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"What made those records so important was, everyone was really living the life back then. It wasn’t like today, where they’re rehearsing a script, where it’s all an act."

JAILHOUSE RAP: SUGE SPEAKS

An Exclusive Conversation With Suge Knight

By Roy Trakin

Part One | Part Two | Part Three

Mule Creek State Prison is the fourth jail rap entrepreneur Marion "Suge" Knight has been locked up in since he was given a nine-year sentence in October '96 for violating probation. He's also spent time in prisons in Chino and Delano, CA and at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo. Mule Creek is located in Ione, about 48 miles north of Sacramento. It's a one-street town where even his childhood pal—a retired policeman who grew up with Knight in Compton and has worked for him since '94—won't eat breakfast, terming the eggs at one local establishment "too damn greasy."

We're picked up, along with two of Suge's PR reps, at the airport and driven to the prison. Mule Creek is a nondescript stretch of land just across the street from a modern, gated development built around a golf course, with houses that would probably fetch half a million back in L.A. The only signs it's not a community college campus are the empty gun turrets rising like forbidding beacons above the barren, treeless landscape, the electronic fence with the sign, "Warning! Fatal Shock," and the coiled barbed wire snaking around the top.

The officers at the check-in desk make us take off our shoes and belts and empty our pockets of anything larger than a dollar bill for the food vending machines before entering the facility. No tape recorders, no pens, no cameras, no pennies. I will be forced to conduct this interview with half scraps of paper and a stubby pencil, scribbling furiously. We pass through double gates, with one door sliding closed before the other one opens. We walk into a drab-looking cafeteria in which the denim-clad convicts and their visitors walk around the room hand in hand, or sit side by side at uncomfortably low tables (so no contraband can be passed underneath), playing cards, backgammon, checkers, dominoes or simply staring straight ahead. Kids roll around on a mat in a fenced-off section, and the atmosphere is not unlike visiting day at camp.

The prisoners are of all varieties, corn-rowed young hip-hoppers looking no older than 20, elderly ghost-like figures who seem familiar from a hundred prison movies. Junk food from the machines is piled high on one table: a microwave chimichanga, popcorn, a Greek "giro," French fries and fruit, all awaiting the entrance of Suge Knight, the man who built Death Row into the world's largest hip-hop record label, a company that earned $125 million in just four years, launched West Coast gangsta rap and put such legends as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound and Tupac Shakur on the map. According to his enemies, he is a dangerous thug, but to his friends, a loyal and dedicated supporter.

Suge limps in with a cane, his left ankle in a cast from a basketball injury in the yard as he saunters and garrulously greets fellow inmates. Knight is still an imposing figure at 6' 4" and 300-plus pounds, head shaved with a trademarked black beard, his body now a V from working out on the bars (free weights are banned at state prisons so inmates don't get too strong for the guards). Still, the man's been humbled. He's long since given up the Beverly Hills offices, Las Vegas' Club 662, the Can-Am Studios in Tarzana.

His company may have fallen from its once-grand heights, but Knight is more than eager to talk. He gets frequent visitors, but he hasn't met face-to-face with anybody from the press since his infamous jailhouse interview with NBC "Prime Time" reporter Brian Ross shortly after his arrest in October '96. It was then Superior Court Judge John Ouderkirk ruled Knight had violated his probation by getting into a scuffle with Orlando Anderson at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The fight was caught on videotape the night Tupac Shakur was shot while sitting in the passenger seat as Suge drove his BMW back from a heavyweight fight September 7, 1996.The rapper died six days later. Suge had been on probation from a '92 pistol-whipping of producers George and Lynwood Stanley, who had refused to get off the pay phone in his office.

His friend drives people up to see Suge on visiting days every weekend, Thursday through Sunday. Those who've come by include Interscope's jimmy iovine',390,400);">jimmy iovine',390,400);">Jimmy Iovine, Priority's bryan turner',390,400);">bryan turner',390,400);">Bryan Turner—with whom he still has a deal—Interscope head of sales Steve Berman, promo veteran Marc Benesch, ex-Death Row publicist George Pryce and his one-time lawyer David Kenner, now stricken with cancer.

"Jimmy's a good guy," Suge insists. "I like him and respect him as a family man and a human being. He's also a smart record man. Dre went back to the Death Row formula when he did ‘Dr. Dre 2001.' The first record Dre did on Aftermath flopped. People can act like the Death Row concept is over, but to be successful, you have to follow the format we established. But I'm not bitter… This is 2000; I can't do business like it's '91 or '92."

Remembering me from a previous conversation for HITS back in October 1995, at the height of the Michael Fuchs/C. Delores Tucker/William Bennett outcry against gangsta rap, Suge feels comfortable expanding on his legacy.

"What made those records so important was, everyone was really living the life back then," he explains. "It wasn't like today, where they're rehearsing a script, where it's all an act. Today's gangsta hip-hop isn't real if it doesn't follow the guidelines we set at Death Row."

Knight claims that his experience in prison is the best thing that could have happened to him, making him sit back and take stock of his life.

"I had no time to reflect before. Jail is the worst place you can be, but it does give you an opportunity to grow, to focus on what's important. It's good to get all this rest, not have your phone or pager constantly going off. I've found peace."

Go to Part Two

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