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Gangsta Rap Brought 'Suge' Knight Wealth -- and Lots of Trouble. Now He's Singing a Different Tune.

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 17, 2007

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. Five-star hotel, poolside cabana. Marion "Suge" Knight Jr., dethroned rap mogul, ex-con, self-proclaimed penitent, is kicking back with his crew: Personal assistant. Trusted friend from back in the day. Young Life, a rapper just starting out, stops by for a huddle.

An automatic mister spritzes cool water in the air. The hotel chef pops in for a chat, while a beautiful Brazilian massage therapist serves up complimentary foot rubs. Suge -- pronounced like the first syllable in "sugar" -- unties his blindingly white sneakers, stretching out his 6-foot-3, 315-pound body on a lounge chair.

"Everybody here loves Mr. Knight," the masseuse says, after he peels a bill from a fat wad. She hugs him. "He's so generous."

In this moment, there are no court cases. No radio reports that he's a deadbeat dad to his seven kids. No reminders of a blood-soaked past. Here, there are no creditors clamoring to claim pieces of his once-mighty Death Row Records, home to rap royalty -- Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac -- and now run by a bankruptcy trustee.

In court filings, Knight claims to be $137 million in debt, with $12 million in IRS liens, $51,000 in monthly expenses -- and $11 in his checking account.

He's not exactly living the life of the indigent. Ask Knight where his money comes from, and he chuckles: "Y'know, I'm a guy that did Chapter 11. I haven't been working, so people feel sorry for me."

Point out that he hasn't answered the question, and he turns serious. He'd rather not answer, he says, than tell a lie: "I told you: I don't lie.

"The only people I lie to are the police."

* * *

At 42, Knight, the man some call the "John Gotti of hip-hop," says he's a changed man -- a man with new plans. He no longer wants to be seen as the CEO whose preferred negotiating tools were a baseball bat and a tankful of hungry piranha. Today Knight says he'd like to form an R&B label dedicated to "more of a postive spin."

There's a reason, he says, why he's calling his upcoming reality TV show "Suge Knight's Unfinished Business": "I got a lot of unfinished business."

At the top of his list: two pending bankruptcy cases, the largest creditor of which is Lydia Harris, a one-time Death Row associate and estranged wife of Michael "Harry O" Harris, a one-time drug dealer doing time in San Quentin for attempted murder. Lydia Harris claims that she and Michael fronted the seed money for Death Row; Knight insists they didn't. Now she is in court attempting to collect a $107 million default judgment against Death Row, whose major assets are its master tapes of rap stars and publishing rights.

Also pending: a civil trial related to the 1997 murder of rap star Christopher Wallace -- a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G. and Biggie Smalls -- and his family's allegations that it was rogue L.A. cops, hired by Death Row, who had gunned down Biggie as part of the East Coast-West Coast rap feud. (The first civil suit ended in a mistrial; the police department declined to comment on the suit. Knight has denied any involvement in the murder.)

Knight's past is playing out in the courts at a time when rap, as an art form and an industry, is at a crossroads. Last December, the rapper Nas declared that "hip-hop is dead," and indeed, the genre seems to be in need of resuscitation. Record sales are plunging while the misogyny and nihilistic posturing of gangsta rap has taken a drubbing, thanks to the heat generated from Don Imus and his infamous three-word slur. Rap mogul Russell Simmons called for a moratorium on the use of "bitch," "ho" and the N-word. Last month, Master P joined the call, confessing, "I was part of the problem, now I want to be a part of the solution. We need to glorify the positiveness in hip-hop."

These days, Knight -- who has been in and out of prison since 1996 for probation violations -- is hopping aboard the positivity train: He says he has plans to pull the entire Death Row catalogue and bleep out each and every instance of "the N-word" (a term he now uses) in its songs. Which would make for a mighty bleep-filled catalogue.

"To me, it's not never too late to change," he says. "I pray more."

