For Leigh Savidge, one of the writers of Straight Outta Compton, the feud between Dr Dre and Suge Knight is a bit like Othello. “There was Iago, who was in the trenches as a soldier with Othello, and at some point sees the need to usurp him,” he told me. “I always looked at Suge as Iago, and Dre as Othello. They were soldiers in arms during that critical period.”
Savidge understands that critical period better than most. He made the acclaimed documentary Welcome To Death Row in 2001, one of the most accurate accounts of the label’s rise and fall. In the wake of Straight Outta Compton – which has made $148 million to date – he’s in talks about a sequel, a dramatization of the Death Row story.
And even if you quibble with his analogy, he’s right about this – there’s a Shakespearean aspect to the Dre/Knight story. Two men from Compton, who created an empire from nothing, and then split, becoming mortal enemies ever since, each the nemesis of the other. There’s a woman between them, Michel’le, with whom both men have a child. And the way their arcs have diverged ever since could scarcely be more dramatic – Knight’s now at Men’s Central Jail, downtown, with orange overalls and clanking ankles, while Dre is at his peak, atop a pile of money, hip hop’s richest, immortalized in cinema, the apple of Apple’s eye.
But what happened at Tam’s Burgers on January 29th suggests that whatever burns between them hasn’t dampened in 20 years. It was an ambush, that much is clear – but who was behind it? According to Knight, it was Dre. Consider the following:
- Straight Outta Compton was produced by Dre and it represents Knight as a thug and ogre.
- An unresolved financial dispute over this representation led Knight to drive to the video set in the first place
- Dre reportedly has a restraining order against him. And according to Sloan, the news that Knight was on set put Dre’s bodyguards into lockdown. They said, “we’re not moving until Suge is out of here.”
- Then at Tam’s, Knight was attacked by Bone who, as another witness Marvin Kincy told investigators “was working for Dre” – he was security on the set of a movie that Dre was producing.
But why? What’s his motive? Why would the super-producer concern himself with a former rival who has fallen so low? Dre’s the richest man in hip hop, closing in on a historic billion dollars. He soars above Knight in terms of reputation, wealth and influence. And as for these kinds of messy entanglements, street beefs and violence – he transcended all that long ago, surely?
And yet, as reported in the New York Times, June 8th, Knight told investigators, on the night he turned himself in, that he was owed part of Dre’s windfall from the sale of Beats to Apple – $300 million in fact. Which is motive aplenty.
Here’s how a summary of that interview by the Sheriff’s Department put it:
“Knight described an on-going business dispute between him and Dre. Dre was involved in a large business deal with Apple worth a billion dollars and Knight was promised 10 percent by Dre. Knight believed he was owed 300 million dollars from Dre. Knight also had the impression he was owed money from the movie Straight Outta Compton because the movie used his likeness and references to “NWA”. Knight said he owned the rights to “NWA”.”
There are other allegations. More direct, shall we say. But just to be clear, Knight’s counsel isn’t making these charges and this material has not been presented in court. Furthermore, in legal terms, police interviews constitute “hearsay” – witnesses can always claim coercion. (I have made numerous attempts to reach Dre for comment but they have all been unsuccessful.)
For many, this theory is just too implausible to take seriously. Certainly Savidge isn’t convinced. He regards Knight as “a difficult person to feel sympathy for”, someone who was “extraordinarily lucky” to have partnered with Dre in the first place. “Dre was critical to attracting those artists to the label,” he says. “He was the reason. So for [Knight] to come away from that and think that he’s the important one… You’ve got to be a lunatic.”
What’s more, there’s the question of why Knight feels he is owed any of the Beats money, a venture that launched long after Dre had left Death Row. Was there an enduring contract between the two?
This much is for certain – Dre would love us to forget about Dre. When the family of Terry Carter, the deceased, included him in their wrongful death lawsuit, he was quick to protest that he deserves no part of it. But hip hop’s most celebrated producer is in this thing whether he likes it or not. The question is: to what degree?
This trial may produce answers. Every day, investigators prowl the streets of Compton collecting interviews. From what I hear, witnesses are being paid off, while others duck and dive to avoid subpoenas. I’ve even heard that another video of the Tam’s incident is out there, this time taken by a witness, which, if true, just screams conspiracy to commit murder.
And speaking of witnesses, I still need to tell you about Marvin. His testimony might just swing this whole case. Stay tuned…