The Takedown of Tupac (2023)

The exact nature of that “unique relationship” may be of more than academic interest to federal authorities investigating possible criminal activities at Death Row. Suge Knight has always been at pains to portray himself as an independent operator. For example, he boasted that Death Row, unlike other small companies, owns its masters (the original recordings of the albums). Since the long-term value of rap recordings is only speculative at this point, the ownership of the masters is a matter of ego more than economics, a music executive explained to me, and in the case of Death Row “it was important for the image to say they were black-owned.” But in fact Death Row’s masters are heavily mortgaged, and have been used as security against loans and advances from Interscope. Indeed, Death Row has been financially dependent on Interscope from the beginning.

While Knight clearly had a great deal of autonomy, he and Iovine worked together closely. “It was Jimmy and Suge, Jimmy and Suge,” someone who knew them both well told me. Since no one wanted to tell Knight anything that “set his fuse,” he said, it was Iovine who dealt with Knight. The relationship was very hands-on. Promotions and marketing for Death Row were handled by an Interscope employee. If a production company was making a video for Death Row, its contract might well be with Interscope. The closeness between the two companies was underscored by their physical proximity. Until last year they were located just across the hall from each other in an office building in Westwood.

On a business flowchart, it may have meant just shifting Tupac from one box to another, but for Tupac to go from Interscope to Death Row, only a hallway apart, was to enter a different, and far more sinister, world. It was widely believed that one of the major investors in Death Row was a drug dealer named Michael (Harry-O) Harris, who was serving time for attempted murder as well as drug convictions. He was said to have provided the seed money for Death Row. Knight and Harris’s lawyer, David Kenner, who had also become the lawyer for Death Row, were supposed to be guarding Harris’s interests. There were even rumors that the company was being used to launder drug money on a continuing basis. Moreover, it was said that there were contracts out on Knight, and that Harris was unhappy with Knight’s business practices. How many of these stories had reached Iovine is not clear. He did, of course, know of Knight’s criminal record and propensity for brutality when he first made the deal with Death Row, and as time went on he became aware of the continuing climate of violence that enveloped the company. A lawsuit against Death Row and Interscope was filed on behalf of a man stomped to death at a Death Row party in early 1995.

As for Michael Harris’s bankrolling of Death Row, Iovine told federal investigators that he had heard a rumor about it in 1994 or 1995, but it was not until December, 1995, when Harris threatened to sue the company, claiming that he owned half of it, that Iovine took the rumor seriously. If this was true, then Iovine was strangely insulated, for in L.A. music circles Harris’s role was widely gossiped about. Indeed, in the summer of 1995, months before Harris wrote to Iovine about his intentions to sue, the head of the Time Warner music division, Michael Fuchs, made an overture to arrange a prison meeting with Harris. He was trying to decide whether the company should yield to the political pressure about gangsta rap and sell its interest in Interscope, and he believed that it might well be Harris, not Knight, who could speak with authority to Time Warner about the future direction of Death Row. The meeting never took place, because Time Warner executives and the board of directors quickly decided that the company should shed its troublesome investment by selling its fifty-per-cent stake back to Interscope. Interscope was able to exploit that rebuff by turning around and selling the fifty-per-cent stake to MCA Music Entertainment Group (now known as Universal), for a profit of roughly a hundred million dollars.

Tempting as Knight’s offers were (Death Row was the premier rap label, putting out one multi-platinum record after another), Tupac had consistently declined to leave Interscope. But in the summer of 1995, when it seemed as though his incarceration might continue indefinitely—for years even, if he was not allowed to post bail—he was more desperate than he’d ever been. It was in this bleak moment that Knight—and, apparently, Iovine as well—saw the opportunity to arrange things the way they wanted to. It had become not only attractive but vital to Death Row that Tupac join the label. One of the company’s biggest stars, Snoop Doggy Dogg, was facing a murder trial, and it was rumored on the street that Dr. Dre was leaving. (Dre would indeed leave by early 1996.) Death Row could not afford to lose both artists. And Knight surely knew that Tupac would be more popular than ever after his prison term, more “real” to his audience than he had been before.

