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The story of Death Row Records’ rise and fall has been told ad nauseam. There have been countless books, DVDs, and documentaries chronicling this great American tragedy. It even found its way into the blockbuster film Straight Outta Compton. Yes, we love a great rags-to-riches-back-to-rags tale. But there are parts of this story that have long been forgotten — left on the cutting room floor, so to speak — weird twists, turns, and anecdotes, whose folklore didn’t survive the internet age (other than obscure 2Pac bulletin boards on now-defunct Geocities pages). It’s a weird piece of history that hasn’t been celebrated … until now.
In 1999, Suge Knight sat in a California prison serving out a nine-year sentence on a parole violation. The charge stemmed from a beating he and his goons handed out on the night 2Pac was tragically murdered in Las Vegas in 1996. The music industry executive, who just a few years prior had the world in his hands, was quickly losing his grip. His Death Row Records empire was crumbling, and there was little he could do about it from behind the walls. Suge was still feared on the streets, but his respect was waning.
The biggest star on his label, Tupac Shakur, was dead; his murder still unsolved. Their other biggest star, Snoop Dogg, had gone AWOL and was riding high on Master P’s tank, thanks to a $3 million cash bailout from the Colonel (No Limit had effectively replaced Death Row’s spot as the hottest label in rap). Dr. Dre, who’d left the label three years prior, had stumbled a bit with his first post-Death Row release, Dr. Dre Presents The Aftermath, but was back atop the charts thanks to his fresh-faced protégé, Eminem.
Knight sat and watched his former artists and business partners flourish from behind bars. The life Suge had been accustomed to in the free world — the thousand-dollar tabs at Monty’s Steakhouse, the fleet of luxury cars, endless women and million-dollar album and video budgets — was temporarily on hold. Suge had passed the Death Row reins to Reggie Wright Jr., a childhood friend from Compton, who was running the label in his absence. One half of Tha Dogg Pound, Daz Dillinger, was christened the “Executive Over C’er” — or the music director of the label — who oversaw each and every release. He was transitioning into Dr. Dre’s vacated in-house producer role.
The label was actually doing pretty well thanks to the Death Row Greatest Hits double album (which went multi-platinum), as well as a Tupac Greatest Hits double album that would eventually go diamond (10 million sold units shifted). The soundtracks for two movies starring Tupac that no one ever actually saw also performed well — mainly because they included unreleased Tupac songs, which were at a premium when the world didn’t have immediate access to every Tupac song.
But the novelty projects were starting to wear thin on the public, and consumers saw through their cash-out schemes. Death Row hadn’t produced a new star since the mass exodus a few years prior, and interest in their current roster was all but gone. Their once-captive audience had moved on to Pac and Biggie’s successors such as Master P, DMX, and Jay Z.
The Lady Of Rage’s long-awaited debut flopped. Kurupt, amid a flurry of lawsuits, filed bankruptcy and fled the label to start his own imprint, ANTRA. Daz Dillinger, the last Crip standing, released a great solo debut, Retaliation, Revenge And Get Back, before leaving the label for good. The album crept to gold status despite minimal push from Death Row (Daz and Death Row staff were at odds over Snoop’s defection). Nate Dogg went the indie route, taking his Death Row masters and releasing them as a double album on the mystery label Breakaway Entertainment (sources have told me this label was secretly funded by Suge). Death Row was left with a roster of relative unknowns. Suge was now the biggest star on his own label.
Suge’s true cash cow, however, was his vast Tupac catalog. In his 11 months on Death Row, Tupac recorded more than 200 songs for the label — many rough and unfinished. Pac was the definition of a workhorse during his time on Death Row, and he somehow managed to film close to a dozen music videos, two motion pictures, two albums (one a double), and hundreds of songs in less than a year. Some say Pac knew he was going to die, but the truth is he was out on bail, and feared he’d soon be back behind bars.
But with Tupac dead and Suge in prison, the Tupac catalog — Suge’s most valuable asset — was far from safe. Within months of Suge’s incarceration, the library had been viciously raided and unearthed by blood-sucking bootleggers. The sources of the leaks are still unknown, but it’s long-rumored to have been orchestrated by former Death Row employees — either financially strapped, or with a vendetta against Suge.
The music spread like wildfire, opening the market for the Tupac bootleg craze, and further fueling rumors that Pac was still alive. Full albums worth of material popped up at mom-and-pop record shops, flea markets, and street vendors. Before being able to purchase online or download via Napster, having this unreleased Pac material was a badge of honor, with some of the bootlegs costing upwards of $40. This writer in particular drove around the Midwest meeting bootleggers in gas-station parking lots and back rooms of semi-legit music stores just to have the most exclusive of Tupac releases.
