As the evening sunset glows above a nearly deserted downtown Los Angeles, Norris Anderson slips out the back of the Criminal Courts Building, lights a cigarette and ponders his bizarre ascension to the top of the biggest, baddest, most messed-up rap record company in the world.
Minutes earlier, 31-year-old Death Row Records CEO Marion "Suge" Knight was led out of a 13th-floor courtroom filled with sobbing supporters. He had just been sentenced to a nine-year state-prison term. Defense attorneys, hip-hop artists and even noted rap detractor C. Delores Tucker are still inside the courthouse eulogizing the fallen executive before a battery of TV cameras. Out front, about a hundred "Free Suge Knight" picket signs, abandoned since lunchtime, lie along the sidewalk.
"I hate that circumstances are what they are," Anderson says, shaking his head. He takes a long drag, and the tip of his Marlboro turns the color of the smog-stained sky. Anderson fingers his lapel, which still bears the ribbon--around-the-old-oak-tree yellow, not Death Row red--Knight's supporters wore to court. Then he exhales.
"But you have to understand something else. Suge built this company, and his family was not really involved for a very long time. Then there came a point where he sought out his family to see if they wanted to come into the business. I'm sure there was a reason for that."
Anderson suspects it had something to do with what has happened to Death Row Records during the past 12 months. He's certain it has everything to do with what will happen next.
"See, I'm Suge Knight's brother-in-law," Anderson reveals, raising his eyebrows and smiling. "I married his sister. Everyone says, 'Man, you look just like Suge.' Well, I've known him for 20 years. I've known his sister for 20 years, and we've been married for 10 years. I'm just like . . . well, I'm part of the family."
The 34-year-old Anderson is six inches shorter, 100 pounds lighter and a million times less intimidating than Death Row's six-foot-four, 350-pound founder, mentor and taskmaster. But he shares Knight's sense of opportunity and intense work ethic. Suge gave Anderson a receptionist's job at Death Row three years ago, and his brother-in-law quickly made the most of that gesture of affection and nepotism. By last year, Anderson had worked his way up to general manager, a position that, within the company's abbreviated hierarchy, placed him a heartbeat--or, as it turned out, a gavel's pound--away from the top.
When Knight was incarcerated in county jail on October 22 for violating probation from a 1992 assault conviction, Anderson began to oversee Death Row's operations. But his authority was only titular. "Suge was still the man at the controls," Anderson says. "I was in contact with him: He made the decisions, and I made sure they were carried out."
However, California law bars prison inmates from operating businesses. So on February 28, when Superior Court Judge J. Stephen Czuleger formally reinstated Knight's suspended prison sentence, Anderson's responsibilities expanded. "I've come a long way," he says now. "I started out answering the phones. That's a long way."
Knight and studio genius Andre Young (Dr. Dre) co-founded Death Row in 1992 and built the company into the world's top rap label--the first to score consistently big on the popular-music charts.
But those days are gone.
One year ago this week, Dr. Dre defected from Death Row to escape the unsavory elements that permeated the label. In between came the murder of Tupac Shakur, whose arrival at Death Row exacerbated the company's inner turmoil. Shakur's volatile presence alienated Dre, whom Shakur continues to insult, even in death, on his posthumous release The Don Killuminati: The 7-Day Theory. And it was Shakur who, a few hours before he was shot on September 7, started the fight with Southside Crips gang member Orlando Anderson in the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas that ultimately sent Knight to prison.
The fight was fuzzily videotaped on a hotel security camera, but Judge Czuleger ruled that it showed Knight violating his parole by kicking Anderson. That incident potentially had further repercussions early March 9, when 24-year-old Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace) was gunned down outside the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard. Sworn affidavits filed in Knight's case contend there was a relationship between the Southside Crips of Compton and the New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment, for which B.I.G. recorded. The affidavit, signed by a Compton police detective, maintains that Bad Boy employed members of the Southside Crips to provide security when company representatives came to Los Angeles--further bolstering the theory that Notorious B.I.G. was hit by West Coast rap factions as retaliation for Shakur's murder.
Anderson denies there is any connection between Death Row and Wallace's death.
Additionally, Death Row is under scrutiny by a federal grand jury on possible racketeering charges. And a disagreement with Shakur's mother, Afeni Shakur, concerning her son's royalties will likely result in an audit of Death Row's books.
"I don't think it's going to be smooth for us," Anderson says. "We have a whole lot of adversity ahead. There's still federal investigations going on. There's still the shock of this decision. Everybody here is not like brother and sister. We have our arguments and disagreements, too.
"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.
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"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.