* “Is he strapped?,” asked music executive Kedar Massenburg, looking across the lobby of the New York Ctiy offices of Universal Records at the formidable black man in a dark suit. Massenburg, who had leveraged success as manager of so-called neo soul stars D’Angelo and Erykah Badu into his own Universal-distributed label, matter-of-factly inquired whether the stranger sitting quietly in the lobby was carrying a firearm as if he were asking whether the man needed his parking ticket validated.
“I don’t know,” I responded, feigning nonchalance. To myself I thought, “I hope this guy IS packin’.” After all, he was a bodyguard, and I was here with his boss, Marion “Suge” Knight. In early September 1996, the last place on earth I wanted to be was in Manhattan with Suge Knight. In broad day light, no less. Hip-Hop was still dealing with residue from the East Coast/West Coast rap wars, and the West Coast-based Knight, then CEO of Death Row Records– renown for producer Dr. Dre’s landmark 1992 CD “The Chronic” and home to rap superstars Tupac Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dogg—was considered by many to be NYC hip hop’s public enemy number one.
I ended up in Manhattan with Knight because I’d been assigned to write a cover story on the rap mogul for The Source magazine. My deadline was closing in fast when Knight upped and jetted to New York on business before I could interview him. George Pryce, Death Row’s ever-industrious publicist, was not about to lose a magazine cover to logistics; he put me on a plane to New York to sit with Suge there.
For most of the first day I watched TV in my room at the Four Seasons, where Knight was ensconced. I called his suite several times, to no avail. The next morning I hit pay dirt. “Oh…hey,” answered Knight, sounding sorry he’d picked up. “Be in the lobby in ten minutes.”
Lunch in the hotel restaurant? A conversation on a couch in the lobby? I stepped off the elevator just in time to see Knight, his attorney David Kenner and the man in the dark suit making their way across the bustling lobby to a hotel exit. A minute later and I’d have missed them. “Make this run wit’ me,” said Knight, when I caught up with him outside.
Awaiting our transportation, I couldn’t help but notice how the noontime stream of Manhattan businessmen and women smartly dressed in Donna Karan and sneakers eyed Knight. To be sure, a dapper, confident, manicured 6’4 tall and nearly 300 pound man puffing on a Cuban cigar casts a striking image. Several appeared to know who Knight was; others gaped in discreet wonder. I mentioned this to Kenner. “It’s like this everywhere he goes,” the attorney said, before going on his way. “They may not know who he is, but they know he’s somebody.”
The curious didn’t concern me. It was New York’s hip hop community, many of whom had no love for knight and his legendary gangsterism, that had me worried. How easy would it be for someone to gun him–us–down in the streets? As we climbed out of the chauffeured black Lincoln Town car at Universal–the bodyguard rode up front–I gingerly asked Knight if he gave any thought to his safety in the Big Apple. He voiced bewilderment at the notion. “Man, people love Death Row here,” he said, taking another puff of his cigar. “I got plenty friends in this town. “
The reception Knight received at Universal appeared to echo his sentiment. When word got around that he was in the building, various staffers excitedly made their way into the lobby to get a look, say hello or shake his hand. The scene would be repeated everywhere we went in Manhattan that day-–at other labels; at the offices of talent agents; at the Italian restaurant where we had dinner.
I wouldn’t get my interview until midnight. And it happened then only because when I called his room—as he asked me to—and he begged off, blaming an upset stomach, I told him I had just the thing and showed up at his door with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. Knight grabbed it and—fuck a spoon, that’s a lotta stomach to coat—swigged damn near the whole bottle. Privately, I thought it funny that the big, badd Suge Knight was no match for indigestion.
But then, on the occasions I was inside the Death Row camp, I never encountered the Suge Knight people talked about and feared. I treated him the way I wanted to be treated; spoke to him as I wanted to be spoken to. That approach actually worked. A few days before that New York trip, the Saturday afternoon of Labor Day weekend, Death Row flew me from Los Angeles into Las Vegas—Knight owned a nightspot in the city, the private Club 662 (on a phone keypad the numbers spelled MOB)—and requested we do the interview at a home he’d purchased.
As soon as I walked into the McMansion, I knew there’d be no interview. It was a scene out of a hip hop music video, with scantily clad women and young gangsters mingling and dancing. The Cristal and assorted liquor flowed. “Get somethin’ to eat, nigga,” Knight voiced over the booming hip hop and R&B, pointing his cigar to the massive soul food buffet that went across a wall of his dining room.
I fixed a plate and retreated out back, where thug life was in full effect. Guests socialized under a cloud of weed that wafted over the swimming pool, which featured the Death Row logo painted at its bottom. Everything was cool until a couple of knuckleheads started throwing people in the pool.
Two clothed women went in first, before a rapper I’d never heard of made a big splash as he was thrown in. Nervous, I pretended to be caught up in the fried chicken and potato salad and waited for them to grab the lone “square” stranger, but it never happened. I later reasoned that the two culprits had earlier overheard me mildly reprimanding knight about not making time for the interview and figured I was off limits.
Sometimes, ignorance is not bliss. Sometimes, it is reckless; dangerous. But New York and Vegas aside, in L.A. I always felt safe inside the Death Row entourage. I was intrigued by the label’s steamrolling success and fascinated with Knight’s ambition and how he did things. Like the time I met him and Tupac for lunch at Georgia, the long-since shuttered West Hollywood restaurant popular among Black Hollywood.
Knight, who arrived driving a red Rolls Royce Corniche, at some point during lunch decided he wanted one of his vintage automobiles instead. He made a call, and by the time we’d finished our meal, a flatbed truck had picked up his Rolls and replaced it with a mint condition ‘60s Chevy Impala. Private planes, fancy cars, real estate, women and, as it turns out, violence and intimidation–that’s how Knight rolled.
I’m writing about events that happened nearly two decades ago; memories conjured by the news of Knight being charged with murder and attempted murder. Based on his recent brushes with the law and various infringements on his physical well-being–he has been knocked out, shot, etc.–one didn’t require a crystal ball to know something like this was only a matter of time.
The fact is none of us is perfect. However, most of us don’t impulsively follow our darkest emotions down the long, narrow road that over and again leads to a psychological dead end. Thankfully, most of us have the ability to control ourselves. Sadly, Suge Knight doesn’t appear to be equipped with that chip.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]