Now, M.O.B. might stand for Member of Bloods -- the gang Suge has been affiliated with since he was a child growing up in Compton, a largely black suburb in South-Central Los Angeles. The Bloods and their eternal enemies, the Crips, long battled on the streets of Los Angeles. (They've had a truce for nearly two years.) In Compton, gang territories are well delineated and Suge grew up in Bloods' land. The eight or so guys he still hangs with, friends since elementary school, also wear M.O.B. rings, although Suge's is bigger and has more jewels.
But M.O.B. also spells mob. The crime-lord code has seeped into Suge Knight from movies like "Scarface" and "The Godfather." He has embraced the blinding toughness of that world -- the maleness, the monied glamour, the us-against-them sense of power. His company, Death Row Records, specializes in gangster rap by artists like Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. Their lyrics can be violent and misogynistic, and they sell millions and millions of records. Suge -- everybody calls him Suge -- is the kingpin of this family and his sensibility prevails. Some say that like the gangsters in the movies, he is to be feared, that he will mess you up if you cross him; others claim Suge is just a brilliant businessman who understands that the tough-guy persona works. He's a myth-in-the making and knows it. He figured that out a long time ago. "M.O.B.," Suge repeats softly, when you ask about the ring one last time. He stares. It is a definitive stare. Just watch me, his eyes command. Just watch.
Every successful independent record label starts with a sound and a vision -- a belief in a kind of music that the major labels haven't heard or don't get or don't know how to sell. Until Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin created Def Jam Recordings in 1984, black music meant rhythm and blues and soul. Rap was considered a passing fad -- a street sound from the East Coast that would never find a commercial, mainstream audience. But Def Jam was almost immediately successful: rap artists like Run-D.M.C., L.L. Cool J and the Beastie Boys (who happen to be white) sold millions of records. Their audience, as it turned out, was primarily white and suburban and male, the same audience that bought hard rock acts. The inner-city thug life, the longing-to-be-large attitude was the attraction. The East Coast sound was not particularly violent, the lyrics spoke to material aspirations. As Run-D.M.C. rapped, "I've gotta big long Caddy/Not like a Seville/Written on the side/Say dressed to kill."
The vision on the West Coast was quite different. You rap what you know and gangsta rap came straight out of Compton and Long Beach and parts of East Los Angeles. The sheer physical space of the city created a different ghetto community. On the East Coast, rappers dreamed of leaping from the projects in the Bronx to Manhattan. In L.A. they stayed put, and their rhymes reflected the values of their neighborhoods.
Spearheaded by Compton's own N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude), gangsta rap was an almost instant commercial and critical success. But these groups were scary: the rappers were often arrested and their songs had titles like "[Expletive] tha Police" and "To Kill a Hooker." All the violence, both implied and real, made the major labels nervous, even though the critical response was almost unanimously positive.
Suge Knight loved the music and recognized its commercial potential. Since he and the top rap producer, Andre (Dr. Dre) Young, started Death Row in 1992, they have sold more than 15 million records and grossed more than $100 million. They have also been accused of glamorizing violence, degrading women, corrupting the minds of children and reinforcing a negative image of black urban life. In the summer, Bob Dole and William J. Bennett led the charge against rap lyrics -- andDeath Row in particular -- proclaiming that the music was unfit for the youth of America. They won the battle but lost the war: Time Warner, which distributed Death Row records, severed their ties with the company. But far from damaging sales, the rupture made Death Row even more notorious. And in the record business, notorious means mysterious. And provocative. And all that is very, very good for business. Which, of course, Suge Knight understands.
It's not only the music that's notorious. The rappers are as well. Snoop Doggy Dogg is on trial for participating in a murder in Los Angeles. Tupac Shakur has been convicted of sexually abusing a fan in a New York hotel room, and has done prison time. Dr. Dre recently served a five-month work-release sentence for violating probation on an earlier assault charge. But like a latter-day Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, Suge treats his artists like beloved children, even when they break the law. He protects them, gets them legal help, bails them out.
When you sign with Death Row, it's almost a blood bond. This is not just a company -- it's Suge's gang, and he's on call 24 hours a day. "Death Row is a way of life," Suge explains. "It's an all-the-time thing. And aint't nobody gonna change that."
It's October, about 9 P.M., the day of the O. J. verdict, and Suge Knight is sitting in a red leather club chair in his red office at the Can-Am studios in Tarzana, in the San Fernando Valley. Red is the color of the Bloods and the team color of Death Row -- red carpet, red walls, red clothes, red. "I thought O. J.'d get off," Suge says. He is wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt and huge sneakers, which are climbing up the wall in front of him. "He's O. J. jumping over [expletive], O. J. run for a touchdown." Suge laughs softly. "What the [expletive] Juice done for us?" he continues. "I don't want to see anybody behind bars, but I've never seen O. J. in the ghetto."
Suge's portable phone, which rings every two or three minutes, rings. He flips it open and cradles the phone, which looks like a tiny toy in his hand next to his ear. "Yeah," he purrs. "O.K. No. O.K." He flips it shut. Nearly all his conversations are this short -- nobody, it seems, wants to waste Suge's time.
