Whether he was in his home in Anaheim Hills, his residence in Westwood, or his abode in the Valley, Suge Knight's day began with an arduous workout. In his mirrored gym, as a stereo blared soul music by artists like Al Green or Marvin Gaye, Suge bench-pressed heavy weights. His cellular phone never stopped ringing; his beeper kept sounding; running Death Row was a twenty-four-hour occupation. But Suge focused on thrusting the barbell into the air. After admiring himself in the mirror, taking a quick shower, then slipping into casual clothing, he got in his customized Mercedes convertible and began making his rounds.
His first stop was Let Me Ride, the label's non-entertainment venture, a custom hydraulic shop located near stores with small barred windows and security gates. "A company can't just barge into the 'hood trying to provide some fake charity bullshit," Suge once said. "You got to deliver something real or it just won't work."
Over the door Suge had hung a painting of the customized Chevy Low Rider Dre used in the "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang" video. Suge's employeesex-convict buddies or friends from the Bloodswould join him in idle talk about cars, neighborhood beefs, upcoming artists, or old friends who needed jobs. At the sight of Suge, homeless people stepped forward, knowing he could always be counted on to hand over a dollar bill. Police cars slowed at the sight of his clique. "Sometimes it's as if the police are just out looking for trouble," Suge told a reporter. "It don't bother me none though. That's the way it's been as long as I can remember. I'm used to it."
When his cell phone rang, he ended conversations, leaped into his luxury car,and sped over to the label's Westwood office. At the time, Suge was overseeing the production of the Above the Rim soundtrack. He was working with Dre; MC Hammer's brother, Louis Burrell; and executives from New Line Cinema, the company releasing the film. In addition to his stable of Death Row acts, the album would include all-new music by female R&B trio SWV (Sisters With Voices), Luke's R&B group H-town, and New York crooner Al B Sure. Since the film starred Tupac Shakur, Suge viewed the soundtrack as another opportunity to try to get Shakur on the label.
Suge knew twenty-two-year-old Tupac was going through a rough period. On February 1, Tupac appeared in Los Angeles municipal court to face charges filed against him by film director Allen Hughes. After Allen and Albert Hughes directed a number of his music videos, Tupac landed the starring role in Juice. The Hughes brothers then asked if they could use Tupac's name to secure a movie deal: They were working on their debut, Menace II Society. Tupac agreed, then worked with John Singleton on the film Poetic Justice. When Tupac told the Hughes brothers he wanted only a small part in Menace, they said they had the perfect role. After reading the script, Tupac felt they had offered "a sucker role."
"They was trippin'," he said, "'cause they got this thing with John Singleton. They feel like they competing with him." While watching MTV one evening, a segment on the Hughes brothers, the directors said they dropped Tupac from the film. Tupac was enraged that he had to learn this while watching television.
He and his friends visited the Hughes brothers on the set of the video for Spice One's "Trigger Got No Heart," Menace II Society's theme music. Instantly, Tupac slugged Allen Hughes; his friends leaped on Allen and tried to grab his brother Albert, who wisely fled the scene. "If I have to go to jail," Tupac said, "I don't even want to be living. I just want to cease to exist for however long they have me there, and then when I come out, I'll be reborn, you know what I'm saying?"
In court, the Hughes brothers arrived with a security team. "Aw, you lil' bitch!" said Allen Hughes upon seeing Tupac alone.
"Lil' bitch?" Tupac tossed his Walkman to a friend. "Nigga, you wasn't saying that shit when I was whoopin' yo little ass all up and down the set of your video!"
"You and twelve of your niggas!"
While restraining the Hughes brothers, one of their bodyguards accidentally shoved Tupac, who began to rant and rave until white sheriffs arrived. "Officers," Tupac said then in as docile a tone as he could muster, "I'm so glad you arrived! These men were trying to attack me! Can you believe that? They tried to attack me with the Nation of Islam. Those are Farrakhan's boys, you know."
On March 9, a day before his sentencing hearing, Tupac left his room at the Montrose Hotel, where he lived while in town. He steered his rented Lexus LS 300 coupe to a Shell station on Sunset, parked, entered the convenience store, and searched for magazines and snack foods. Five Crips appeared, one of them asking, Where you from?
All over, Tupac replied.
"No you ain't," said the Crip. "You from Baltimore. But you don't never claim it. I know 'cause my homeboy used to take care of you."
Tupac said, Your homeboy lied. No one took care of me in Baltimore.
