Marion ‘Suge’ Knight is one of the greatest entrepreneurs of our time. Not ‘black entrepreneur’ or ‘hip-hop entrepreneur’ or ‘street entrepreneur’. There is nothing required to qualify that statement or detract from it.
In the early 90s, as his name and fearsome reputation began to spread, it became very clear that this was a guy who was going to get to where he wanted to go by any means necessary. And he did.
Britain has never produced anyone remotely comparable.
More than a few household names, millionaires and indeed billionaires, owe at least some of their success and wealth to his ruthlessness and genius.
His roots as an entrepreneur are very humble. He grew up on the gang and drug infested streets of Compton (Los Angeles), attended the University of Nevada and eventually found work as a bodyguard for the likes of rhythm and blues singer Bobby Brown.
Whilst working as a bodyguard earning $70 a day, he gained what would possibly be the equivalent of an Ivy League MBA in the cut throat nature of the music business. He would recount in later years that being a bodyguard was the best way to learn the business ‘as you see and hear everything’.
It is no secret that criminal exploitation (often backed up by predatory contracts) was and remains widespread within the music industry. From Frankie Lyman in the ‘50s to TLC in the ‘90s to Sly Stone just last week, there have been countless artists (many of them black) rendered destitute and desperate by record executives and even their own management teams. The people who in theory are supposed to be championing their interests.
The norm is for these artists to drop out of the news and the next thing you know you’re reading their name in the obituary section of the newspaper.
In the early 90s Hip-Hop was still very much the music of the street and had yet to be fully embraced by mainstream society. Despite this it was already proving to be no different to mainstream music as far as business malpractice was concerned. Suge Knight saw an opportunity in representing disgruntled artists and opened up his own ‘consultancy’.
His first major client was a chap called Mario ‘Chocolate’ Johnson. Johnson helped write a record called ‘Ice Ice Baby’ for a white rapper named Vanilla Ice (real name Robert Van Winkle). The record exploded and Vanilla Ice became the first rapper to really attain wholehearted mainstream acceptance. He was also a less than scrupulous operator. Vanilla Ice refused to pay Johnson just as he refused to pay Queen and David Bowie, whose record ‘Under Pressure’ he sampled for ‘Ice Ice Baby’.
Queen and Bowie hired lawyers and sued. Johnson hired Suge Knight who dealt with the matter in a less conventional but far more memorable way.
Vanilla Ice has alleged that Suge would appear out of the blue at, say, a restaurant that he (Vanilla Ice – then a Madonna-dating global A-lister) was dining at, overpower his security entourage, sit in the seat opposite him, stare silently at him for a protracted period and ask, ‘How are you doing?’
Vanilla Ice still didn’t pay up. So Suge escalated matters.
In an incident that has now become part of music industry infamy, Suge and his ‘staff’ gained access to Vanilla Ice’s hotel room. When Vanilla Ice arrived back at his room, Suge was waiting for him. He took Vanilla Ice out on to the balcony and, as legend would have it, dangled him over the edge twenty stories up.
Vanilla himself said, ‘I needed to wear a diaper on that day’, and for many years would not deny or confirm the story. As time went on, however, he said that Suge just got him to look over the balcony and warned him that he would be thrown over it unless his client, Chocolate, was settled.
The story didn’t end there, but Vanilla Ice eventually obliged. And Suge Knight the deadly serious music executive was born.
Many would argue, and with some authority, that this was an act of criminal extortion and that Chocolate should have taken the matter to the courts. The opposing view is that Vanilla Ice was himself conducting an act of robbery on a grand scale. Unstoppable force meets an immovable object.
Suge had no faith in the legal system and especially lawyers, something that would later play an important role in his own downfall. But it’s not too hard to see why young men from the streets of places like Compton were reluctant to place their faith in a legal system which had all too often failed them. So Suge had fulfilled one of the first key rules of business: find a problem and solve it. For a fee.
Suge Knight’s next major clients were a rapper called Tracy Lynn ‘DOC’ Curry and the now world-renowned producer, rapper and headphones aficionado Andre ‘Dr Dre’ Young (for whom Suge had previously worked as a seventy dollar a day bodyguard). If ever there’s been a man with the Midas touch in Hip-Hop it’s Dr Dre.
