Suge Knight: Taking The Rap
Esquire, Aug 2015
Marion “Suge” Knight is in jail in Los Angeles awaiting trial for murder. Once the most powerful, most feared man in hip-hop, today Knight is barely a shadow of his former self. If the now desperately ill co-founder and former CEO of gangsta rap label Death Row is convicted, he will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars. At the courtroom, Esquire’s US correspondent Sanjiv Bhattacharya talks to lawyers, friends, foes and family members and wonders if Knight might be a victim of his own reputation as much as circumstance. Is he really the cold-blooded thug of legend, or just a man whose hype got the better of him?
[At UK Esquire and US Esquire]
If you could count the cost of a man’s reputation, for Suge Knight it would be twenty-five million dollars. That’s how high his bail was set for the charges stemming from the tragedy at Tam’s Burgers in Compton, Los Angeles, on Jan 29th of this year. There are four in all – the murder of his friend Terry Carter (55), the attempted murder of the actor Cle “Bone” Sloan (46), plus two counts of hit and run. There’s also the aggravating factor of his having been out on bail at the time (a further $0.5 million) for the separate crime of stealing a paparazzi’s camera last October.
There’s no question that he killed Carter. The security video from the Tam’s car park shows Knight in his red Ford Raptor truck ploughing into Carter head-on, rag dolling his body under his wheels. But the standard bail for these charges in California is $3.34 million. Judges may raise it if they consider the accused especially dangerous and/or a flight risk. But even mob boss John Gotti’s bail was only $10 million, as Knight’s attorney has protested in court. In Suge’s case, the flight risk is mitigated by the fact that he turned himself in, and also by his fame – it’s harder for celebrities to slip out of the country. So his bail is largely a comment on the perceived danger that he poses. By that token, Judge Ronald S. Coen finds the former CEO of Death Row Records over twice as dangerous as the former head of the Gambino crime family.
Knight’s notoriety has always preceded him. His public image is that of a cigar-chomping, head stomping, gang affiliated thug from “Bompton”, the C replaced by a Bloods-friendly B. As gangsta rap grew in popularity in the early 90s, Knight, as the CEO of Death Row records, became the genre’s most menacing incarnation. At six three and 300lbs, every mention bore his dimensions – he was perfectly cast for both white suburbia’s nightmares and black ghetto lore. The stories kept coming – how he hung rappers off balconies, strong-armed producers out of contracts, employed gangbangers and crooked cops, ordered beatings, carried out beatings, killed both Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, ran Death Row like the Mafia, and still today, swaggers about town, shaking people down and checking their pockets. It’s an image Knight has seldom shrunk from. Rather he has reveled in it.
But the legend doesn’t fit the man walking into court today, April 13th, on the 9th floor of the Criminal Justice Building in downtown LA. Shuffling in from the left, his feet clanking with shackles, he looks weak, older than his fifty years, with a greying beard, thick-rimmed glasses and a limp. The preliminary hearing is the stage where the Judge decides whether there’s enough evidence to go to trial at all. There’s a slim chance that there isn’t, but still Knight’s supporters are hopeful – and this is another part of the scene that doesn’t fit his brand. His camp consists of one attorney, an old friend from school, and his close-knit family – his elderly parents, Maxine and Marion, two older sisters, Karen and Charlinda, and his pretty fiancé Toi-lin Kelly. It doesn’t scream organized crime. But before Knight even sits down, Karen is kicked out of court for waving. She couldn’t help herself. Court is the only chance she gets to see her brother. In addition to his huge bail, Knight has also been denied all contact outside of his attorney. The fear is that he might use his family to pass messages and intimidate witnesses.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” his attorney Matthew Fletcher told me before the hearing. A gravel-voiced bulldog of a defense lawyer from Long Beach, the blue collar town to the south of LA. Fletcher is a charming brawler and no stranger to the words “objection: argumentative”. “They’re denying him access to his support system. Trying to break his will. And it’s an issue of fairness because I can’t mount a proper defense without bringing in reconstructionists and investigators. They’ve even denied him access to his own doctor.”
