Suge Knight, the founder of Death Row Records, has done jail time and claims to be $137 million in debt. But he has a reality TV show in the works, and says he wants to form an R&B record label dedicated to
Suge Knight, the founder of Death Row Records, has done jail time and claims to be $137 million in debt. But he has a reality TV show in the works, and says he wants to form an R&B record label dedicated to "happy music."
By Jonathan Alcorn for The Washington Post
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Legal Tangles

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More often than not, Suge's conversations focus on his bankruptcy proceedings. He wants to make the case that he has been unjustly persecuted. If you're a "man of color," he says, "you can have either power or you can have money. You can't have both." Death Row, he says, was a "black 'Dynasty.' " And because of that, he says, everyone tried to take a piece of him: his artists. Lawyers. Interscope Records. The Harrises.

In 2005, a superior court judge slapped him with the $107 million default judgment favoring Lydia Harris. Last year, he filed for Chapter 11 protection. Twice. In his personal bankruptcy case, Death Row is listed as a creditor to which Knight owes roughly $150 million. In his business case, he is listed as the creditor to whom Death Row owes $144 million, according to his bankruptcy attorney. There's even a Web site set up exclusively for creditors of Knight and Death Row.

In reading through a nearly foot-high stack of court records, there is no shortage of drama. Two bankruptcy court judges recused themselves from the proceedings. So did one of Knight's lawyers. In court papers, Lydia Harris accused Knight of making threats; he says that people close to him were threatened by Harris and her associates, though he was not personally threatened.

Knight insists the Harrises never gave him any seed money. Nevertheless, he says he settled with Lydia and Michael Harris for $300,000 in 1996 with Lydia for $1 million in 2005.

Meanwhile, court papers filed by Lydia Harris allege that Knight has improperly funneled the company's money to his estranged wife, the R&B singer Michel'le Toussaint, who is the mother of one of Dre's sons and Suge's 4-year-old daughter. The court papers claim that Knight paid Michel'le more than $3.5 million between 2001 and 2006, including $2.6 million in "artist's advances." (Michel'le hasn't released an album since 1998. But Knight says he's done everything by the book.)

Adding to Knight's legal and financial woes is a $10 million lawsuit filed against him by his one-time protege Nate Dogg, who claims that his repeated requests that Knight pay him royalties were met with "violence and lies," according to court records. Knight says he paid Nate Dogg a long time ago.

Such legal tangles aren't a surprise to those who've worked with Knight. "He's a big, tough, intimidating kind of guy," observes Dick Griffey, the Solar Records founder who says he helped Knight obtain financing and distribution to launch Death Row. "He tried to buy [power] or intimidate. . . . He had this tremendous, tremendous ego, but not necessarily the knowledge to match his bravado."

In 1997, Griffey sued Knight for $75 million for breach of contract. The two settled out of court. There are no hard feelings, Griffey says.

"I was very fond of Suge, then and now," he says from his home in Accra, Ghana. "It wasn't a hostile situation. It was business."

'I Never Scar'

There are no shortage of theories, Web sites, documentaries and books devoted to what happened in Las Vegas on "Fight Night," Sept. 7, 1996. Right after the infamous Mike Tyson boxing match, Suge Knight and Tupac Shakur ran into Orlando Anderson, a member of the Crips, in the lobby of the MGM Grand Hotel. Entourages clashed; a beatdown of Anderson ensued. Knight insists he was trying to break things up.

On the Strip a short time later, a car pulled alongside the BMW that Knight was driving, and a gunman opened fire. Tupac, 25, took four bullets and died less than a week later. (Anderson was shot to death in 1998.)

Knight says there was no way Tupac should have died from those wounds. The way he remembers it, Tupac was laughing and joking all the way to the hospital, more worried about Knight's wound than his own. Tupac, he says, turned to him and said, " 'Me? I mighta got shot here' " -- Knight gestures at his side -- " 'and I can feel it. And I mighta got shot here' " -- Knight grabs at his chest -- " 'and I can feel it. But you're bleeding out of your [expletive] head.' "

As for persistent speculation that he had set up the Tupac hit because Tupac wanted to leave the label, Knight responds: Tupac was like a little brother to him. And anyway, why would he put himself in danger by driving the car?

"I got a .45-caliber bullet an inch into my skull," Knight says, grabbing a reporter's hand and placing it on his bald pate.

"There's the bullet," he says, "and there's the shrapnel."

There is indeed something that feels like a bullet, something hard and circular. Is it?

Or just bone?

There is no scar at what would be the slug's entry point. Knight shrugs, patting his smooth bronze skin. "I never scar," he says.

'Trying to Change'

"He's says he's going to start over," says Sharitha Knight, one of his ex-wives. "That's what I think he should have done a long time ago. Death Row was known one way and he needs to start a new way. You've got to leave negativity where it's at."

Does she see him changing?

"I think he's trying to change," she says, speaking by telephone from her home in Las Vegas. Knight spends more time with their 14-year-old daughter. But the child support money? "It was supposed to be set aside by the bankruptcy court, and I have not received that yet. Why I don't know."

Knight's pastor, Bishop Noel Jones, who heads the mammoth City of Refuge church in Los Angeles, declined to be interviewed by The Washington Post, citing a "hectic schedule." But he did submit this statement by e-mail:

"The Word has incredible power to transform. . . . Mr. Knight has been attending the City of Refuge, on and off, for a protracted period of time, and it seems that Mr. Knight's faith in the Word is redefining his self-identity. This does not mean it is easy, for him, or anyone to change easily or immediately. . . .

"We are all a work in progress."

Out on the Town

Vegas. A polished lobby. The Palms Hotel. It's nearly 11 years since Tupac's murder. It's Fight Night again. De la Hoya vs. Mayweather.

At midnight, a lumbering bear of a man, hands shoved deep in pockets, single diamond stud blinging in his ear, traverses the lobby. He's recognized by blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, frat boys and high rollers alike.

"Suge!!!!!"

A soon-to-be bride, decked out in bachelorette party gear, approaches and snuggles in, a good foot shorter than he. "I've got an idea for a funny picture," she tells him. She reaches into her purse, pulls out a fake grill, and shoves it onto her teeth. Grins for the camera. Knight wraps an arm around her, inclines his head in close.

A Latina bachelorette flashing a grill: the triumph of gangsta glam.

A few feet away, taking this all in, is Knight's nephew Desi Tubbs. Tubbs is in his 20s and he's clearly geeked to be hanging with his uncle. He has a posse of girls and guys with him, which doesn't please Knight, who prefers to roll solo. On tap for tonight: partying at the Moon/Playboy club at the Palms.

"I don't know if you can get in wearing those jeans and sneakers," Knight says, looking at his own jeans and sneakers.

"I mean, I can get in like this, but . . ." He shrugs.

The bouncer recognizes Knight and, with a big smile, opens the velvet rope to allow him through. Knight doesn't mention his nephew to the bouncer.

But then he turns around and points into the crowd. The bouncer lets in the group that Knight pointed to, a cluster of buxom babes in plunging little black dresses. The girls who were hanging with Tubbs.

Knight heads upstairs to party, where he'll buy Tubbs's friends drinks and dance to old-school rap songs like "Gin n Juice," Snoop's hit.

Out in the lobby, his nephew will wait, and wait, and wait some more. But he never makes it into the club.

Researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.


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