Who's the Man?

With Suge Knight in prison, onetime receptionist Norris Anderson is now the big man on Death Row

"But I think it's something we can overcome. Suge always preached family, and he's always preached that we need to stick together. If they divide us, quite naturally they will conquer us. Everybody here realizes that. So when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, everybody sticks together. I've seen it time and time again."

In fact, Knight's incarceration coincided with the most productive period in Death Row's five-year history. Five albums were released in four months: the posthumous recording by Shakur (recorded under the alias Makaveli), Snoop Doggy Dogg's comeback project (Tha Doggfather), a double-CD retrospective (Death Row's Greatest Hits), a holiday collection (Christmas on Death Row) and a movie soundtrack (Gridlock'd). Also, a repeatedly delayed solo album by rap-crooner Nate Dogg (G-Funk Classics) is on the release schedule again, this time for April 8.

But this flurry of recordings relied on Death Row's depleted roster of established stars and generated uneven sales. The label hasn't debuted a multimillion-selling act since Snoop Doggy Dogg in 1993. With or without Knight, the company was facing an artistic retooling.

True to its streetwise promotional style, Death Row got started with that revamp at the courthouse press conference the label called immediately after Knight's sentencing. Before defense attorneys David Kenner and Milton Grimes even stepped to the microphone, two up-and-coming acts--Danny Boy and OFTB (Operation: From the Bottom)--were trotted out to give their reactions and promote upcoming albums.

"Death Row Records will go on," prophesied the 18-year-old Danny Boy, a silky-voiced R&B singer who came to the label at 15, when his dying mother allowed Knight to become his legal guardian. "Suge Knight is the brain of Death Row, but we are the thoughts."

If the increased pace of album releases continues, it will mark a departure from Knight's usual style, which is deliberate and meticulous. Most of the approximately two dozen artists on Death Row's roster have never released an album, though some of them have been under contract for years. "There are several albums completed and waiting for their day," Anderson confirms, "and they're going to be great albums, just like all the rest."

Whether the often-ominous tone of Death Row albums will change, Anderson won't say. During a sentencing hearing address to the judge, Knight claimed that while in jail he had been sensitized to the negative impact of hard-core lyrics and indicated he would never again produce an album that contained the term "nigga." But Anderson suggests that much of the reputation Knight cultivated for himself and Death Row has always been sales hype anyway.

"When I first started working there, I used to hear all the stories, and people would come to our office and they would walk in scared," Anderson recalls. "They had heard the music, and they had made up their own minds what they were going to see when they got here. But when they would come out of a meeting with Mr. Knight, you would have thought they shot heroin, they were so relaxed and happy.

"What Suge did was make himself a legend in the streets overnight. But this guy would have to have 10 clones to be in all the places and do all the things people say he has done. But, hell, it sells records. It sells records."

It also attracted artists who perceived Knight as someone with the muscle to allow them to deliver their messages, unadulterated. It still does.

"There are so many new artists in this country and in this world that want to be with Death Row, it's indescribable," Anderson insists. "We get demos from throughout this country, and then from places like Australia, Nigeria, Argentina--I mean, shit that you can't even understand."

But in the end, Knight may have become a victim of his image. It may have helped send him up the river. "To some degree, I would say, it backfired," Anderson says. "But our society, our government, is going to do what it's gonna do. I'm trying not to think it was a racial thing, but everybody knows that the color of people's skin changes a lot of the outcomes. I don't want to say that, but I don't know why I should sugarcoat it and kid myself or even try to kid you. We see it time and time again.

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