This last point is no minor detail. Knight’s medical issues are acute. Last August, he was shot six times at the One Oak nightclub in West Hollywood – it left him with a blood clot on his lungs, among other complications. He has severe glaucoma – in March, he told the Judge that he was blind in one eye, and had 15% vision in the other. Then there’s his diabetes which, left untreated, makes him sweat profusely and pass out. It happened once in his cell downtown, where he was found out cold on the floor. And at his bail hearing, in a dramatic moment, he collapsed over the table to gasps from his family. It wasn’t the $25 million that did it, but the lack of insulin. That was the fourth time he was removed from court for medical reasons since this case began. His risk of collapse is so high now that at a subsequent appearance – for the robbery charge – court security strapped him into a chair and wheeled him in like Hannibal Lecter. Fletcher described the treatment as “abject humiliation”.
Big men fall hard, but Knight especially. At his height, he helmed the fastest growing hip hop label in history. Since it launched in 1991, Death Row’s sales have exceeded $750 million, but Knight was in prison by 1996, on a five year stretch for a parole violation (he took part in a brawl). And everything fell apart. Since then he has lost his fortune, his company and his credibility in the industry. He has been shot twice, sued repeatedly and knocked clean out on more than one occasion. And he has lost what public sympathy he once had. There was a time they’d march for Knight. Before he went down that first time, supporters would gather outside the courthouse holding “Free Suge Knight” signs. Now, there’s no one, just the mocking comments online, variations on the theme of “karma’s a bitch”.
And yet, this time, Knight might actually deserve support. He’s on his third strike, which in California means that if he’s convicted of anything, he faces 30 to life. And at this critical time, it’s not clear that he’s getting a fair shake. He may even be a victim – of his own hype, certainly, but also of a police investigation that, at this stage, seems more determined to nail him than those who have made brazen attempts on his life – two in a period of four months. .
At Tam’s for instance, Knight was clearly assaulted. The video shows that as he pulls into the parking lot, “Bone” attacks him, punching through an open window. (You can watch all this on TMZ if you have a mind to.) It was a continuation of an argument that started earlier that day on the set of a promo video shoot for Straight Outta Compton, the movie about NWA. Bone tries to drag Knight from the car, as other men close in, so Knight lurches into reverse, knocking Bone over, and after a brief pause, steps on the gas, running over Bone’s legs and crushing Terry Carter who is approaching the front of the vehicle, killing him. The prosecution claims that the pause is long enough to prove premeditation (four seconds). The defense claims that it isn’t, and anyway Knight was clearly fleeing for his life, with good reason as the rest of the video shows. Once Knight’s truck has left, a man takes a gun-shaped object from Bone’s body on the tarmac. Furthermore phone records indicate that Terry Carter had called some of these men to Tams, and called Knight too. The men are gang members and they were waiting for Knight when he arrived.
“It was an ambush!” exclaims Fletcher. “Suge was assaulted! And last I checked, if you carry out a felony and someone dies in the course of that felony, then you’re guilty of felony murder. The DA should have charged Bone with Terry’s murder. But instead Bone got immunity. That’s how badly they’ve got it in for Suge. Just look at the history. He’s been shot, beaten up and assaulted in broad daylight, and the one thing that all those cases have in common? Not a single prosecution. It’s open season on Suge Knight!”
The bail motion is Exhibit A of how the deck is stacked. It was filed by district attorney, Cynthia Barnes, a young prosecutor whose affable demeanor belies her appetite for a fight. Offering Knight’s rap sheet as well as a heap of allegations spanning decades – over 300 pages in total – she warned the Judge that “his past behavior has given us a very clear message. I will not follow the law. I do not care about human rights. I will beat a woman. I will beat a man. I will do whatever I want… To be honest, I do not think any bail is enough for him.”
No doubt, the litany of charges paints an ugly picture – one of Knight as an extortionist collecting ‘debts’ through threats like “u have kids just like me so let’s play hardball you bitch ass Nigga”. The image is supported by the occasional video on TMZ – Knight punching a guy at a pot shop (2014), Knight punching a guy outside a club (2012). But for the most part Barnes’ filing is just allegations in police reports, largely unsworn, anonymous and unproven. The most serious of them all – that he extorts out of town rappers and athletes who come to Los Angeles $30,000 per visit – is based on a claim by the detective Richard Biddle, that he “heard some rumors” from an anonymous source in the music industry.
