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"Loyalty is something you have to have in your heart and in your soul. A lot of guys that I had on my label are not loyal to nobody."
KNIGHT TURNS TO DAYLIGHT
An Exclusive HITS Dialogue With
Tha Row’s Suge Knight
The Wilshire Blvd. headquarters of Suge Knight’s newly revitalized Tha Row Records is a far cry from the last time I saw the rap mogul, when he was wearing faded-denim prison blues and dining on vending-machine burritos, just another number at Mule Creek State Prison in upstate California. A huge billboard on top of the building looms over San Vicente, with its "WELCOME HOME SUGE!" message. In the hallway decorated with Blood-red leather sofas, a black velvet painting sports a porcine character with a huge snout, a Bad Girl Entertainment T-shirt and a knit cap that reads, "P.I.G.," puffing a big cigar. Next to him is a full-breasted male in pink tutus, sneakers and headband, dubbed "Buffy," alongside an unmistakable caricature of Dr. Dre, with "The Colonic" tattooed to his right arm, propped up on a red satin pillow as he gets penetrated from the rear by a hairy, blonde she-male. The only sound comes from Knight’s two parrots, Cheeky Baby and Ridah, who squawk like they’re being choked to death by Latrell Sprewell.

After serving five years of a nine-year sentence for a probation violation, Suge Knight sits in his office behind a desk piled high with gifts and greetings from well-wishers happy to see him back. The man himself is raring to get back in action, with a refurbished roster that includes Long Beach rapper Crooked I, R&B crooner PB, newcomers Eastwood, J. Valentine, Spider and SKG as well as veteran West Coast rappers Above the Law. Other young up-and-comers like Tha Realest, Swoop G. Top Dogg, K9 and Doobie are listed as "in development" on the label’s website. He’s also reportedly signed TLC’s Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes (under the name Nina) and ex-Dogg Pound member Kurupt, and is looking to ink such well-known vets as Queen Pen and Too Short. Knight still has the rights to release any more Tupac Shakur material that’s out there, too.

Still large and in charge, Knight takes a phone call from a friend of boxer Mike Tyson, who has just been denied a license to fight by the Las Vegas boxing commission and is once again the subject of a rape allegation. Suge, who attended UNLV and is a regular in the town, calmly suggests the name of a local lawyer for Tyson. He says Vegas is run by "a good-old-boy network," while adding the Tyson-Lennox Lewis fight could be held in the Staples Center, a possibility reported the next day in the L.A. Times. Once more a mover and a shaker, Knight takes some time to talk to his favorite jailhouse bitch, his white Jewish doppelganger, HITS’ Roy "Meshugge Knight" Trakin.

It’s great to see you out of those prison blues.
[Laughs] Daddy don’t miss the jail clothes.

What’s been the best thing about getting out of jail?
The simple things. Going outside when you want to. Taking a shower as long as you want. Taking a bath. Actually letting your feet feel the water. Because when you’re in prison, you have to wear flip-flops, shower shoes. You can’t let your feet touch the ground… And the second you step out, you have to put your tennis shoes back on. You can take two steps out of the shower, and there’ll be a riot going on. The difference is being able to have your freedom again. It’s great to be able to see the sun come up or the stars. Rain. Pretty flowers. Animals. Dogs. Birds. Nature. All that simple stuff.

So Suge Knight loves the sound of birds and the smell of fresh-mown grass. When we last spoke, you said you were reevaluating the way you did business. Are you less likely now to use anger or intimidation? Have you mellowed?
I’d never use a word like "anger" or the term "mellow." It’s something else. There are a few words that describe what I’m going through. I’m still a guy who feels and speaks the truth. I can’t sit and be quiet. If I thought something was wrong, I would say it. And if I thought something was right, I would stick up for it. I still do those things, I think I just go about it in a more mature way than I used to.

In the five years since you’ve been away, the music business has gone through a lot of changes. How have you assessed the landscape since you’ve been back?
There’s no competition in the music business right now. People think album sales have dropped tremendously, which is true. And they’re trying to blame it on downloads and piracy… But you have to blame it on not-so-great records. If you’ve got only two songs on your album, of course someone would rather download those two songs. But if you’ve got 15 songs, 10 songs are hits and the other five are good, you’re going to want the whole album. The public’s not getting their money’s worth. You see, music is so important. The happiest times in a person’s life, whether’s it a wedding or a Sweet 16 party; or the saddest times of a person’s life, like a funeral… They play music.

