The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Suge Knight helped create gangster rap. Now he’s facing up to 28 years for a 2015 fatal hit-and-run.

Suge Knight at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles in May 2007. (Jonathan Alcorn for The Washington Post)
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On the January morning in 2015 when he turned himself in to police in West Hollywood for his role in a deadly hit-and-run, gangster rap mogul Marion “Suge” Knight was oozing Teflon confidence.

As rapper KXNG Crooked recounted to Rolling Stone six months later, Knight puffed on a cigar before heading into custody. Knight — a hulking 6-foot-2 with a colossal frame that once landed him on a pro football roster — reached up into a tree, stashing the burning butt in the branches for later.

“I’ll get back to that,” Knight reportedly said, as if his appointment with authorities would be short enough for him to return to his smoke.

Knight had every reason to trust in his own survival skills. Since the early ’90s, that same swaggering bravado had powered Knight through tumultuous ups and downs. As the founder of Death Row Records, he had launched the careers of genre-defining artists like Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur, and Snoop Dogg. He palled around with violent Bloods gang members, stoking his own reputation as a music executive more inclined to negotiate with a baseball bat than a team of lawyers. He lived through coastal rap beefs and bankruptcies, bullet wounds and jail sentences.

But that smoke break may have been Knight’s last breaths as a free man. On Thursday, he pleaded no contest to criminal charges stemming from the 2015 hit-and-run in a Compton fast-food restaurant parking lot that killed one man and injured another. The altercation was reportedly sparked by a fight on the set of the film “Straight Outta Compton.” As part of the deal, prosecutors are asking a judge to sentence Knight to 28 years in prison.

Now 53, and already physically beaten down from a number of medical conditions, Knight may never shed a prison jumpsuit.

The sentencing in October will mark the exit of one of pop music’s most significant backroom players. In the ’50s, Sam Phillips’s Sun Records served as a battering ram for breaking rock-and-roll into the mainstream. Knight did the same for hip-hop in the ’90s at Death Row, indelibly shaping the popular conception of the gangland lifestyle that eventually swallowed him whole.

“Suge” was for “Sugar Bear,” an improbably cuddly childhood nickname for a guy who Vanilla Ice once claimed dangled him off a balcony over a business dispute.

Although the music Knight championed made harsh poetry out of the tough world of urban poverty, he grew up in a relatively stable household in Compton. He was the youngest child of three; his father was a truck driver while his mother was a homemaker. “He was spoiled,” his mother told the New York Times Magazine in 1996. “I would always do anything for him. He could get anything he wanted.”

Football was his ladder out of the ghetto. A standout defensive end in high school, he eventually played at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, lettering in 1985 and 1986, according to the Las Vegas Sun. He played part of a season with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams until his sports career was scuttled after an arrest on an attempted murder charge in 1987. According to a 2007 Washington Post profile, he pleaded no contest and served no jail time.

“It went to a misdemeanor,” he told The Post. “I shot him with his own gun.”

While working as a bodyguard for singer Bobby Brown, Knight began circulating in the music scene. He recognized the moneymaking potential of the pioneering hard rap sound coming from groups like N.W.A. The group’s leader, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, had known Knight since they were both growing up in Compton, the Times reported. Dre and Knight started their own label, Death Row, in the early ’90s. Knight brought his street-tough approach to the music business.

“In the beginning, they thought, ‘He’s a big, ol’ large guy and a jock and aggressive — he must be a dummy,’ ” Knight told the Times. “They were arrogant toward me. They didn’t respect me as a man. But being big was the best thing. They underestimated me. They didn’t know I had a briefcase full of hits, a bag of tricks.”

Death Row quickly established itself as the sound of West Coast rap with two classic albums — Dr. Dre’s 1992 solo debut, “The Chronic,” and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Doggystyle” in 1993. When Tupac Shakur joined the label in 1995, Knight had a roster of the genre’s best talent. They began raking in money.

“There’s a billion dollars on top of a hill,” he told the Times in 1996. “And we’re running. We’re not getting distracted. We’re going to get our prize.”

But the violence described in the music was bleeding into real life. Knight proudly wore red, a taunting association of his rumored links with the Bloods street game. “Am I a Blood?” he coyly said to The Post in 2007. “I’ve got blood in my veins.”

“People on the street looked at Death Row as a gang more than a record label,” KXNG Crooked told Rolling Stone. “I bought myself a vest, and an arsenal — a .357 Magnum and a P89 Ruger. That’s how real it was. I don’t think it will ever be like that again, and I don’t want it to be.”

He also arguably single-handedly ignited the bicoastal beef that would drastically change the music. New York City was Ground Zero for rap. In the ’90s, a young impresario named Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs was running his own label, Bad Boy Entertainment. His star emcee, Notorious B.I.G., was staking his own claim as the best rapper in the business. At the 1995 Source Awards in Manhattan, Knight took the stage to lob a blistering dig at Combs.

“If you don’t want the owner of your label on your album or in your video or on your tour, come sign with Death Row,” Knight said to the shocked crowd. The words set up a conflict between the two camps. Both Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. were killed in unsolved shootings within six months of each other. Knight was in the car with Shakur when the rap star was shot in Las Vegas in September 1996.

That same year, Knight was sent to prison for five years for an assault that occurred on the same night Shakur was killed. The prison sentence marked the end of his music empire. Big names fled Death Row. Financial and legal problems continued to plague Knight after his release in 2001. In 2007, The Post reported Knight had claimed in court filings he was $137 million in debt and facing $12 million in IRS liens.

He continued to work the margins of the music business he had helped create, but violence also continued to trail him. According to Rolling Stone, Knight was shot in the leg at a 2005 Miami Beach party thrown by Kanye West to celebrate the MTV Video Music Awards. In 2014, Knight was again gunned down by an unknown assailant at a West Hollywood party hosted by Chris Brown.

By January 2015, the music history Knight played such a crucial role in was set for Hollywood adaptation. “Straight Outta Compton” — co-produced by Dr. Dre — was filming in Los Angeles when Knight bulled onto the set behind the wheel of his red Ford F-150 Raptor pickup, Rolling Stone reported. After a confrontation on the set, Knight left, later reconvening at a Compton restaurant with two men, Cle “Bone” Sloan and Terry Carter. As the fight picked up, Knight’s car lurched forward, killing Carter and seriously wounding Sloan.

After turning himself in, Knight was charged with murder, attempted murder, and hit-and-run. As part of his plea agreement this week, Knight will plead no contest to a manslaughter charge. Although the charge normally carried a maximum 11-year sentence, Knight’s two previous convictions mean he will be sentenced under California’s three-strike law, upping the prison term to 28 years.

According to CNN, the sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 4.

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