Knight’s legend is overwhelming him. Accusers file police reports because they’re afraid – they know his reputation. The police treat their allegations seriously, because they too know Knight’s reputation. And as the reports pile up, the DA presents it to the court – look at this guy’s reputation! Naturally, we assume that these allegations can’t all be groundless – after all, where there’s smoke, there must be, if not fire, then at least Big Bad Suge, puffing on a cigar, like a cartoon villain.
“It’s a sad commentary on our system,” says Fletcher. “Twenty five million was based on accusations, innuendoes and urban myth. And that stuff is supposed to end at the courtroom door.”
The Judge looks at the clock – it’s 8.40am. The doors to the chamber are closed. There is whispering and shuffling of papers and seats. And the first witness is called: Cle “Bone” Sloan.
I couldn’t talk to Knight for this story. And none of the public figures or artists associated with him at various times would comment – Snoop, Dre, Kurupt, Daz, Bobby Brown, Jodeci, Mary J Blige, DJ Quik, Warren G, Jimmy Iovine, Jerry Heller… it’s a long list. Sometimes their reps would laugh and call me naive. One producer confessed he was afraid. “In Suge’s world, they can touch you if they’re locked up or not,” he said.
But there are those who have known Knight personally for decades – business confidants, family members, the mothers of his four children. Some are in court every day, others are currently estranged and spoke to me without his blessing. But nevertheless, they all independently tell a similar story – that Knight isn’t the person we read about. The thug image is a mask that he once found profitable, and gave him privacy. But now the mask has stuck and become his undoing. Suge Knight, they tell me, is neither an angel nor a demon. Yes he has hit people. He has that in him. But he is also a charismatic and generous soul. Intelligent and flawed. More complex than you think.
“He’s not a street tough, he’s a wannabe,” says Virgil Roberts, a former mentor to Knight from the early days of Death Row. “He created an image, but in terms of the mentality, the hardness? He doesn’t have it.”
Roberts was once the vice president of SOLAR Records, one of the biggest soul labels of the 80s with acts like Midnight Star and Shalamar. In its early days Death Row was based in the SOLAR building in Hollywood, and Knight looked to Roberts for guidance. They’re still in touch.
“Suge is a black boy from Compton who went to college,” he says. “That makes him one of the top two or three percent. And those kids have a lot of grit and determination. It’s grit that makes you successful.”
He came from a stable, loving home. His parents are still together, the family is close-knit. His mother Maxine worked in a factory, and his father Marion was a university janitor. Sugar Bear, as his mother Maxine called him, was a good kid, and an excellent athlete. While his friends were out selling dope, he was at Sunday school. And when he made it to the University of Nevada in Las Vegas on a football scholarship, his coach there said, “he wasn’t a problem guy at all. You didn’t see that street roughness in him.”
Football, however, wasn’t his calling. His only flirtation with the NFL was during a players strike. So he first worked as a bouncer, and then as a bodyguard for artists like Bobby Brown and then the rapper the D.O.C., one of the founding members of NWA. In this way, he broke into the music industry – first as a minder, then as a manager, protecting his artists physically and then contractually. Part of his early fame in the industry was his ability to get artists a better deal from record companies – he negotiated deals for Mary J Blige and Jodeci among others.
Mario “Chocolate” Johnson was one of his first clients. He remembers Knight as “real clean cut. No cigars, no liquor, no candy bars.” Johnson had written most of Vanilla Ice’s first album but not been credited, so Knight stepped in – and the first myth of his hard man reputation was born, the story about him hanging Vanilla Ice off a hotel balcony. “It never happened,” says Johnson. “I was there.”
The fiction started with Vanilla Ice who told the story on NBC Primetime, only to later admit that he made it up. When I called him, he changed the story again – “there were a couple of white guys there with guns, kinda Goodfellas looking…” But the truth is mundane – a lawsuit was filed, a judgment reached. Roberts asked Knight why he didn’t debunk the myth, and he said, “why would I? It’s good for my reputation!”
