Fresh from Joyner Lucas wishing death upon him on “Devil’s Work,” we examine how Death Row’s Suge Knight became the most hated villain in hip-hop’s collective history.
“Your actions after you cold-bloodedly murdered my dad were calculating, deplorable and reflective of a lack of moral character and no respect for human lives. Those of a low-life thug career-minded criminal three-striker. He is a disgusting, selfish disgrace to human decency.”
With her hands tightly gripped round the lectern, these were the words of the daughter of Terry Carter as her father’s killer was condemned to 28 years. But rather than these pejorative words being assigned to someone that had spent their life on the outskirts of the civilized world, they were levelled at a man that was no stranger to the public consciousness. As a matter of fact, he’d once held the crown jewel of an entire coast in the palm of his hand.
Suge Knight, 2002 – Robert Mora/Getty Images
After his short-lived football career met an abrupt end, the man that was born Marion Hugh Knight– better known by “Suge” or “Sugar Bear”– wasted little time in ensuring that the life of fame and fortune that he’d strived for would live on in another avenue. From there, the unquestioned oligarch of Death Row Records would carve a path to success that would grant him a reputation as one of the more vilified and irredeemable figures in the history of hip-hop.
Suge received his start by way of the underhanded acquisition of the royalties to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” (more on that later), while the pinnacle of his career found him holding the contractual purse strings of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac and Kurupt, among others. Harbouring all the makings of a dynasty, the undignified end of “Tha Row” was brought to fruition by an array of anecdotal stories and court cases that led to the portrayal of Suge as a parasitic blight upon hip-hop. Unseated from his throne and relegated to the wrong side of history, these tales of perfidious acts and amoral tactics has made him into hip-hop’s enduring antagonist.
For all that it’s an archetypal rise-and-fall story, the fact that he now resides in San Diego’s RJ Donovan Correctional Facility doesn’t prevent him from experiencing brief upticks in relevance from time to time. Over the past few weeks, these moments of pervasion have come from tabloids sensationalizing Suge’s claims that “Tupac had discussed staging his death” before his murder and through some scathing words from Joyner Lucas on “Devil’s Work.” Amid the array of people that he offers up for judgement in exchange for the fallen, the Massachusetts MC is unrepentant as he spits, “I think you should trade, Give us 2Pac back, and take that n***a Suge, let the legend resurrect and he gon’ live for good.”
Oftentimes portrayed as hip-hop’s answer to a villain of folklore, the common perception of Suge Knight didn’t gather steam overnight. Instead, it was the cumulative effect of an amalgam of actions, statements and mythologized tales that seeped out from the menacing halls of Death Row offices, former allies and long-term detractors alike. Prone to refuting these claims in an attempt to overhaul his public image, lawyer-to-the-stars Tom Mesereau has spoken at length about how Suge’s reputation was tarnished and claimed that many of the most enduring tales of his ruthlessness were “a lot of gossip and innuendo.”
Depicted as a boorish, gang-affiliated tyrant in both the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton and the 2Pac flick All Eyez On Me, actor Richard Marcos Tyler’s performance was labelled a fabrication by Mesereau and that “portraying Suge Knight as nothing but a bully and a villain” was a device to “help their ratings and their viewership.”
Conversely, Mesereau maps out a very different character arc for a figure that has been tarred with the brush of deceit and cruelty for decades now:
“I mean this is a very bright, talented person who was never in a gang and profited from a tough-guy image for business purposes, let’s face it. He pioneered the genre.”
Through this rebuttal, we’re led to believe that the anthologies worth of intimidation and violence were a burdensome marketing device that soon became an albatross around his neck. However, the reason that F Gary Gray and Benny Boom readily enlisted Suge as a source of malevolence in their films is because this is a position that he occupied long before he was sent down for 28 years. Taken from throughout his tenure in the public eye, understanding the general consensus of Suge Knight as hip-hop’s greatest antagonist is only possible through the examination of key events and eye-witness accounts.