He works constantly, usually at Can-Am, which Death Row owns. Suge's office is large but sparsely decorated. The bookshelves hold only a few sports trophies, there are platinum records on the walls and the Death Row logo -- a hooded prisoner about to die in the electric chair -- is emblazoned in white on the red carpeting. There are model cars on the desk and a large fish tank, which contains piranhas. "I feed them rats," he says. "Sometimes mice."
The entire studio, including the office, is monitored by cameras. Six stacked TV screens in the office show all the comings and goings throughout the building, and the office door remains locked. If Suge doesn't know you, you don't get in. Though Suge often sleeps in a small room next to his office, in a bed with maroon satin sheets, the office has the feel of a fortress. And for good reason: there are, according to published reports, three contracts out on Suge's life. This could be rumor, part of the usual Death Row gangster myth, but why not be careful?
Suge is vague about the threats on his life. "You gotta realize something," he says. "People lie, and I'm one helluva [expletive], and they can't deal with it. They're scared. People like to say stuff to get a conversation going. My program's the same: I'm in my office working, at my studio working. If someone wants to meet with me, they can. I'm not a person who's hiding. You can't worry about it. If you worry, you'll never get anywhere."
Suge pauses. This talk of violence doesn't seem to bother him. In fact, he's oddly imperturbable, almost unnaturally calm. His attention is elsewhere, almost always on business. "There's a billion dollars on top of a hill," he explains. "And we're running. We're not getting distracted. We're going to get our prize." Knight's phone is ringing. "It's important," he says, "to keep your eyes on the prize."
An assistant is buzzed into the office bearing a stack of five foil takeout trays -- Suge's dinner. There's chicken-fried steak and greens and cornbread and chicken rice and macaroni and cheese and a paper cup full of gravy. "Do you have any hot sauce?" Suge asks. The assistant goes to find some.
This is the way Suge always eats, as if he were an athlete, loading up on fuel. When Suge was a teen-ager, sports seemed to be his route up and out.
The youngest of three and the only boy, Suge, named Marion after his father, was always looking to get ahead. "He was spoiled," says Maxine Knight, Suge's mother. "I would always do anything for him. He could get anything he wanted. Suge always liked gold, and he was careful about his appearance, and he always said, 'Mom, one day I'm going to live in a house with a second floor and I'll have a lot of cars.' "
Suge's father, a truck driver who had played college football, encouraged him to play defensive end; his uncles would reward him with hot dogs and money when he took the quarterback's head off. He was a high-school football star in Compton, went on to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and later played part of a season for the Los Angeles Rams.
After football, Knight worked briefly as a bodyguard for the R & B singer Bobby Brown. He had always been interested in music and began promoting shows in L.A. In 1990, Knight formed a music publishing company. When the white rap novelty Vanilla Ice recorded seven of the songs Suge owned, he learned an early lesson: even though the songs were hits, his company saw little profit. "It would never happen again,"says Russell Simmons of Def Jam.
Suge had a plan: he had known Dr. Dre for years, since childhood in Compton. When he was a member of N.W.A., Dre pretty much created the sound known as West Coast gangsta rap. Suge recognized his potential, and saw that he could make him -- and, through him, the music -- into a phenomenon. There was only one problem: Dre had signed a contract with Ruthless Records, the label owned by Eazy-E (another member of N.W.A.). Dre came to think the contract was unfair. He was in debt, and Ruthless was withholding back pay. Dre wanted out, and Suge wanted him out, too. According to court documents, Suge went to the Ruthless office with a couple of guys and some baseball bats and pipes. "I know you've heard all the stories," Suge says now. "But you have to realize one thing: results."
Dre was released from his Ruthless contract and the next year he and Suge started Death Row Records. Without a major label deal of any kind, Dre recorded "The Chronic," which featured an appearance by Snoop Doggy Dogg, who was then unknown. ("Chronic" is a slang term for marijuana.) Several major record labels were interested in releasing the album, but Suge wanted the right deal, one that would establish Death Row. So for nearly a year "The Chronic" went unreleased.
Jimmy Iovine and his partner, Ted Field, at Interscope Records were eager to make a deal with Suge and Death Row. Their brand-new label was financed in part and distributed by Warner Music Group, a division of Time Warner. Interscope saw no reason not to take a chance on gangsta rap, and by 1995 "The Chronic" had sold more than two million copies and Death Row was the biggest rap label in the world.
Death Row broke other boundaries. For years, MTV had ghettoized rap videos, clumping them together on shows like "Yo! MTV Raps." Death Row was the first rap label to get its videos in regular rotation on MTV and the first to crossover into pop radio. And that was pure Suge. From the start, he was on top of everything at Death Row -- from choosing artwork, promotional materials, singles and the track for the B side, to hiring the video director and the girls to be in the video, to deciding where the party should be and who should be invited, to what Snoop should wear. All of this is about shaping street culture for consumption by the youth of America, which is Suge's real genius.