Suge was in a bad place. He felt betrayed and powerless against many of the people he once loved. So he had no other choice but to go on the offensive.
Tensions between Death Row and Snoop had already come to a head by early 1998. Snoop had aired out his grievances against the label in a high-profile Source Magazine cover story, venting his frustrations against Suge and his shady business practices. Diss songs such as “Fuck Death Row” and “Death Row Killa,” where Snoop took aim at the label and Suge in particular, started popping up on mixtapes and on the bootleg circuit. There was clearly trouble in the water. It didn’t help matters that Snoop Doggy Dogg, who had shortened his name to Snoop Dogg, had signed a multi-million dollar deal with Master P’s No Limit Records, the hottest rap label in the business.
The Snoop and Death Row battle reached a boiling point in May of 1998, at the taping of Master P’s I Got The Hook-Up! Comedy Jam (yes this was a real thing) at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. Snoop showed up to perform alongside his No Limit Soldiers, but a slew of Death Row operatives managed to infiltrate the 6000-person venue, leading to a massive 60-person brawl backstage, ending in Snoop arrested on a marijuana charge.
Suge and Dr. Dre’s feud was a bit more personal. The two had been at odds since Dre’s departure from the label he co-founded with Suge in 1991. (Dre reportedly sold his half-stake in Death Row Records for $1 in 1996.) But their disdain for each other went even deeper when Knight married Dre’s longtime girlfriend, singer Michel’le, from behind bars in 1999. (In an even crazier twist, Dr. Dre and Suge Knight have children who are siblings.)
But Dre seemed unfazed by Death Row’s constant threats, making this beef essentially one-sided. The Good Doctor was riding high off the success of Eminem’s debut album, The Slim Shady LP, and was back in the studio with Snoop Dogg for the first time since 1995. He was even close to finishing the long-awaited and longer-delayed follow-up to his 1992 debut, The Chronic. With the new millennium approaching, Dre’s first album in seven years had the perfect title: The Chronic 2000. The world was excited, and it was being touted as a family affair, featuring Dre reunited with Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, Kurupt, and the D.O.C. It appeared the West Coast was about to make another run — but Suge Knight had other plans.
It had long been established that Suge’s pettiness on the world’s stage knew no limits. Need proof? Than look no further than the original back cover art for 2Pac’s Makaveli album, which depicted cartoon images of the Notorious B.I.G. as a pig, Puff Daddy in a tutu, and Dr. Dre being sodomized (below). Interscope would intervene, however, stopping the art from going to print. Dre was still signed to Interscope after all — not to mention this was in very poor taste after Tupac’s sudden death.
Suge and company began dissing Dr. Dre almost immediately after he fled the label in the summer of 1996. As Blackstreet’s Dr. Dre-featured “No Diggity” began climbing the charts, Tupac and Suge decided to flip the “No Diggity” instrumental and turn it into a Dr. Dre diss song that masqueraded as Tupac’s first single from Makaveli, “Toss It Up.”
He also commissioned the unknown rapper J-Flexx to lampoon Dre in the video and song for “Who Been There, Who Done That,” which Suge had the gall to place on the Death Row Greatest Hits album.
In 1997, Interscope dumped Death Row after pressure from their parent company Seagram, as Death Row was at the center of a federal racketeering probe. Knight moved his operation to Priority Records, where he was free to attack Dr. Dre at his leisure. And Suge did just that by releasing the most bizarre project of the Death Row canon, Suge Knight Represents: Chronic 2000. Yes, Suge Knight, the undisputed king of petty and one of the most diabolical men in the music business, had stolen the title of Dre’s 1999 album and was releasing it as a double-disc compilation on Death Row. Reggie Wright Jr., who was the interim president at Death Row at the time, told Bomb1st.com that Jimmy Iovine was so pissed that he offered Suge five percent of sales of Dre’s album if he’d give the name back. Suge declined. It wasn’t about the money. This was war.
Death Row rushed out the album to thwart Dre’s Chronic 2000 plans, and to coincide with the release of Snoop’s No Limit Top Dogg album, which was his second under the No Limit umbrella. Chronic 2000 was a 28-track outing that featured a handful of Death Row C- and D-listers, unreleased Tupac songs, as well as the introduction to Death Row’s new roster. Suge, attempting to further cash in on the Tupac craze, found a rapper from Dallas, TX who called himself Tha Realest, who looked and sounded almost identical to Shakur.
But the rip-offs didn’t end there, as Suge also found a slinky rapper from Compton who looked and sounded exactly like Snoop, who called himself Top Dogg (it wasn’t a coincidence this was also the name of Snoop’s upcoming album). You are reading this correctly: Suge’s two new marquee artists were a fake Tupac and a fake Snoop Dogg. Suge was so excited about pushing Top Dogg that he inexplicably dropped the unreleased Tupac video for “All About U,” which replaced Snoop’s hilarious outro with a fresh Top Dogg verse.
