Marion Hugh "Suge" Knight Jr. (; born April 19, 1965) is an American former record producer, music executive, former American football player and convicted felon. He is best known as the co-founder and former CEO of Death Row Records. Death Row Records rose to dominate the rap charts after Dr. Dre's breakthrough album The Chronic in 1992. After several years of chart successes for artists including Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Outlawz and Tha Dogg Pound, Death Row Records stagnated after Knight's incarceration on probation violation charges in September 1996 and went bankrupt in 2006.
In February 2015, Knight was charged with murder and attempted murder following a fatal hit-and-run in Compton, California. He pleaded not guilty to all charges. On September 20, 2018, Knight pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 28 years in prison.
Marion Hugh Knight Jr. was born in Compton, California, the son of Maxine (née Dikemen) and Marion Knight Sr. His name, Suge, derives from "Sugar Bear", a childhood nickname. He attended Lynwood High School in nearby Lynwood, where he was a football and track star. He graduated in 1983.
From 1983 to 1985, he attended and played football at El Camino College. In 1985, he transferred to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and played there for two years.
Knight went undrafted in the 1987 NFL Draft, but was invited to the Los Angeles Rams training camp. He was cut by the Rams during camp, but he became a replacement player during the 1987 NFL Players Strike, and played two games for the Rams.
After the NFL, Knight found work as a concert promoter and a bodyguard for celebrities including Bobby Brown. In 1989, Knight formed his own music publishing company. His first big profit in the business came when Vanilla Ice (Robert Van Winkle) agreed to sign over royalties from his smash hit "Ice Ice Baby", because the song included material written by Knight's client Mario Johnson. Knight and his bodyguards confronted Van Winkle several times. On one occasion, Knight entered Van Winkle's hotel room and allegedly dangled him by his ankles off the balcony. Van Winkle said only that Knight threatened to throw him off the balcony; the claim was resolved in court.
Knight next formed an artist management company and signed prominent West Coast hip hop artists DJ Quik and The D.O.C. Through the former, he met several members of the seminal gangsta rap group N.W.A.
Death Row Records
Dr. Dre and The D.O.C. wanted to leave both N.W.A and their label, Ruthless Records, run by Eazy-E, another member of N.W.A. According to N.W.A's manager Jerry Heller, Knight and his henchmen threatened Heller and Eazy-E with lead pipes and baseball bats to make them release Dre, The D.O.C., and Michel'le from their contracts. Ultimately, Dre and D.O.C. co-founded Death Row Records in 1991 with Knight, who vowed to make it "the Motown of the ’90s".
Initially, Knight fulfilled his ambitions: he secured a distribution deal with Interscope, and Dre's 1992 solo debut album, The Chronic, went on to Triple Platinum status in the United States by the end of 1993. It also made a career for Dre's protégé, Snoop Dogg, whose own debut album Doggystyle obtained a Quadruple Platinum certification in the United States in 1994.
Meanwhile, Death Row had begun a public feud with 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell, and when Knight traveled to Miami for a hip-hop convention in 1993, he was apparently seen openly carrying a stolen gun. The following year, he opened a private, by-appointment-only nightclub in Las Vegas called Club 662, so named because the numbers spelled out MOB on telephone keypads, MOB standing for Member of Bloods. In 1995, he ran afoul of activist C. Delores Tucker, whose criticism of Death Row's glamorization of the "gangsta" lifestyle may have helped scuttle a lucrative deal with Time Warner.
Tupac Shakur, MC Hammer, Dr. Dre, and the Death Row Label
Knight's feud with East Coast entrepreneur Sean Combs ("Puff Daddy") progressed when Knight insulted the Bad Boy label founder on air at the Source Awards in August 1995. Openly critical of Combs's tendency of ad-libbing on his artists' songs and dancing in their videos, Knight announced to the audience, "Anyone out there who wanna be a recording artist and wanna stay a star, but don't have to worry about the executive producer trying to be all in the videos, all on the records, dancing, come to Death Row."
The same year, Knight offered to post bail (US$1.4 million) for Tupac Shakur if the rapper agreed to sign with Death Row. Shakur agreed, setting the stage for his 1996 double album All Eyez on Me and the songs "California Love" and "How Do U Want It."
