On March 20th, inside the high-security wing of Los Angeles’ Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, the man once called “the most feared man in hip-hop” is looking more like the 50-year-old with chronic health issues that he is. Suge Knight sits in shackles, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and chunky glasses, his beard flecked with gray, listening impassively. It’s the end of the day’s proceedings, and Judge Ronald S. Coen is announcing the bail for Knight, who is facing charges of murder, attempted murder and hit-and-run: “In this court’s opinion, $25 million is reasonable, and it is so set.” A gasp erupts from Knight’s row of supporters — some of whom sport red clothing or accessories, a color associated with the Bloods and Piru street gangs. The most shocked are Knight’s family, who have attended nearly all of his court dates: his parents, along with his fiancee, Toilin Kelly, and sister Karen Anderson. “He’s never had a bail like that before!” Anderson exclaims.
As attendees exit and Knight is escorted out by the bailiffs, Knight’s attorney Matthew Fletcher pleads with Coen to reconsider. Fletcher points out that Knight has been held in solitary confinement for nearly three months, with next to no contact with family or friends. (“They wouldn’t allow this at Guantánamo Bay,” Fletcher says.) The lawyer goes on to complain about Knight’s treatment in jail for his numerous medical ailments, which include diabetes, blood clots and impaired vision.
The judge is unswayed, especially by Fletcher’s pleas about Knight’s poor health. “He was offered food and refused it,” says Coen. At that moment, as if on cue, Knight re-enters the courtroom, and suddenly collapses, his 300-pound-plus frame tumbling forward onto the padded chair he was just sitting in minutes earlier. Outside, Knight’s supporters have started a protest. “This is a public lynching!” shouts a woman in a red dress and blond Afro. “Black lives matter!” The painful irony is that Knight is being prosecuted for murdering a black man — a man he once called his friend — and seriously injuring another.
This could finally be the end of the road for the record-label head who, a generation ago, helped bring the West Coast gangsta rap of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur to the mainstream, pushing aside the pop rap of artists such as MC Hammer and Tone-Loc and putting low-riders and gang signs into heavy rotation on MTV. In the process, Knight established himself as a legendary music-biz tough guy. His exploits — some mythic, some real — during the heyday of Death Row Records have become part of hip-hop lore: In the early Nineties, he allegedly shook down Vanilla Ice into handing over publishing profits, walking the rapper out to a hotel-room balcony to show him how far his fall would be. (“I needed to wear a diaper that day,” Ice said later.) In his memoir, former N.W.A manager Jerry Heller alleged that Knight and his cohorts, bearing baseball bats, intimidated Eazy-E into releasing Dre from his Ruthless Records contract. (The claims have never been substantiated.) Knight was sitting next to Tupac when he was gunned down in 1996 in Las Vegas; his participation in a fight on the night of the shooting would land him in prison for five years on a probation violation.