Suge knows how to take care of business, from start to finish. "Everybody can have an ugly face," he explains. He smiles and cuts a piece of steak. He has arranged the trays around him and looks like a happy kid. "You can. I can. There are lots of slicksters out there. Beat me out of my money and I'll kick your drawers up your behind. Treat me fair and I'll treat you fair. I stand up for right. I'm always 12 o'clock straight up as long as you're straight up with me. But if you mess with me or my people, you've got a problem." Suge pauses and eats quietly. "If I wanted to," he says, "I could really scare the hell out of you."
It's days later and there's this story, which may or may not be true. Parts have proved to be accurate, but no one knows the whole truth. Or are too afraid to say. It began in August at the Source Awards, an annual rap-world event held at the Paramount Theater in Manhattan. Death Row was heavily nominated and appeared in force -- Snoop was there and Dre and Suge. When Suge went on stage to present an award, he made a comment aimed at Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs, the C.E.O. of Bad Boy Entertainment, a rival rap label based in New York that has had huge success with the rapper Notorious B.I.G. Puffy, as he is known, is a flamboyant 25-year-old who appears in his artists' videos and often raps on their records. Without naming names, Suge announced from the stage, "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."
Puffy was shocked and amazed. When he took the stage to give out an award to, of all people, Snoop Doggy Dogg, he made a speech about unity and hugged Snoop, but the battle had begun. A few months later, at an after-party in Atlanta for Jermaine Dupree, a producer, the two factions -- East Coast versus West Coast -- met up again. Here the story gets murky. Late in the evening, Jake Robles, a Death Row employee and a close friend of Suge's, got into an argument with another guest. They started fighting and Robles was shot. No one was ever arrested in the shooting, but several witnesses maintain that the gunman was a bodyguard of Puffy's and also his cousin. Puffy himself denies any connection to the shooting. For a week Robles was in critical condition, almost certainly paralyzed for life, and then he died.
On that afternoon, Suge is driving his big, wide, black Chevy, one of 34 cars he owns, and he doesn't want to talk about it. He is playing a tape of R & B oldies -- Marvin Gaye is crooning "Let's Get It On." He's on the San Diego Freeway, on his way to a garage in El Monte where he keeps his cars. "You're born to die," he finally allows. "Ain't nobody gonna leave here alive. Everybody is born and everybody's going to die. Period. That's the way it's played. Can't nobody change that."
To circumvent any plans for retaliation on Suge's part, Puffy sent Mustafa Farrakhan, a son of Louis Farrakhan, to talk to Suge. Suge refused to meet with him. "He's going to settle the beef his way," says a friend. "On the street." Now Puffy always travels with bodyguards.
"It's sort of hard to keep up with the apocrypha on Suge," says Warren Beatty, who has become quite friendly with Suge while researching a movie project set in the rap world. "I mean, Puff Daddy, Muff Daddy, whatever. I know Suge was very close to the man who died. And I know he was very upset. The apocrypha is just talk, even when it's pungent."
And yet, exaggerations aside, violent undercurrents run through Suge's life. He does not try to explain the situation but does have an all-purpose solution, one not uncommon to black inner-city males: assert and define yourself as a man. "Lots of times, I say, 'There are a lot of males, but a male is not a man.' You get a lot of guys running around acting tough, and that's not part of being a man. Whatever it is, a man is going to deal with it. 'Cause whatever happens, if God makes you a man, it's a gift. A lot of guys are not men. Even if they have money or success, they are just males."
When Suge doesn't like or respect someone, like Puff Daddy or Jerry Heller, Eazy-E's manager and his partner in Ruthless Records, he does not view them as men. When Suge was trying to get Dre out of his contract with Ruthless, he apparently felt justified in using any tactics. In an interview in the book "Moguls and Madmen," by Jory Farr, Heller is quoted as saying that one of Suge's men put a finger up to his temple and said, "I could have blown you away right now."
But he didn't, and Suge will not comment on the matter. He just played the bluff hard and ended up winning. "You can walk around and kiss everyone's behind and then you worry," says Suge, pulling into the driveway of One-Stop, his car garage. "Or you be a man and you stand up. You make sure your people are successful and people gonna talk about you. There's only one person on this earth who was perfect and that was Jesus Christ, and they killed him. If they can crucify a person who's perfect, who's God's son, how is anybody else safe? Just be aman and then you can deal with everything."
He turns off the ignition and gets out of the car. Three of his buddies are hanging outside the garage, talking to the mechanics. They greet Suge warmly, but they keep some distance -- this is his show. There are cars parked everywhere -- a maroon Mercedes, a forest green Jaguar, a turquoise-and-white 50's Bel Air. The cars sparkle, they shine, they seem to be covered in glitter.
Suge retreats to the corner of the room to make a phone call. He is almost certainly making last minute arrangements for the release of Tupac Shakur, the newest Death Row recording artist, from a New York State prison, where he has been serving time for the sexual assault of a 21-year-old woman at Manhattan's Parker Meridien Hotel in November 1993. Awaiting appeal, Shakur was legally permitted to be freed, but he was unable to make bail. It's all in the family: Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dogg are longtime friends, and Suge has known Shakur for years. Tonight, Suge and his lawyer, David Kenner, are planning to fly to upstate New York in a private plane, put up $1.4 million in bail money and bring Shakur straight back to the Can-Am studio, where he will record a new album. Shakur's last album reached No. 1 immediately, even though he had already been convicted.
