No one can just drop in on Death Row Records CEO Marion “Suge” Knight Jr. without feeling the magnitude of his reputation. No one.
On a cool Southern California evening, I arrive to see him at the Can-Am Building in Tarzana, a 30-minute drive north of Los Angeles. I’m greeted by a tall, stone-faced, caramel-colored man with a walkie-talkie and a black windbreaker inscribed SECURITY. Rather than letting me into the tiny lobby area, he tells me to wait outside while he alerts someone within the single-story edifice that Suge has a visitor.
The budding legend surrounding 30-year-old Suge Knight is such that damn near everyone-from fellow journalists to former and current Death Row employees all the way to a shoeshine man in West L.A.-warned me that Suge was “the wrong nigga to fuck with.” The mere mention of his name was 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.
This is an especially hectic time for Knight and Death Row, whose “keepin’ it real” mentality has the industry all shook up. Tha Dogg Pound’s controversial debut album, Dogg Food-the breaking point in the relationship between Time Warner and Interscope Records, Death Row’s distributor-was finally released last Halloween and shot to No. 1 on the pop charts. As Snoop Doggy Dogg faced a murder charge in L.A., Knight secured a $1.4 million bond to bail Tupac Shakur out of prison in October and signed him up (both to Death Row Records and Knight’s management arm). Shakur has been working feverishly on his Death Row debut-a double CD all written since Shakur’s release, titled All Eyes on Me (28 cuts including a duet with Snoop called “Two of America’s Most Wanted”)-partly because a return to prison still looms, pending appeals.
Meanwhile, work continues on projects for singers Danny Boy and Nate Dogg, and rappers the Lady of Rage, Jewell, Sam Sneed, and others yet unheard of-to say nothing of the artists for whom Knight now “consults,” including Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, and DJ Quik. Death Row is also backing record labels headed by Snoop (Doggystyle Records) and Tha Dogg Pound (Gotta Get Somewhere Records). Plus there’s Knight’s new Club 662 in Las Vegas and the vision of Dr. Dre directing movies for Death Row Films.
All these things are on my mind as I’m being frisked in the lobby of the Can-Am Building, now the permanent studio for Death Row, where talents as diverse as Bobby Brown, Harry Belafonte, and Barry Manilow once recorded. Around-the-clock protection is provided by a group of off-duty black police officers who work in Los Angeles. While Death Row isn’t the group’s only client, it’s the biggest. According to the guard at the reception desk, “We’re better security because we’re all licensed to carry guns-anywhere.”
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