The second cornerstone of Knight’s legend is the strong-arming of Eazy E aka Eric Wright in April 1991. Wright was the brains behind NWA – he ran Ruthless Records with his partner Jerry Heller. And he’d created a phenomenon – instantly iconic, multiplatinum, enormously influential. No other group had showed the authorities the middle finger with quite such relish. But there was discontent in the ranks. Ice Cube had left in 1989, complaining about his royalties – Cube and the D.O.C were the group’s principal lyricists. Dr Dre, the group’s producer, felt that he too was being ripped off by Eazy E and . And Dre was looking for a way out, when the D.O.C introduced him to Knight. Before long, Dre was recording The Chronic, his first solo album, for Knight’s fledgling label, Death Row. All he needed was to be freed from his Ruthless contract. According to a lawsuit that Wright filed later, Knight and a bunch of goons with baseball bats, held him captive in the SOLAR building, and told that if he didn’t sign the release he’d be killed and his mother too. But as Dick Griffey, the boss of Solar Records, said in the documentary Welcome To Death Row – “I wasn’t there, so when E said that me and Tommy Mottola were in the room with bats and pipes, he’s obviously a liar!”
Again, the matter was solved like most commercial disputes. Money was paid, Dre was released.
Then there’s the story of George and Lynwood Stanley. They were tying up the phone at SOLAR studios, despite Knight’s orders. So he pulled a gun on them, and forced them to strip to their boxers in front of the rest of the studio. When they protested, Knight shot into the wall, and warned them not to go to the police, or they’d have hell to pay.
“So they walk out onto Hollywood Blvd and stop the first police car they see,” says Roberts. “I asked them later – why did you go to the cops, were you afraid? And they said, ‘Nobody’s afraid of Suge. He’s a buster! If he didn’t have the gun I would have beat his fat ass in the building.’”
Knight ended up with 60 months probation, and Solar Studios was sued for damages. If anyone had hell to pay, it wasn’t the Stanley brothers. But Knight’s myth kept growing, and he loved it. Roberts remembers him laughing at his desk, puffing on a cigar. “Ah Virgil!” he said. “Isn’t it great? Everyone’s afraid of me!”
It was a Faustian pact. There was profit in letting these myths circulate – a little fear didn’t hurt at the negotiating table, and for a gangster rap label, a mobster image was a form of marketing. So as Death Row put out one platinum record after another, and suburban white kids started throwing gang signs and mispronouncing ‘bitch’, Knight too embraced the gangster rap culture. The world of the kids he wasn’t allowed to play with as a youngster. He became the most extreme example of how this controversial genre could lead a well-raised young man astray.
Knight went all in. Suddenly everything in his life turned to red, the color of the Bloods – his suits, his office, the home he grew up in, the swimming pool of the home he bought that Robert De Niro lived in while filming Casino. Knight bought a Las Vegas nightclub called 662 (which spells MOB on a telephone keypad, for Money Over Bitches). He appeared on magazine covers, snarling and puffing his cigar. He menaced journalists with a piranha tank in his office. He became the face of the label.
“It was a fantasy for Suge,” says Roberts. “He so wanted to be this feared mogul that he started playing that role. And you know how the hunter gets captured by the game?”
His girlfriend at the time, Stormey Ramdhan, makes a different analogy. The mother of two of his sons, aged 19 and 12, she was with him from 1993 to 2009 – his longest relationship to date. “His image is just marketing that went bad,” she says. “It was like a brushfire you couldn’t put out.”
Of Knight’s many mistakes at Death Row, the gravest of all was his decision to hire actual gang members fresh from prison. He saw it as enhancing Death Row’s street credibility while giving back to the community, but it invited chaos and violence into the gates. Beatings were routine. Engineers remember studios being used as dog-fighting . True to its name, Death Row came increasingly to resemble prison. And Knight encouraged it. By some accounts he was afraid not to. He had to keep up appearances around these thugs. But it led to the flight of his artists, the scrutiny of law enforcement, even the FBI, and ultimately, the demise of the company.
The death knell sounded when Dre stopped working at the label in 1995. The master producer had never felt comfortable around gang members, so he stayed home. And Jimmy Iovine, at Interscope, saw the opportunity. He offered Dre a new label, Aftermath, a felon free environment, and Dre walked. Knight saw his departure as a knife in the back. Not just because of Dre’s musical gifts, but because he saw him as his brother in arms. Hadn’t Knight freed him from his Ruthless contract? Wasn’t Death Row a dream they were building together?
Dre’s betrayal of Knight is a defining emotional scar, which according to Ramdhan, Roberts and others, hurts to this day – right up to the tragedy at Tam’s. There’s even a woman between the two – the singer Michel’le Toussaint, one of Death Row’s soul acts. She was with Dre first, then Knight, having a child with both men. But notably, she speaks of Dre as a villain who beat her black and , Knight was “a protector, a hugger, a gentle giant.”