The coup that started it all, it’s fitting that the circumstances of Vanilla Ice’s deal with Suge Knight are shrouded in an opaque coat of mystery. The one-time bleached blonde phenomenon has a differing set of accounts depending when you ask him. Either, Suge dangled him over a balcony in order to secure the royalties, or there was a much more composed exchange between the two:
“He just came in and said, ‘Listen, this is my city. You wanna play? You gotta pay. Everybody else does. He ran off the roster of all of these people. He goes, ‘I got Eddie Murphy. I’ve got Arsenio Hall. I’ve got Dan Patrick on here. They all pay me when they come to my city.’ And I go, ‘Oh well, I guess I gotta pay you.'”
Dave Mays of The Source, Benzino, J. Prince, Minister Louis Farrakhan, Russell Simmons and Suge Knight at the 2004 Source Awards – Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty Images
Although this may pale in comparison to most accusations lobbed in Suge’s direction, what’s telling is that it set a precedent for his most calculated moves and malicious strong-arming to be kept in the realm of hearsay.
Described as a “bad guy” by Ruthless Records’ Jerry Heller, the myth-making around Suge kicked into overdrive by the time he made his ascent from Dr. Dre’s bodyguard to the hulking Svengali at the helm of Death Row Records. Said to have visited Ruthless Records’ office with a gang of henchman and baseball bats, Eazy-E’s longterm business partner Heller has since admitted that he regrets deterring Eric from killing Suge.
Taken from a 1997 profile in The New York Times entitled “Does A Sugar Bear Bite?” the Death Row Boss’ retort to the rumours about the Ruthless incident highlights his tendency to steer into the role of a formidable mob– or M.O.B— boss:
“I know you’ve heard all the stories. But you have to realize one thing: results.”
Throughout his public appearances, that steely demeanour and self-assuredness was a cornerstone in making Suge a figure of derision. The 1995 Source Awards saw the Death Row lynchpin showered in boos after he cast aspersions against Puff Daddy and Bad Boy on their turf. In one of his more infamous quotes, Suge claimed that “any artist out there that want to be an artist and stay a star, and don’t have to worry about the executive producer trying to be all in the videos, all on the record, dancing… come to Death Row!”
A move that helped foster the brewing us-vs-them mentality between East and West, DJ Quik has since claimed that this event coincided with Suge romancing the mother of Diddy’s child in his hotel room.
From tales of Suge coercing his own employees and Bad Boy affiliates to drink urine as penance for “mistakes” to Death Row recording engineer Phil Brewster’s account of “cleaning blood off the walls” in his office, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Death Row was ran in the vein of some heinous totalitarian regime as opposed to your average company with an estimated turnover of $100 million a year. By the time that Dr. Dre left on acrimonious terms in 1996, the wheels were already falling off of Tha Row’s meteoric rise to power and events such as Tupac’s death and Snoop’s derpature for No Limit were the final nails in the proverbial coffin. But even in the wake of 2Pac’s death, an interview with MTV had all the hallmarks of damage control and tried to dispel any claims that Pac wished to leave the company just prior to his death:
“Tupac loved Death Row. Tupac loved me, I loved him. If you’d ask Tupac that question, he definitely would’ve cussed you out.”
As to whether or not that was true, this diverges us into the unsubstantiated world of conspiracy theories. There have been those who believed that Suge was the orchestrator of the untimely deaths of both Pac and Eazy-E. In one incident that cemented his status as an agent of chaos in the hip-hop realm, an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel saw him not only gloat about Eazy-E’s death but insinuate that there was foul play:
“They got this stuff they call… they get blood with somebody from AIDS and they shoot you with it. That’s a slow death (laughs) an Eazy-E thing… you know what I mean?”
Suge Knight, 2015 – Paul Buck – Pool/Getty Images
Even after his heyday, trouble never strayed far from Suge. He was the recipient of bullet wounds, not only Kanye’s 2005 VMA party but at Chris Brown’s 2014 VMA Party. Eminem’s former bodyguard, Byron “Big Naz” Williams has intimated that the Death Row executive made two attempts on Eminem’s life. And, as recent as 2017, Suge reportedly left the Straight Outta Compton director “terrified” by threats.
Suge Knight’s ungainly tumble from grace was aided and abetted by an unwillingness to evade confrontations or retool his methods of negotiation. Best summarized by Kurupt, his insight gives the definitive final world on how he attained his status as the genre’s most reviled entity:
“Suge had his opportunity to win but a lot of people just get… stuck in time. You gotta change and some people just don’t wanna change.”