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Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records

Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records

by Ronin Ro

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Death Row Records is one of the most successful music labels of all time. From its inception in 1992, it exploded on the rap music scene with sales climbing to the $125 million mark in just four years. Even more noticeable than the label's financial success is the effect it had on American youth culture, making gangsta rap more popular with suburban white youth and


Death Row Records is one of the most successful music labels of all time. From its inception in 1992, it exploded on the rap music scene with sales climbing to the $125 million mark in just four years. Even more noticeable than the label's financial success is the effect it had on American youth culture, making gangsta rap more popular with suburban white youth and MTV viewers than traditional rock groups. But under the guidance of six-foot-four-inch, 300-pound CEO Marion "Suge" Knight, Death Row also became the most controversial record label in history—a place where violence, gang feuds, threats, intimidation, and brushes with death were business as usual.

Have Gun Will Travel details the spectacular rise and violent fall of a music label that had at its heart a ferocious criminal enterprise cloaked behind corporate facades that gave it a guise of legitimacy. With inside access no other writer can claim, Ronin Ro, the country's preeminent rap journalist, exposes the facts everyone else is afraid to divulge—from the initial bankrolling of Death Row by a leader of L.A.'s notorious Bloods gang, to links with New York's Genovese crime family. Have Gun Will Travel lays bare the full story behind this influential label, including the still-unsolved murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., as well as Suge Knight's rise to power, his fight with East Coast rap titans such as Sean "Puffy" Combs, and his eventual imprisonment.

Although it has been all over the news—from The Wall Street Journal to Rolling Stone—this is a timeless story about an empire built on greed, corruption, murder, and exploitation. Withexclusive interviews and bloodcurdling eyewitness accounts, Have Gun Will Travel combines the behind-the-scenes fascination of books like Hit Men and Hit and Run with the violence and dramatic sweep of The Godfather, in a brilliant and blistering document of contemporary culture.

Editorial Reviews

Andrew Leonard

Never mind Suge Knight's eight convictions, or the time he forced a record promoter to drink his urine, or his close ties to assorted drug dealers and felons. When the walls finally caved in on the CEO of Death Row Records -- when the premier "gangsta rap" company was being simultaneously investigated by the FBI, IRS, DEA and ATF and Knight himself was about to be sentenced to nine years in prison -- Suge Knight never lost his confidence. "I'm the fall guy," he said. The fall of Death Row, he claimed, was nothing more than another case of the white establishment busting some black ass.

Ronin Ro, a hip-hop beat reporter who establishes undeniable investigative reporting street cred in Have Gun Will Travel, makes Knight's claims of racist persecution seem, at best, laughable. The gory details of Knight's reign of terror -- the contract negotiations with a baseball bat, the back room torture, the in-house gang battles -- are impossible to dismiss. Indeed, if only half of what Ro reports is true, he can be excused for nervously looking over his shoulder. Someday, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Knight will be back on the street, and he's not likely to think kindly of the author of Have Gun Will Travel.

Ro did his legwork. Reviewers are already rushing to laud Have Gun Will Travel as the "definitive" account of the rise and fall of gangsta rap, as seen through the prism of Death Row. Other reporters can only shake their heads in awe at Ro's success in penetrating a scene where reporters are generally considered about as welcome as plague-bearing rats. But legwork alone isn't enough. The book reads as if written in a hurry, and could have benefited from a careful edit. More time for reflection might have addressed the one major flaw of Have Gun Will Travel: its failure to provide perspective.

Ro almost gets there when he details how Sony, Interscope and the rest of the white-run record biz looked the other way at Knight's behavior while the cash came rolling in. But he doesn't draw the consequences. Sure, Knight was a murderous brute, and Death Row Records exemplified the gangsta rap lifestyle with more flair than most real gang bangers. But that just made the record label the most egregious flag bearer for a fundamentally corrupt industry. So what if Knight ripped off his own artists and physically abused them to boot? Treating artists like shit is standard practice in the music business. All Knight did was translate the same sorry old tactics of extortion, abuse and exploitation into flying fists and kicks.