At the time, Knight offset the loss of Dre by focussing on Tupac. And Pac was the perfect catalyst for Death Row’s last days, the dying flare of the match. Dre had left because of the violence, but Pac was attracted by it. Like Knight, he romanticized gang culture and Knight loved him for it. He called Tupac his little brother. But it was Tupac who put him in prison, more than anyone else. Hours before he got shot, he’d started a brawl in the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. And in footage of the melee, Knight is seen coming in from the edges and getting a couple of kicks in. For Roberts, those kicks were just an attempt to save face. But for the court, it was a probation violation. He was given nine years, and he served five.
Knight pleaded with the judge that day. He said he felt like Frankenstein. “It gave me chills,” says Ramdhan. “Because that’s how his life has been. He’s been built up to be this monster. And now they’re tearing him apart.”
Prison changed him. According to Ramdhan and also Knight’s adopted son Danny Boy, a singer on Death Row – both of whom visited him regularly during this time – incarceration made him harder and colder, more like the man he’d been pretending to be before. And his sense of betrayal festered. Not only Dre, but other artists had let him down. Snoop was now publicly blaming Knight for Pac’s death. And accusations whirled that he was responsible for Biggie Smalls’ death too, in 1997, ordering the hit from prison. No charges have stuck in either investigation, but Knight’s name still carries that stink.
As he stewed in prison, his company fell apart. He couldn’t control it from prison, and the people he’d hired were incompetent – hiring was never his strong suit. So money went astray. Artists went unpaid. By the time Knight got out, he had enemies everywhere, and he couldn’t contain his anger. He would rant in interviews, calling out everyone who had wronged him – Jimmy Iovine, Doug Morris, the head of Universal, and above all, Dre, whom he derided as a bitch, a fag, a sissy.
“He was jealous,” says Stormey. “Aftermath was successful and Dre still had a relationship with Jimmy, but he had been blacklisted.” Knight degenerated into the aggrieved ex-mogul who had fallen out of relevance, trying desperately to recreate his prime. But his subsequent labels didn’t come close. Hip hop had moved on, and Knight’s peers too – Puffy and Russell Simmons run empires, Iovine is a billionaire and Dre thereabouts. But Knight is still out at night, the oldest man at the club, still talking about Bompton, and real G’s, telling the TMZ cameras who is and who isn’t a motherfucking bitch.
The attacks started at around the time that Death Row went out of business. The company was sued successfully for $107 million in 2005 – forcing it into bankruptcy – and a few months later, Knight was shot in the leg at a Video Music Awards party hosted by Kanye West in Miami. (His thigh was shattered and replaced with a metal plate – hence his limp). It was a crowded club, with scores of witnesses, but no arrest was made – a pattern that has become familiar. He still has a bullet fragment in his skull from being in the car with Tupac on that fateful night in 1996. There was no arrest then either.
A further attack, in May 2008, hurt his reputation more than anything else. A barber named Greg knocked him out cold for three minutes outside a Hollywood nightclub, and pictures of him lying there were posted online. Greg became a hood celebrity, interviewed on YouTube – the Buster Douglas of Compton. Sources close to Knight insist that he was actually hit on the back of the head with an iron bar. But still no arrest. And Knight never returned to break his legs. Some gangster.
According to Toi Kelly, Knight’s fiancé, that incident opened the floodgates. The word was out – Big Bad Suge could be beaten up in public, without repercussion. And he quickly became a target, a badge for younger thugs to build their own names. A year later, Knight’s jaw was broken by two members of the singer Akon’s camp while leaving a club in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“It started a wave,” she says. “We never have security when we go out, but I’ve been in so many positions where I have to talk him down. People try to provoke him.”
Like Ramdhan, Kelly is an attractive, indomitable woman, only younger, at 32. She has an MBA and runs a gym in the valley called Mint. When we meet in her office, she’s eager to set the record straight. “He doesn’t go around bullying people you know,” she smiles. “He doesn’t drink blood for breakfast!”
