Suge Knight lived flashy life of rap mogul but never left the Compton streets that raised him
The 49-year-old grew up gritty and leveraged his story into a gangsta rap lifestyle that made him and his cohorts, including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur, into millionaires. But while most of the musical acts he once ran with have turned themselves into brands still worth millions, Knight has been bankrupted and failed to stay on the right side of the law the past 25 years. He now faces a murder rap for a fatal Thursday afternoon hit-and-run in Compton, the streets of his youth.
The rags to riches story of rap’s most controversial figure could end behind bars — for life.
Mogul Marion (Suge) Knight, the 49-year-old music heavyweight who was a central figure in the West Coast gangsta rap scene as it emerged 25 years ago, is once again in trouble with the law — and this time he’s facing a murder charge for allegedly running two men down in his truck, killing one of them.
The fatal incident happened Thursday afternoon in a burger shop parking lot in Compton, the hard-knocks neighborhood in Los Angeles County where Knight, a one-time high school football star, grew up.
It was in Compton that a young Knight forged his identity as a gangbanger, proudly donning red to rep his ties to the Bloods.
If the latest allegations against him prove true, it would seem Knight never truly overcame the mean streets of his childhood, despite years of living the flashy, money-flushed lifestyle of a high-powered rap kingpin.
“Compton — that’s where I get my energy,” he told the New York Times Magazine in a profile published in January 1996.
The youngest of three kids, Knight was given his famous moniker — pronounced “shug” — in a nod to his childhood nickname, Sugar Bear.
But in a neighborhood where so many teens get caught up in gang turf wars, their lives forever changed, usually for the worse, Knight always had dreams of something bigger, his mother told The Times, remembering her only son as a spoiled child.
“One day I’m going to live in a house with a second floor and I’ll have a lot of cars,” he told his mom, according to the profile headlined, “Does a Sugar Bear Bite?”
After time spent enrolled in junior college, the hulking young Knight — a defensive end who lined up at 6-foot-4, 300-pounds — got a chance to play football at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in 1985 and 1986.
“He wasn’t a problem guy at all,” Knight’s UNLV coach, Wayne Nunnely, told the Las Vegas Sun in 1996. “You didn’t really see that street roughness about him.”
He went pro as an undrafted free agent, signing with the Los Angeles Rams. He played for his hometown team during part of the 1987 season before giving up on pro pigskin.
Once again, it was the pull of better opportunities, bigger things that motivated him.
He had an affinity for music, and his staggering stature got him a gig as a bodyguard for R&B star Bobby Brown.
Knight earned a reputation as a tough negotiator even before he formed Death Row Records. He won a court royalties battle waged against white rapper Vanilla Ice, real name Robert Van Winkle, who made it big with his hit 1989 single “Ice Ice Baby.”
The story goes that Knight, along with his crew, held Van Winkle by his ankles from a Hollywood hotel balcony to get him to cough up the cash. Van Winkle later clarified, saying Knight took him out on the balcony, “showing me how high I was up there.”
“I needed to wear a diaper that day,” Van Winkle said in a 1999 episode of “Behind the Music.”
After a few years as a music promoter and producer in Los Angeles, Knight teamed up with childhood friend Dr. Dre, who gained fame as a member of gangsta rap crew N.W.A., to form Death Row Records.
Dre delivered the label’s first hit record — and it was a smashing success. “The Chronic,” released in Dec. 1992, has sold nearly 5 millions of copies in the U.S. as of 2013 and included some of the best-known songs of the 1990s, among them the classic “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang.” The album also made a star of Snoop Dogg, who until then was an unknown musical entity.
The rapping of Dre, Snoop and eventually Tupac Shakur transformed Death Row into the biggest rap label in the world, selling 15 million records and grossing more than $100 million through 1995, according to The Times.
By then, at age 29, Knight was living a lifestyle as large as his imposing frame. He owned 34 cars, many of them tricked out and souped up. He owned clubs and big houses, like one in Las Vegas that was used to film scenes in the 1995 Robert De Niro gangster flick, “Casino.” (Knight redecorated the place with plenty of red, a homage to his Bloods past.)
