Marion Hugh "Suge" Knight, Jr. (/ˈʃʊɡ/; born April 19, 1965) is the founder and CEO of Black Kapital Records and co-founder and former CEO of Death Row Records. Death Row Records rose to dominate the rap charts after Dr. Dre's breakthrough album The Chronic in 1992. After several years of chart successes for artists including Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Outlawz and Tha Dogg Pound, Death Row Records stagnated after Knight's incarceration on probation violation charges in September 1996.
Marion Hugh Knight, Jr. was born in Compton, California. His name, Suge, derives from "Sugar Bear", a childhood nickname. He attended Lynwood High School in nearby Lynwood, California, where he was a football and track star. He graduated in 1983. From 1983 to 1985, he attended El Camino College on a football scholarship. In 1985, he transferred to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and played there for two years.
After college, Knight was not drafted by an NFL team, but was cut during training camp by the Los Angeles Rams. However, he became a replacement player during the 1987 NFL players' strike, and played two games for the Rams. Later, he found work as a concert promoter and a bodyguard for celebrities including Bobby Brown.
Knight was arrested in October 1987 for domestic violence--he assaulted his girlfriend and cut off her ponytail on the street. On Halloween Night 1987, Knight was arrested in Las Vegas for auto theft, carrying a concealed weapon and attempted murder. He had allegedly shot a man three times while stealing his car. He pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge, and received two years probation.
Two years later, Knight formed his own music-publishing company. His first big profit in the business came when Vanilla Ice (Robert Van Winkle) agreed to sign over royalties from Van Winkle's smash hit "Ice Ice Baby", because the song included material written by Knight's client Mario Johnson. Knight and his bodyguards confronted Van Winkle several times. On one occasion, Knight entered Van Winkle's hotel room, and allegedly dangled him by his ankles off the balcony. Van Winkle said only that Knight threatened to throw him off the balcony; the claim was resolved in court.
Knight next formed an artist management company and signed prominent West Coast hip hop artists DJ Quik and The D.O.C. Through the former, he met several members of the seminal gangsta rap group N.W.A.
Death Row Records:
Dr. Dre and The D.O.C. wanted to leave both N.W.A. and their label, Ruthless Records, run by Eazy-E, another member of N.W.A. According to N.W.A's manager Jerry Heller, Knight and his henchmen threatened Heller and Eazy-E with lead pipes and baseball bats to make them release Dre, The D.O.C., and Michel'le from their contracts. Ultimately, Dre and DOC co-founded Death Row Records in 1991 with Knight, who vowed to make it "the Motown of the '90s".
Initially, Knight fulfilled his ambitions: he secured a distribution deal with Interscope, and Dre's 1992 solo debut, The Chronic, went onto triple platinum status by the end of 1993. It also made a career for Dre's protégé, Snoop Dogg, whose own debut album Doggystyle obtained a quadruple platinum certification in 1994.
Meanwhile, Death Row had begun a public feud with 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell, and when Knight traveled to Miami for a hip-hop convention in 1993, he was apparently seen openly carrying a stolen gun. The following year, he opened a private, by-appointment-only nightclub in Las Vegas called Club 662, so named because the numbers spelled out MOB, which stands for Money over Bitches, on telephone keypads. In 1995, he ran afoul of activist C. Delores Tucker, whose criticism of Death Row's glamorization of the "gangsta" lifestyle may have helped scuttle a lucrative deal with Time Warner.
Tupac Shakur, MC Hammer, Dr. Dre, and the Death Row Label:
Knight's feud with East Coast impresario Sean Combs (known as Puff Daddy at the time) progressed when Knight insulted the Bad Boy label founder on air at the Source Awards in August 1995. Openly critical of Combs's tendency of ad-libbing on his artists' songs and dancing in their videos, Knight announced to the audience, "Anyone out there who wanna be a recording artist and wanna stay a star, but don't have to worry about the executive producer trying to be all in the videos, all on the records, dancing, come to Death Row."
The same year, Knight offered to post a bail ($1.4 million) for Tupac Shakur if the troubled rapper agreed to sign with Death Row. Shakur agreed, setting the stage for his 1996 double album All Eyez on Me and the songs "California Love" and "How Do U Want It".