M.C. Hammer's relationship with Suge Knight dates back to 1988. With the success of Hammer's 1994 album, The Funky Headhunter (featuring Tha Dogg Pound), Hammer signed with Death Row Records by 1995, along with Snoop Dogg and his close friend, Tupac. The label did not release the album of Hammer's music (titled Too Tight) while he had a career with them, although he did release versions of some tracks on his next album. However, Hammer did record tracks with Shakur and others, most notably the song "Too Late Playa" (along with Big Daddy Kane and Danny Boy). After the death of Shakur in 1996, Hammer left the record company. He later explained his concern about this circumstance in an interview on Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) since he was in Las Vegas with Tupac the night of his death. Hammer released 2Pac's "Unconditional Love", on his Family Affair album, in 1998. The friendships between Hammer (played by Romany Malco), Tupac (played by Lamont Bentley) and Suge (played by Anthony Norris) were depicted in the television film, Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story (airing on VH1 in 2001).
The label shrank when Dr. Dre, frustrated with the company's increasingly thuggish reputation and Knight's violent inclinations, decided to leave and form his own label, Aftermath Entertainment. A stream of Dre-dissing records followed.
Murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls: Theories accusing Knight
Tupac Shakur was shot four times in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada on September 7, 1996, and died six days later on September 13. When Shakur's East Coast rival, The Notorious B.I.G. (AKA Biggie Smalls), was murdered in a similar drive-by shooting in Los Angeles, California on March 9, 1997, speculation arose that Knight was involved and that Biggie's death was a revenge killing. Former Death Row artists, including Snoop Dogg, also later accused Knight of being involved in Tupac's murder.
A theory accusing Suge Knight in the deaths of both Biggie and Tupac was that of ex-detective Russell Poole, who conjectured that Knight had Tupac killed before he could part ways with Knight's label and then conspired to kill Biggie to divert attention from himself in the Tupac case. The convoluted Biggie murder theory implicated Suge Knight, a rogue cop, a mortgage broker named Amir Muhammad (who was never a police suspect) along with the chief of police and the LAPD in a conspiracy to murder and cover up the murder of Biggie. The Biggie theory formed the basis of a US$500 million lawsuit by his family, the Wallaces, against the city of Los Angeles. A key source for Poole's theory was Kevin Hackie. Hackie had implicated Suge Knight and David Mack. Hackie, a former Death Row associate, said that he had knowledge of involvement between Suge Knight and David Mack and other LAPD officers. His information was used by the Wallace family in their suit against the city of L.A. for Biggie's death. But Hackie later told a Los Angeles Times reporter Chuck Philips that the Wallace attorneys had altered his declarations. The suit brought by the Wallace family against the city of L.A. based on the Russell Poole theory was dismissed in 2010.
A 2005 Los Angeles Times article claimed that another source for the theory of Biggie's murder implicating Amir Muhammad, David Mack, Suge Knight and the LAPD was a schizophrenic man known as "Psycho Mike" who later confessed to hearsay and memory lapses and falsely identifying Muhammad. John Cook of Brill's Content noted that Philips' article "demolished" the Poole-Sullvan theory of Biggie's murder.
Around the same time, Philips wrote an L.A. Times two-part series titled "Who Killed Tupac Shakur?" into the murder of Shakur and events surrounding it based on police affidavits, court documents and interviews.
The L.A. Times story indicated that "the shooting was carried out by a Compton gang called the Southside Crips to avenge the beating of one of its members by Shakur a few hours earlier. Orlando Anderson, the Crip whom Shakur had attacked, fired the fatal shots. Las Vegas police discounted Anderson as a suspect after questioning him once briefly. He was later killed in what police said was an unrelated gang shooting." The article implicated East Coast music figures, including Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace, Shakur's nemesis at the time, alleging that he paid for the gun. Before their own deaths, Smalls, his family and Anderson denied any role in Shakur's murder. Biggie's family produced documents purporting to show that the rapper was in New York and New Jersey at the time. The New York Times called the documents inconclusive stating:
The pages purport to be three computer printouts from Daddy's House, indicating that Wallace was in the studio recording a song called Nasty Boy on the afternoon Shakur was shot. They indicate that Wallace wrote half the session, was In and out/sat around and laid down a ref, shorthand for a reference vocal, the equivalent of a first take. But nothing indicates when the documents were created. And Louis Alfred, the recording engineer listed on the sheets, said in an interview that he remembered recording the song with Wallace in a late-night session, not during the day. He could not recall the date of the session but said it was likely not the night Shakur was shot. We would have heard about it, Mr. Alfred said.