"Tupac's good people," Suge says, getting off the phone. "And he got a bad deal." Suge walks proudly among his cars and strolls over to a 1963 red Impala with the Death Row logo airbrushed on its trunk. He pops the hood and looks at the engine, which gleams, and asks the mechanic (one of two who work for him full time) to show him what she's got. The car bounces. It jumps. It tilts and drives on three tires. Suge is delighted. "This car is my favorite," he says. "It hops and that's illegal. It goes up and down and that's illegal. It drives on three wheels and that's illegal." Suge smiles. "People say I'm illegal, so this car is my favorite." He watches the car bounce. "We go together."
It's 5 P.M. on a Tuesday in early November and, as usual, there's big drama at the Death Row offices on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood Village. Everybody's supposed to meet here to go to a special Soul Train Awards ceremony and Tha Dogg Pound -- that is, Dat Nigga Daz and Kurupt -- are somewhere on the road. Tha Dogg Pound, formerly Snoop Doggy Dogg's backup rappers but now on their own, are supposed to be at a tuxedo rental shop -- the Awards are black tie -- but they're nowhere to be found. "I think Daz is on the radio," says Norris Anderson, Suge's assistant to Roy Tesfay, Suge's other assistant. He's right: "Hi, this is Dat Nigga Daz," comes the voice over the airwaves. "I'm going to put some soul in your train."
Tha Dogg Pound's record, "Dogg Food," was released on Halloween. It was supposed to come out earlier, but Suge thought, They're all so scared of it, I'll release it on the scariest night of the year. Although nobody had then heard the album, "Dogg Food" was at the center of the gangsta rap controversy between Death Row and Time Warner, the final sticking point in what had once been a productive and harmonious relationship between Death Row and Interscope and its parent company, Warner Music Group.
The Time Warner-Death Row partnership was profitable and, to the public, largely invisible, until C. DeLores Tucker, chairwoman of the National Political Congress of Black Women, bought 10 shares of Time Warner stock, showed up at the annual shareholders' meeting in May and made a very loud noise, calling the company "a conspirator in the denigration and destruction of the black community." In the next few months she almost single-handedly commandeered the divorce of Time Warner and Death Row.
In the beginning the debate was over content -- the violence and misogyny in rap lyrics. But the controversy was also about control. Quite simply, could Michael Fuchs, then the newly appointed chairman of Warner Music Group, control the content of the Interscope-Death Row releases? Could he tell Dre or Snoop not to write lyrics about guns and whores and killing policemen? Perhaps not directly. But he seemed to think DeLores Tucker might be able to get the Death Row artists to soften their lines.
After Tucker's comments at the May meeting, William Bennett and Bob Dole began attacking gangsta rap, and the entire issue snowballed. While Bennett and Dole were flexing their political muscles in the name of decency and goodness, Tucker's interest might have been financially motivated as well. According to Death Row's lawyer, David Kenner, "What she really wanted was to buy the company." A lawsuit filed by Death Row in Federal District Court in California charges Tucker with racketeering to interfere with the company's operations.
Suge had no interest in selling. As for Bennett and Dole, he will not discuss them directly, but does reason that if people don't like gangsta rap, they just shouldn't buy the records. Interscope, for its part, decided to buy its stake in the company back from Time Warner and, in September, paid Time Warner a reported $120 million to do so. Relieved to be out of the political storm, Warner Music Group agreed to distribute Interscope records for six months, but refused to release Tha Dogg Pound's album.
As it turned out, however, Warner's publishing wing, Warner-Chappell, still shares the rights to all Death Row songs. That is, they own and will profit from the lyrics they tried to distance themselves from, including Tha Dogg Pound's. In the midst of the controversy, Les Bider, who runs Warner-Chappell, renewed Death Row's existing publishing deal and gave the company a $4 million advance. "That's every Chronic album, every Dogg Pound album, every Snoop album, every record they supposedly got rid of Death Row over," says an executive close to the negotiation. "They didn't want anyone to know about it. Everybody was making bets that they would never sign those papers. Bider called Fuchs, and Fuchs said, 'What I don't know can't hurt me,' and the deal went through. Now all they have to make money off of is the lyrics."
Fuchs, who left Time Warner in November, denies having said "What I don't know can't hurt me." But when asked about Time Warner's publishing rights to the lyrics, he responded: "I don't think it's hypocritical. In a volatile atmosphere we made a decision. Owning the publishing was about Time Warner making money, not about what we put in front of our children."
Despite the controversy, nothing has changed at Death Row. The label made a deal with Priority Records to distribute "Dogg Food," which went straight to No. 1. "Tha Dogg Pound record is in the stores," Suge says. "So what did DeLores Tucker accomplish?" He pauses. "The Warner Brothers thing wasn't frustrating to me because I knew whatever's gonna happen is gonna happen. Period. Can't nobody stop that. I knew I had to do one thing. I had to make sure we released our records."