MC Hammer's (Stanley Kirk Burrell) relationship with Suge Knight dates back to 1988. With the success of Hammer's 1994 album, The Funky Headhunter (featuring Tha Dogg Pound), Hammer signed with Death Row Records by 1995, along with Snoop Dogg and his close friend, Tupac. The label did not release the album of Hammer's music (titled Too Tight) while he had a career with them, although he did release versions of some tracks on his next album. However, Hammer did record tracks with Shakur and others, most notably the song "Too Late Playa" (along with Big Daddy Kane and Danny Boy). After the death of Shakur in 1996, Burrell left the record company. He later explained his concern about this circumstance in an interview on Trinity Broadcasting Network since he was in Las Vegas with Tupac the night of his death. Hammer released 2Pac's "Unconditional Love", on his Family Affair album, in 1998. The friendships between Hammer (played by Romany Malco), Tupac (played by Lamont Bentley) and Suge (played by Anthony Norris) were depicted in the television film, Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story (airing on VH1 in 2001).
The label suffered a major blow when Dr. Dre, frustrated with the company's increasingly thuggish reputation and Knight's violent inclinations, decided to leave and form his own label. A stream of Dre-dissing records followed.
Murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls: Theories accusing Knight:
Tupac Shakur was shot multiple times in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada on September 7, 1996 and died six days later on September 13, 1996. When Shakur's East Coast rival, The Notorious B.I.G. (aka Biggie Smalls), was murdered in a similar drive-by shooting in Los Angeles, California on March 9, 1997, speculation arose that Knight was involved and that B.I.G.'s death was a revenge killing. Former Death Row artists like Snoop Dogg would later state that Suge was involved in Tupac's murder as well.
A theory accusing Suge Knight in the deaths of both Biggie and Tupac was that of ex-detective Russell Poole, whose claim inspired writer Randall Sullivan and filmmaker Nick Broomfield. The conjecture was that Knight had Tupac killed before he could part ways with Knight's Death Row label and then conspired to kill Biggie to divert attention from himself in Tupac's murder. The convoluted Biggie murder theory implicated Suge Knight, a rogue cop, a mortgage broker named Amir Muhammad (who was never a police suspect) along with the chief of police and the LAPD in a conspiracy to murder and cover up the murder of Biggie. The Biggie theory formed the basis of a 500 million dollar lawsuit by the Wallace family against Los Angeles. A key source for Poole's theory was Kevin Hackie. Hackie had implicated Suge Knight and David Mack. Hackie, a former Death Row associate, said that he had knowledge of involvement between Suge Knight and David Mack and other LAPD officers. His information was used by the Wallace family in their suit against the city of LA for Biggie's death. But Hackie later told Chuck Philips that the Wallace attorneys had altered his declarations. The $500 million suit brought by the Wallace family against the city of LA based on the Russell Poole theory was dismissed in 2010.
A 2005 story by Philips, showing that another main source for the Poole/Sullivan theory of Biggie's murder implicating Amir Muhammed, David Mack, Suge Knight and the LAPD was a schizophrenic known as "Psycho Mike" who later confessed to hearsay and memory lapses and falsely identifying Amir Muhammed, a figure in the Poole-Sullivan theory. John Cook of Brill's Content noted that Philips' article "demolished" the Poole-Sullvan theory of Biggie's murder.
Around the same time as the Sullivan-Poole theory of Tupac's murder (also implicating Knight) came out in 2002, Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Chuck Philips wrote a two-part series titled "Who Killed Tupac Shakur?" resulting in year-long research into the murder of Shakur and events surrounding it based on police affidavits, court documents and interviews.