Soon after the article was published, The Smoking Gun revealed that Philips' FBI documents were fake.
Mark Duvoisin, an editor at the L.A. Times, wrote in an opinion piece in Rolling Stone that Philips' account had withstood attacks to its credibility.
But the L.A. Times printed a full retraction of the two-part series and released Philips shortly thereafter during a wave of layoffs.
In Tupac Shakur: Before I Wake, a documentary by Tupac Shakur's bodyguard, he and Cathy Scott, author of The Killing of Tupac Shakur and The Murder of Biggie Smalls, said that Knight would not have placed himself in the path of bullets he knew were coming. On her website Archived Letters Scott responds to a reader of her book stating that she felt there was never evidence to link Knight to Tupac's murder. Scott also told CNN, "That theory doesn’t even add up. 'Open fire on my car, but try not to hit me?'"
A 2006 law-enforcement task force probe into Biggie Smalls' murder, which included then-LAPD Detective Greg Kading, included the murder of Shakur. In his 2011 self-published book, Murder Rap, Kading wrote that Duane "Keefe D" Davis, a member of the "Crips" street gang, gave a confession years later claiming he rode in the car used in the Las Vegas shooting of Shakur. The Crips claimed they had been offered a million dollars by associates of Bad Boy records to kill Shakur. Kading, who named Sean Combs as having been involved in the conspiracy, also wrote that a bounty was offered for Suge Knight's murder.
While in Las Vegas, Kading's book claims, Davis and fellow Crips members crossed paths with a BMW carrying Knight and Shakur. The fatal shots were fired by Orlando "Baby Lane" Anderson, who sat on the side of the car closest to the BMW.
Kading alleged that Knight hired Wardel "Pouchie" Fouse to kill Sean Combs' most valuable star, Biggie Smalls, a murder done following a party at the Peterson Automotive Museum. Pouchie later survived a murder attempt but died in a drive-by shooting a year after the first attack. Charges were never brought against Fouse or Knight and the task force disbanded for reasons of "internal affairs."
After Shakur's death and the release of Tha Doggfather, Snoop Dogg openly criticized Knight for the murder of Shakur and left the label in 1998. He signed with Master P's No Limit Records and then forming his own record label, Doggystyle Records. In 2002, Snoop released the song "Pimp Slapp’d", in which he repudiated Knight and Death Row. In 2006, Snoop again attacked Knight verbally. Knight responded, stating that Snoop was a "police informer" who "never goes to jail".
End of Death Row Records
On April 4, 2006, Knight filed bankruptcy due to civil litigation against him in which Lydia Harris claimed to have been cheated out of a 50% stake in Death Row Records. Prior to filing, Knight had been ordered to pay US$107 million to Harris. Under questioning by creditors, he denied having money tucked away in foreign countries or in an African company that deals in diamonds and gold. Bankruptcy documents filed showed Knight had no income from employment or operation of a business. According to financial records, his bank account contained just US$12, and he owned clothing worth US$1,000, furniture and appliances valued at US$2,000, and jewelry worth US$25,000. He also testified that the last time he had checked the label's financial records was at least 10 years prior. Knight's lawyer said that his client was still "at the helm" of Death Row and had been working on securing distribution deals for the label’s catalog. Harris told reporters she had received a US$1 million payment but had not agreed to settle the matter. "I'm telling you, I didn't do a settlement for US$1 million. That's ridiculous. Let's keep it real," she said.
Knight skipped a meeting with his creditors after injuring himself in a motorcycle accident. Another scheduled meeting with the creditors had been missed after Suge said he had experienced a death in his family. Finally on July 7, 2006, the federal judge, Ellen Carroll, ordered a bankruptcy trustee takeover of Suge Knight's Death Row Records, saying the record label had undergone a gross amount of mismanagement.
He filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which allows a company to continue business operations while restructuring. Death Row was being operated by Neilson during the bankruptcy proceedings, while Knight oversaw his bankruptcy estate as a debtor in possession.
