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The story of Death Row records read like a formula gangster flick, complete with a syndicate that reigns over the amoral terrain of the city, violence that (whether actual or implied) serves as the primary mode of communication, and a protagonist who sows the seeds of his own demise. And though the term “gangsta rap” has been derided as a media creation, it’s impossible to look at the saga of Suge Knight and not see him as the lead character in a production co-written by Martin Scorsese and Iceberg Slim. This would be one of those gritty, nihilistic flicks—not the urbane wisdom of The Godfather but the soulless, numb terrorism of GoodFellas. There are seven unsolved murders in this book; the assorted acts of violence number in the dozens. Take into account the incessant cinematic references in both the book and the content of Death Row’s releases, and it becomes clear that this is a case of art imitating life imitating art.
With founder and CEO Marion “Suge” Knight serving a nine-year prison sentence and the label’s roster of acts scattered to the four winds, music journalist Ronin Ro has stepped in to perform a post-mortem for the company that all but defined rap music for a good part of this decade. Death Row as a corporate entity is still alive, but as Ro makes clear, the label has shriveled to near-irrelevance.
Knight established his enterprise the old-fashioned way: He stole it. Federal prosecutors allege that the thug impresario started the company with money from an imprisoned drug dealer. With his backer thoroughly unable to influence his daily operations, Knight gradually assumed complete control of the label and removed the financer’s names from all legal documents and titles. But drug-backed record labels are as common as blue suits on K Street. What set Death Row apart was the dense neo-funk manufactured by production guru Dr. Dre and Knight’s strict adherence to Capone’s Guide to Effective Management. More than any other music industry entity, Death Row made urban apocalypse user-friendly. As the first rap label to have its videos in regular rotation on MTV, the label pushed nihilistic violence into the living rooms of suburbia—for which America rewarded it with $300 million in sales.
Violence was a form of currency to Knight. If Ro’s numerous sources are to be taken at their word, Knight pounded employees for sloppy work. He slaps artists who get out of line. He specializes in psychological warfare, at one point forcing a rival to drink a cup filled with urine. Repugnant as his tactics are, he produces results. He liberates his franchise player Dre from an extended contract with Ruthless Records by means of Louisville Slugger diplomacy. When Vanilla Ice scams a producer for his multiplatinum “Ice Ice Baby,” Knight shows up at his hotel room. When he leaves, the white rapper has ceded more than $4 million in royalty rights. For the capital offense of using his phone without permission, Suge hammers both Lynwood and George Stanley. Not content with assaulting them, he forces them to strip naked and—in a move unprecedented for a multimillionaire—robs them. And just as in the classic flicks, it is the weakling (in this case two weaklings) who bring down the protagonist. Though Knight received probation for the deed, the case was his checkmate: One minor infraction, and prosecutors would move into the endgame.
In truly egalitarian fashion, Knight doesn’t confine his brutality to industry nobodies. He punks the likes of Andre Harrell, then-CEO of Uptown Records, and is rumored to be linked to the abduction of a competitor in front of an ATM machine. The unfortunate rival turns up three days later on a beach, naked and incoherent.
As Ro points out, the gangster persona was, at least at the outset, a bit of character acting on Knight’s part. Throughout his youth and young adulthood he was a laid-back, football-obsessed athlete. After playing at UNLV, he actually had a stint with the Los Angeles Rams before a knee injury forced him out. Knight’s entree into the music industry was as a bodyguard to Bobby Brown and rapper DOC. Once Death Row was formed, he cast himself in the role that would make him famous—and, in time, a marked man. Having once eschewed the ubiquitous L.A. gangs, his first management decision at the label was to bring on an assorted cast of Bloods, who would dispense his urban version of frontier justice.
Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Death Row’s first release, sold 3 million copies and essentially obliterated the East Coast’s supremacy in the rap game. At its zenith, Death Row’s lineup looked like an all-star squad: Snoop Doggy Dogg, the Lady of Rage, Dre, Daz, Korupt, and Nate Dogg. There had been a muted regional competition for years, but the combustible combination of Knight and a conflict-greedy media escalated it to a full-scale feud. There would be casualties on both sides.
Knight’s addition of Tupac Shakur to the Death Row roster was supposed to be the coup de grace for the competition. Instead, it led to Shakur’s murder and his own incarceration. Though Shakur had been approached by Knight on several occasions, he remained aloof. Only after Shakur was imprisoned on charges stemming from a rape in his hotel room—and Knight’s underwriting his bail and legal bills—did he warm to the idea of signing to Death Row. Interscope Records, to whom Shakur had previously been signed, gladly relinquished him to Death Row to avoid conflict with its conservative distributor, Time Warner.
Ro deftly narrates the escalating coastal tensions and the role music magazines—some of which he has written for—played in that escalation. When Shakur is shot for the first time, Vibe runs a front-page interview in which he alleges that East Coast rivals Puffy Combs and Notorious B.I.G. were behind it. Not only is the piece journalistically irresponsible, it helps create the climate in which both Shakur and B.I.G. will be gunned down.
To further complicate matters, the sheer number of criminal cases involving label members draws the interest of law enforcement officials, and before long a federal RICO investigation of Death Row is under way. When Shakur, Knight, and members of their entourages are involved in a brawl inside the MGM Casino following a Mike Tyson fight, the last element is in place. Hours later Shakur is mortally wounded, and Knight is seen on tape committing an assault in violation of his probation. In the wake of his prison sentence, the enterprise dissolves, artists walk, and creditors sue. (The bills aren’t paid after Knight pummels the accountant.)
Much of what Ro covers in Have Gun Will Travel has been reported in other outlets. He does, however, ferret out a number of incidents that have largely remained in the dark. It is no small accomplishment for an East Coast writer to aptly tell the story of the company that essentially started the East-West conflict as we know it, but Ro pulls it off. Relying on an obviously extensive network of contacts, he is able to provide intricate details of stories whose basic elements are already known. Overall, this book is probably the best yet written about this particular element of rap music.
There is talk of Knight’s managing his enterprise from his prison cell and executive producing a greatest-hits release. Perhaps. But in a very real sense, as Ro makes blisteringly clear, the credits on Knight’s flick have already rolled.