Information gathered by Philips indicated that "the shooting was carried out by a Compton gang called the Southside Crips to avenge the beating of one of its members by Shakur a few hours earlier. Orlando Anderson, the Crip whom Shakur had attacked, fired the fatal shots. Las Vegas police discounted Anderson as a suspect after questioning him once briefly. He was later killed in a what police said was an unrelated gang shooting". The article implicated East Coast music figures, including Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace, Shakur's nemesis at the time, alleging that he paid for the gun. Before their own deaths, Smalls and his family and Anderson denied any role in Shakur's murder. Biggie's family produced documents purporting to show that the rapper was in New York and New Jersey at the time. The New York Times called the documents inconclusive stating:
The pages purport to be three computer printouts from Daddy's House, indicating that Wallace was in the studio recording a song called Nasty Boy on the afternoon Shakur was shot. They indicate that Wallace wrote half the session, was In and out/sat around and laid down a ref, shorthand for a reference vocal, the equivalent of a first take. But nothing indicates when the documents were created. And Louis Alfred, the recording engineer listed on the sheets, said in an interview that he remembered recording the song with Wallace in a late-night session, not during the day. He could not recall the date of the session but said it was likely not the night Shakur was shot. We would have heard about it, Mr. Alfred said."
Mark Duvoisin, assistant manager of the LA Times, wrote that Chuck Philips account had withstood all attacks to its credibility including Sullivan's and remained "the definitive account of the Shakur slaying"
In Tupac Shakur: Before I Wake, a documentary by Tupac Shakur's bodyguard, he and writer Cathy Scott said that Knight would not have placed himself in the path of bullets he knew were coming, in line with LAPD documents reviewed in Philips' LA Times 2002 series. On her website Archived Letters Scott responds to a reader of her book stating that she felt there was never evidence to link Knight to Tupac's murder.
A 2006 task force probe into Biggie Smalls' murder, which included LAPD Detective Greg Kading, led back to the murder of Shakur and corroborated Chuck Philips findings. In his 2011 self-published book, Murder Rap, Kading wrote about speaking with Duane "Keefe D" Davis, a member of the "Crips" street gang, who gave a confession saying he rode in the car that was involved in the Las Vegas shooting of Shakur. As Chuck Philips noted in his earlier LA Times series, the Crips claimed they had been offered a million dollars by associates of Bad Boy records to kill Shakur. Kading, who named Sean Combs as having been involved in the conspiracy, also wrote that a bounty was offered for Suge Knight's murder.
According to Kading's book, while in Las Vegas, Davis and fellow Crips members crossed paths with a BMW carrying Knight and Shakur. The fatal shots were fired by Orlando "Baby Lane" Anderson, who sat on the side of the car closest to BMW.
Kading wrote that Knight hired Wardel "Pouchie" Fouse to hit Puffy Combs' most valuable star, Biggie Smalls, a hit accomplished following a party at the Peterson Automotive Museum. Pouchie later survived a murder attempt but died in a drive-by shooting a year after the first attack. Charges were never brought against Fouse or Combs and the task force disbanded for reasons of "internal affairs."
After the death of Tupac Shakur and the release of Tha Doggfather, Snoop Dogg openly criticized Knight for the murder of Shakur and decided to leave the label, which he did in 1997, moving to Master P's No Limit Records and then forming his own record label, Doggystyle Records. In 2002, Snoop released the song "Pimp Slapp'd", in which he repudiated Knight and Death Row. In 2006, Snoop again attacked Knight verbally, accusing him in the death of Shakur. Knight responded, stating that Snoop is a "police informer" who "never goes to jail".
End of Death Row Records:
On April 4, 2006, Suge Knight filed bankruptcy due to civil litigation against him in which Lydia Harris claimed to have been cheated out of a 50% stake in Death Row Records. Prior to filing, Knight had been ordered to pay $107 million to Harris. Under questioning by creditors, he denied having money tucked away in foreign countries or in an African company that deals in diamonds and gold. Bankruptcy documents filed showed Knight had no income this year from employment or operation of a business. According to financial records, his bank account contained just $12, and he owned clothing worth $1,000, furniture and appliances valued at $2,000, and jewelry worth $25,000. He also testified that the last time he had checked the label's financial records was at least 10 years prior. Knight's lawyer said that his client was still "at the helm" of Death Row and had been working on securing distribution deals for the label's catalog. Harris told reporters she had received a $1 million payment but had not agreed to settle the matter. "I'm telling you, I didn't do a settlement for $1 million. That's ridiculous. Let's keep it real," she said.
