It’s not the first image that comes to mind when you think of hip-hop’s most fearsome figure. But here he is, all 6 feet 2 inches, 275-plus pounds, swiveling his hips, bobbing his head and twirling his dance partner to a techno-funk beat.
We’re out on the back patio of Moonshadows, a Malibu, Calif., beach bar with a mixed crowd of surfer types and tourists downing colorful cocktails at sunset. Right in the middle of it is Marion “Suge” Knight, a.k.a. Sugar Bear, wearing a short-sleeve peach shirt with blue jeans and white tennis shoes. Sans jewelry, save for one tastefully iced Breitling watch, he looks a lot like a regular dad as he dances with his daughter, an adorable 2-and-a-half-year-old with curly hair and big brown eyes.
Suge showed up a couple hours ago, and was soon joined by some thorough road dawgs from Compton. Since making the scene, the Death Row Records founder has been focused less on doing an interview and more on playing with his daughter, posing for photos with fans and munching on plates of seafood. Recently turned 40, and no longer facing prison time or any major cases (“I’m like, Sheeit,” he says, “I’m off parole. Let’s go.”), he’s making sure to find time for family and fun these days. A kinder, gentler Suge Knight? Uh, sort of. But don’t get it twisted. When we finally find time to sit down away from the party, it’s clear Suge still means business. He still has scores to settle. Before I get out my first question, he’s already throwing down…
Suge: Don’t get me wrong, I support anyone who come together as a unit and make good music. But hip-hop supposed to be about ghetto politics, about the culture of the inner city. And you got a lot of these artists dissing on record—whether it’s ’Pac and Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas, 50 and Game. A lot of ’em talking about keeping it real, how they off the block and all that bullshit. They’ll talk about every artist in the business and they mama. Except Eminem.
XXL: What’s your problem with Eminem?
This is a guy who as an artist comes out and says all Black women is nigga bitches and gold diggers. Now, I never had a problem with him before. When Eminem came out, I liked him. I thought he could rap, and I thought he was funny. He’s the “Weird Al” Yankovic of the day. But when you start saying Black women is nigga bitches and gold diggers, then I got a problem ’cause I got a mother, I got daughters.
Understood. And not to excuse Eminem, but haven’t you put out your share of records, Doggystyle, etc., that don’t exactly exalt Black women?
First of all, we paid the price for that with women’s groups and shit. And it’s different. People can call themselves niggas and bitches, but you cross a line when you start stereotyping a race. Eminem be making his money off Black people and Black culture, then turning ’round and degrading Black women. He’s a racist.
Tell us what’s up with the Row these days. In 2002, you told XXL the label was headed in a new direction, moving away from pure gangsta and coming with MCs who could spit. There was Kurupt, Crooked I, Eastwood. What happened?
I’d gotten out of prison and didn’t want to come home with the attitude like, Whatever I say is right, everybody else is wrong. I wanted to give those artists the opportunity to express themselves, to make their mark… A lot of them were battle rappers. They can walk in any club and battle and win. But there’s a difference between that and a guy who can sell records, who put his vocals to match the track and have a whole image. Some of them didn’t.
You also went back to the pen around this time.
After I talked to y’all, I went back to prison twice to finish out the violation [of the terms of the parole he’s been on since serving half of the nine-year sentence stemming from his involvement in the fight in the lobby of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the night Tupac was shot in 1996]. One time for 64 days, ’cause they saying I wasn’t supposed to be around gang members, and one of the guys was a gang member. And the other time they gave me 10 months.
For some beef in a parking lot?
That parking lot thing was us at a little club, everybody’s car is late or fucked up, taking awhile. And the parking lot dude got slapped.
You slapped him?
Hell no. But they had a videotape and when the parking lot attendant saw it, he called to tell them it wasn’t me doing it. So they said, “If you didn’t slap dude, come look at the tape to tell us who did.” I told them muthafuckas plain and simple, “Who slapped him don’t have nothing to do with me. If you all want to send me to prison ’cause I don’t have nothing to say about that, then send me to prison.”[Laughs] And they did.
I imagine it wasn’t easy doing business while on parole.
It’s almost impossible. You go in a club, look at someone wrong, and they give you a violation. Didn’t help with Andre and them snitching on me. He went and told the police, my P.O., that he feared for his life. Said I been by his house, chased him, all kinds of shit. And I ain’t seen him. They made one of my parole conditions that I can’t be in the same place, third parties, e-mail, pagers, two-ways, nothing.