Even though Interscope advanced Tupac six hundred thousand dollars during the nine months he was in prison, he was broke and frustrated. To Tyehimba, there seemed to be an unmistakable synchrony at work. Interscope would not or could not provide enough funds for Tupac. And as Knight became a more and more importunate suitor, Interscope “was squeezing us to get us to go to Death Row,” Tyehimba says. Knight—accompanied by Death Row’s lawyer, David Kenner, who had come to play a major role in the company, far exceeding specific legal tasks—made repeated trips to Dannemora to visit Tupac. Knight promised to solve Tupac’s most intractable problems. According to several people close to Tupac, Knight claimed that Kenner could cure the legal logjam and win permission to post bail. Knight further promised that he would put up some portion of the bail and, more important, make Death Row the corporate guarantor for the entirety. Knight swore he would make Tupac a superstar, much bigger than he’d been with Interscope. And he would solve Tupac’s financial worries. He would even buy Afeni a house.

It was a dazzling hand. What was probably Knight’s trump card, however, was the thing that he, and he alone, could offer Tupac—the aura of gangster power. Even though Tupac had claimed that he had outgrown the gangster pose, his stay in Dannemora had made him feel more vulnerable than ever before. “He wanted to get out of jail, and he needed a label that could back him,” a friend who visited him in prison that summer says. “The street shit had to be dealt with, and Suge had power on the street.” Tupac brooded about being shot in the Times Square recording studio and about what he believed was the setup by Jacques Agnant. He also suspected people who were there in the studio that night: Andre Harrell, now the head of Motown; Bad Boy Entertainment C.E.O. Sean (Puffy) Combs; the rapper Christopher Wallace, known both as Biggie Smalls and as the Notorious B.I.G.; and others. (They all denied any involvement.) At first, Man Man said, Tupac did not believe that Biggie, who had been a good friend of his, and who had come to visit him when he was recuperating from his wounds, had been involved in any way. “But when Tupac was in jail he was getting letters from people saying Biggie had something to do with it, he started thinking about it, it got so out of hand, it grew—and once it got that big, publicly, you had to go with it.”

Watani Tyehimba, Stewart Levy, and Charles Ogletree all say they argued vigorously with Tupac about his decision to go to Death Row. “Tupac told us, ‘The trouble with all of you is, you’re too nice,’” Levy recalls. Tyehimba told me that at his last meeting with Tupac at the prison, Tupac hugged him, wept, and said, “I know I’m selling my soul to the devil.” Kenner drafted a handwritten, three-page agreement for Tupac to sign. Within a week, in a stunning coincidence, the New York Court of Appeals granted him leave to post bail. (The money was provided by Interscope and a division of Time Warner, although Tupac always gave Suge full credit.)

Knight and Kenner arrived in a private plane and white stretch limousine to pick Tupac up. Underscoring the degree of porousness between Interscope and Death Row, Tupac was, according to someone familiar with the negotiation, given a “verbal release” from his Interscope contract. As for Kenner’s handwritten document, Ogletree, who would not see it until much later, says, “It wasn’t a legal contract.... It was absurd that anyone with an opportunity to reflect would agree to those terms. It was only because he was in prison that he signed it. Tupac was saying, ‘My freedom is everything. If you can get me my freedom, you can have access to my artistic product.’”

In ways large and small, in both art and life, Tupac Shakur instinctively pushed past customary boundaries, and when he came out of prison and joined Death Row that impulse was heightened. He would work the longest hours (nineteen-hour stretches, despite the consumption of enormous amounts of alcohol and marijuana), he would become the biggest star, he would become a “superpower” within the Death Row-dominated world of gangsta rap. Just nine months earlier, he had said, “Thug life to me is dead.” Now he embraced it. “Pac was like a chameleon,” Syke says, echoing a common view among Tupac’s friends. “Whatever he was around, that’s what he turned into. And when he got around Death Row, he tried to be that.”

