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The Rise And Fall Of Marion 'Suge' Knight

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I'm David Greene, and I want to remind you what commercial rap music sounded like in 1991.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD VIBRATIONS")

MARKY MARK: (Singing) Yo, it's about that time to bring forth the rhythm and the rhyme.

ALAN LIGHT: The only hip-hop that you heard on the radio or in mainstream outlets was the either very sort of cleaned-up pop hits or kind of novelty hits.

GREENE: That voice is Alan Light. He's a music journalist who was managing editor of both Vibe and Spin magazines. We reached him to talk about one of the most important record labels of the 1990s, Death Row.

LIGHT: There was really this division between hip-hop on the streets and hip-hop that was more mainstream and more pop. And more than anything, what Death Row did was really break down that division and take the most hardcore, street-level hip-hop and make that an international phenomenon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING BUT A G THANG")

SNOOP DOGG: (Singing) Because nothing but a G thang, baby. Two loc'ed out Gs, so we're crazy. Death Row is the label that pays me. Unfadeable...

GREENE: Death Row helped make Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and the late Tupac Shakur major stars and also put West Coast gangsta (ph) rap on the charts. We're revisiting this history because the businessman who built this label with Dr. Dre now faces life in prison. Marion "Suge" Knight has been charged with murder. He allegedly ran over two men with his car, killing one outside a burger joint in Compton a couple weeks ago. Knight has pled not guilty to the charges. This is another example of the kind of trouble that has followed him since he made his name as the not-to-be-messed-with head of Death Row.

LIGHT: Suge was a big guy, prone to cigars and walking with a real sense of swagger and intimidation. And very quickly, stories about what Suge would resort to to get the contracts and the deals of the agreements the way that he wanted became legendary, stories of the tank of piranhas that he kept in his office and of him having people dangled by their ankles off of the balcony of a hotel many floors up.

GREENE: So you were the editor-in-chief of a magazine that did covers with Suge. Did you interact with him? Did you have any personal...

LIGHT: I did a little bit. I mean, we dealt with the company frequently. I dealt with him, you know, on the phone occasionally. If you got on the phone with him or if there was something that needed to be sorted out, you were certainly aware of the reputation. Did I go into dealing with Suge, you know, any differently than I would somebody else that I was negotiating whatever it was? Yeah, I probably did. The sense that I got was he just wanted to be as much above board, not have any secrets, not have anything that was going to come back to bite you later because that bite could be a pretty big one.

GREENE: Remind us what happened to this empire that he built.

LIGHT: The biggest problem was that cracks started to show in his relationship with Dr. Dre. Whatever their contracts were, Dre felt like he was ready to, you know, break off onto his own. And without the golden touch of Dre, without that vision and on top of that, Tupac getting killed, the whole thing sort of starts to crumble. And since then it's just been a steady stream of - you know, we call them problems. It's something bigger than problems for Suge when he keeps getting arrested or shot or accused or shot again in situation after situation.

GREENE: Well, and what's so interesting is that Dr. Dre, Snoop, you know, a lot of these artists have shed that gangsta (ph) image and they seem to be thriving in, you know, pretty legitimate business pursuits.

LIGHT: Right.

GREENE: And Suge seems to be different. I mean, it seems like he hasn't moved on.

LIGHT: Well, I think there wasn't another chapter for him. When they were starting Death Row, when they were growing this label, nobody was doing that. I mean, there was nobody who had taken that LA sound, style, image and turned that into multiplatinum records and really changed the culture with it. Well, once you've done that, now you're competing with the big boys. Now, Sony Music and Warner Records, they want into that game. And so I think it became a very different world for him to try to compete in.

GREENE: And I guess I wonder, is his arrest, you know, that we look at today somehow a reminder of kind of the violent place that this genre had its roots in?

LIGHT: Yes. Sure. The situation is a reminder of that. It's also a reminder of how far things have come. Dre is a multimillionaire across different media and different businesses. Snoop Dogg has branched out into different businesses, into different TV projects. This is something where these guys came from a place that now they've expanded. And this is what happens if they hadn't done that, which is seeing that, you know, Suge did not ever really leave or transcend after that breakthrough moment into these other accomplishments.

GREENE: Alan Light is a music journalist and the former editor-in-chief of both Vibe and Spin magazines. Alan, thanks so much for talking to us.

LIGHT: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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