The label hasn’t had many hits lately, save for posthumous 2Pac releases.
God blessed me, made me who I am as a man. It’s not just the ’Pac stuff. I own all my masters and my catalogue. And I works hard. Bills get paid, shit get taken care of. I’m in the music business not just for the money. If I’m putting out a record, I put out the record ’cause I want to, not ’cause I have to. Gonna put out a record when I feel in my heart it’s good for the people, not a cheat record with seven or eight guest appearances to make it sell, but a great record from scratch. That’s why an album hasn’t been released yet. But we’re coming with it. The way me and ’Pac used to be in the studio 24-7 to make those hits. Same with Petey Pablo, 24-7. We got 115 songs done. I’ll tell you this, the Petey Pablo record is gonna be big. The work will speak for itself.
Are the challenges getting bigger?
People feel it’s harder for Death Row now. But in reality, it was way harder back then. You learn from your mistakes and your success. I’m the first one started people wearing they label, they clique, on their chain. First one started people bangin’ they record label like it’s their neighborhood. Regardless of you having hits out there or not. When I first started, nobody knew who Death Row was, so when we went to clubs we had to represent. We left the impression that we meant business.
Why should an artist want to sign with the label today?
Who wouldn’t want to be part of a legacy, have their name go down in history? You got groups that put records out, who go to the mall, and if they don’t wear what they wore in their video, no one gonna recognize them. On Death Row, you gonna get immediately exposed, good or bad. But I’d rather have an artist who wanna be here ’cause they want to, not ’cause they strippers and do anything to get a tip…
I like to compete, nothing better than everybody having a great record out. Like, when we had a ’Pac song out and Biggie have a song out. Can’t do anything but give it up and go in and do something hotter than that. Can’t never say Biggie wasn’t tight on the mic. He was always rappin’ about some grimy hood-type shit, type of stuff we about.
Did you follow the recent Biggie civil trial at all?
Biggie’s mom, Voletta Wallace, named you in her initial lawsuit as one of the parties responsible for her son’s death.
We already know anytime you need to make the press, you just throw my name in it. But look, it’s a situation where—when you talk about anybody’s parents, if you’re blessed enough to know your parents—any mother would want closure for their child.
But why point the finger at you?
That’s the first time I heard they pointing the finger at me.
In pretrial they were, but it goes beyond that. LAPD detectives have said you’re the prime suspect. One of the prevailing theories is that you hired dirty cops to take out Biggie.
Put it to you like this, I’m quite sure if I spill on the sidewalk, they put handcuffs on me. So if I had anything to do with any foul play with all that, I’da had handcuffs on me. Therefore, it is what it is when it comes to people lying on you. A lot of times, people will say just about anything to sell they papers, to make a dollar.
Did you know the main dirty cop named in the suit, this David Mack?
Hey, look. Hey look, I didn’t know none of those dudes…
And as Suge says this, he snatches my tape recorder from the table and clicks it off. His face darkens and he leans in toward me and…
…Let’s just say that a rather tense exchange takes place between men, one that ends with me deciding to change the subject. I look back through my notes, and after asking a few more music-related questions, I excuse myself to take a piss.
When I return to the table minutes later, I find Suge arguing with a drunk dude—White, thirtyish, 6 feet, maybe 190—who’s being a little too aggressive for his own good.
“I’m saying,” says Drunk Dude, slurring his words, “I know who you are and…”
“You see me on the muthafuckin’ phone,” says Suge, “talking to my girl.”
“We already talked about that.”
Suge stands up, shoulders slightly cocked, veins swelling on his neck, his voice a low growl. “You see me on the muthafuckin’ phone, muthafucka.”
“Just sit down, man,” says Drunk Dude. “Sit down.” He reaches out to steer Suge to his seat…and, wham!… He gets a hard paw to the chest cavity that sends him back three feet.
“Don’t put your fuckin’ hands on me!” says Suge.
Drunk Dude recovers and, amazingly, stumbles back toward Suge. “Come on, man. I practically started Priority Records with Bryan Turner.”
Just when it looks like Drunk Dude’s gonna get knocked out, Suge steps to the side to check the guy’s reflexes. Realizing there’s no real threat, he relaxes a bit. “Man you need to get a cab,” he says.
“I live 20 houses up.”
“I hope you ain’t driving.”
“I live 20 houses up.”
“Someone get this guy a cab.”
And with that, the barman steps out and escorts Drunk Dude away. It’s over, the fight and the night, before I can finish asking questions.