None of this much concerns Daz or Kurupt, who have finally shown up at the Death Row office in their tuxes. The rapper Nate Dogg is with them, and he is in black tie, too. The offices, across the hall from Interscope's, are nondescript: this could be a midlevel law firm or an import-export company, except for the boxes of Death Row promotional items and the TV in the small lobby, which is permanently switched to whichever station -- BET or the Box -- is showing rap videos.
"I don't want to go to no Soul Train," Daz is saying. "I don't wanna be no Hollywood." No one much listens. Suge's guys are starting to file in -- whenever Suge goes out, he brings his posse (no women, just men) along for the show. There's Neckbone and Trey and Rock and Hen Dogg and Bountry, who's probably Suge's closest and oldest friend. Bountry, who is taking lint off his black fedora with masking tape, gets big respect. "It's an old ghetto trick," he says, pulling off the tape and placing the hat on his head at a stylish tilt. Neckbone nods.
Daz and Kurupt are still balking. "Suge always says, 'Keep it real,' " Daz says, fussing with his tux. "Just get dressed," Bountry says. "Suge'll be here. He wants you to go." This makes an impression. "We got the biggest record in the country right now," Daz says, sounding a bit giddy. "We can do whatever." Bountry stares. "Suge wants you there," he says. "You best be there."
Downstairs in the parking garage, Suge is talking with his jeweler. Suge's tux has a two-tone shadow-stripe weave from top to bottom, and he's wearing a round pave diamond clasp in lieu of a bow tie. Suge gleams. He's got his dog Damu by the leash in one hand and is holding up a diamond dog-bone pendant on a heavy gold chain with the other. It's a belated birthday gift for Snoop, who will be attending the Soul Train Awards tonight. About 10 feet away, near a long, white stretch limo, is Tupac Shakur. He's wearing a tux with black patent-leather shoes and has a white bandanna tied neatly around his shaved head. Two bodyguards are milling about. Although the Death Row gang was supposed to leave two hours ago, no one seems to be in a hurry.
"Where is everybody?" Suge says when he sees Bountry. Norris, Suge's assistant, places a white bucket filled with ice and two bottles of Cristal Champagne on the trunk of the car. "This is for the limo," he says. "Are you going to take the dog to the show?" "Yeah," Suge says, returning Snoop's present to its leather box. "You gotta love my dog, be nice to my dog," he half-jokes. "I don't jump on your woman, you don't jump on my dog. A dog's better than a woman. They're always happy to see you. When you get home, they're happy. If you don't call, they don't care. They don't say, 'Where have you been?' "
Suge walks Damu over to Tupac and the two men huddle briefly. He puts his arm around Tupac's shoulder, cradling him, and says what he has to say -- this is Suge's way. Since getting to L.A., Tupac has been recording nonstop. Tonight is his first public appearance in some time. "I'm not nervous," he says. Tupac, who has dark cat's eyes with long, curly lashes, is very articulate. He's just happy to be out of jail. "I'm thankful. I'm so glad to be here. I always wanted to be on Death Row."
It's time to leave and everybody wants to be in Suge's limo, even though they're scared of the dog. "Damu!" Suge says as the dog lurches at Trey, who is recoiling in the corner of the car. Like all of Suge's dogs, Damu is trained to protect. Which means he can do some damage, on command. Trey's fear seems to amuse Suge. "You scared of my dog?" he says playfully, yanking Damu back. "You scared?"
At the Shrine Auditorium, where the Awards are held, Damu has to stay in the car. Death Row has bought two full rows of seats, the fourth and fifth, right behind Magic Johnson and the President of Guyana and to the left of Whitney Houston. As Suge and posse arrive backstage, Tupac is embraced like a long-lost child. "Ba-by!" the choreographer Debbie Allen exclaims, clutching him. "So good to see you."
Despite Tupac's warm welcome, the rest of the Death Row party are kept at a distance. They move in a pack, with Suge in the center. He is flanked by bodyguards and friends who might as well be bodyguards. Death Row looks like an army and the reception is a bit icy.
Suge's never had a warm welcome from the music industry. "In the beginning, they thought, 'He's a big, ol' large guy and a jock and aggressive -- he must be a dummy,' " Suge says. "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."
There is an uneasiness with gangsta rap even among black executives and artists. And it doesn't help that a man was fatally beaten at a Death Row party held to honor the regular Soul Train Awards in March. No names were named and Death Row was not held responsible, but the old-line R & B guys are not comfortable with all the violence. And Suge's not much of a schmoozer -- small talk isn't part of his program.
Then there's the age-old war between the coasts. Even though Soul Train is taped on the West Coast, the music it promotes is largely associated with the East Coast, and most of the artists and executives backstage are from the Motown school: traditionalists here to listen to Stevie and Diana and Whitney. They aren't much interested in Tha Dogg Pound.