At the time DOC and Dr Dre were signed to record contracts with Ruthless Records, a label owned by Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright, a former crack dealer and NWA band mate of Dr Dre’s. But the business brain at Ruthless was Jerry Heller, a music industry veteran famed for importing Pink Floyd and Elton John into America for their first tours. Heller, it is widely alleged, used an old industry trick, putting a few dollars on the table to ensure contracts were signed and then legally yet totally unethically fleecing DOC, Dr Dre and others of fortunes.
Dick Griffey, the now deceased CEO of SOLAR records, described DOC and Dr Dre’s contracts as ‘the worst I’d ever seen in the history of the music business’ and said “describing them as draconian would be kind’.
Suge’s brief in this instance was not to collect an unpaid bill as it was in the case of Johnson vs Van Winkle (i.e. Chocolate vs Vanilla Ice), but to enable Dr Dre to release music outside of his contract with Ruthless Records. This time Eazy-E found himself on the receiving end of Suge’s ‘services’ (which allegedly included threatening to murder his mother) and Dr Dre was duly set free to record on the condition that Ruthless Records (and their distributor label Priority) would be paid a percentage of all and any proceeds.
From that point onwards Suge and Dr Dre began to redefine Hip-Hop as a genre and as a business. And they took it to a level that had never been attained before.
Dr Dre, Suge and several others (whose contributions are disputed, including an imprisoned drug king pin called Michael ‘Harry-O’ Harris), established Death Row Records and, as they say in Hip-Hop, ‘changed the game’.
Branding, making an album as a loose collective of artists, ‘going platinum’ (i.e. selling 1 million records) as a minimal benchmark of success, wearing your company logo as a medallion, incorporating funk into Hip-Hop, fusing street and indeed gang culture into videos and, above all, the music itself, all served to make Death Row the definitive Hip-Hop record label of its time.
And the excitement Death Row created on the street from Los Angeles to London to Lagos was undeniable. You either felt it or you were as dead as the concrete used to pave the street.
Suge personally developed the template for successful Hip-Hop entrepreneurs to follow and from Sean ‘Puff Daddy’ Combs (Suge’s one time rival), Bryan ‘Birdman’ Williams, Sean ‘Jay-Z’ Combs to Damon Dash, all have followed his lead and borrowed significantly from him.
According to Dick Griffey, Interscope – the now world-beating record label established in 1990 by music producer Jimmy Iovine and the billionaire movie mogul Ted Fields – was on the verge of closing shop a year after its formation. Fields was apparently tired of pouring his money into what was essentially a failing venture. The company hadn’t really had any major successes (Mark Wahlberg, then a rapper performing under the pseudonym ‘Marky Mark’ released his debut with them, as did Tupac Shakur, but at the time neither set the world alight).
Lack of major commercial success aside, Interscope did have a reputation for championing ‘gangsta rap’ as a genre at a time when it was political and commercial suicide to do so. This reputation paid major dividends when Dick Griffey, at the behest of Suge Knight who needed a distributor for Dr Dre’s now iconic debut album ‘The Chronic’, pitched it to them. The Chronic was a ground-breaking success – critically, commercially and culturally. The album sold 3 million, grossing $30m.
The Chronic, as Griffey put it, ‘saved Interscope. Made Interscope’. On this basis, if Griffey is to be believed, there is a good chance you would not ever have heard of Lady Gaga, Akon, Eminem, Black Eyed Peas, Beats by Dre headphones, etc. The landscape of popular culture would look very different. A lot less risqué and risky.
All over The Chronic was a young camera-shy rapper from Long Beach, California called Calvin Broadus who then performed under the name ‘Snoop Doggy Dogg’ or ‘Snoop’ for short. Suge, it is often recounted, masterminded everything from Snoop’s hairstyle to his supposed gang affiliations. When Snoop’s debut album was released it became one of the fastest selling debut albums of all time. It sold 5.5 million copies, grossing $55m.
As a result of these successes, Death Row was dominant in absolute terms. It continued to be so from 1992 to 1995 at which point Suge Knight upped the ante.