The picture she paints is one of a man trying to claw his way back, and meet his responsibilities.He has eight children by six women, including a boy of 5 with Kelly, called Legend; two boys with Ramdhan, Suge Jr (19) and Sosa (12); and a 12 year old girl Bailie, with Michel’le. And money hasn’t been easy. They still live in Beverly Hills, but Knight has to take little consultancy gigs where he can, promoting a smoking papers brand, or making introductions in the music industry. The Malibu mansion is long gone. His hopes are set on a couple of projects about his life and times- a Showtime documentary by Antoine Fuqua and a book too. “I can’t remember the title,” says Kelly. “Something like My Pain is Your Gain. No – American Knightmare?”
But what she really wants to talk about is the shooting at 1 Oak in West Hollywood, an attempt on his life that remains an open investigation for the LAPD, so it’s hard to verify her version. If what she says is true, however, it foreshadows the incident at Tam’s in a couple of key ways. In both incidents Knight was called to a place, and then attacked, and the investigating officers Detectives Richard Biddle and Barry Hall – who are the same for each case – appear to have targeted Knight, the victim, rather than his attackers.
It was another VMA party, this time hosted by the R&B singer Chris Brown, and Knight had been called there, says Kelly, by the comedian Katt Williams, whom he was tour managing. Already the night seems doomed – a convening of three of the most trouble-prone celebrities in LA. Brown is famous for having viciously assaulted his then-girlfriend Rihanna. Williams is bipolar and has a considerable rap sheet himself. It was Knight’s job to keep him in line. And it wasn’t working. A month later, he and Williams are alleged to have stolen a paparazzi photographer’s camera.
According to Kelly, Knight showed up at the club because he wanted to speak to Chris Brown anyway. A couple of days earlier, he’d heard that an associate of Brown’s had ordered a hit on him, following an argument at a studio three weeks before. Knight had paid Brown a visit to offer advice about Brown’s association with gangbangers, specifically the Fruit Town Bloods. Knight and Brown have been friends for a long time. But an argument erupted with this associate, and Knight hit him. Now there was a price on his head. (Sources close to Brown confirm that a fight took place, but not that Brown was there, or that there was any ‘hit’. The associate, is apparently, no longer connected to Brown.)
At 1 Oak, Knight discussed the situation with Brown. And as he left his table, shots rang out. He was hit six times. Had he not turned his body to the side, he might have died.
“The cops know who did it,” says Kelly. “When Suge was in hospital, they came and showed us the security video on a laptop, and it’s as clear as day. They had 37 cameras in that club. You can see what people are wearing, their faces. You see everyone duck, except for two men, who are both looking for Suge, to see if he’d been hit. Then a third man runs past, takes the gun from the shooter and leaves. The cops even told us the shooter’s name. And they told us later, that they found him hiding out in a high rise downtown. They were keeping him under surveillance for 45 days and he only ever came out to go to the corner store, or to pay for delivery food. So they nabbed him one day, and asked – why are you hiding? He said ‘oh Suge thinks I shot him, so he might be looking for me.’ And he had a gun on him. It wasn’t the weapon that was used in the shooting, but he admitted to being armed that night too, because he was working as security. The cops said, ‘where’s the gun?’ he said, ‘I don’t have it anymore.’”
It’s impossible to confirm – the LA Sheriff’s Department won’t comment on an ongoing investigation. But in an interview with Knight after the incident at Tam’s, Virgil Roberts remembers getting a call from Knight asking for money some months later. “He said he could definitely pay me back because the club was going to settle,” he says. “He said, you could see on the security cameras that they let the shooter in the back door.” (The club and Knight’s civil attorney both refused to comment).
So this is what Knight’s attorney and family believe – that the cops know who shot Knight, and they know where to find him, but still no arrest. Instead Knight stands trial for murder. And testifying against him, is the same investigating officer, Richard Biddle.
Bone hobbles into court, wincing in pain. It’s been 10 weeks since the carnage at Tams where he fractured both ankles, tore some ligaments and required 17 stitches in his head. But it isn’t his injuries that account for what happens next. No sooner has he sworn an oath to tell the whole truth, than he claims to not recognize Knight, who’s sitting 15ft from him in bright orange robes.
“I know Mr Knight, but that doesn’t look like Mr Knight,” he says. “It just doesn’t look like the guy who was in that truck.”
It’s a game gang members play. To keep their rep, they make a show of not snitching. Suge is no different – he has often said that he wouldn’t tell the police who Tupac’s killer was if he knew: “It’s not my job. I don’t get paid to solve homicides.” And now Sloan is singing the same tune. “I will not be forced to tell on anyone,” he says. “I don’t want that smell on me.”