The story of Death Row exerts lurid fascination because the details are so extravagant: They map all too closely to the lyrics of a Snoop Doggy Dog track. But none of it could have happened without the willing cooperation of big-name corporate accounting firms, lawyers and entertainment mega-corporations. Suge Knight is a symptom, not the disease. And in that respect, he is, indeed, the fall guy. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This story of the West Coast rap label Death Row Records and its head, Marion ("Suge") Knight, who brought the techniques of his violent L.A. gang, the Bloods, to his boardroom and terrified the industry, is pitiful and horrifying. Ro (Gangsta) reports the shocking tale of a man who began as a football player, doing a stint with the L.A. Rams, then became a bodyguard and, finally, with an infusion of drug money, according to Ro, in 1993 founded the record label that earned almost $400 million in four years and assembled a stable of stars like Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. Said to be run by gang members, Death Row pirated top performers from other labels, often substituting expensive gifts for royalty payments, and at length clashed with East Coast rappers. Ro also ventures into the unsolved murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., with several conjectures. He makes a significant contribution to the history of pop music. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Music journalist and former rapper Ro provides an in-depth history of Death Row Records, one of the premier gangsta rap labels, with a spotlight on label mastermind Marion "Suge" Knight. He begins with the transformation of Knight from an introspective college football star, born into a stable lower-middle-class home, to a brash record-industry hopeful willing to gamble anything on success. In brief, sometimes gripping chapters, the author describes Knight's initial partnership with rap star Andre "Dr. Dre" Young, the formation of Death Row Records in 1991, Death Row's first mega-hit with Dr. Dre's "Chronic," and continued success with million-selling records by Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur. Throughout, he highlights the violent, intimidating, gang-influenced tactics of the label, which eventually led to an F.B.I. investigation, Knight's imprisonment, the murder of Tupac Shakur, and the demise of Death Row Records. This well-written, provocative account casts Death Row Records as a street-based outgrowth of a corrupt, hit-a-minute record industry and illuminates the dark side of the materialistic, get-what-you-can culture of the 1990s. Highly recommended for general readers and music fans.David P. Szatmary, Univ. of Washington, Seattle
Kirkus Reviews
A sloppy but repellently gripping history of the once eminent, now moribund Death Row record label. Hip-hop journalist Ro (Gangsta: Merchandising the Rhymes of Violence, 1996) charts CEO Marion "Suge" Knight's progress from an impoverished childhood in L.A.þs Compton ghetto through his tenure as hooligan-in-chief of gangster-ridden Death Row and his ultimate imprisonment on charges of violating probation after an assault conviction. Having started Death Row with money provided by an incarcerated L.A. drug kingpin, Knight, according to Ro, used threats and intimidation to extract Dr. Dre, of the bestselling gangsta-rap group N.W.A, from his contract with Ruthless Records in 1991. Dre, rapþs most influential producer, enlisted the unknown Snoop Doggy Dogg to rap on his The Chronic, which became one of the biggest-selling rap albums ever. While Snoop's solo album continued Death Row's winning streak, the enormous Knight and his entourage of Bloods routinely handled perceived business problems with physical attacks, at least one of which, Ro reports, resulted in death: "Death Row employees went about their filing and faxing as blood-curdling shrieks filled the office. They saw the doorknob jerking, knowing that people were desperately trying to escape a beating." Ro lets various Crips, Bloods, and other observers testify to the pattern of violent retaliation that usually kept Knight's victims from seeking legal redress. Knight did his best to foment the East Coast/West Coast hip-hop feud that, according to Ro, is possibly to blame for the murders of stars Tupac Shakur (who was shot while riding in Knight's car) and the Notorious B.I.G. Artists with platinumrecords routinely went unpaid, and by 1997, when Knight received his nine-year prison sentence, lawsuits and government investigations aimed at Death Row had virtually halted the label's activities. Unfortunately, Ro's writing is infuriatingly haphazard: In some places crucial information is scrambled or omitted, but elsewhere he feels the need to identify "pop singer Madonna Ciccone." Still, a surrealistic tale of high-stakes thuggery.

Product Details

Doubleday Publishing
Publication date:
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5.30(w) x 8.32(h) x 0.93(d)

Read an Excerpt

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 employees—ex-convict buddies or friends from the Bloods—would 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 well—all 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 program—a 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.

Meet the Author

Ronin Ro is a journalist as well as the author of Gangsta: Merchandising the Rhymes of Violence.  A former rapper, he has written for numerous publications, including The Source, Spy, SPIN, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Vibe.  He lives with his wife and daughter in upstate New York, where he is currently at work on a novel.

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