Looking down the barrel of a loaded gun

Last month the rapper Tupac Shakur was killed. Now his record label Death Row is under FBI investigation. Is gangsta rap about to self- destruct?

The murder of Tupac Shakur took place at a busy intersection just off the Las Vegas strip, at the time of night when the neon city is just getting ready to roll. At around 11.15pm the 25-year-old rapper was in the front passenger seat of a BMW, at the head of a motorcade of a dozen cars. He had been to the Mike Tyson heavyweight title fight. Marion "Suge" Knight, Tupac's friend and boss of his record label, Death Row Records, was at the wheel.

A white Cadillac pulled up alongside the convoy. When it reached the BMW, two men stepped out and started shooting. Tupac was hit four times as he tried to scramble into the back seat. Knight's head was grazed by a bullet as others, it is said, returned fire. But three weeks later the Las Vegas police have no prime suspect, few concrete clues, and a remarkably hazy idea of what happened that night.

"We interviewed everyone in the entourage that was there," said homicide lieutenant Larry Spinosa. "We didn't get any viable information. Some of the people in the entourage brought attorneys with them; that didn't make sense to us. Some told us they would call us back, never have. In a case of this magnitude there's usually a reward that's offered; usually the company president, the owner, offers a reward for information. That has not happened."

The owner in this instance is Suge Knight, at 31 the CEO and sole owner of Death Row Records, a young, strikingly successful but deeply controversial rap label. Death Row's corporate logo is a man in an electric chair with a sack over his head. Riding on the musical talents of Tupac, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and the legendary producer and co-founder Dr Dre, it is described as the biggest rap label in the world, with annual sales in the high tens of millions. But it has come to stand for all the perceived sins of "gangsta rap", with its filthy, violent lyrics and artists who have offices in Beverly Hills but revel in their gang culture roots.

The FBI is now investigating Death Row, it is reported, for drug trafficking, money laundering and gang connections. What seems surprising, in retrospect, is that it has taken the Feds so long. Tupac's killing was far from the first incident to have led witnesses to clam up. Knight, a mesmerising figure, is frequently described in terms more appropriate to a Mafia don than a music industry executive. Veteran white producer Jerry Heller says Knight "has as much interest in the music industry as John Gotti does in linen supply".

Suge - it is pronounced to rhyme with stooge - is short for Sugar Bear. That was Knight's nickname on the University of Nevada football team, where he billed himself in a college profile "as sweet as sugar and tough like a bear". He was a defensive lineman, one of the side's heavy brigade, 6ft 4in and weighing in at 260lb. Newspaper reporters now put him at 300lb plus.

Suge Knight founded Death Row with Dr Dre in 1992. On leaving college, he had worked as a music industry bodyguard but made money, he claimed, on ownership rights to rap hits. Dr Dre worked for Ruthless Records, where he produced Niggas with Attitude - NWA - the best known of the first wave of gangsta rappers, with rapper Eazy E and Jerry Heller. Knight helped persuade Dr Dre he wasn't being paid his due. According to a civil lawsuit filed by Heller and Eazy E, Knight invited Eazy to a meeting where he and two cronies stood over him with lead pipes and baseball bats until he signed a release on Dre's contract. There are other unconfirmed tales of strong-arming; the suit, however, was dismissed.

Dr Dre's first album for Death Row, The Chronic, went to Billboard magazine's top 10 and stayed there for months. Knight is described by those who've met him as "all muscle", and boasts a long-standing association with the Bloods street gang. The mere mention of his name, Vibe magazine reported earlier this year, is "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".

Knight himself usually laughs off his reputation, saying it is "helpful" but untrue. He flaunts red, the Bloods' colour, to the point of self-parody. His office and bedroom carpet are red. At his new house in Las Vegas he painted the inside of his swimming pool red, though it turned orange from chlorine and the sun. His Alsatian is called Damu, Swahili for "blood". His Las Vegas club - where he was driving Tupac from a Mike Tyson fight - is called 662, which spells out MOB on the telephone keyboard.

Knight is credited with a sharp business acumen. A beating case in Las Vegas in June 1990, however, shed a different light. The victim had made a remark about Knight's companion. Knight pulled out a 9mm handgun, Sam Sweat Jnr testified, and then hit him in the face with it, breaking his jaw and knocking out a tooth. He demanded, and got, an apology. But then he went to his car, loaded the gun, and hit Sweat again. Knight pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon; he has other convictions for assault, robbery, and illegally obtaining guns (two Glock machine pistols, in 1994).

Rock music, from punk to heavy metal, has long had a youthful fascination with guns, violence and death. But Death Row makes other practitioners look like play actors. In August 1992, at a Californian community festival, shots fired from a gun that Tupac Shakur had dropped in a scuffle struck and killed a six-year-old schoolboy. The singer was not charged, and the shooter was unidentified, though an angry mob surrounded him at the time. Last October, in Atlanta, Knight's bodyguard and friend, Jason Robles, was shot dead in an argument; again, the investigation simply died. In November 1994 Tupac himself was shot five times in what was called a botched robbery; exactly one year later, a former close friend whom Tupac had suspected in that shooting was killed execution-style in New York. In neither case was the culprit identified.