And once Suge caught wind that Snoop’s street single from No Limit Top Dogg was going to be a remake of Dana Dane’s “Cinderfella,” titled “Snoopafella,” he rushed out a Top Dogg single and video titled “Top Dogg Cindafella,” which used the exact same sample and concept as Snoop’s. It was outrageous.
And the fun continued beyond that point. Anyone associated with Snoop and Dre were in the crosshairs on Chronic 2000. Suge dug up the obscure white rapper Miilkbone, who is probably best known for Big L and Jay Z freestyling over his “Keep It Real” instrumental, to diss Eminem on “Presenting Miilkbone (Eminem Diss).” To be fair, Em took a small shot at Miilkbone on “I Don’t Give A Fuck” (“I’m on a Serch to crush a Miilkbone”), but this was still a Suge setup.
Master P also came under fire on Chronic 2000, most notably on “Easy To Be A Soulja (When There Ain’t No War),” where Suge pumped up one of Snoop’s former protégés, Lil C-Style, to diss Snoop for moving to Baton Rouge before proclaiming “Fuck Snoop Dogg and Master P.”
Chronic 2000 was Suge’s most bizarre and puzzling move since signing MC Hammer to Death Row just a few months before Tupac was murdered. They billed Hammer as the family-friendly addition to the Row — promising a huge comeback after the fiasco of his laughable “Pumps In A Bump” male-thong-infested video. (Hammer’s Death Row comeback never materialized, but he did record a couple of good songs with ‘Pac.)
Seventeen years later, we’ve seen how this all played out. No Limit Top Dogg was one of the best rap albums of 1999 (and one of the best in Snoop’s catalog). Chronic 2000 has long been forgotten and written out of history completely. It’s almost as if it never came out — even though it went gold and debuted in the top 10 on Billboard. It’s never mentioned, and isn’t even a footnote in Death Row’s legacy.
The album did rewrite the course of Dre’s catalog, however, altering his plans for a proper Chronic follow up. After Death Row released Chronic 2000, Dr. Dre sued Death Row and Priority Records for trademark infringement and to halt future sales of the album — claiming he owned the Chronic title. Dre’s answer was to title his album The Chronic 2001, his way of one-upping Suge. Death Row countersued, which tangled up the title, forcing Dr. Dre to simply name his second album 2001. This piece of information is completely lost on most rap fans in 2016, who are likely still confused as to why an album that came out in 1999 was titled 2001.
As ’99 rolled into 2000, Suge’s feud with Snoop and Dre continued. Suge released an album of Snoop throwaways recorded while on Death Row, hilariously titled Dead Man Walkin’. On the eve of its release, Suge leaked Snoop Dogg’s Tha Last Meal (titled so because it was the last album of Snoop’s that Suge was entitled to a percentage of) two months ahead of schedule on the Death Row Records website. The message stated “You Decide! Take the Snoop Dogg challenge and choose between Dead Man Walkin’ and Tha Last Meal. Listen to both albums and choose song for song which album is better!”
Also in 2000, Death Row released the straight-to-video film, Death Row Uncut, which included rare, classic, and unreleased music videos from their heyday (as well as weird excerpts where they accuse Dr. Dre of being a “quadrosexual”). Most disturbingly, the video offers up the home addresses and directions to Snoop, Dre, and Jimmy Iovine’s houses — and urged people to pay them a visit (“Grab yourself a bag of doggy biscuits and head on over to Snoop Dogg’s house”). Suge had no boundaries.
Months later, Suge had one final warning for Snoop before being released from prison, taking to the Death Row Records website to announce “2001 the year of fear…. All doggs run and hide…. Suge is coming home.” The website also featured audio of the sound of a dog barking, followed by gunshots and a whimpering dog.
In the end, beef would be Death Row’s undoing. The constant focus on shenanigans and drama, and lack of musical output, would finally sink the ship. Suge’s constant pissing matches with Snoop and Dre bled him dry. No one cared about Death Row’s new music, they only cared about Suge and his drama. Suge was good for TV, while his music was no good for radio. Tha Row was doomed.
But let’s not forget that all of this happened as Suge sat in a prison cell. He was the ultimate puppet master of petty. Almost 20 years later, Suge is back in prison, fighting for his freedom and his life. The stakes are much higher now, even though he’s lost everything: his label, his money, his empire. Sure, his name doesn’t evoke terror in the streets like it did in the ’90s, but he’s still Suge Knight, so who knows what he’s capable of.