Just then, white teenagers stepped up to ask for an autograph. Tupac turned to sign one. Infuriated, the Crip yelled, "I'm first to jack this nigga!"
Sensing danger, Tupac quickly reached over to a display case filled with scissors and grabbed a pair. But it was too late. The wily Crip slammed a ham-like fist into Tupac's eye, then left the store with his four friends. Holding the pair of scissors like a dagger, Tupac burst onto Sunset Boulevard and saw the Crip enter a car and take off.
The next day, local and national television stations (including MTV) had film crews stationed outside the L.A. County Courthouse. Inside, the prosecution claimed Tupac could not control his anger. When closing arguments ended, the judge pronounced sentence: For striking director Allen Hughes, Tupac would have to serve fifteen days in a Los Angeles jail.
After his release, Tupac flew to New York, fell in with new friends and bodyguards, and partied with them on the set of Above the Rim. On April 2, he dropped by NBC studios to watch his friend Snoop Doggy Dogg record an appearance for Saturday Night Live. Suge Knight reminded Shakur that he could still sign with Death Row: The label would support him and provide lawyers; they would pair him with hip-hop's most commercial producer; they would buy him cars, install him in a fancy house, and pay wellall he had to do was say the word and sign the contract. Thankful for the $200,000 Suge had paid him for one song, Tupac nonetheless refused Suge's offer: He still didn't feel comfortable with the idea of leaving Interscope Records or his own management.
Three weeks later, in early May, the lights dimmed at New York's Paramount Theater and the very first Source Awards ceremony began. The Source started as a pamphlet thrown together by students at Harvard University; three years later, in 1991, it was the top-selling, most-imitated hip-hop magazine in North America. At their very first awards ceremony, a hip-hop version of the annual Grammy Awards, the guest list included Long Island's De La Soul, Tupac Shakur, New Jersey's Queen Latifah and Treach (of Naughty by Nature), Queens, New York's A Tribe Called Quest and Run-D.M.C., Mount Vernon's Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Staten Island's Wu-Tang Clan, Menace II Society star Larenz Tate, Brooklyn's Masta Ace and DJ Premier, Harlem's Doug E. Fresh, South Bronx rapper KRS-One, Luther Campbell from Miami, the R&B group SWV and Death Row artists such as the Lady of Rage.
That evening, Suge felt on top of the world. Death Row's The Chronic and DoggyStyle had sold a combined total of more than seven million copies: For eight months in 1993, The Chronic remained on Billboard's Top 10 list; five months after its release, Snoop's DoggyStyle was still in the Top 20.
While this may have gratified most executives, Suge Knight vowed to make Death Row the most successful company of the decade. In addition to monopolizing R&B and rap, he talked of creating a union for rappers; forming an organization that would help veteran soul singers get back on their feet; hosting a Mother's Day celebration at a Beverly Hills hotel for fifty single mothers; buying a stable of horses in the country (he had recently taken up horseback riding and figured his artists would have an escape from their troubles); sponsoring toy giveaways at churches and hospitals as they did last Christmas; establishing an antigang foundation in Compton; opening businesses that would provide young black men with jobs; helping to underwrite U.S. House of Representatives member Maxine Waters's youth programa decision that moved Waters to tell reporters, "The only thing Suge is threatening is the status quo."
Despite his magnanimous intentions, Suge couldn't help but note that music executives at the Source Awards were frightened of him. But he knew that these same executives had to regard him: Thanks to Death Row, California rap groups now outsold their resentful East Coast counterparts.
"It was the first annual Source Awards and the shit was mad disorganized," said a Vibe writer. "A Tribe Called Quest had come onstage to accept the award, then all of a sudden Tupac came out onstage and started 'rapping.' He stopped and went backstage. He always said it was the fault of stage managers because they told him to come out there at that minute. In the audience, when he came out, it looked like an immediate dis to the East right off. I thought, 'Who the fuck does this nigga think he is coming out onstage when A Tribe Called Quest, who ain't never did nothing to nobody, are trying to accept the award!' Nigga just pissed me off and shit!"
The Source admitted, "This sparked some ill feeling as far as the crowd was concerned, and the mood degenerated into the old East vs. West conflict."
The incident only increased Suge's desire to sign Tupac to the label, which, by night's end, won awards for Solo Artist of the Year (Dre's The Chronic), Producer of the Year (Dre); New Solo Artist of the Year (Snoop), Lyricist of the Year (Snoop), and Album of the Year (The Chronic).
From the Trade Paperback edition.