Suge and company shuffle down their rows. Tall and slim, Snoop is wearing an elegant brown suit, his hair pulled back in a fat braid. The show is late, but when it finally starts Suge seems immediately restless. The host of the evening, Arsenio Hall, does a bit about Johnnie Cochran and then introduces Stevie Wonder, who starts singing "Superstition." Suge gets up to leave. His row stands and exits. Snoop looks around, Where's Suge? David Kenner whispers to him and Snoop files out. One song in and Death Row is gone.
Outside, Suge explains, "There were too many cops." The cops were there for the President of Guyana. "Yeah," Tupac says, "I thought they were going to serve me with papers." Suge nods. "Ah," he says, aware of the impact of his bad-boy reputation. "They're all talking about us now -- 'There go the guys at Death Row.' " "Yeah," Tupac says. "They've probably made up some reason why we left." Suge nods. "Just too many cops," he says. "Time to go."
Snoop Doggy Dogg has mystery. He's got that star thing -- aloofness mixed with grace. He's smooth. He almost glides when he walks. He's gliding now across Monty's, one of Suge's favorite restaurants. Snoop signs a few autographs ("I've got the longest name of any rapper") and stops at the bar to watch the football game on the TV. "Is Suge here yet?" he asks one of the friends he arrived with. "Damn -- Miami is losing?"
Monty's, 21 floors up in an apartment building in Westwood, is a longtime U.C.L.A. hangout filled with frat boys. Snoop watches the football game for a second and then heads to Suge's usual table. Everyone in the place looks up from steaks and lobsters -- Monty's specialties -- and stares. Snoop is notorious. The charge that he participated in the 1993 murder of Philip Woldemariam, an Ethiopian immigrant, is not his first brush with the law. The trial, which is due to wrap up at the end of this month, is on his mind. If found guilty, he faces 25 years to life in prison. "This trial ain't no joke," Snoop had said earlier. "Ain't no damn joke."
Snoop is here to meet Suge and the rest of the Death Row gang. He and his two friends, who double as bodyguards, are the first to arrive. Snoop's looking for Tupac. He's hungry, he wants to order, but fans keep coming up to the table for autographs. Snoop always signs. He wears his fame lightly. "I been thinking," he says in his sleepy drawl. "I think I would like to do an interview with Howard Stern." His buddies nod. "He's for real," Snoop says. "You know what you're gonna get with Howard."
Tupac, who is wearing a sleeveless T-shirt that shows off his tattoos, arrives with three guys in tow. The waitress comes by for their order. "Gin and juice," Snoop says. This is the title of his biggest hit. "This ain't no promotion," Tupac says, smirking. "That's what I drink," Snoop protests. The waitress, meanwhile, is confused. "Gin and juice?" she asks. "What kind of juice?"
Suge and the usual eight guys in his entourage arrive. They have called in their order -- lobster tails, crab legs, chicken tenders and salad. The owner greets Suge. Soon 17 or so people are clustered at the table and Suge starts telling Tupac and Snoop about his newest idea, a movie that will star them as two street-smart ex-con rappers.
He's got the plot mapped out: it is mildly commercial and a nearly true-to-life account of the Tupac and Snoop story. They like it. They excuse themselves and Suge digs into his crab legs. He's anxious to get to Can-Am -- Dre is recording tonight and Tupac will be coming by and, as always, there's lots of work to do. "Did you see what Snoop's wearing?" Suge says, referring to the diamond dog-bone pendant. "I bought it for him. Anyone who's my artist, they say, 'I want,' I say, 'You got it.' The people who started with me, they end with me."
Snoop and Tupac return and Kenner reminds Snoop that it's nearing 10. Snoop, who is free on $1 million bail, wears a bracelet around his ankle that electronically monitors his comings and goings. He has to be home by 10 P.M. "You'd better go," Kenner says. "O.K.," Snoop says. He and his bodyguard friends leave without eating. Suge and his group quickly follow them out.
"I'm hungry," says Tupac, sitting down. Soon the table is covered with plates. Two weeks ago Tupac was in prison and now he's in Monty's, surrounded by huge broiled lobster tails. As much as anything, that leap defines Death Row. "I can't eat all this," Tupac says, digging in. "It's too much."
It's a Wednesday night at the Can-Am studios and Danny Boy, Suge's most recent hit-maker-to-be, is hanging around the office. He's usually wherever Suge is. He just turned 17 and Suge, who was looking for an R & B singer to round out the Death Row stable, has pretty much adopted him. "I wanted a guy with Michael Jackson status," Suge explains. "Not the hair and the skin, but that kind of star quality. Like Snoop. Snoop is a star. And I wanted that in a singer."
Suge did research. He doesn't trust tapes, so he saw 20 or 30 possibilities before choosing Danny Boy. "I wanted a guy under my wing who was sexy," Suge says. "I met Danny Boy. He's from Chicago. I met him when he was 15, and he was right."
