"[Steve Stoute] definitely disrespected Puffy, but Puffy shoulda used lawyers instead of bodyguards."
—Suge Knight


An Exclusive Conversation With Suge Knight

By Roy Trakin

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Suge likens imprisonment to being able to witness your own funeral, so you "know who your real friends are, who cares about you. I wouldn't want any of my artists to be in prison. That's why I bailed out Tupac..."

He claims he's not bitter at anyone, not Dr. Dre or Snoop Dogg, though he hints people have taken advantage of his absence to "pick at [his] label's carcass" and swoop away his artists. Suge says his own knowledge of the business is what led people to try to keep him down. "I'm the only black guy from the ghetto who knows the value of owning your masters, publishing, marketing and promotion. And that's not old-school—that's still current today."

Talk of Eminem brings a wide grin to Knight's face.

"I like him, he's very fucking funny…hilarious," acknowledges the man dubbed Sugar Bear by his mother for his "sweet" disposition. "But why is it OK for a white kid to curse and deal with harsh topics and not a black man?"

Some things never change, even when a guy's been in prison for four years.

"One thing's for sure… If you take a person who has a choice between a fake Gucci and a real one, they'll take the real one," he says. "These rappers have lost touch with their ghetto peers. I want to pass the baton to the young guys. When I get out, we're going to put out the real thing. When I get home, all the real rappers will come to me. I can still go to any ghetto in the world, anywhere, and instantly be at home."

Death Row now boasts a slew of young, mostly unknown, talent, including Tupac collaborators Outlawz (who recently sued Suge—a charge he dismisses), Above The Law's Hutch and soul crooner Michel'le as well as younger rappers Crooked I, Doobie, K-9, The Realest, Swoop G, El Dorado, Top Dog, Mac Shawn, Capricorn, Bad Habitz, Lil' C-Style and Soopafly.

Knight takes solace from the fact his company needs him to return to its former heights. He has several private pow-wows with his childhood pal and the two publicists who accompanied us. Although Knight is listed as executive producer on the just-released "Death Row Uncut," the notorious home video featuring vintage footage of Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, he steadfastly denies he is violating the court order against conducting label business while behind bars.

"I am Death Row," says Suge. "Nobody who's been on Death Row hasn't had success. They've all had to go back to their roots to survive. Remember that, Snoop and Dre: You have to come back!" He laughs heartily.

"I'm a businessman, an entrepreneur," he asserts. "I'm not an artist. I'm from the ghetto. Guys like Dre and Snoop only passed through the ghetto—they don't live there. But I'm not the bad guy I'm made out to be. When you take a stand on life in America, do things your way and own your own, that can be scary for people.

"I like Dre. We've always been friends. But he wants to be white. I can't do that. You can live like a white person, but you can never go back. When you start in Compton, though, prejudice is not taught because you're around broke muthaf**kas just like you all the time. Sports is not racist, either, because you're on a team, and the same thing for music."

He brushes off the fact that neither Dre nor Snoop have come to see him in prison, but it rankles him nonetheless. "I don't have a relationship with Dre. We're from different sides of the world, different lifestyles, different cultures. I'm from the ghetto. I wanted to make money and I saw what drugs could do. I never sold drugs, nor used drug money to start this company. But both of them only wanted to party."

He follows with a paranoid rant against L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti and a supposed Democratic conspiracy to keep him behind bars, which involves Time Warner, one-time Warner Music Group and HBO head Michael Fuchs and C. Delores Tucker, who made an infamous $80 million bid to set Suge up in his own PG-rated rap company after urging TW to cut ties with Interscope, largely because the label was distributing Death Row back in '95.

We begin to talk about his early days in the business, when he allegedly strong-armed Ruthless Records' Eazy-E and manager Jerry Heller to let Dr. Dre out of his deal so he could join Knight's fledgling company. "Those contracts were like the days of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, when the acts had to tap-dance for a deal, like strippers with $20 in their G-string."

While Suge has already served almost four years of his nine-year sentence and will probably be out in six months, when he will have served half his time, he is remarkably sanguine about his incarceration. For someone used to traveling in the finest cars, eating the finest foods and squiring the most beautiful women, he is remarkably angst-free about his lack of even the simple freedom to put a dollar bill in a vending machine.

"You go in, you get sentenced, you do your time," he muses. "To be honest, I know when I'm coming home. I want to spend time with my family. I don't want a media circus when I get out. The first thing I want to do is take an hour-and-a-half warm bath."

The worst part of the experience for Knight is having to wear shoes in the shower. "To be honest, I've grown mentally, physically and spiritually. I work, clean my body and sleep. I've been reading some history books, the Bible…that kind of thing."

I ask Suge if he's read Ronin Ro's mostly uncomplimentary '98 book, "Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records," which paints him as a ruthless and violent outlaw with a charitable penchant for giving away turkeys to the poor on Thanksgiving or sponsoring a luncheon for single mothers at a Beverly Hills hotel on Mother's Day.

"Yes, it's very comical," he says dismissively of the tome, guffawing, but his mood immediately turns somber. "It's a conspiracy to make me a monster."

About the story that Suge threatened to push Vanilla Ice over a balcony to force him to sign away his publishing rights, he snorts: "I'm not stupid. I'm smart enough to have a publishing administration deal with Sony. I never preyed on the weak. I'm not a bully. I pick on my equals."

He dismisses his supposed feud with Puffy Combs, then comments on Combs' celebrated champagne-bottle and telephone-receiver attack on Interscope executive Steve Stoute. "He definitely disrespected Puffy, but Puffy shoulda used lawyers instead of bodyguards."

Go To Part Three

Spotify and Apple Music are speaking a new language. (8/10a)
UMG jazz label has a new chief. (8/10a)
The stars of tomorrow—and one star of the moment (8/11a)
It's neck and neck at the turn. (8/11a)
Available online for the first time (8/3a)
How they're reshuffling the biz deck.
Thoughts on a changing landscape.
It's everywhere.
Another stunning return.

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