It’s nearly two decades since the infamous Death Row Records soared high in hip-hop’s stratosphere and yet the world is still fascinated by its imperious CEO, the bull of a man (and currently alleged murderer) Marion ‘Suge’ Knight. As his influence has waned, former employees have spoken out about events witnessed at the notorious record label, revealing all about the violence, turmoil, and that time Suge tried to clone Tupac and Snoop Dogg.
Befriending people before making enemies of them seems to come naturally to Suge Knight. Just a few years after setting up Death Row with Dr. Dre, the pair fell out leaving Suge with total control of the company, but bad blood existed between the former business partners.
In the late '90s Suge Knight languished in prison, bereft of his biggest stars after losing Tupac to a hail of bullets and Snoop Dogg to Dr. Dre. In fact, the former N.W.A. producer's Aftermath label was about to blow away not only the hip-hop scene but the entire music industry with his protégé Eminem. This didn’t sit well with Suge.
Like a child scribbling over somebody else’s drawing because it's better than their own, Suge’s attempt at spoiling Dr. Dre’s return to the charts was just as juvenile. In 1999, with fans eagerly anticipating an album entitled Chronic 2000 by Dre, Suge stole the name, releasing it first on a Death Row compilation titled Suge Knight Represents: Chronic 2000.
“That was Suge Knight’s idea… some bullshit he putting together. He was trying to get back at Dr Dre” says ex-Death Row producer Daz Dillinger, who worked on the album. Dr. Dre simply renamed his sophomore album Chronic 2001, and the rest is history.
Daz had also worked on the label’s biggest hits including Dr. Dre’s seminal original Chronic album, 2pac’s All Eyez On Me, and was also one half of Tha Dogg Pound with Kurupt, as well as being Snoop Dogg’s cousin. He disassociates himself with Death Row’s output during this period: “Then he [Suge] came with the fake Snoop Dogg and fake Tupac,” he said in a recent interview. “I never fucked with none of those guys though. I just be in and out, get my money and be the fuck up out of there.”
Suge’s replacement for Snoop Dogg was Top Dogg (a rapper from Compton formerly known as YGD before his Death Row makeover). He looked like Snoop, he sounded like Snoop, and his 2000 music video for the song “Cindafella” was a complete rip off of Snoop. It was appropriate then that at the same time Snoop would decide to title his own Death Row-free album, Top Dogg.
But Top Dogg didn’t get things poppin’ for the struggling label and his album “Every Dog Has His Day” got shelved as his contract was left to expire without renewal. Hip hop fans didn’t want counterfeit goods.
Darryl Harper was also a producer at Death Row during this dark era. He had worked on much of the production to Tupac’s final album, Makaveli: The 7 Day Theory, famously the product of an intensive week’s recording sessions by the workaholic rapper. The album was out and selling in 1997 but Harper wasn’t cashing any cheques for it. Then he got a phone call from Suge, offering him money to get to work producing for his new artist Tha Realest. From their first meeting the RnB beat maker couldn’t believe what he was looking at.
“When I saw him and I saw some of his tats, I said them the exact same tats that Pac got. I’m looking at him like, this guy got Tupac’s tattoos!” recalled Harper about the distinctive ink work that included like-for-like tattoos on each arm. “Now, of course, because of my allegiances to ‘Pac I didn’t originally want to work with him,” says Harper. “But it was the only money for me to make.”
Harper claims to have gone cold when hearing Tha Realest lay down some vocals in the studio, actually sounding like Tupac as well. Harper drew a line when the imitator tried to obtain unused lyrics of the dead star he had in his possession. “One day I’m looking at some of the pages in my tablets and they’re all Tupac writings,” explains Harper. “So Tha Realest asked me could he have them, he wanted to rap them. I said no! So he offered me money for the tablets. I was like no man, I ain’t gunna let you rap his stuff!”
It’s fair to wonder if it was so bad that Suge Knight attempted to fill the hole left in his production with a phoney performer. When the legendary actor Oliver Reed suffered a heart attack and died, his sudden death came during a break from filming on Ridley Scott’s epic Gladiator. And with important scenes featuring the actor still to be shot, it threatened to derail his production. The director’s solution was to spend $3m on CGI (and a mannequin) to digitally impose a fake Reed into the remaining scenes.
Tha Realest and Top Dogg projects didn’t save Death Row Records, but they reveal the machinations of the hip hop mogul’s mind. Be it bullshit about a bullet still stuck in his skull, injecting Eazy E with AIDS, or that Tupac is still alive, Suge is a conman.
Tupac was a rapper, a poet even, who spiked the pain and anger running through the veins of America’s black urbanised ghettoes in a way that no other could replicate. Suge’s belief that he could repackage another bald, goatee wearing, tattooed rapper with a similar sounding voice and label him Tha Realest – with no sense of irony - was an insult to Tupac’s legacy.
All this, of course, is ironic given how Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg took a leaf directly from Ridley Scott’s book in 2012 when the pair performed live on stage at Coachella with a mind-blowing CGI hologram of Tupac. On this occasion the phoney 2Pac - shorn of any Death Row medallion - subliminally used as a symbolic ‘fuck you’ to Suge, who definitely got the message.
“Suge for me didn’t have an appreciation of and a respect for the uniqueness of the artists he had” Harper concludes. “He just thought it’s rap. He felt he could just get another slim guy name him similar and repeat the success again. And that shows that he just didn’t know exactly what he had. Or he didn’t respect what he had.”