge’s the scourge of the industry. All Suge’s doing is riding. Making it so rappers can get what they due.”
Back at the video shoot, as another TV crew tapes him, a hyper Tupac spreads out a stack of $100 bills just handed him by Knight, who stands in the background talking on a cellular phone. “This is why I signed to Death Row,” says Pac to the cameras, “right here.”
Shakur’s antics hit me as poignant because-perhaps unwittingly-he’s playing right into the hands of people who view rappers as foulmouthed, money-sex-and-violence-crazed lowlifes who are poisoning America’s youth. Of course, one of the beauties of the hip hop generation is that we really don’t give a fuck what “outsiders” think about us. But in not giving a fuck, in having no agenda but our own selfish needs, are we ultimately fucking all the people (family, real friends, ardent supporters) who see us as representative of dreams so often deferred?
I’m still pondering this a week later at the Los Angeles County Criminal Court Building. The washed-out, gray 19-story structure looks as intimidating as any other courthouse, but this one is notable for its famous defendants: O.J. Simpson, Heidi Fleiss, Michael Jackson. I’m here to witness the People vs. Calvin Broadus (a.k.a. Snoop Doggy Dogg) murder trial.
On the ninth floor, in department 110, room No. 9-302, Judge Paul G. Flynn is presiding over jury selection. Some 500 prospective jurors have been interviewed, and 11 have tentatively been agreed upon by the prosecution and defense. While the search for No. 12 continues, my eyes are on Snoop and his codefendant McKinley Lee-the accused triggerman-a dark-skinned young man with a shiny bald head and a thin goatee. In the interviews, Rodney King and O.J. Simpson come up often, as does the issue of race.
While Lee pays close attention, especially to questions about potential jurors’ views on rap music, Snoop, his permed hair pulled back into a bun, hunches over a legal pad, scribbling, looking up only when his lawyer David Kenner whispers into his ear.
During the lunch break, Snoop leaves the building with his bodyguard and friends (he’s free to walk the streets because Knight bailed him out). Meanwhile, Kenner, a short, cock-diesel man with jet black hair, offers that Lee and Snoop acted in self-defense in the fatal shooting of Philip Woldemariam in August 1993. If convicted, both men face life imprisonment.
Kenner, who represents Death Row on both entertainment and criminal matters, insists that “Snoop Doggy Dogg is not on trial here; Calvin Broadus is. When you reach to a performer’s interviews or their songs,” Kenner says, “and try to extrapolate from that perceptions that you want to draw about the real person, to me it would be no different than saying Arnold Schwarzenegger is a cold-blooded murderer because of his last movie.”
That point aside, Kenner expects the prosecution to bring Snoop’s lyrics, videos, and interviews into evidence. Several people who have had contact with Snoop over the past three years, including this writer, have been subpoenaed as material witnesses. Just a few days earlier, charges against a third codefendant, Sean Abrams, were dropped. Kenner also asserts that serious questions of missing evidence have yet to be answered.
Returning just before proceedings resume, Snoop, as rawboned as ever in a dark green double-breasted suit, pauses to speak with me. “I’m straight, you know,” he says, picking at the strands of hair cupping his chin. “Everybody’s praying for me, and I want them to continue to pray for me.”
I ask Snoop if he feels rap music is on trial. His eyes meet mine and narrow. “Yeah, it is. I can’t really speak about it, but listen to me, it is.”
What about critics who say this trial shows what rap music is all about-violence?
“It’s God, giving us obstacles to get through,” he replies. “He puts everybody that’s successful through obstacles to see if they’ll maintain and become successful years down the line. So I’m ready for whatever.”
“What do you say to people who look up to you as a hero?” I ask him.
“Keep God first. Visualize a goal and try to reach it, and if you can’t reach it, find something else other than the negative. Because that negative is a long stretch behind the wall-trust me.”
There’s no ignoring the violence pervading hip hop culture. Particularly when it seems to be reaching up to executive levels. In my interview with Suge Knight, I ask him about the murder in Atlanta of his close friend. Does he really believe Puffy Combs, the biggest hitmaker on the East Coast, actually had something to do with it? Unnerved by the question, Knight changes the subject, and it isn’t brought up again. However, when it’s clear the interview is over, he says he has some things he wants to discuss with me.
For the first time that evening, Damu the dog raises up off the red carpet and turns in my direction. “I didn’t like them questions you was asking me about the dead,” Knight says, anger curling the corners of his mouth. “You mean the questions about Eazy-E?” I ask cautiously.
“Nah, that was my homeboy that was killed down there in Atlanta. I felt you was being disrespectful, and I don’t forget things like that,” Knight says matter-of-factly, his eyes boring into mine.
As Knight lectures me, the possible seeds of this supposed feud between Knight and Combs come to mind: Tupac Shakur wondering in VIBE last year whether Combs and Biggie Smalls may have known something about his being shot; rumors (strongly denied) that Shakur was raped in jail; Knight publicly dissing Combs-“You don’t need no executive producer who’s all over your record and in the videos”-at last year’s televised Source Awards in New York; and finally, the murder of Knight’s buddy in Atlanta.
The Atlanta story, according to eyewitnesses, goes a little something like this: SoSoDef Records CEO Jermaine Dupri had a birthday party, which Knight and Combs attended.
Later, both showed up at an after-party at the Platinum House. An argument started outside the club, and Knight’s friend was killed. According to Combs, Knight turned to him after the shooting and said, “You had to have something to do with this.” Given the high profiles of both Knight and Combs, it’s ironic that there was barely any mention of the incident in the media.
Interestingly enough, both Knight and Combs are on record denying there’s a beef. Knight: “For what? I’m a man. How does that look for me to go and have a beef with another person who’s not a threat to me?” Combs: “I’m not a gangsta, and I don’t have no rivalry with no person in the industry whatsoever. The whole shit is stupid-tryin’ to make an East Coast/West Coast war. East Coast, West Coast, Death Row, Def Jam, or Uptown,
I feel nothing but proud for anybody young and black and making money. [Some people] want us to be at each other, at war with each other. Acting like a bunch of ignorant niggas, y’know what I’m sayin’?”
But there’s no denying that tension’s in the air. Some folks say it’s the start of a hip hop civil war. I remember Dr. Dre saying, “If it keeps going this way, pretty soon niggaz from the East Coast ain’t gonna be able to come out here and be safe. And vice versa.”
Back in the office, when Knight feels he’s gotten his point across, he and Damu turn and head over to his desk. I rise slowly, then exit.
Out in the night air, I sigh hard. This has not been an easy article to deal with. Too many people have warned me about what to say and what not to say, and that, to me, is not what hip hop is about. But then again, it’s 1996 and shit is thick for black folks. When a people feel like social, political, or economic outcasts, it gets easier to consider taking one another out-even over the pettiest beefs-in the name of survival. Not even journalists are immune to this logic.
The tragedy here is that two of the most successful young black entrepreneurs ever could possibly end up hurt or dead over God only knows what. As VIBE went to press, there was talk of involving people such as Minister Louis Farrakhan or Ben Chavis in an effort to get both sides to make peace. The future of hip hop may ultimately depend on such a meeting.
How long Death Row Records will live remains to be seen. But like a true player setting his rules for the game, Knight predicts, perhaps not recognizing the double meaning of his words, “Death Row’s going to be here forever.”