Guns 'n' Poses

Marion 'Suge' Knight is the biggest, baddest man in gangsta rap ? and this week, after five years in jail, the notorious head of Death Row Records is back in the free world. Perhaps that's what is making Los Angeles so nervous. By Andrew Gumbel
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A little while ago, Suge Knight said that the first thing he wanted to do when he got out of prison was to take a long, slow bath. "I'm gonna take my time," he said. "I'm not in any hurry." Soothing words from the biggest, baddest man in gangsta rap as he finally shakes off his chequered history of beatings, threats, gun-waving and numerous parole violations, to hit the streets again. It remains to be seen, however, just how soothing Suge Knight's return to the free world will be after almost five years behind bars.

Suge got out on Monday, and the climate of fear and constant feuding that marked his stormy tenure at the helm of Death Row Records in the early 1990s has hardly abated. Even while he was in prison, the body count of associates and gangland figures linked to him continued to rise. The "dissing" of rival rap acts by Death Row artists – through explicit hate messages on their records – has not stopped; if anything, it has intensified lately and has been returned in kind in an escalating war of recorded words.

Nobody knows how Knight is going to react to the defections of high-profile former protégés such as Snoop Dogg, who ran out on him and Death Row shortly after Knight was sentenced. Nobody knows what consequences there might still be from the back-to-back murders of Tupac Shakur, Death Row's biggest star, and Notorious BIG, Tupac's most prominent East Coast rival, in 1996 and early 1997 – both cases still unsolved and the subject of a thousand breathless rumours. Nobody knows whether Knight will seek to pick up the pieces of his crumbled empire, which earned him more than $300m in its heyday, or whether what he will really seek is revenge. Bottom line: the prospect of seeing Knight back on the street in Los Angeles has got people well and truly spooked.

"I don't know what to expect with Suge. I don't know that man's state of mind," Snoop said in an interview with a music magazine recently. "Me personally, I'm not looking for him or looking forward to seeing him." That's likely to be an understatement. Knight paid a small fortune in legal fees – $2.5m, he says – to help Snoop successfully defend himself against a murder charge in 1993, and is said to be mighty disappointed by his lack of loyalty.

Out on 83rd Street and Western, in the Inglewood section of Los Angeles where many of Suge's West Coast rappers were born and brought up, Fannie Mae Harris takes the news of Knight's impending release with a barely concealed shudder. "A lot of people ain't gonna be happy 'bout that," she says from the kitchen of her soul-food restaurant. "Once he's in, leave him in, that's what I say."

Harris knows what she is talking about: her son Michael, known on the street as Harry O, is widely believed to have provided the initial investment for Death Row Records, only to land in prison for drug trafficking and attempted murder. Harry O now says that Knight abused his trust and may have used Death Row to recycle drug money; Knight now says Harry O is "a rat" who has invented ever-more fantastic stories about him in an effort to reduce his prison sentence.

Fannie Mae is clearly alarmed to broach such issues with a journalist. "I don't know too much myself, I just hear things," she says hastily. "Only the good Lord knows what really happened." It's a line about Suge Knight that you hear a lot in certain circles of Los Angeles' black ghetto.

And no wonder. This is a man widely reputed to have held the rapper Vanilla Ice over the balcony of a 15th-floor room in the Ballage Inn Hotel in Beverly Hills in 1990, threatening to push him off unless Vanilla agreed to cede 25 per cent of the royalties on his debut album, To the Extreme. This is a man who, in 1992, became so enraged after the rap artists George and Stanley Lynwood dared to use a phone at his studio without permission that he beat them with the butt of a gun, forced them to pull down their trousers, pushed them to their knees and made them beg for their lives.

The stories about Knight's unorthodox business practices are legendary. He had a habit of letting his jacket flop open at a crucial stage in contract negotiations to reveal a gun inside. Once, according to a story reported a few years ago in The New Yorker, he made an executive from a rival label strip in the toilet and walk naked through his company offices, just to humiliate him.

In 1995, an associate of Knight's chief East Coast rival, Sean "Puffy" Combs, complained that he was lured into an upstairs room during a Death Row Christmas party in the Hollywood Hills, tied to a chair, interrogated, robbed, beaten with champagne bottles and forced to drink from a jar filled with Knight's urine. The associate, a record promoter called Mark Anthony Bell, agreed not to press charges after receiving a $600,000 settlement.