In the autumn of 1995, Tupac seemed to have sunk almost as low as it was possible for a best-selling musician to get. He was jailed on Rikers Island, New York, convicted of sexually abusing a young woman fan, bankrupted by legal fees. During the trial, he was shot five times in the foyer of a recording studio. Rumours ran that he was raped by a fellow inmate. Suge Knight put together a team of lawyers to file an appeal, then put up $1.5m bail pending a hearing. When Tupac left the prison gates in October he was met by a white limousine and whisked away to a waiting private jet. It was a magnificent gesture, and Knight capped it by buying a new house for Tupac's mother.

Her son amply repaid his protector. Having signed with Death Row in jail, leaving his New York label, Tupac went on to make the biggest album of his career, the five-million-selling double album All Eyez on Me. Death Row has two more posthumous Tupac albums in the works.

The rumour mill is working overtime on the subject of his murder. A popular theory, fed by the American rap magazines, is that Tupac was targeted in a long-standing feud between East and West Coast rappers. A rival version has it that Tupac brawled with a Crips gang member at the Tyson fight earlier that night and paid the price. Suge, with his long- standing ties to the Bloods, may have been the real target, it is whispered.

Perhaps only in Compton could the death of a rapper start a gang war. One of the LA area's toughest boroughs, it is known as the home of the original Crips and Bloods, and as the birthplace of gangsta rap's West Coast school. Dr Dre and Knight grew up there. In a dozen shootings in the borough last month, three Crips members died. Their deaths were widely thought to be retaliation for Tupac's killing. On Wednesday night last week Compton police and the FBI, determined to break the tit-for-tat spiral, threw 300 officers into simultaneous dawn raids on 37 known gang hang- outs. Among those arrested was a Crip rumoured as a suspect in Tupac's shooting. But Las Vegas police say they have made no progress with the case.

Knight and his gangsta rap artists have a plain interest in hyping their violent reputation - it proves they are they are the genuine article, and it sells records. Snoop Doggy Dogg's pending murder trial was a huge boost to his album Doggy Style. "Being that rap is a street-orientated art form, there's gonna be a street- like environment," wrote the Brooklyn rap writer, Blackspot, recently. "A lot of rappers have a street life and a rap life."

The question is whether the image - and the street life - could finally bring down the house of cards for Knight and Death Row, as it apparently did for Tupac. Last year the Time-Warner conglomerate severed its ties to distributor Interscope Records, whose clients include Death Row, after a public and political outcry made it a corporate liability. MCA, which has a $200m investment in Interscope, says it has no plans to review it. But they "would not sit idly by", said one executive, if the FBI investigation yielded fruit. Newsweek, meanwhile, reports sources saying there are three contracts on Knight's life.

Portraying Knight as a black Mafia chieftain runs the danger of being simplistic and racist. If he has acted in the style of a Godfather, the argument goes, no one needed it more than semi-literate ghetto kids selling millions of records about black male anger. Death Row is one of very few successful black-owned recording companies. If "motherfuckers are scared shitless of Suge", as Shakur put it before his death, he is "making it so that rappers can get their share".

At Death Row, Dre once said, "we know what's funky ... we let the music talk." But while Tupac's death has already fired more sales on the back of a publicity bonanza, there is talk in the industry that it may finally make Death Row too hot to handle. That remains to be seen. But earlier this year Dr Dre left to start his own company, leaving Knight with Snoop and a stable of solid but lesser known names. There was, Dre said simply, "too much negativity".

THE CAST OF DEATH ROW

Marion "Suge" Knight, 31. Sole owner and CEO. Born Compton, California. "What you got here is a young, black-owned company that knows how to spot talent and make hits," Knight said when he founded the label with Dr Dre. "We're two street guys who are going to shake this industry up."

This year, he told Vibe magazine: "We called it Death Row 'cause almost everybody had been involved with the law. A majority of our people was parolees or incarcerated. We got people really was on Death Row and still is."

Criminal record: assault with deadly weapon; conspiracy to obtain guns illegally (took delivery of two Glock machine pistols); robbery and assault (sentenced to nine years, suspended, 1994).

Dr Dre (Andre Brown), 30. Producer, co-founder. Born Compton, California. Grammy award winner. Has sold 15 million records in 10 years, outsold Barbra Streisand, reputedly asked to produce Madonna.

Criminal record: on probation in 1993 after three violent episodes; required to wear electronic tracking device; settled lawsuit for allegedly beating up rap host Dee Barnes.

Snoop Doggy Dogg (Calvin Broadus), 25, rapper. Choir singer at Golgotha Trinity Church in Long Beach, California, member of the Long Beach Insane Crips. One of his singles came to Dr Dre's attention; album Doggystyle sold 5 million copies. Nominated for Grammy. Accused, in songs such as "Deep Cover", of advocating attacks on the police.

Criminal record: jailed for a year for selling crack; said ghetto kids sold drugs "like selling newspapers"; two arrests for gun possession; cleared in killing of rival gang member Philip Woldemariam by his bodyguard pleading self-defence; in a Playboy magazine interview, claimed he would shoot innocent bystanders in a gang hit.

Tupac Shakur, rapper, film actor, died of wounds in Las Vegas on 13 September, aged 25. Born in New York to Afeni Shakur, a Black Panther, while she was on trial. Studied ballet and acting in Baltimore. Performed under the name 2Pac. Last two albums went to No 1 in the charts.

Criminal record: at the time of his death, on bail pending appeal against conviction for sexually abusing a woman fan in a hotel room, accused of forcibly sodomising her; in 1993, pleaded guilty to felony weapons charges; charges in shooting of two off-duty police officers in Atlanta dropped; sued by limousine chauffeur for an alleged beating.

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