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The Boston Phoenix Keeping it Real

Suge's bloody reign at Death Row.

By Nicholas Patterson

APRIL 6, 1998: 

HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL: THE SPECTACULAR RISE AND VIOLENT FALL OF DEATH ROW RECORDS, By Ronin Ro. Doubleday, 372 pages, $23.95.

How do you make a fortune in the music business? Tap into the latest trend in music, assemble a roster of talented performers and producers, then threaten, beat, stab, and shoot anyone who gets in your way. Such is the example set by Marion "Suge" Knight, owner of Death Row Records, according to Ronin Ro's Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records. Ro, a journalist and author who's written for Rolling Stone, Spin, and Vibe, supplies a fascinating history of Death Row, the rap label that in its first four years sold more than 18 million albums, earned more than $325 million, and had a roster that included Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Tupac Shakur. Have Gun Will Travel follows the development of Death Row from its beginnings as the dream of a violent bodyguard/drug dealer to its peak as the most successful and influential rap label in the world, and then to the recent killings, trials, and artist defections that have left it a shadow of its former self.

The story of Death Row is so good Ronin Ro doesn't have to sell it to the reader -- it sells itself. Part Berry Gordy story and part The Godfather, Have Gun traces the label's history, combining a detailed narrative with deft character sketches and helpful background. Ro provides mini-histories of gangsta rap, LA gangs, and the East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry. Reporting on recent events, where it's often difficult to determine the truth, he presents both sides of the story, leaving you to draw your own conclusions.

But Have Gun is more the story of Suge Knight. (The nickname "Suge" was bestowed on the young Marion by his father, who called him "Sugar Bear.") Ro describes Suge's evolution from drug-dealing football player to bouncer/bodyguard to hyper-violent label owner. Along the way the author shows how Suge endeared himself to those around him at Death Row and brought out their best artistic work by creating a family at the label (again recalling Motown's Gordy). As the benevolent father figure, Ro contends, Knight kept his artists satisfied with presents of expensive cars and jewelry while he pocketed most of the profits.

Violence is both the book's narrative thread and its theme. Ro portrays Suge as a man who used violence as a tool -- an effective one at first. The author describes how Suge broke into the music business, after raising seed money from a jailed drug dealer, by recruiting ace rap producer Dr. Dre and launching Dre's breakthrough hit, The Chronic. This was after Suge freed Dre from his contract with Ruthless Records by allegedly threatening to kill the label's owner, Eazy-E. Suge is said to have hunted yet more talent with a gun, drafting Jodeci and Mary J. Blige after making their labels offers they couldn't refuse. He's said to have forced Vanilla Ice to sign over the publishing rights to his hit "Ice Ice Baby" by threatening to throw him off a hotel balcony. Vanilla Ice relates: "I needed to wear a diaper on that day. I was very scared."

And so it went. Music-industry competitors were, according to Ro, threatened, beaten, tortured. If Suge felt "someone was trying to cheat him, the offender would be dragged into a storeroom by his goons and pounded to a bloody pulp." He allegedly incorporated the tactics favored by the gangsters he surrounded himself with, including making his enemies drink urine and having them raped.

But it was violence, Ro contends, that also undid Suge and his label, violence that ultimately led a number of his artists to leave the label, violence that brought about the death of Tupac and his own incarceration. Today, while Knight sits in prison for parole violations, Death Row Records is in dire commercial and legal straits, the subject of ongoing investigations by the FBI, DEA, ATF, and IRS. Ro also argues that the Death Row story isn't just about black-on-black exploitation, that the executives at Suge's various white partners -- Interscope, Sony, Time Warner -- were fully aware of his tactics when they signed on.

Occasionally the narrative becomes redundant, or events are presented out of sequence (we hear that Knight picked up Tupac at jail but discover only later that it was Suge who put up the $1.4 million bail). Ro also fails to document sources, but in this context it's understandable that those sources might fear reprisal. Such lapses don't damage the overall credibility of his account, or undercut the thrill of the read.


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