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Ronin Ro Searches Through The Rubble Of Death Row Records.

By Tom Danehy

AUGUST 10, 1998:  Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records, Ronin Ro (Doubleday). Cloth, $23.95.

DID MARION "SUGE" Knight, the self-made record company executive and full-time thug, hold Vanilla Ice off a balcony by his ankles until the pathetic white rapper signed over his royalties? Maybe. Even if that didn't happen, it probably should have.

But if it did happen (and it almost certainly did), it fits perfectly in the modus operandi of Knight, the former football player who used threats, intimidation, and actual violence to carve out a lucrative rap-music empire in the late 1980s and early '90s. And it would also be a clear sign of the arrogance and disregard for basic human decency which ended up costing Knight his empire, and earning him the prison sentence he's currently serving.

Suge (as in "sugar") Knight is just one of the, shall we say, colorful characters in Ronin Ro's scandalously engaging look at Death Row Records and the entire rap music scene. The West Coast label was built on the hubris of Knight, and the talent and street credibility of a stable of artists which included producer Dr. Dre, singer Michel'le, and rap stars Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur. And when it all fell apart, it did so in a big, ugly, public way.

The fact that an entire book can be written on one label in a business known for its shady dealing says a lot about just how wrong things were at Death Row. On par, some dreams came true, others were dashed, and all the while money disappeared by the tens of millions. Same old, same old. What's fascinating at Death Row is that criminality and excess were the norms, the goals, the very raisons d'être.

The form of rap music itself is built on a type of theft: Snippets of older songs are more often than not used as background beats or entire choruses of rap songs. And when the original artists complain, this thievery is given the euphemistic name "sampling," and the challenges are dubbed attacks on street art. It's all very crooked, but in a musical world where hardly anything is original anymore, it's also very lucrative. Add to that the importance of "credibility" among rap artists (criminal records and gang affiliations would seem to be career boosts), and it's easy to see how the atmosphere of fear and violence was allowed to grow behind a corporate facade.

In a way, Knight was as unlikely a mogul as he was a criminal. Raised in a middle-class neighborhood by a hard-working father and a church-going mother, Knight was a decent student and a good athlete. Even as the gang influence began creeping into his neighborhood, his prowess on the football field earned him a free pass through the petty and deadly rivalries of the Crips and Bloods, L.A.'s two most notorious black street gangs.

Eventually, Knight would earn a football scholarship to UNLV and would even play for the Los Angeles Rams for a while. But while at UNLV, he became fascinated with the fast times and easy money in the entertainment business, deciding that was the life for him.

He began working as a bodyguard for rappers and then quickly used extortion and strong-arm tactics to work his way up the ladder. He cut into the talent stable at Ruthless Records, which had been built on the stunning success of the multi-platinum-selling Straight Outta Compton by NWA (Niggas With Attitude).

When NWA broke up, Knight sided with producer/writer Dr. Dre. It was a wise choice, as Dre would go on to produce dozens of hit records for Death Row, including Doggy Style, by Snoop. But eventually even Dre tired of the nonsense at Death Row and moved on. By that time, Knight was pushing his biggest coup--the signing of the charismatic Tupac Shakur.

It was with Shakur that Knight hoped to break through to the stratosphere of the industry. Instead, Knight will be best remembered for the ignominy of being the guy sitting next to Shakur when the rapper caught six bullets. (Knight--ahem--miraculously escaped unscathed. His current nine-year sentence is for parole violations which took place earlier that very night.)

Death Row now lies in shambles, Knight's in the clink, and the buzzards are picking over what's left of Shakur's estate. The whole, sad story seems so unnecessary.

Ro's prose is nothing special, but he makes up for it with meticulous investigation and enthusiastic reporting. He's put together a jaw-dropping look at a recent social movement at which no one previously has dared look too closely. (Knight was well known for having firearms in plain sight whenever he was being interviewed, which may explain the dearth of critical articles on the thug.)

Rap music isn't for everyone. It has a built-in urban audience and a ready-made set of critics. But it also has an odd appeal for an army of middle-class kids for whom listening to the vulgar and provocative lyrics provides a safe rebellion and maybe a convenient "screw you" or two for the folks.

This insightful look into the rap phenomenon offers clear proof that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Rap is full of petty pissing matches: rapper against rapper, label against label, coast against coast. But even in a world full of paranoia, hatred and violence, it's still hard to imagine how one man could build something so big and powerful, and do so going completely unchallenged until it was far too late.

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