It is hard to pin down the details of these stories, since exaggeration, macho posturing, and seemingly limitless accusation and counter-accusation are all part of the carefully cultivated gangsta rap mystique that Knight helped create. There is no doubting his criminal record – eight separate convictions, including one for the George and Stanley Lynwood episode. And there is no doubting his affiliation to the Bloods, the LA street gang, because he has flaunted it at every step. He even painted the bottom of his swimming-pool red, the Bloods' official colour.

On some level, though, playing the big bad guy was a deliberate act that he carried through because it was good for business. Not only did he manage to squeeze advantageous deals out of his often petrified business partners, his behaviour also appealed directly to the (largely white) teenagers who bought Death Row's records. For his target audience, Knight represented the very kind of transgressive inner-city black masculinity that they bought rap records to romanticise. He is a bear of a man (Suge, pronounced "shoog", is short for Sugar Bear, which is what his mother called him as a child), standing 6ft 3in and weighing about 23 stone. He doesn't talk so much as growl, and when he does, his language is peppered with expletives. "People be so quick to judge me as a ghetto muthafucka," he told The Source in a fairly representative interview last year. "They won't let their kids spend the night at my house because I'm supposed to be such a ghetto, violent muthafucka, but my kids get everything they want and are raised well."

As that quote suggests, Knight argues that he is a man who looks after his own, first and foremost, and that many of the stories about him are the result of rap-world figures failing to understand where the rhetoric of the medium ends and reality begins.

He can certainly argue that the police and the FBI have had more than four years to go through his affairs and have failed – at least according to their public pronouncements – to turn up a single piece of evidence substantiating allegations of extortion, drug-dealing, money-laundering or a host of other suspected crimes surrounding the Death Row empire. On the other hand, law enforcement has not been helped by the fact that everyone in the gangsta rap world is virulently anti-police and probably wouldn't talk if their lives depended on it. A code of silence has long since descended, leaving little more than inuendo and half-pursued leads in the wake of the spasm of violence that has followed Knight at every turn.

Tupac Shakur wasn't just shot dead anywhere; he was killed in the passenger seat of Knight's car, as Knight was driving away from a boxing match in Las Vegas in September 1997. Earlier that same evening, a security camera taped Knight and Shakur beating up a young member of the LA Crips, the rival gang to the Bloods, in a corridor of the MGM Grand Hotel. (It was this beating that led to Knight's prison sentence, primarily because it violated the terms of a previous parole agreement.)

The young Crip, Orlando Anderson, was briefly a suspect in Shakur's murder before being killed himself in a shoot-out in Compton in 1998. Knight also came under suspicion, since many people believed that Shakur had had enough of Death Row Records and was threatening to pull out and take all his assets with him.

Then, six months after Shakur's death, another shooting claimed the life of Notorious BIG, also known as Biggie Smalls, after a music award ceremony in Los Angeles. Once again, attention turned to Knight, even though he was behind bars at the time. One theory said the shooting was straight revenge for Shakur, and must therefore come from Suge. Another, much more elaborate, theory linked Knight to a crooked Los Angeles cop who later played a leading role in a major police corruption scandal. The theory further suggested that Knight and the cop, David Mack, had got away with it because the LAPD was too busy covering its own tracks to investigate. All these theories stretch credulity somewhat. Why, for example, would Knight order a hit on Shakur when he was in the car himself? How could he mount an elaborate plot against Notorious BIG and hope to keep all the conspirators quiet?

The fact nevertheless remains that violence has ripped apart the heart of Knight's business empire, and kept him in prison for almost five years. Death Row Records is a shadow of its former self; Knight's longtime partner, Dr Dre, has gone into business by himself and made a rap star out of a white man, Eminem; Snoop now records for No Limit; even Knight's old nemesis, Puffy Combs, has come down a notch or two following his own court troubles earlier this year and the well-covered break-up of his paparazzi-fuelled relationship with Jennifer Lopez.

Knight will almost certainly get back into the music business, if nothing else because it is the surest way for him to recapture his lifestyle of limousines, gold jewellery, champagne and glamorous women. But will he do it quietly? On a Death Row release last year, Too Gangsta for Radio, the rapper CJ Mac made direct physical threats against Dr Dre, while another featured artist, Tha Realest, predicted that Eminem would be the first white rapper to be murdered. Quietly, one suspects, is not a word in Suge Knight's vocabulary.