In Death Row's glory days in the '90s -- when the roster of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur reportedly generated sales of $200 million -- the public Suge was all scowls and sullen glares, a persona crafted around an aura of menace and savage hyperbole. These days, the public Suge is surprisingly sweet-natured, soft-spoken and courtly, serving up an image of the gentle giant at play.

Perhaps it's a PR ploy to help hype his reality show. Seven episodes are in the can.

He'll call a reporter just to chat ("I told my mom you'd be calling her") or send a text message ("Whats up"). At a restaurant, he's the old-fashioned gentleman, ordering for a female friend, Toi-Lin Kelly. "I had a preconceived notion," says Kelly, a 26-year-old with an MBA from USC and hopes of opening a chain of men's nail salons.

"I was scared of what his lifestyle would bring, if he had danger around him. But this 'I'm scared of Suge' thing, I don't get. He's sensitive and respectful."

Which is the real Suge? Hard to say. But one thing is clear: He's a man accustomed to being in control, of enjoying a cushy life of privilege, of manipulating perceptions.

'I Hate Snitches'

To spend time with Knight means waiting. Hours upon hours, until he finally shows up and spends hours upon hours talking and talking. Breaking down life according to Suge ("You can get rich with the Devil's money, but you can only be happy with God's money") and slyly dodging direct questions about things he'd rather not talk about. Like his purported gang affiliations. ("Am I a Blood? I've got blood in my veins.")

Conducting an interview with him is akin to trying to play double Dutch. You stand on the sidelines, watching the ropes turn and turn, waiting for a chance to jump in. Except that turn rarely comes, because Knight is a man with opinions that he loves to share. In a monologue.

Like: "I hate snitches. My parents taught me, don't be a tattletale. You go out and deal with it." And: "Women have issues. Men have problems. You grow up in the ghetto, you better be a problem solver." And: "The only kind of wine I like is from 1955 or 1963, about $6,000 a bottle. It tastes real smooth. You think about the price, but it's worth it."

Some social critics see him as a thug who made hundreds of millions by debasing rap with the gangsta aesthetic. Friends insist he's a "good-hearted brother" who held massive Mother's Day brunches for single moms in the 'hood. He sees himself as a generous soul whom others -- rappers, lawyers, mega-corporations -- took advantage of when times got tough.

"I'm not going to sit up here and tell you all the stories about me aren't true," Knight says. "Did Suge Knight kick a little ass? I kicked a lot of ass. What person in the inner city doesn't fight? I don't want to be the one who has his lunch money taken. I'd rather be full."

But not so long ago, he says, he sat up in church at City of Refuge in Los Angeles, listening to his minister, Noel Jones, and Bishop T.D. Jakes preach about letting go of the past. Knight decided that that is what he would do. Let go.

"I want to serve Death Row its final meal," he says. Still, he says, he's going to fight for its catalogue. But ultimately it might be a bankruptcy judge who flips the switch.

Gangsta Rap Goes Mainstream

From the beginning, Knight cloaked Death Row Records with a murderous mystique. "People were buying into the image," he says, "which was entertainment." The label, with its logo of a man in an electric chair, got its start in 1991 when Knight, a former college football star, concert promoter and celebrity bodyguard, met Dre, a.k.a. Andre Young, who was then a member of the seminal group N.W.A. Suge brought brains, brawn and the bucks; Dre brought the beats, sleepy, funk-laden grooves and quirky synths. With the 1992 release of Dre's classic, platinum-selling "The Chronic" -- introducing Calvin Broadus, a.k.a. Snoop Doggy Dogg -- Death Row's rep was firmly established as the sound of West Coast rap. Before then, others such as Ice-T and Schoolly D had rapped about pimping and criminal exploits, but Death Row took gangsta mainstream.

By the mid-'90s, Death Row was the rap world's biggest-selling label. Suge proclaimed it "the Motown of the '90s." But critics such as the late C. DeLores Tucker dubbed it "gangster, porno rap."

Knight saw his friends gunned down in the streets or shuffled off to jail, a fact of life, he says, if you're from the ghetto. Most famously, 11 years ago, Tupac Shakur, the world's best-selling rapper, was gunned down in a Las Vegas drive-by, with Suge at his side.