He dressed the part as well, donning expensive suits and fedoras, almost always puffing away on a stogie as he did deals.
“In the beginning, they thought: “He’s a big, ol’ large guy and a jock and aggressive — he must be a dummy,’” Suge told The Times. “They were arrogant toward me. They didn’t respect me as a man. But being big was the best thing. They underestimated me. They didn’t know I had a briefcase full of hits, a bag of tricks.”
As the label grew in exposure and influence, so did its beef with East Coast rappers Notorious B.I.G. and Sean (Diddy) Combs — then known as Puff Daddy. The New Yorkers grew Bad Boy Entertainment into a major label in its own right some 3,000 miles across the county — creating a natural rivalry that soon got out of hand.
The feud reached a fever pitch at the 1995 Source Awards in Manhattan, when Knight, presenting an award, poked fun at Puff Daddy on his own turf.
“If you don’t want the owner of your label on your album or in your video or on your tour, come sign with Death Row,” he told the crowd in a not-so-thinly veiled jab at Combs, an executive who is equally talented as a hype man, producer and performer.
In September 1996, it was Knight who was behind the wheel when Shakur, already a legend at 25, was shot to death in the passenger seat in a still-unsolved drive-by shooting on the Las Vegas strip.
Months later, the Notorious B.I.G., himself a top-selling rapper and an instant legend, was shot dead at the age of 24 in another drive-by, that time in Los Angeles. Biggie’s March 1997 slaying also remains unsolved.
Rumors have swirled for years that Knight, never quite able to leave the streets behind, was involved in one or both of the murders. He’s always denied involvement in either slaying.
But that’s not to say Knight’s never gone down for a crime. He spent nearly five years in prison for a beating he carried out with Shakur shortly before the rapper was killed.
Upon Knight’s release in 2001, he was sent back to jail sporadically over the next two years for violating his parole.
In 2005, Knight was shot in Miami during an MTV Video Music Awards party. No arrests were made in that case, either.
By 2006, Knight’s music empire was in tatters, along with his reputation, and he was forced to file for bankruptcy.
Since then, he’s been arrested and charged with smaller crimes, but none that ended in real jail time.
In August, Knight once again survived a shooting — but this one was a much closer call. Investigators believe he was targeted when he was shot six times while at a party at the 1Oak club in Hollywood ahead of the MTV Music Awards. Despite his wounds, the behemoth record big walked himself to the ambulance — and spent little time recuperating.
That shooting has also gone unsolved, and Knight has reportedly been uncooperative with investigators, abiding by the “no snitching” code that is gospel on the streets.
He again was accused of crime in September, this time resulting from a robbery that authorities say he and comedian Katt Williams committed while roughing up a female photographer.
As a result of his extensive rap sheet, he was previously expected to face a maximum of 30 years to life in prison on those charges and was due in court on Tuesday.
But the murder charge he now faces radically changes the fate he could face at the hands of the law.
Knight is suspected of rolling up to the set of “Straight Outta Compton” — a biopic about N.W.A. — and getting into an argument with people there. Former pals Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and rapper The Game were reportedly on set when the fight broke out, but it was not clear whether any of them were directly tied to the beef.
Dre and Knight have had a long-running feud after Dre left Death Row to form Interscope Records. It was there that Dre, real name Andre Young, launched the career of rapper Eminem and released his multi-platinum follow -p album, "The Chronic 2001."
Knight’s adversaries left, and he followed them to a burger joint parking lot not far away, in Compton. The murder weapon was his F-150 Raptor. Its color comes as no surprise: red.
“Looks like he drove backwards and struck the victims and drove forwards and struck them again,” Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lt. John Corina said. “The people we talk to say it looked like it was an intentional act.”
Knight surrendered to Los Angeles County policy early Friday morning and was charged a few hours later with suspicion of murder.
His bail reflects the high-rolling life style he once enjoyed — it was set at $2 million.