It’s almost like you’re starting over.
It feels like I am starting from scratch. The thrill of it does. You can tell when someone enjoys what they do or whether they’re doing it for the money. I could have shut down this shop five years ago and lived off of catalog. I own all my masters. But I choose to continue giving opportunities to people of the ghetto. What’s so great is this: to be able to make history one time is fabulous, to be able to do it two times is incredible. You can’t write a chapter about hip-hop or gangsta rap or whatever and leave me and Death Row out. Because from that spirit came the best in the business. Take Pac; Pac is a legend, and deserved to be a legend. When he came to Death Row, he became the best in the game. For us to make history, not just with Pac, but with all those guys who nobody knew at first, who never had a record out…We turned them into household names. And they still have careers. Regardless of the fact they’re not here anymore, they got their start here. We made it so they could go out and continue to do business.

Crooked I is the best new rapper in the West. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who can deal with this guy on a microphone. And Eastwood is right behind him. This is the next generation of rap superstars. These guys are off the block. And they’re 20, 22, 23-year-olds… Young kids. PB is a young R&B singer. These are kids who are living the stuff they’re talking about. It’s 2002, not 1992.

What’s your relationship at the moment with Dr. Dre?
The thing is, I don’t have anything against Andre. What Andre did was what you call a bitch move. He went to my PO [parole officer] and lied. He’s trying to take me away from my kids again. So that’s a bitch. They put another condition on my parole because this guy goes and says that he fears for himself and all his cowardly acts. And so he went out to get a restraining order. But I’m not pissed. It’s more like disappointed that he’s being such a bitch. Because I thought I taught him better than that. But those guys aren’t even on my mind… until somebody else brings them up.

How about Snoop?
I haven’t talked to him, either. I guess a lot of people thought I had a 100 years [to serve]. They thought I wasn’t coming home. These guys have so much to say, oh so much to say. The only thing I ever did for that guy was help him. But here’s a guy with so much to say about how bad things were at Death Row. If you say you’re a gangsta rapper, you’re a guy from the streets, why are you lyin’ to me about it? If the kids really knew you were a snitch or a bitch, they wouldn’t support you. Because if you’ve got something bad to say to somebody, you best say it man-to-man. If you can’t say it twice, you shouldn’t say it once. Don’t go saying things weren’t great for you at Death Row. What record company would pay almost $5 million to make sure you don’t go to prison? With no record out.

Why did you go with the new name for the label, Tha Row?
Things change. There will always be a Death Row because I own my catalog. The new artists are new artists. Plus, it’s more positive. Look at it like this: It’s still Tha Row. We just took the "Death" off. There’s enough negative going on as it is with the World Trade Center and all that stuff. Even though I changed the name before Sept. 11, I think we need, as people in the music business, to be more responsible for our actions. I was the one not only responsible for my own actions, but the actions they thought I did. For the simple fact is they gave me nine years. Any other rapper in the industry, most of 'em informants and snitches, they can do whatever and they never get no time.

Do you feel you were treated unfairly by the justice system?
I really can’t complain. What the judge and the D.A. did was give me a gift. They helped me. By me going to prison, I was able to see a lot of things I wouldn’t have seen on the streets. It made me a better man, a stronger man, a smarter man. I have nothing to be negative about. Whatever’s in God’s will is in God’s will. I’m a spiritual person; if God didn’t want me to serve a day in prison, I wouldn’t have. Regardless of who wanted me to go to prison. But I feel God put me in prison for a reason. And I know the reason. I felt what he wanted me to learn. It’s up to me to try to stay focused, learn and do more.

How important is your image of intimidation in achieving your goals?
I am who I am. And I’m a man. And anything that’s not a man is less than a man. I never looked it as an image. Or used it as a gimmick. The only thing I ever did was stand up for the truth. I believe in standing up for what’s right. I believe in taking care of my mates, in taking care of my surroundings. You and I are friends. If you walked outside and somebody tried to rob you, I’m the guy who would come to your aid. Loyalty’s the most important thing. If you read the Bible, the most important thing is loyalty. To God. Loyalty is something you have to have in your heart and in your soul. A lot of guys that I had on my label are not loyal to nobody.

Why did you go to Koch for distribution rather than any of the majors?
Tha Row can make better records than they can. I can get more talent than them. It’s important for someone to stand as an independent. I’m not doing this for me. The majority of what I’m doing is, I’m giving chances to the guys from the inner city. That no one else will. I’m letting people know you can be an entrepreneur. You don’t have to sell your soul just to put a record out.

Since you’ve left the scene, the axis of power in rap has shifted back to the East Coast.
When I went to prison, the West Coast went to prison. I’m not saying these West Coast guys can’t make good records, but take Andre and Snoop: Snoop is doing everything but being West Coast. You see him dancing on MTV, not rapping. He’s accessible to the ass-kissing business. And Dre isn’t West Coast. Jay-Z wrote Dre’s verses on his album talking about Compton. Dre is not a guy from the streets. Nothing against Eminem, but how could he be your running buddy?