In June 2007, he placed his 7 bedroom, 9½ bath home in Malibu, California on the market for US$6.2 million as part of his "financial makeover". The mansion was finally sold in December 2008 in bankruptcy court for US$4.56 million.
In June 2008, Death Row Records was put up for auction in Bankruptcy Court. The winning bid went to New York-based company Global Music Group, which confirmed it had purchased the firm in a statement to the Associated Press news agency. Global Music Group failed to secure funding and the Death Row Records catalog eventually went to Wideawake Entertainment.
On January 25, 2009, an auction was held for everything found in the Death Row Records office after the company filed for bankruptcy, including some of Knight's personal items. Of note was the Death Row Records electric chair which sold for US$2,500. Some of Knight's personal items appeared in an auction during the debut episode of A&E's Storage Wars, and a vault full of items (including a coat) was purchased by featured buyer Barry Weiss.
Personal and legal troubles
1987 arrests, conviction and probation
In October 1987, Knight was arrested for domestic violence after he assaulted his girlfriend and cut off her ponytail on the street. On October 31, 1987, Knight was arrested in Las Vegas, Nevada for auto theft, carrying a concealed weapon and attempted murder. He had allegedly shot a man three times while stealing his car. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge, and received two years probation.
1996 conviction and 1997 incarceration
In September 1996, Knight was sent to prison for a probation violation and in February 1997 was sentenced to nine years in prison. He was released on August 6, 2001.
2003 conviction and incarceration
In 2003 he was sent to prison again for violating parole when he struck a parking lot attendant. Death Row Records' income rapidly declined due to Knight's incarceration. It managed to save itself from complete bankruptcy by releasing archived Snoop Dogg compilation albums and posthumous Tupac albums. Despite signing new artists, Knight never released any of their albums.
In 2006 Knight was engaged in another dispute with former friend and ex-associate Snoop Dogg after Snoop insulted him in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
On May 10, 2008, Knight was involved in an altercation involving a monetary dispute outside of a nightclub ("Shag") in Hollywood. He was knocked out for 3 minutes, taken to the hospital, and reportedly did not cooperate with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
On August 27, 2008, Knight was arrested on drug and aggravated assault charges after leaving a Las Vegas strip club. When police arrived on the scene, Knight was beating his girlfriend of three years, Melissa Isaac, and brandishing a knife. Reports also alleged that he was under the influence of both ecstasy and hydrocodone. On December 5, 2008, Knight was cleared of all charges. Knight's attorney, David Chesnoff, said the prosecution had "discovery problems and witness problems". When Knight was asked about the positive verdict he replied "God is good, Happy Holidays".
As part of an October 30, 2008, bankruptcy claim, Knight also filed a lawsuit against Kanye West and his associates. The lawsuit concerns an August 2005 shooting at West's pre-Video Music Awards party, where Knight was wounded by a gunshot to the upper leg. The lawsuit cites damages of mental and physical pain caused by the shooting, costs of surgery, loss of income and the theft of a 15-carat (3.0 g) US$147,000 diamond earring.
In February 2009, Knight was taken to Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn to be treated for face injuries he received during an altercation at a private party in the W Scottsdale Hotel, where Knight was reportedly punched by Robert L. Carnes Jr. after exchanging words with him. Officers saw Carnes punch Knight and arrested Carnes and Thomas Leon Anderson Jr., both of whom were accused of assault and disorderly conduct.
Remaining items from Knight's personal property were auctioned in the first episode of Storage Wars on A&E, which aired on December 1, 2010.
On February 8, 2012, Knight was arrested in Las Vegas, after police found cannabis in his car and several warrants for prior traffic violations.
On August 24, 2014, Knight was shot at a pre-Video Music Awards party hosted by Chris Brown at a West Hollywood Sunset Strip nightclub ("1OAK"). Although shot six times, he was able to walk from the venue to an ambulance. His injuries required surgery. It is reported by investigators that evidence from closed circuit television (CCTV) footage showed that Knight was the intended target of the shooting. Knight was released from the hospital on August 27. Friend Keith Middlebrook told the New York Daily News that Knight returned home with the intentions to "heal up in a few days and be stronger than ever".