In 1995 Tupac Shakur, by this stage a successful rapper, was imprisoned in Clinton Correctional Facility, New York, for a sexual assault. His album ‘Me Against The World’ reached the top of the charts during his incarceration. Interscope, who Shakur was directly signed to at the time, didn’t immediately pay his $1.4 million bail while his appeal was pending. Suge Knight saw opportunity an undervalued asset.
He approached Tupac in prison and offered to pay his bail on the condition that he sign directly to Death Row and release three albums. Desperate, Tupac agreed. Legend has it that he signed the contract right then and there jotted by hand on scrap paper.
Tupac was duly released from prison and recorded his own now iconic album ‘All Eyes On Me’, a 27 track double album, which from start to finish took him two weeks. The album went on to sell 10 million units, grossing at least $100m. That is a profit margin of 7,042.86% on an initial investment of $1.4m. Your best Eton-Oxford-Havard educated fund manager dreams of such performance.
Under Suge’s executive direction Death Row was releasing platinum selling albums seemingly with the ease and carelessness with which Sideshow Bob steps on his rake.
The success of Death Row lay in the combination of Suge Knight’s business genius and Dr Dre’s creative genius. But, as is often the case with the profoundly gifted, there is often at least a little bit of crazy thrown into the mix.
In this case, the one thing that could, and ultimately did, stop Suge Knight was Suge Knight himself. He had many enemies both in the boardroom and the street but his ultimate nemesis was closer to home. The downfall of Suge Knight can be attributed to many things but it revolved mainly around his violent tendencies and flagrant disregard for the law — the very elements that had initially helped to propel him to entrepreneurial success.
Violent criminals are ten a penny. Stone cold gangsters are three for a fiver. Yet how many do you know who could identify talent and potential with such razor sharp precision and build a world beating empire that went on to make billions for many people?
Where some would use their privileged backgrounds, connections or expensively acquired knowledge of the law, Suge used his clearly powerful demeanour, size and reputation for violence. I’m sure Steve Brookstein wishes he had had a Suge Knight in his corner during his prevails with Simon Cowell.
But problems began to emerge when Suge bought into his own hype and courted publicity. The millions weren’t quite enough, Suge wanted to be famous and feared on the street. As Marlo Stanfield in The Wire put it, ‘My name is my name’.
Suge just couldn’t leave the whole street hoodlum demeanour behind him and he refused to take legal proceedings seriously. He lost his freedom to the former and his fortune to the latter.
Days ago Suge Knight killed a man after running him over and driving away. He says it was an accident. Eye witnesses, according to the police, say it was intentional. The police are treating it as a homicide. Suge Knight may be on the verge of spending the rest of his life in prison.
There is much more to the story of Suge Knight than has been set out here. For example, many will believe that this recent killing is not his first but at least his third. He has already been to prison multiple times. He frustrated Dr Dre, the goose who laid the golden eggs, out of the business they both built from scratch and then further alienated him. He clearly has a self-destruct button that he just can’t seem to stop tapping.
Whatever the outcome, it would be remiss to disregard Suge Knight the risk-taker. The all-American fearless entrepreneur. The bodyguard who rose to be a mogul and fell to be… who knows?
From Robert Maxwell to Martha Stewart and John DeLorean to Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter (a former crack dealer who stabbed someone in the chest 15 years to the day before he was rolled out to welcome the future King of England to New York), a moral looseness is inherent in many great entrepreneurs. Some, like Jay-Z, get on the straight and narrow and remain there, earning their own place in the establishment. Others, sadly, do not.
Months after Suge’s former business partner Dr Dre – a man who he saved from corporate servitude and poverty – made close to a billion dollars by selling his ‘Beats by Dre’ brand of headphones to Apple, Suge Knight was shot six times in an LA nightclub.
Did his catalogue of crimes and mistakes cross his mind as his bullet wounds were being treated? Did he allow himself to think that if he had just cleaned up his act he’d be a billionaire today as opposed to the old man in the club getting stretchered out?
The story of Suge Knight is one of entrepreneurial zeal, a determined all-American gangster and, above all, of wasted potential.
It is a classic tale of extreme risk and reward, boom and, inevitably, bust.
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Nels Abbey is a writer and commentator based in London. He also occasionally admits to working in the City of London. Find him tweeting @NelsAbbey