Do you miss that kind of danger hip-hop used to have?
Who’s talking about danger? I’m talking about people coming in with quality. Respect. Nobody’s talking about violence. You’re talking about people really caring about each other. There’s a difference. It’s about the enjoyment of one another’s company. You want to be part of that enjoyment. It’s excitement. Enough of the negative stuff. Think about the positive.

What about the accusations that follow you around, your implication in the deaths of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac by MTV, Rolling Stone and the L.A. Times. People don’t want to let it rest, even though you’ve never been charged.
I think it’s sad that your competition will go to extremes to lie. The thing is, I’m not the one who benefits from these guys being dead. I think I took a bigger loss than anyone. Pac was one of my best friends, my little brother. And not just business-wise. We were tight. I took a loss. Suge Knight was going to put out Tupac records regardless. I was in business even before Pac was on the label.

There was no truth he wanted off Death Row?
You have to realize one thing: If he did, I would have let him go. But I know he didn’t. I never stopped no one from leaving. You don’t want to be here, you don’t have to be here. The thing about it is, he basically got to do anything he wanted. He didn’t like certain artists on Death Row no more. Like, him and Snoop fell out. That’s another story. Take Biggie: Puffy benefited from his death, I didn’t. Puffy wouldn’t have been able to be a rapper otherwise. Biggie was like, "Listen. I’m the rapper. You can’t be the rapper. And if you’re gonna be a rapper, I’m going to Death Row or another label."

It looks like the gangsta rap thing is over as far as a media sensation, but there’s still a lot of violence out there.
In the cowboy days, there was violence. In the '20s and '30s, there was violence. The '60s and '70s and '80s and '90s were violent. There’s violence right now. How can you say there’s not when shit is blowing up everyday? That’s reality. You have to make a difference in the spiritual part. I’m not a hypocrite. I’m not holier-than-thou. But I try to better myself. If people try to better themselves, their kids will better themselves and follow a pattern. But we’re living in the real world. Where, on any given day, something can happen.

How bizarre it must have been for you to get out of prison in August and within two weeks, the whole world came crashing down.
When you’re in prison, every place you go, they got to click a gate to let you through. You need some kind of ID card that says who you are. Everything’s controlled. And then I’m free. I’m out of prison. The sad thing is, everybody in the world is in prison right now because of fear. You go to Interscope or Warner Bros., you need an ID card or a sticker. That’s like being in prison. They don’t know it, because they’ve never been in prison. But what’s going on now is what goes on in prison. Everyone needs to identify themselves, even the President. Basically, everybody’s behind invisible bars.

Did anyone give you a hard time in prison?
No. What people don’t understand is, you don’t start off being a man, go to prison and become a punk. I was the same man I was in the street in prison. Even more so. I got nothing to lose in prison. You start with me, I’ll whip your ass.

Did people slip you demos while you were there?
No. Not to say there wasn’t anyone who was good, but that wasn’t my focus. I’m in prison. I’m doing time. I don’t believe in that. The whole thing is, I was just another number. I could spend $140 a month. When they say, "Lock it up," I gotta lock it up. When they let us out in the courtyard, we all get let out. If there’s a problem, it’s my problem. I’m not in there as a person in the business. I’m an inmate. I wasn’t a convict; I was a prisoner. Therefore, that’s how I lived my life.

Having freedom taken away from you must have been horrible.
I don’t think my freedom was taken away. My body may have been taken from the streets, but my mind was free, my heart was free… It was everything I was used to. I didn’t have lobster, but I had crab in a can. It’s not like I grew up eating caviar. They served chili beans in the canteen. How many times did I eat chili beans as a kid? They served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I used to eat those all the time. Shit. How many times I ate sardines growing up? Spam?

Are you comfortable being Suge Knight, nice guy?
Any man has a nice side and a not-so-nice side. I’ve always been a respectful guy. It’s always the guys who put on the act that are not so tough. A person who’s scary acts like he’s not scary. My thing is, I can shake hands with anyone. I can be nice. You respect me, I’ll respect you. In other words, I’ll respect you first, but then you have to respect me. Sometimes, in order to earn someone’s respect, in a certain hostile environment like prison, you might have to knock them the fuck out. If someone carves a knife, you might have to make a bigger knife. That would get you more respect.

You never tried to tunnel out with spoons?
Unh-unh. I never thought about escaping. I was ready to do my time. Society gave me a debt, I’m going to pay my debt. All these other guys, people telling on people, making up stories to get out of prison. If you commit the crime, do your muthafuckin’ time. It’s simple. That’s all it is.

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