While Tupac had transgressed many social limits, he had also drawn to him people who tried, with varying degrees of success, to moderate his behavior. But when he set out for the province of Death Row, he left behind virtually all of these putative guardians—among them, Watani Tyehimba, Karen Lee, Man Man, even his wife, Keisha. (Their marriage was later annulled.) Yaasmyn Fula, who was one of the few old friends who remained close to Tupac, says that he was “out of his element. It was a completely different soldier mentality. He was fascinated by it because of the absence of a male figure who could say, ‘Leave it alone.’”

“He was always looking for a father,” Watani Tyehimba says, “in me some, in Mutulu some. But what he missed was one father with the good and the bad, not a composite.” By the time Tupac met the man who said he was his father (a former Black Panther named Billy Garland, who materialized at Tupac’s hospital bedside in New York after Tupac was shot in the Times Square lobby), the encounter failed to satisfy him. It was in Suge Knight, many thought, especially when they saw the two together—the slender, lithe youth shadowed by the other’s massive bulk, the one all animation, the other exuding authority—that he found that connection. Tupac and Knight seemed almost inseparable in the months after Tupac’s release from prison; they worked together long hours in the studio, and socialized when they were through. One of Tupac’s friends remembers watching them sing a song from the soundtrack of “Gridlock’d”: “You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me.”

The combination of Tupac and Knight seems to have been combustible, with each activating the most explosive elements in the other. Someone who has known Knight well for years points out that it was after Tupac arrived at Death Row that its signature excess became even more pronounced—fancy clothes, gold and diamond jewelry (especially heavy medallions, laden with diamonds and rubies, bearing the Death Row symbol of a hooded figure in an electric chair), Rolls-Royces (four were purchased to celebrate Snoop Doggy Dogg’s acquittal on murder charges), and lots of women. Before Tupac, a knowledgeable insider pointed out, “Death Row had not had a real star. They had Snoop and Dre—they’re entertainers. Snoop could be sitting quietly over there in a corner”—he gestured to one end of the restaurant we were sitting in—“but if Tupac were here he would create such a ruckus. People would be saying, ‘That’s Tupac!’ He had star aura. Suge saw that, and he liked that. All of a sudden, there were all these pictures of Suge, together with Tupac, feeding off each other.”

Once Tupac came out of prison and joined Death Row, he probably did more to stoke the flames of a much publicized feud between East and West Coast rappers than anyone. For all the posturing and the displays of bravado and the aspersions cast on everyone’s integrity, this was primarily a feud about money. Rap had originated in the East, but, starting in the late eighties, the gangsta rappers from Los Angeles were more successful. Then Puffy Combs’s Bad Boy Records, which was based in New York, began putting out its own version of gangsta rap—which the West insisted was merely derivative. Watani Tyehimba told me that much of Tupac’s anger at Biggie Smalls, Puffy’s most successful rapper, was based on professional jealousy: Tupac was in jail, and Biggie’s single “One More Chance” was No. 1 on the charts. In an interview in The Source in March, 1996, Tupac claimed he’d been sleeping with Biggie’s wife, the singer Faith Evans, and he went so far as to taunt Biggie about it in a song: “I fucked your bitch, you fat motherfucker.”

Some of those close to Tupac were appalled at the Faith Evans imbroglio. (She denies that such an encounter with Tupac ever took place.) “The trouble with what Pac was doing, with this East Coast–West Coast thing, was it was just something that got out of hand, a publicity thing, but brothers in the street think something is really going on, and they’re gonna die for it,” Syke contended. “Pac was like a person starting a fire, and it got out of control.”