Knight skipped a meeting with his creditors after injuring himself in a motorcycle accident. Another scheduled meeting with the creditors had been missed after Suge said he had experienced a death in his family. Finally on July 7, 2006, the federal judge, Ellen Carroll, ordered a bankruptcy trustee takeover of Suge Knight's Death Row Records, saying the record label had undergone a gross amount of mismanagement.
He filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which allows a company to continue business operations while restructuring. Death Row was being operated by Neilson during the bankruptcy proceedings, while Knight oversaw his bankruptcy estate as a debtor in possession.
In June 2007, he placed his seven-bedroom, 9½-bath home in Malibu on the market for $6.2 million as part of his "financial makeover". The mansion was finally sold in December 2008 in bankruptcy court for $4.56 million.
In June 2008, he sold Death Row Records to New York-based company Global Music Group, which confirmed it had purchased the firm in a statement to the Associated Press news agency.
On January 25, 2009, an auction was held for everything found in the Death Row Records office after the company filed for bankruptcy, including some of Knight's personal items. Of note was the Death Row Records electric chair which sold for $2,500. Some of Knight's personal items appeared in an auction during the debut episode of A&E's Storage Wars, and a vault full of items (including a coat) was purchased by featured buyer Barry Weiss.
Personal and legal troubles:
In 1996, Knight was sent to prison for a probation violation. In February 1997, he was sentenced to nine years for the violation. He was released on August 6, 2001.
In 2003, he was sent to prison again for violating parole when he struck a parking lot attendant. Death Row Records' income rapidly declined due to Knight's incarceration. It managed to save itself from complete bankruptcy by releasing archived Snoop Dogg compilation albums and posthumous Tupac albums. Despite signing new artists, Suge never released any of their albums.
In 2006 Knight was engaged in another dispute with former friend and ex-associate Snoop Dogg after Snoop insulted him in Rolling Stone.
On May 10, 2008, Knight was involved in an altercation involving a monetary dispute outside of a nightclub in Hollywood. He was knocked out for 3 minutes, taken to the hospital, and reportedly did not cooperate with the LAPD.
On August 27, 2008, Knight was arrested on drug and aggravated assault charges after leaving a Las Vegas strip club. When police arrived on the scene, Knight was beating his girlfriend of three years, Melissa Isaac, and brandishing a knife. Reports also allege that he was under the influence of both ecstasy and hydrocodone. As of October 31, police and prosecutors had still failed to contact Isaac, and no formal charges have been brought against Knight. On December 5, 2008, Suge Knight was cleared of all charges. Knight's attorney, David Chesnoff, said the prosecution had "discovery problems and witness problems". Prosecutor Susan Benedict did not immediately return a call for comment. When Knight was asked about the positive verdict he replied "God is good, Happy Holidays".
As part of an October 30, 2008 bankruptcy claim, Suge also filed a lawsuit against Kanye West and his associates. The lawsuit concerns an August 2005 shooting at Kanye's pre-Video Music Awards party, where Knight suffered a gunshot wound to the upper leg. The lawsuit cites damages of mental and physical pain caused by the shooting, costs of surgery, loss of income and the theft of a 15-carat (3.0 g) $147,000 diamond earring.
In late March, 2009, Knight was implicated in the robbery of Akon producer, Noel "Detail" Fisher. According to Christopher Walker, an employee of Detail, on the morning of March 25, 2009, five armed men broke into Detail's house, stating that they were collecting a debt on behalf of Knight. $170,000 worth of jewelry was stolen, along with a locked safe, stereo equipment and the key to a Mercedes vehicle. Walker claims the incident is related to the altercation at the W Scottsdale Hotel in February.
Knight started a new record label called Blackball Records, with its first artist Young Life and featured it in a reality show, Unfinished Business. The show was based on Knight dispelling long-standing rumors in sit down interviews, his days with Death Row and the artists he worked with, and finding new talent for his record label. As of April 2009, the show had not been picked up by any major network.
Remaining items from Knight's personal property were auctioned in the first episode of Storage Wars on A&E, which aired on December 1, 2010.
On February 8, 2012, Suge Knight was arrested in Las Vegas, after police found marijuana in his car and several warrants for prior traffic violations. Suge is currently on three years unsupervised probation for driving with a suspended license.