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Death Row CEO Sentenced to Nine Years

With ‘Suge’ Knight in prison, is the top rap label on death row?

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.”

In This Article: Suge Knight

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