Danny Boy, who is handsome in a teen-idol sort of way, beams at Suge's remark. He is wearing a black-and-white ensemble -- black sweats, black-and-white sneakers, white sweatshirt -- and around his neck hangs his Christmas present from Suge, a gold medallion that spells D-A-N-N-Y with the male sex sign across it in diamonds. Danny Boy's trademark is his glasses. The lenses are split horizontally -- the left one is dark on the top half, the right one dark on the bottom. He wears his glasses low on his nose and always stares over the top of the frames, which gives him a slightly wide-eyed quality.
When Danny Boy first arrived in L.A., Suge rented him a room at the Peninsula, a luxe hotel in Beverly Hills. He gave Danny Boy the use of a Rolls limo and a charge card for incidentals. It got out of hand. "He had girls coming over for manicures and pedicures and Cristal and whatever," Suge says. "And then I get this bill. I said, 'Don't be Hollywood.' And he stopped. I told him, 'Fans will always love you, but that Hollywood [expletive] is a problem.' "
Since then Danny Boy has been a model son. He wants to make Suge proud. R & B is a radical departure for Death Row, but a smart one: there are those who think gangsta rap may have peaked. Danny Boy is a savvy addition if the label is going to evolve into what Suge would like it to be -- the Motown of the 90's. "Sing something, Danny Boy," Suge says. "Sing."
Danny Boy belts on command. He sounds like a mixture of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson with a dash of Teddy Pendergrass thrown in. His voice has emotion, a quavery vibrato, and he has a large vocal range. He could make young girls swoon.
When he's finished, Danny Boy smiles at Suge and sort of rocks from side to side. Suge doesn't say anything. It's clear that Danny Boy is talented, but how that talent plays itself out is in many ways up to Suge's business expertise. "I have no doubt," Suge says matter-of-factly. "He will outsell anybody." Danny Boy smiles and says, "I think it's gonna happen." Suge just fixes him with that look of his. He doesn't think it's gonna happen. He knows.
Suge is late. He doesn't really care -- he's usually running about two hours behind whatever schedule has been set -- but he's in Las Vegas, with Tupac and the usual M.O.B. crew for the Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield heavyweight fight, and it's supposed to start at about 9. It's nearly 9 now and he and his crew are still dressing for the evening. "If you wanted to get to the fight on time," says Bountry, settling into a couch in Suge's two-bedroom suite in the Luxor hotel, "you got into the wrong limo."
Today, like most days, has been busy. With Suge, the line between business and pleasure gets blurry. He can hang out even while he's working, and he's always working, always on the phone.
His entourage left L.A. at 11 the previous night, a convoy of speeding cars. Suge took the green Porsche, Tupac took the Mercedes convertible, the other guys buddied up in their cars and they raced to Vegas in about three hours. "We drove fast," Suge says. "It was all men."
They went straight to Suge's club, which is on Flamingo Road right off the strip. Club 662 (the numbers spell M.O.B. on a touch-tone phone) has been open for only one night. Tonight Club 662 will host Tha Dogg Pound and Tupac Shakur. After checking the club out, Suge and company gambled at the Luxor until 5 A.M. Tupac lost $3,000, Suge won a couple hundred. "Suge always wins," Tupac says. "It's his way."
Some women made an appearance about then, but Suge is discreet. He and his crew seem to keep their women on the side, reserved for certain hours. Most of these guys have children -- Suge has a 2-year-old daughter named Arion who lives with his high-school sweetheart, Sharitha, in a house ("one of my best houses") that Suge bought her. But these guys spend most of their time with one another. "When you do business," one of Suge's associates explains, "it's best not to have women around."
Suge slept until noon and then got a shave and a trim (having flown his usual barber in from L.A.). His usual limo driver drove in from L.A., picked up him and David Kenner and took them to the club to make arrangements for Tha Dogg Pound and Shakur show. That was the day. Right now he's in his bedroom changing clothes, his bed strewn with boxes and tissue paper. Tonight Suge is wearing a new maroon suit with a matching fedora. The rest of the Death Row posse are wearing red and black -- black pants or red pants or black blazers or red blazers. Tupac is the only one in a different color: he's wearing an elaborately patterned gold shirt and baggy jeans. "The wife of a top rapper bought this for him," Suge says, razzing Tupac. "Who's that?" Tupac smiles. "His name is an acronym." Suge smiles. "Notorious B.I.G.'s wife, Faith Evans."
Tupac nods. This is interesting for a few reasons. B.I.G. is Puff Daddy's pride and joy, the beef is still on between him and Suge, Faith has gone on the radio to say she's not seeing Tupac and, finally, it's the old East Coast versus West Coast thing. "She bought him this and a suit and some other stuff," Suge says. "And how did you thank her, Tupac?" Tupac pauses. "I did enough," he says, rather salaciously.
It's 9:30 and, finally, everyone's ready to go. All 20 guys, including bodyguards, meet downstairs and wait for the two stretch limos to pull up. It's the usual show, the Death Row world-unto-itself phenomenon -- they move at their own time, they do things their own way. Suge and his boys are grand. Men without women, they believe the masculine code defines everything. It's Suge's own movie come to life. Standing in front of the Luxor in their various hues of red, Suge and his crew are a striking contrast against the Vegas tourists.