Knight has so far refused to cooperate with law enforcement on the matter. Jeezy later claimed on the Breakfast Club that he would have been shot had he not been pushed out of the way just prior to the shots.
Prosecution on charges of robbery (2014–present)
On October 29, 2014, Knight and comedian Katt Williams were both arrested and charged with second-degree robbery in connection with an alleged theft of a camera from paparazzi photographer Leslie Redden in September 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. Knight's attorney Richard Schonfeld said during an extradition and bail hearing that Knight experienced dizziness and chest pain after falling in jail. He was taken to University Medical Center, where doctors found a blood clot in his lung.
Both Knight and Williams have pleaded not guilty to robbery. In 2016, the robbery trial was delayed until the resolution of the unrelated murder trial.
Prosecution on charges of murder (2015–2017)
On January 29, 2015, Knight was involved in a hit-and-run incident that left Terry Carter (co-founder of Heavyweight Records and a friend of Knight) dead and another man hospitalized in Compton, California. Knight turned himself in to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department early the next morning and was arrested on suspicion of murder. The second victim, filmmaker Cle Sloan, suffered a mangled foot and head injuries. Witnesses claim that Knight followed the men to a burger stand parking lot after an argument on the Straight Outta Compton film set, and that the collision looked intentional. Security footage video showed Knight running over both men but which Knight's attorney said helps his client's self-defense claim.
In March 2015, Knight was hospitalized after he told a judge that he was suffering from blindness and other complications. Knight fired attorneys handling his murder case and said he was receiving inadequate medical treatment while in custody.
The same month, a court set bail for his release for US$25 million. Knight collapsed in court shortly after the bail setting was announced. On April 16, 2015, Knight's bail was reduced to US$10 million. As of August, he remained in jail.
In July 2015, Knight's lawyer claimed that Knight might have a brain tumor. This information came the same day that Knight's request for lower bail was refused.
In January 2016, Stephen L. Schwartz replaced Thomas Mesereau as Knight's lawyer, his fourth change of counsel in the murder case. In May 2016, criminal defense attorneys Antoine D. Williams, Jamal Tooson, and Jeremy Lessem replaced Schwartz and Thaddeus Culpepper as defense counsel.
In May 2016, Knight sought approval from the court for permission to visit his hospitalized mother while awaiting trial in his pending murder case.
In July 2016, Judge Ronald Coen denied Knight's motion to reveal the identities of several key prosecution witnesses in the criminal case involving the alleged murder of Terry Carter, citing Knight's long history of violence. Knight became emotional after the ruling, stating that because of his health problems, he will die in jail.
In March 2017, Knight was hospitalized after suffering from blood clots, a condition that has been affecting him for two years. Knight's hospitalization caused a delay in his pending murder trial. On April 6, 2017, a judge set a date of January 8, 2018, for the murder trial to begin; as of March 2018, the trial was scheduled to begin April 19, 2018, but was delayed to September.
Prosecution on charges of threatening death (2017)
In August 2017, a grand jury indicted Knight on charges of "threatening death or bodily injury" against F. Gary Gray, the director of Straight Outta Compton, on August 8, 2014. The indictment accused Knight of making an "unequivocal, unconditional, immediate and specific" threat against Gray which had caused Gray to fear for his safety and the safety of his family. Knight pleaded not guilty to the charge.
No contest plea to manslaughter and hit-and-run charges (2018)
On September 20, 2018, Knight pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter and agreed to serve 28 years in prison. Shortly thereafter, he was formally sentenced to 28 years in prison. He is currently incarcerated at Donovan State Prison in San Diego.
Biographical portrayals in film
|2001||Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story||Anthony Norris||Biographical film about MC Hammer|
|2009||Notorious||Sean Ringgold||Biographical film about The Notorious B.I.G.|
|2015||Straight Outta Compton||R. Marcos Taylor||Biographical film about N.W.A|
|2016||Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge & Michel'le||R. Marcos Taylor||Biographical film about Michel'le|
|2017||All Eyez on Me||Dominic L. Santana||Biographical film about Tupac Shakur|
|2017||DPG 4 Life: Tha Movie||Reggie Noble||Biographical film about Tha Dogg Pound|
|2018||Unsolved||Dominic L. Santana||American true crime anthology television series based on the murders of rappers Tupac and Notorious B.I.G..|