The sentencing of Death Row Records CEO Marion "Suge" Knight to nine years in California state prison comes at an especially crucial time for rap's most successful and controversial label. After riding out a rocky 1996 on the strength of its now-depleted roster of superstars, Death Row already needed an artistic retooling. The absence of Knight, 31, who built the Westwood-based company into a major force in the industry, could make that difficult, if not impossible.
Knight's defense team, which included seven prominent attorneys, promised an appeal within 60 days of Friday's ruling, in which Los Angeles Superior Court Judge J. Stephen Czuleger revoked the probation the rap mogul had received for a 1992 assault conviction and reinstated Knight's nine-year suspended sentence. Czuleger determined that Knight violated the terms of his probation by participating in a fight in the lobby of the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas on September 7, an altercation that police are still investigating as a possible precursor of the shooting that killed rapper Tupac Shakur hours later. Minus time served, Knight will go to prison for just under eight years, and with good behavior, the sentence could be reduced to four years plus parole.
During the last ten years, Knight has received six grants of probation for previous offenses. "Mr. Knight, you blew it," Judge Czuleger said. "You had everything going for you, but you repeatedly engage in violent activities. I have to think not only of those you can help but of potential victims. You are a danger to the community."
True to form, Death Row got right to work on damage control. Minutes after Knight was led out of a 13th-floor Los Angeles courtroom packed with supporters wearing yellow ribbons, the company held a press conference one floor below. Before lead defense attorney David Kenner spoke, two of Death Row's up-and-coming act were trotted out to give their reaction -- and promote their forthcoming album.
"Death Row Records will go on," prophesied Danny Boy, 18, a silken-voiced R&B crooner, who came to the label from Chicago at 15, when his dying mother allowed Knight to become his legal guardian. "Suge Knight is the brain of Death Row, but we are his thoughts." Danny Boy then mentioned his upcoming album, scheduled for release late this summer, and collected phone numbers from the media with the promise of invitations to his record-release party.
Members of the rap trio OFTB (Operation: From the Bottom), whose debut will soon be released on the Death Row subsidiary Ghetto Records, also voiced their opinion that the label can continue without Knight. "To the courts and the media, Suge is just the new nigga of the month -- they made an example out of him because he was getting too big," said a rapper called Bustop. "But we're gonna show that Death Row can't be stopped."
Some in the industry disagree, speculating that Knight's sentence could finish the label, which is also facing a federal racketeering investigation. Knight's empty office has created a "complicated and hectic" atmosphere at Death Row for the past four months, according to a longtime employee, but nobody on the payroll has ever publicly mentioned insurmountable obstacles. On the contrary, the self-described Death Row family has recently seemed galvanized by its predicament, perhaps because of a unique corporate culture fueled by both blustery confidence and a persecution complex.
"The deck is always stacked against Death Row," said the employee, who asked not to be identified. "So we always bring our own deck." Knight has still been dealing the cards, though, running the company from behind bars.
"There's been a lot going on, and Suge's been involved in all of it," said Knight's wife, Sharitha, a quietly indefatigable supporter of her husband. "He's got good people, loyal and competent, working for him. If you know Suge, you know he's had everything under control."
A California state law prohibiting inmates from running businesses will force Knight to leave the company in other hands, but so far, Knight's incarceration has coincided with one of the most successful periods in the label's history. With general manager Norris Anderson at the helm, the company has released five albums -- the posthumous 2PAC collection "The Don Killuminati: The 7-Day Theory" (released under the alias Makaveli), Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Tha Doggfather," a double-CD greatest hits package, a holiday collection, and the soundtrack to "Gridlock'd." And the much-delayed solo album by rap crooner Nate Dogg has been rescheduled for an April 8 release.
Still, a year after Dr. Dre's defection and six months after Shakur's murder, Snoop Doggy Dogg is Death Row's only bankable superstar, and sales of "Tha Doggfather" have not come close to those for "Doggystyle." If the label is to remain vital, it must find talent and build stars without Knight. And the federal investigation into the company is ongoing.
"I don't think it's going to be smooth," said Anderson, 34, who joined Death Row three years ago as a receptionist. "We have a whole lot of adversity ahead of us."