"I wonder who'll be in our seats," says Bountry, in the limo on the way to the fight at Caesars Palace. "If they be sitting in our seats," Suge says, "we be having a better fight than in the ring." Everyone laughs. "And then the press be saying, 'There goes Death Row.' " Suge pauses. "It's not worth it," he continues, joking. "They'd put our fight on TV and we wouldn't be making no money." Everybody laughs.
It's the fourth round by the time the Death Row gang arrives. The place is packed and Suge's fourth-row seats are, indeed, occupied. When asked to move, the occupants balk until they see Suge and all his guys. But by then it's the sixth round and Holyfield has knocked Bowe down. Nearly the entire audience stands on chairs for a better view. That is, everyone but Suge, who is convinced that Bowe will win this fight.
Within seconds, Bowe is back on his feet and the fight continues. They go at it for two more rounds, and then Bowe lands a pair of roundhouse rights and Holyfield goes down. Again, the audience stands on their chairs and Suge just says, "That's it."
It is. Riddick Bowe wins the fight with a knockout. The Death Row contingent leaves quickly. "I said Bowe and I am always right," Suge says as he makes his way back to the limo. No one asks him if he's ever wrong. They want Suge to be right. It works that way.
"I like Compton," Suge is saying. He is standing in front of the house he grew up in, a gray stucco one-story that he bought from his mother a year ago. He lives here now, here and at the studio and in a penthouse in Westwood and probably somewhere else too ("Suge's got lots of houses," his mother says), but, all things considered, he seems to like Compton best. It's part of the code: stay real, stay close to the streets you came from. "Compton," he says softly. "That's where I get my energy."
He's redone the house in red -- red tile in the kitchen, red carpeting, red front door. He's outfitted the garage to hold six cars and put his weights in the toolshed out back. "We can work out in the sun," he says, showing off the barbells. "It's good."
Compton is deceptive. "It looks quiet and people move in, and then you hear gunshots in the middle of the day," Hen Dogg says. "It looks calm, but it isn't."
Suge seems to thrive on the action. "Compton's like the ocean," he explains, settling on his front steps. "It's real pretty, but, anytime, something can happen. Somebody getting eaten. Somebody fightin'. Something's always goig on."
Suge pauses. Bountry, Neckbone and Trey have arrived in their cars. "You know, everybody's make-believe in my business," Suge continues. "Everybody's Hollywood, they all have their move. People think I'm making all this money and I have to give autographs, but what's cool is to sit in your neighborhood and get some chili-cheese fries and eat your food and deal with your homeboys."
This connection to his neighborhood gives Suge credibility within the music business. "They're more effective because they're ghetto," says Russell Simmons of Def Jam. "They don't care about impressing anyone."
Suge's charitable the way gangsters can be: everything's personal. Death Row gives away turkeys in South-Central at Thanksgiving and toys at Christmas; Suge throws a huge Mother's Day party at the Regent Beverly Wilshire every year for ghetto moms and has donated gym equipment and uniforms to all the schools in the area. "The black leaders call on the phone," he says. "And they want to rip my pockets off. But what do they give? We support, but we ain't no suckers. I give it to the community and kids."
Two guys from down the block walk by and nod hey to Suge. He nods back. A van drives up and Daryl Young, who trains Suge's dogs, stops by. He's got Suge's newest puppy with him, a rare breed from the Canary Islands. "Should I call him Rider or P-Funk?" Suge asks. The puppy is huge. He's only 3 months old, but he's all muscle, with paws like a mountain cat's. "I'm going to train him to detect weapons," Young says. "He'll probably weigh at least 120 pounds when he's grown." Suge smiles. "He could mess you up pretty bad," Suge says. "Unless someone tells him to stop."
This cracks up the guys. Everybody's in a good mood today. Tha Dogg Pound's album is No. 1, Tupac's new video will be shot this weekend, the L.A.P.D. accidentally destroyed a major piece of evidence in Snoop's murder trial and four record companies (EMI, Polygram, Bertlesmann and MCA) are interested in making a distribution deal with Interscope-Death Row. (MCA soon lost interest.) "I ain't got no problems," Suge says. "I don't see no shrinks. I remember where I'm from. That keeps me straight."
A little girl in a polka-dot dress with a tiny puppy wanders up the street. "Hey, Suge," she says. The guys stare at her, but she's not intimidated. "Hey, little girl," Bountry says, razzing Suge slightly. "Why are you here?" Suge stands up. He is about 3,000 times her size. "Do you want me to water your lawn?" she asks. Without waiting for a response, she undoes the front gate and picks up the hose. "I have the best grass on my street," Suge boasts. The girl waters and Suge hands her a $50 bill. "Thank you, Suge," she says, letting herself out of the yard.
Suge decides it's time to go. The phone keeps ringing and he has to get back to the studio. He walks to his car and the guys follow him out. The little girl waves. "I love you, Suge," she says. "Bye-bye."
Date Posted: Friday, October 9th, 2015 , Total Page Views: 1304
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