By Paul Russell
12/5/2002 10:14:33 PM
Tags and topics realted to this article include Suge Knight.
The following article appears on today's edition of the Los Angeles Times..
The party at the Playboy Mansion was over hours earlier, and as the clock ticked toward 4 a.m., Marion "Suge" Knight was back in his darkened office and puffing on a Cuban cigar. Over his shoulder, the framed platinum albums glinted like chrome rims in a low fog. It was then, as so often happens with the rap music mogul, that the topic turned to murder.
"I'm a product of the inner city, and if you're from off the block, more than likely, you're going to go in a violent way or spend your life in prison," he said in a near whisper. "But no matter what, mine will be a peaceful death. You see, I have made history. And I know one thing: Ain't no man can stop me from going to heaven."
The late hours and ominous talk are trademarks of the 37-year-old Knight, the founder of Death Row Records. In the 1990s, Knight's company pushed hard-core rap into the music mainstream and generated $100 million a year in album sales at its peak. But along the way, its chief became infamous for a strong-arm style and his proximity to people who ended up dead.
Just two weeks ago, 175 heavily armed sheriff's deputies swarmed Knight's office, his homes in three cities and a dozen other sites as part of a slaying investigation. Three men identified as Knight associates were arrested but were later released and not charged. A fourth Knight associate was charged in a Nov. 26 attempted murder warrant and remains at large. Investigators have said Knight is not a suspect in the ongoing probe.
"The taxpayers," Knight said, "are the ones that should be outraged here. All this, for what?" He declined further comment on the police probe, which centers on factions of the Bloods and their alleged roles in a June 7 killing and an Oct. 22 attempted murder. Knight has long been associated with the Bloods and through the years has hired the gang's members as employees.
The hulking Knight has never minded the whispers that follow him. Just the opposite. The former football player exults in the idea of himself as a John Gotti from Compton, a celebrity tough guy in a killer wardrobe.
Now, though, the murmurs at music industry events have a different Suge subplot: Does Knight even matter anymore?
Knight has heard the doubters and agreed to two interviews in the past week to answer the question of his music industry relevance.
In both he presented himself as a serene businessman who is passionate about music and relentlessly optimistic. He is inconsistent when speaking about matters of the street; he presents himself as a survivor who has outgrown the gang scene and its violence, but every time he goes into the studio he walks beneath a handwritten sign: "Keep it Gangsta."
At its peak, Death Row Records was a hit factory led by superstars Tupac Shakur (who recorded as 2Pac), Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, and Knight was the dealmaker and details man. But the slaying of Shakur, the defections of Dre and Snoop and Knight's own imprisonment have left that empire diminished.
Renamed simply Tha Row, Knight's company now finds its biggest hits in the music of its past, such as "Better Dayz," a posthumous package of unreleased 2Pac music that today will debut high on the nation's album chart.
But Knight says there is only one full album's worth of unreleased Shakur music remaining. The long-term health of Tha Row will be determined by its new stars. "Death Row is all pictures and memories," Knight acknowledges, "and now it is about Tha Row ... " And so far Tha Row has yet to prove the doubters wrong. The debut album from its most promising new talent, Long Beach rapper Crooked I, was due in stores in September but has yet to be released.
"This is a guy who was a folk hero and a guy everyone talked about or feared," said Huyn Kim, an editor at Vibe, the hip-hop magazine that has tracked Knight's e
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