When the East Coast–West Coast war was simply verbal, it was useful for its marketing possibilities. But it may also have played into a real, not hyped, desire for vengeance on Knight’s part, since he is said to have blamed Puffy for a close friend’s murder. The feud moved to a new plane at a Christmas bash in 1995, hosted by Death Row at the Château Le Blanc mansion, in the Hollywood Hills. A record promoter from New York, Mark Anthony Bell, who is an associate of Puffy Combs, is said to have been lured upstairs to a room where Knight, Tupac, and their entourage had been drinking. Bell was allegedly tied to a chair, interrogated about the killing of Suge’s friend, and hounded for the address of Puffy and Puffy’s mother. He is alleged to have been beaten with broken champagne bottles, and Knight is said to have urinated into a jar and told Bell to drink from it.

Bell received an estimated six-hundred-thousand-dollar settlement from Death Row, and he declined to press charges. But a friend of Bell’s told me that he had reached him in Jamaica about a month after the incident, and Bell had said to him, “I’m here till I heal. They busted me up bad!” People who were with Tupac the last year of his life are not surprised that he would be involved in something like this. “When Tupac was with Suge,” one friend says, “Suge would get him all stirred up, and he’d try to behave like a gangster.” He recalled another incident, in the spring of 1996, when a producer said that he wanted to leave Death Row with Dr. Dre. “He came out all bloodied up,” Tupac’s friend said. “And Tupac was a part of that. He had to show Suge what he was made of.”

“Tupac always wanted to be a leader, not a follower,” Preston Holmes, the president of Def Pictures, who had worked with Tupac in the movies “Juice” and “Gridlock’d,” says. “And in order to be on top in that world, he had to act a certain way—screwing the most women, stomping the most guys, talking the most shit. But I had conversations with him in this period, when he would say, ‘Gangsta rap is dead.’ I think he was trying to extricate himself.”

In February, Tupac had decided to start his own production company, called Euphanasia, and he asked his old friend Yaasmyn Fula to come to L.A. to run it. Fula began trying to organize Tupac’s business affairs. “We weren’t getting copies of the financial accountings,” she said. “We’d ask for them, and they’d send a present”—like a car. “I felt like there was this dark cloud over us. I knew so much was wrong—but Pac would say, ‘Yas, you can’t keep telling me things, I know what I am doing.’” Fula felt that Afeni, from whom she was becoming estranged, had been influenced by Knight’s attentions and largesse. Tupac’s signing with Death Row had transformed the lives of his extended family, even more than his contract with Interscope had. “They had lived lives of scarcity, worrying about the next meal, worrying about how to pay the rent,” Fula says, but now they stayed at the elegant Westwood Marquis hotel for several months, racking up an “astronomical” bill. “Pac felt he was cursed with this dysfunctional family,” Fula says, “although he loved them. And as his success grew, especially in the last year, this presence grew. They were always there.”

Afeni Shakur says that “Death Row in the beginning treated us much better than Interscope had.” But she suggests that she was not oblivious of the dark side of Knight and Death Row. She told me that Tupac had not allowed either Syke or Tupac’s young cousins—the Outlawz, who travelled with him and whom he supported (and one of whom, Yafeu Fula, Yaasmyn’s son, was shot and killed two months after Tupac’s murder)—to sign with Death Row, because he “didn’t want any of them to live in bondage.” She also told me that when Tupac encouraged her to go out socially with Knight’s mother, she believed that he was doing that in order to protect her. “Suge’s mother was very nice,” Afeni said, “but I never gave her my phone number. We both understood it was the rules of war.”

The document that Kenner had drafted and Tupac had signed in prison stipulated not only that he would become an artist for Death Row but also that Knight would become his manager and Kenner his lawyer. For Kenner, Death Row’s lawyer, also to represent Tupac was at best bad judgment and at worst a clear case of conflict of interest. And if Kenner possessed an ownership interest in Death Row as well, something which has long been rumored in Los Angeles music-industry circles but which Kenner has consistently denied, the conflict would be even more patent. It also might explain how he—a white criminal-defense lawyer who in the eighties handled some of L.A.’s most high-profile drug, racketeering, and murder cases but had virtually no experience in entertainment law—could have emerged at the top of one of the hottest black-music record labels.

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