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Come To Death Row: Suge Knight’s Complicated Legacy


“Any artist out there that wanna be an artist and wanna stay a star and don’t wanna have to worry about the executive producer being all in the videos, all on the records, dancing, come to Death Row!”

Did Suge start the east coast – west coast beef? Was he directly or indirectly responsible for the murder of 2Pac and Biggie? It all depends who you ask, and I’m not here to give you a definitive answer. Looking back at Suge’s infamous Source Awards tirade however, it’s clear those few furious words had an immeasurable impact on hip hop. 

Ask around about Suge. Talk to rap fans about him; they’re damning. People blame him for killing Pac, for killing Big, for ruining hip-hop, for bringing the dirt of the Compton streets to the booming rap industry. You’ll rarely hear a positive word said about the man behind the Death Row empire.

Think beyond what you know and consider Suge’s legacy. That’s his name next to the Executive Producer credit on The Chronic. On Doggystyle. On All Eyez On Me. On Dogg Food. Taken on that track record, Suge is a legend. He’s the Berry Gordy of the 90s.

That was Suge who bailed 2Pac. That was Suge who unbelievably stole from an incarcerated LA drug lord to finance Death Row Records. That was Suge who had Dre removed from Ruthless.

Did he do these things honourably? Not at all. Were they positive things to do? Not all the time. Did they change the course of hip-hop, the music business and pop culture at large? Absolutely.

Looking to break into the surging economy of hip-hop, Suge must have acknowledged early on that he had no obvious talent, skill or place in the music industry. He was working security, driving The D.O.C around during the NWA days, soaking up what he could from watching the entrepreneurial genius of Eazy-E.

Eazy had skilfully taken the lessons he learned on the streets and applied them to the white-collar world of music. Suge aspired to emulate Eazy’s success, but without Eazy’s charisma or Dre’s ear for talent, he did so with the most obvious tool he had: Intimidation. A one-time defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams, Suge’s imposing frame was one thing, but his ties to the MOB Pirus ensured any threats booming from his baritone were to be taken seriously.

Suge used size, strength and a psychopathic absence of any empathy to fist-fight and frighten his way to the top. You want the publishing for Ice Ice Baby? OK we’ll show up wherever Vanilla Ice goes for a week, then dangle him over a hotel balcony. You want to leave Ruthless Records? Done, I’ll assault Eazy-E and follow Jerry Heller around for a while.

It’s hypocritical for rap fans to celebrate the music of Death Row, but dismiss Suge’s means of conducting business as thuggery. Rap fans revel in how ‘real’ an artist is. 50 Cent was signed after being shot 9 times, The Game has a similar story. Ja Rule was laughed out of the genre for being soft. If you listen to the violence and glorification of LA gang culture that Death Row Records gave us, you’re listening to Suge’s influence. Kurupt was from Philadelphia. The Lady Of Rage was from Virginia. Dr Dre wasn’t known as a gangster in his days before making music. 2Pac was making socially-aware music that often bordered on poetry. Put them on Death Row, and it’s straight gangsta shit. Like it or not, you’ve got Suge and his Pirus to thank for that.

The positive impact of Suge’s legacy is in the music, the classic albums. From 1992 – 1996, nobody was coming close to Death Row in terms of output or turnover.

At the Source Awards in 1995, Suge glares at the New York crowd. He’s not charismatic, nor is he particularly well spoken, but he has the crowd’s attention based purely on his physical stature and menacing mug. He delivers the speech. The fans, who were whipped into a frenzy during an amazing performance from the Death Row ‘inmates’ only minutes earlier, are bubbling with fury. Snoop takes to the stage later to a flurry of boos.

“The east coast ain’t got no love for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg? Y’all don’t love us? Well, let it be known then!”

Puffy, himself no angel behind closed doors, attempts to calm things down. It’s too late by now, and we know the rest of the story.

13 months later, 2Pac is murdered.

6 months after that, Biggie is murdered.

Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg leave Death Row, the label crumbles.

Rap changes forever. Artists said to be emulating 2Pac rise to prominence. Jay-Z becomes a superstar largely on the back of recycled Biggie and Pac lyrics.

Artists such as DJ Quik and Dr. Dre switch up their style to more positive content. West coast gangsta rap, once a furious force, becomes a genre of obscure underground acts for almost a decade.

Think back on Suge’s legacy. Would we be in a better or worse place without him? If Dre never left Ruthless. If Death Row never existed. If 2Pac stayed in prison and eventually returned to the Bay Area to continue making music with Digital Underground.

Was Suge Knight a gift or a curse? It’s a complicated question.

Ponder that, and in the meantime, enjoy the pack Hangin’ With The Homies and Saint Side have thrown together, with a Tshirt/Air Freshener one-two combo, available for preorder here – “Come To Death Row Pack”.



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