His rep on the streets may be fine, but in this courtroom it’s shot. Not just because he started the fight at Tam’s and was almost certainly armed, but because he lied to the police, repeatedly and with relish, days after the incident. This was before he realized that a security video would expose him. “I might have, what’s the word, embellished,” he says. “Because I knew I was responsible too and Terry was dead. Maybe I tried to shift some of the blame.”
He wipes a tear from his eye. He’s an actor. An actor and a Blood – that’s his niche. He made his name on the gritty Hollywood movies Training Day and End of Watch, and has since become the guy movie producers call when they need ghetto authenticity. Either as an actor or a consultant, he’s the liaison between Hollywood and the hood. On Straight Outta Compton, which tells the story of the rise to fame of NWA, Sloan was brought on as security, to harmonize the relationship between the movie set and local gangs. He hired fellow Bloods to work with him; he involved “the community”. And one of the people who joined him, was Terry Carter, an alleged gang member, who ran a car dealership.
The Hollywood movie is one of the ways that counterculture is embraced, even brought to heel by the mainstream. Artists that scare the horses become national treasures in time – NWA’s Ice Cube, of “Fuck the police” fame, now stars in family comedies – and big studio pictures like The Doors and Walk The Line confer posthumous golden status on former wildmen like Jim Morrison and Johnny Cash. But Straight Outta Compton is already tarnished. The tragedy at Tam’s is a reminder that the world NWA revealed – of Crips, Bloods and drivebys – is as fresh today as ever. Only in this story, the tensions are also embodied in the characters themselves – Compton’s most hallowed names, Suge Knight and Dr Dre, and also Sloan, the so-called “non-active” gangbanger who was employed to keep them apart.
It all started when Knight chose to visit the set in South Central where they were shooting a promo video for the movie. He should have stayed outta Compton. He was in Century City at the time, with Kelly and Legend – out west in the safety of “White World” as he calls it. But he had a bone to pick. His likeness had been used in the movie, and he wanted to be paid. As soon as he arrived, he saw Kebo, the head of Ice Cube’s security. “First thing he said,” says Kebo, “was ‘I come in peace. I didn’t come down here to start no problems, that’s why I came by myself. I want to request a meeting with Cube and it don’t have to be today.’ He was not out of control, he was not irate, he was not hostile.”
Knight’s arrival on set, however, caused a ruckus. When word reached Dre – according to Sloan’s interview with police – his bodyguards went into lockdown. Kelly describes Dre as a “really fearful person. Like our dry cleaning guy – he happened to tell Dre that he delivers to us too, and he was immediately fired, 86’ed out of the gated community and everything.” (Attempts to confirm this with Dr Dre were unsuccessful). It was Sloan’s job to keep Knight away from the set. So he approached Knight’s truck and the men exchanged words. A high school exchange, the way Sloan explained it: “I said ‘Man you always acting like a bitch.’ He said, ‘you the bitch.’ And then it escalated.”
There was no altercation this time. There were LA Sheriffs on hand, who told Knight to leave. And he did. “He didn’t resist or talk shit or crazy,” says Kebo. “He just got in his truck and left.” Kelly says he called her as he got on the freeway – he was coming home. But then Terry Carter called him, and it appears Knight turned around. Terry’s an old friend, one of the few people Knight would allow around his kids. If Terry told him to go to Tam’s to straighten things out, then he would go. He was alone, unarmed, and according to Fletcher, on his way into an ambush.
“We know that Bone was told to handle the situation – he’s testified to that,” says Fletcher. “We know that Bone hired a bunch of gang members – Jimmy Chris, Knob [Dwayne Johnson] and Marv Kincy. We know from phone records that Terry called a bunch of people . He called Knob twice, after Suge left the set. And Knob called him twice. And then Terry called Suge. And we know by the time Suge got there, they were all waiting for him. Knob, Jimmy Chris, Bone and Marv. Suge was going to be ‘handled’”.
At the hearing, Bone is all evasion and “I can’t recall”. But still, an explanation emerges for why he was at Tam’s in the first place and it’s riddled with problems. He told police that he made a wrong turn on his way to the location: “We were about to move – the whole company. We were setting up stunts. We had these professional riders, they was gonna be riding next to Dre, doing wheelies and shit.” He claims he noticed Knight’s truck and saw Knight talking to Terry. So he crept up on them. As he told police: “I just popped out like a jack-in-the-box. Like “let’s do it”. I opened his door. And he snatched it back. And I punched him in the face. And that’s how it took off.”