Dr. Dre, disenchanted with thug life, left the label. Snoop followed suit. In 1998, Snoop told police that he felt he was in "grave danger as a result of leaving Death Row Records," according to a memo produced within the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The rapper also told a sheriff's lieutenant that Knight had Tupac killed, the memo states. But no one was ever charged in the case.

(Knight heatedly denies the claim, which has been promoted by conspiracy theorists for years, and says: "I'm mad at him because he's a snitch." Snoop declined to be interviewed for this article.)

"It's convenient for Suge that most of the people who could hurt him died," says Randall Sullivan, author of "LAbyrinth," which focuses on an LAPD detective's investigation into the murders of Tupac and Biggie. "A lot of people died under mysterious circumstances."

Among the dead, according to the Los Angeles Times: Knight's bodyguard, Aaron "Heron" Palmer, gunned down in Compton in 1997. Vence "V" Buchanan, a purported enemy of Death Row, was killed in 2000. David "Brim Dave" Dudley, a Death Row associate, was killed in 2001.

In spring of 2002, Knight's best friend and bodyguard, Alton "Buntry" McDonald, was shot to death at a gas station. That October, Henry "Hen Dog" Smith, creator of the Death Row logo, was murdered. In 2003, Wardell "Poochie" Fouse, another Death Row associate, was killed in an ambush.

Knight himself ended up serving five years in prison for violating probation on assault and weapons charges -- thanks to a brawl preceding Tupac's murder in 1996. Ultimately, his time in the joint started a downward spiral, as Death Row faltered without him at the helm. It didn't help that he served 10 more months in 2003 for allegedly punching a parking lot attendant.

In 2005, he took a bullet in the leg at a party for the MTV Music Awards. But nowadays Knight doesn't bother with bodyguards. "I'm living," he says, "a worry-free life. . . .

"I've been through so much that whatever they try to bring on me is nothing. . . . I never thought that I'd be alive at 18. "

Robbing Corpses

In rap lore, Compton has taken on mythic status, a city where men are gangstas, women are either compliant toys or castrating she-devils, and the streets flow with blood. But the Compton of the late 1960s that Marion Knight Jr. moved to when he was 3 was a multiracial, middle-class suburb. Many whites took flight, but Suge's neighbors, an elderly couple, stuck around, and his earliest days were spent hanging out in their home. For him, he says, racism didn't exist.

His father, Marion Sr., was an R&B singer who turned to truck driving; his mom, Maxine, was a homemaker. Suge was the baby boy -- he had two older sisters. Says Maxine: "He had to be home by a certain time or I'd be looking for him in my car."

But life in Compton changed. The Bloods claimed a stake of his block. Running into a dead body wasn't such an unusual thing for a little kid: Suge claims that he and his friends would surround the corpse, pick his pockets clean, then run off to buy some candy.

At 12, Marion Jr. was big and brawny, with "an enormous Afro," he says.

"Ever since I was in elementary school, they said I was a bully. I wasn't a bully. I knew what I wanted. I didn't prey on the weak. I preyed on the strong."

He learned the lessons of power early on, when a 22-year-old friend punched his 15-year-old sister in the eye. He marshaled his forces, he says, with the help of his uncles -- some of them red (Bloods) and the others blue (Crips).

Knight tells his story with relish, a rambling saga of windows blown out by gunfire, 'tween tenacity, the Hatfields vs. the McCoys in the 'hood. "We ran them out," he recalls, laughing. "I was 12 years old. But I was running around with an 'S' on my chest."

A football scholarship meant a way out of Compton. At the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, he played defensive lineman, a position that required him to be both brainy and brawny, to make snap decisions, to survey the field and calculate how to take an opponent down -- skills he would later put to use in the music industry.

After college, Knight did a brief stint with the Los Angeles Rams but he says an attempted murder arrest scuttled his career. Records show he pleaded no contest to the charge in 1987. He didn't do time. "It went to a misdemeanor." Of the victim, he says matter-of-factly, "I shot him with his own gun."

Legal Tangles

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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