In the 1990s, Marion “Suge” Knight, CEO of Death Row Records, looked like the second coming of John Gotti: Cuban cigar in hand, tailor-made red suit, 7-carat diamond earring and a pinkie ring spelling out the word “MOB.”
When Knight, 53, appeared in Los Angeles Superior Court Thursday, he was still imposingly oversized at 6-foot-2, but his larger-than-life intimidation factor had all but disappeared — replaced by a middle-aged man weakened by diabetes and facing a 28-year prison sentence for manslaughter.
In 2015, during production for the film “Straight Outta Compton” — about legendary hip-hop act NWA and Knight’s role in its breakup — Knight got into a disagreement with producers over payment for the use of his likeness. On Jan. 29, he showed up at the Los Angeles movie set despite having been banned. Cle “Bone” Sloan, a technical adviser on the film, went out to talk to him.
“They got into some kind of verbal altercation and it escalated,” LA County Sheriff Lt. John Corina later said. (Knight would later be indicted for having threatened the film’s director.)
Knight asked Terry Carter — who was a one-time friend of both Knight and former NWA member Dr. Dre and reportedly wanted to help the two make amends — to meet him and Sloan at Tam’s restaurant in the Compton neighborhood. There, Knight ran his Ford pickup into the duo, killing Carter and seriously injuring Sloan.
It has been a precipitous fall for the man who helped shape the careers of Tupac Shakur, Tha Dogg Pound and Snoop Dogg and who was arguably once the most powerful figure in hip-hop.
Although Knight collapsed in December 2014 after a judge set his bail at $25 million (later reduced to $10 million), sources say he was initially confident he would beat the rap — so much so that he ran through more than a dozen lawyers, sure he could find the right one, before begrudgingly settling on a court-appointed attorney.
Given his stubborn faith, Knight’s family couldn’t believe it when he made a deal with prosecutors, pleading guilty to manslaughter on Sept. 20, hours before his trial was to begin.
“I was shocked,” said his son Suge Jacob Knight Jr., 22. “I thought he was going to take his case to trial because we had some strong evidence supporting my dad. But he’s tired . . . He just didn’t want to gamble with his life.”
Before copping a plea, Knight had faced a lifetime behind bars. According to Alex A. Alonso, a professor at California State University Long Beach, who consults with trial attorneys in LA, Knight had to play ball with prosecutors because he may have encouraged witnesses to give false testimony.
Originally, Knight had claimed self-defense. His attorneys argued that the victims or someone else at the scene had a gun. No weapon was ever found.
“Suge was trying to get witnesses to come to his trial to say certain things,” Alonso alleged. “I’ve been told by people on his team that prosecutors have taped conversations of Suge alluding to payments.”
(Calls to Knight’s representatives were not returned.)
Two of Knight’s former lawyers, Matthew Fletcher and Thaddeus Culpepper, face conspiracy charges for attempted witness bribery.
In the courtroom Thursday, Crystal Carter, the daughter of the slain man, had choice words for Knight: “a disgusting, selfish disgrace to the human species.”
It’s hard to overstate Knight’s role in 1990s hip-hop. At its peak, Death Row grossed an estimated $100 million per year.
Politicians and police demonized the gangsta-rap imprint — and Knight, a member of the Piru Blood street gang — for what they saw as a glorification of guns, violence, drugs and misogyny. But fans ate it up as the West Coast crew became counterculture antiheroes. Released between 1992 and 1996, albums by Dr. Dre and Shakur sold more than 5 million copies each, while Snoop Dogg’s debut, “Doggystyle,” topped 6 million.
Knight, who grew up in Compton, co-founded Death Row in 1991 with, among others, Dre. The two met through The D.O.C., a performer Knight was managing. Previously, Knight had gridiron dreams, having played defense at the University of Nevada and as a replacement for the Los Angeles Rams during the 1987 NFL strike.
When football didn’t work out, Knight broke into the music world working as a bodyguard for Bobby Brown and later managing acts. After Dre fell out with NWA bandmate Eazy-E — which Eazy-E blamed on Knight — Knight was waiting to swoop in with the idea to form Death Row.
“Suge could be a very friendly, charismatic guy,” said Phil Brewster, an assistant recording engineer at Death Row in the mid ’90s. “But he could snap and turn into this totally scary dude.”
Still, Knight has at least one supporter.
“Dad will always have his critics, but if you don’t have critics, you are doing something wrong,” said Knight Jr., who is one of six children.
NWA’s former manager Jerry Heller told the Murder Master Music Show podcast in 2013 that his biggest regrets were letting Knight come between Dre and Eazy-E — and stopping Eazy-E from murdering Knight, which he once told Heller he wanted to do. “I should’ve let him kill him,” he said. “I would’ve done the world a favor.”
Although Knight was nicknamed “Sugar Bear” as a child for his sweet disposition, at Death Row he fostered a chaotic atmosphere where senseless violence — including an on-site dogfighting ring — was the norm. Brewster said Knight once physically threatened him when he thought Brewster had taken his bottle of hot sauce. And while Knight was the ringleader, he was hardly the only Death Row affiliate terrorizing people.
Brewster recalled a Bloods gang member whom Knight employed as security. “This guy did way too much PCP,” Brewster said. “One day, he cold-cocked my friend who was just walking down the [Death Row offices] hallway and told him, ‘Don’t ever park in my parking spot!’ But nobody there had a parking spot. When it got to the point where I was cleaning blood off the walls in Suge’s office, I knew this was not a normal situation.”
In 1992, Knight assaulted and stripped naked, at gunpoint, brothers and aspiring rappers Lynwood and George Stanley for using Death Row’s company phone. (The CEO was fined and placed on probation.) In May 1993, he allegedly kidnapped music manager Happy Walters over a business dispute. Days later, a dazed Walters was found wandering the streets nude, his head shaven and covered in cigarette burns. (Walters has never publicly spoken of the incident, and no complaints were filed.)
Other stories from the era include Knight and his entourage allegedly beating a security guard so badly that he required extensive surgery to save his organs; Knight forcing a record promoter to drink his urine; and Knight beating an accountant who later went into hiding.
Then, in September 1996, Knight was caught on camera beating a man with the help of Shakur and others at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. That night, Knight was driving his BMW on the Vegas Strip with Shakur in the passenger seat when the 25-year-old rapper was shot by an unknown assailant. Shakur died hours later in the hospital. (Knight received a nine-year sentence for the casino assault.)
By then, Dre had had enough and left the label. Knight was released from prison in 2001 and got into a feud with Snoop Dogg the next year.
One music-industry veteran recalls getting caught in the middle of that feud, much as Terry Carter would be between Knight and Sloan years later. “Suge wanted to make an example out of me because of my affiliation with Snoop,” said the man. “A friend told me Suge had put the word out on the streets that it wasn’t safe for me. There was actually a bounty on my head.”
Knight served 10 months in prison in 2003 after assaulting a valet. He filed for bankruptcy for himself and Death Row in 2006, and the label was sold six years later. In a tragic end to his once-powerful reign, an auction of Knight’s personal effects was included in an episode of the TV series “Storage Wars.”
At a VMAs party in 2014 in Los Angeles, Knight was shot six times by a still-unknown assailant.
“Straight Outta Compton,” which does not paint Knight in the most favorable light, came out to critical raves in 2015 and has earned more than $200 million worldwide.
“Suge Knight was given the chance to become the hip-hop Berry Gordy,” said P. Frank Williams, producer of “Who Shot Biggie & Tupac?” a 2017 Fox documentary. “And he wasted it [on] his need to be a gangster.”
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