But the video shows that Knight was the last one there. He wasn’t talking to Terry Carter at all; he pulled in and was immediately attacked by Sloan. And this wrong turn Sloan took was not one or two, but 11 blocks from the alleged filming location. Furthermore, at least three other gang members just happened to make the same wrong turn as Sloan at exactly the same time. And if they were in the wrong location, why did they get out of their cars and hang around until Knight arrived? Had a hit been ordered on Suge Knight?
(Universal Studios have declined to comment, since this is an ongoing trial).
But perhaps most damning of all is the account that Marv Kincy, one of the men at the scene, gave to police in his interview. (For the record, despite the existence of transcripted interviews, Marv Kincy maintains that he never spoke to the police.) He maintained that Knight didn’t run anyone over intentionally. That Bone was the aggressor, a well known hot head who had connections to the Fruit Town Bloods (the same gang that Knight believes is implicated in the shooting at 1 Oak). He also told police that Bone had arrived at the scene at the same time as Jimmy Chris, a man who according to other sources had a long standing beef with Knight (allegedly dating back to the death of his brother in Atlanta some twenty-odd years ago). So after Knight was attacked, and reversed his truck, knocking Bone down, he would have noticed Jimmy Chris running towards the scene. “Suge would know he wasn’t a friend,” Marvin said. That was when Knight bolted forward and escaped, killing Carter.
In her effort to defend Sloan’s account, DA Barnes suggests that the gun-shaped object Jimmy Chris removes from Sloan’s body, and puts in his waistband, is actually a walkie-talkie. This is a core argument for the prosecution. And Detective Biddle concurs. Never mind that Sloan himself told police that he left his walkie talkie in the car. As Fletcher assails him with incredulous questions – “Have you ever seen people put a radio in their waistband?” – Biddle looks increasingly irritated. And yet, he expects jurors to believe that when a gang member is run over, the first instinct of a fellow gang member is to rush over before the paramedics arrive, and remove his… walkie talkie?
“I don’t carry a gun!” Sloan protests, overselling the line somewhat. “I’m a filmmaker, an award-winning filmmaker, I got to get my reputation here! Why would I take a gun to work?”
It’s a great question. Also: Why were they at Tam’s in the first place? Who called them there? Why is Suge Knight on trial, and not Sloan?
After two days of preliminary hearing, the Judge drops his bail to $10 million – mere Gotti levels. For a few days, the word from Knight’s camp was that his friend Floyd Mayweather Jr was going to put up the cash, but it hasn’t happened. Still, Knight has now been granted the right to see close family. His sisters cheer when the news comes. It’s something. Knight’s reputation may still be a burden, but maybe the tide is turning.
One can never discount a man who built an empire from Compton, who has survived bullets, prison and bankruptcy. But Knight has a battle ahead. His health is suffering. His image remains toxic – his public appeal for defense funds has earned all of $600 (target $500,000). He has had numerous issues with his attorneys – since the incident, he has changed lawyers three times. (At the time of going to press, Matthew Fletcher has been replaced by Tom Mesereau who successfully defended Michael Jackson in 2005.)
But hope springs, nevertheless. Virgil Roberts sees him beating the case and reinventing his life – a Tyson-like redemption tour. “I can see Suge on a Vegas stage telling stories, can’t you?” Kelly, however, is hesitant to look so far ahead. “We’re just taking it one case at a time. It’s hard. But Suge is always in good spirits, joking around. He stays strong for the rest of us.”
The antechamber to Court 101 on the 9th Floor, is cramped and dark – a place people slip out to, and whisper behind their hands. On the day of Knight’s arraignment, when the trial date is set, Kelly and Matt Fletcher are doing just that, before court is in session. Then the doors open and there’s Knight. He’s surrounded by four grave looking Sheriffs, and they’ve got him in a wheelchair. But he looks delighted. The happiest face in this dark little room.
“Why are you sitting, you can’t stand?” Kelly says.
“Oh hell yeah,” Knight laughs. He gets up, almost catching his ankle chains on the wheelchair. “I can dance!”