Welcome to Death Row
With the production genius of Dr. Dre on board, Suge was given the management for the Deep Cover soundtrack from Sony and Solar Record’s Dick Griffey under Future Shock Entertainment. But Suge had the strength of business mind to own the rights, a move that saw the creation of Death Row Records, the most profitable rap label in history. With Suge’s contacts through defence attorney David Kenner, the seed money to launch this business was funded by silent partnership of a Californian drug kingpin, Michael ‘Harry-O’ Harris and small contribution from his associate Patrick Johnson. All of whom were clients of David Kenner’s. The $1.5million injection was set up from meetings over visiting times while Harry-O was incarcerated for kidnapping and attempted murder while housed at Telachapi state prison before moving out to Lancaster.
Introduced to Harry-O in October ’91, Suge established a bond of mutual business interest with the major underworld figure, both knowing Solar Records’ Dick Griffey and common background shared on the streets of South Central L.A. The multimedia company, GF Entertainment was organised to launder millions of drug trafficking dollars through the movie production, pay-per-view and record company under GFE. Registered owners became Marion Suge Knight, Lydia Harris,(wife of Harry-O’s for tax and legal reasons) and lawyer, David Kenner. The major cash cow of GFE was the record label known as Death Row Records headed by two established rap stars, Dr. Dre and The D.O.C. working under Griffey’s Solar Records. Knight and Kenner controlled Death Row with the face of Dre flying their flag in the industry. Suge was the apparent CEO with Dre and Kenner controlled all legalities with Harry-O and wife Lydia Haris reaping a fifty percent share.
Dr. Dre had at this stage finished production on the Deep Cover project with The D.O.C. and new protégée, Snoop Doggy Dogg. Still utilising the Solar Records recording studios they underwent the very early groundwork to Dre’s solo album with D.O.C. and Snoop while Suge Knight and Kenner were scheming to disassociate with partners, Harry-O and wife Lydia Harris and distribution company, Solar Records that received minimal shares of the profits to Deep Cover. This brought on a bombardment of lawsuits of Solar’s parent company the Sony giant. The very multifaceted and costly legal battles required most of Death Row’s funds as they were already tangled in a lawsuit from Ruthless Records when they profited from Dre’s employment. Knight couldn’t fight them alone. He imposed on the backing from an independent record company, Interscope started by Ted Fields and Jimmy Iovine financed and distributed through the Time Warner giant corporation based on Iovine’s faith and foresight in the genius of Dr. Dre’s talent. For $10million they backed Knight’s rap label with distribution rights. Death Row promptly moved out of Solar Records studios and into their own building at the Can-Am studios in Tarzana under Interscope Records. Dre went right back to work on his solo album, The Chronic with a growing family of Long Beach and Compton talent joining the Row.
By December 1992 on the day of Dre’s The Chronic release Knight had re-signed corporate papers for Death Row stating only the names of Knight and Young, (Dre) as owners. Kenner insists this was for the protection of Harry-O from legal implications. Suge, with Kenner’s planning had separated himself from Harry-O behind corporate barricades leaving Godfather Entertainment merely a name on lawsuit paperwork. The Liner note on Dre’s album says “Special Thanks to Harry-O.” To be the last connection Michael Harris had with the record company.
Dre’s solo début, The Chronic that claimed insurmountable double-platinum profits for the company by 1993. Death Row had by this stage gained unparalleled sales from Snoop’s multi-platinum début album, Doggystyle and blown up by 1993 to become one of the most successful record label in America at the time making Suge Knight the most powerful and formidable CEO in Hip-Hop.
Stanley Brothers Assault
Whilst involved with Solar Records in July, 1992 Suge Knight was charged with assault and robbery after he had an altercation with two men at the Solar recording studios. Aspiring producer Lynwood Stanley and his brother George were sitting in the office using the company phone. When told to get off by Suge they disrespected him in front of his employees and Blood homies. Both brothers continued their call on a pay phone in nearby room when Suge forced a gun to Lynwood’s head and followed them down a hallway brutally beating them. Dre, D.O.C., Snoop and onlookers were instructed to leave the scene and proceed upstairs and lock the doors. Continuing to assault the Stanleys’ into the studio, Suge further embarrassed both by forcing them to their knees. When Lynwood refused he fired off a round, smacked the producer across the face with the barrel of the gun and told both to strip naked and lie face down on the ground. With I.D’s extracted from their wallets, Suge threatened to kill them and their family if they went to the police. They called the police anyway and within an hour the L.A.P.D. swarmed the offices leaving artists and gangbangers scrambling for exits. Both brothers pointed at Suge who denied the assault, nonetheless Suge was charged with the assault and robbery. With megalomaniacal attorney, David Kenner and possibly the most powerful addition to his legal team, Johnnie Cochran they managed to delay the impending case for three years giving them ample space to make their persuasive moves on the victims. Suge Knight was not simply a businessman with a record label he was a dangerous power player and reputed underworld gangster in the making.
By the time this event occurred Suge was already convicted of numerous assaults with a deadly weapon, carrying a concealed weapon and disturbing the peace from West Covina and Van Nuys, L.A. to Las Vegas, Nevada. All of which thanks to an impressive sports notoriety and attorney, David Kenner all were convictions let off with suspensions. However the Stanley assault case would remain open for the next three following years.
February 1995, Suge Knight had faced the impending robbery and assault case from 1992 had come to a head and Suge was forced to plead guilty to the felony charges. Through lawyers, Kenner and Cochran, Suge had managed to spend the last three years persuading prosecution lawyer Lawrence Longo and brothers, George and Lynwood Stanley to back his proposal for a suspended sentence. The Lynwood brothers were offered lucrative recording contracts with Death Row along with Gina Longo, the prosecutor’s 18 year old daughter who was offered a $1million contract to be the first white R&B singer to join the Row. Suge Knight had also moved into the Longo’s Malibu Colony home renting for a reported $19,000 per month. This proposal was agreed by Judge John Ouderkirk and Suge Knight received a five-year suspended sentence. No jail time was owed, only one month in a halfway house was paid back to the state by Suge. Incidentally neither Gina Longo nor the Lynwood brothers ever recorded any tracks or perceived any payments from Death Row Records. Thirty days later, Suge left the halfway house and retuned to head his record label and begin the most exploitive pursuit of his career, obtaining the employment of the most iconic, talented rap star in America, Tupac Shakur from a New York prison sentence.
Roderick Lockett Incident
Other cases of violence instigated by the record label’s CEO during the early period of Death Row’s dominance saw victims hospitalised and injured indefinitely. At an L.A. club, Prince’s Grand Slam Suge was surrounded by his gang of capricious, delinquent Blood brutes became embroiled in a fight with Roderick Lockett, a security guard who was thoroughly beaten so badly it took numerous surgeries to repair the man’s spleen. Suge’s reputation daunted many who came across his vision.
This same reputation carried onto the name of Death Row and made national headlines when Suge, Dre and D.O.C. were arrested after a meley in a hotel lobby of the Black Radio Exclusive convention in New Orleans. Consequently a fifteen year old fan was stabbed. New Orleans police rode in on horses through the lobby to break up the fight. This publicity of course, as with any gangsta rap, promoted the image and boosted record sales for the label.