Reeling and Dealing

"Suge" Knight is behind bars, Tha Doggfather is on the shelves, and the future of Death Row Records hangs in the balance

The recent jailing of Death Row Records chief Marion "Suge" Knight couldn't have come at a more crucial time for rap music's most successful and controversial label. In the aftermath of Dr. Dre's defection and Tupac Shakur's murder, and in the midst of a breaking influence and bribery scandal that has landed the Los Angeles district attorney's office in hot water, the beleaguered company just released two critical albums--a posthumous collection by Shakur and a comeback project by Snoop Doggy Dogg--one week apart. The label is also rushing to issue two anthologies--Death Row's Greatest Hits and G. Funk Classics, Vol. I--before Christmas. And, for the first time, Knight, a hands-on, perfectionist executive, isn't there to preside over the war room.

In the case of Shakur's recording--The Don Killuminati: The 7-Day Theory, which he recorded under the alias Makaveli--Knight's absence might not matter so much. Since his death from gunshot wounds September 13, all of Shakur's albums have returned to the charts, and the new one debuted at No. 1 three weeks ago, where it remained as of November 23.

But Snoop's album, Tha Doggfather (see review on page 99), which came out November 12, presents some significant questions, and Death Row's long-term direction could depend on the answers. Snoop is Death Row's only remaining superstar, and response to Tha Doggfather, his first solo project in three years, will serve as a referendum on his staying power and the repercussions of his lengthy murder trial, which ended in February with a jury's quick acquittal.

Beyond that, the album's level of success will foreshadow Death Row's prospects--artistically and financially--without the guidance of Dr. Dre, the production genius who left Death Row in March to start his own label. Dre, whose previous collaborations with Snoop--The Chronic and Doggystyle--have sold nearly eight million albums combined, co-founded the label with Knight in 1992 and has been credited with defining its sound.

On November 7, Knight appeared--in handcuffs and a county-issued blue jumpsuit--at a bail hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court. The burly 31-year-old CEO faces an inquiry into possible violations of his probation stemming from a 1993 assault case. Knight is also accused of violating his probation in a separate, federal weapons case.

In both cases, Knight is accused of violating his probation by participating in the beating of alleged Crips gang member Orlando Anderson inside the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas the night of September 7, about two hours before Tupac Shakur was shot to death on the Las Vegas strip while riding as a passenger in Knight's car. A copy of an MGM Grand surveillance-camera video shown in court last week was inconclusive as to whether Knight actively joined several members of his and Shakur's entourage in kicking Anderson once he was knocked down, or got into the fray to help break it up, as the Death Row boss claims. Law enforcement sources also say Knight has tested positive for marijuana.

It was Knight's failure to show up for drug tests on October 16 and 18--ostensibly because he was supervising finishing-touch recording sessions in the Bahamas--that landed him in L.A. county jail on October 22.

David Kenner, Knight's attorney, contends that Knight tried to return for the tests but was delayed by bad weather. "There were thunderstorms, the precursors to Hurricane Lily, so the plane didn't fly," Kenner tells New Times. "We sent someone to notify the probation officer."

Three years ago, Knight was convicted of assaulting two aspiring rappers and sentenced to nine years in prison. That sentence was suspended as part of a plea-bargain, but if he is found guilty of violating his probation, it would likely be reinstated, with additional penalties.

Meanwhile, Knight's absence has created a "complicated and hectic" atmosphere at Death Row's Beverly Hills headquarters, according to a longtime employee, but the current obstacles are not seen as insurmountable. To the contrary, the label's staff seems galvanized--hell, downright energized--by the predicament, once again tapping into a unique corporate culture that is equal parts blustery confidence and persecution complex.

"The deck is always stacked against Death Row," says the employee, who asked not to be identified, "so we always bring our own deck."

And behind bars or not, Knight always deals the cards. "They've got him in jail, but they haven't locked shut his mouth yet," says Knight's wife, Sharitha, a quietly indefatigable supporter of her husband.

The perception of Knight's influence took a disturbing turn earlier this month when it was learned he had developed a business relationship with the family of Lawrence M. Longo, a veteran prosecutor who until recently was responsible for monitoring Knight's probation.

Death Row signed Longo's 18-year-old daughter, Gina, to a recording contract in January, and last summer Knight lived in a Malibu home owned by the Longo family, which he sublet from his attorney, Kenner, through Frank Longo, the prosecutor's brother.

Kenner insists there was no impropriety, pointing out that the plea-bargain that kept Knight out of prison was hammered out in February 1995--before the recording contract and the rental agreement--and approved by Longo's superiors after four negotiating sessions. "I don't know of anything that was done wrong by anybody that had any impact of any nature on the handling of this case--period," Kenner says.

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