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Monday, 23 April, 2001, 10:11 GMT 11:11 UK
Rap's stormy Knight
Marion
Knight thrived in Los Angeles' violent gang struggles
Marion "Suge" Knight's release will see the return of one of hip-hop's most notorious and feared figures.

It will also revive memories of the hip-hop battles of the mid-1990s, which saw two of its biggest stars - Tupac Shakur and the Notorious BIG murdered.

Knight, 35, whose Death Row Records label was one of rap's leading imprints, has been serving a nine-year term since October 1996 for a probation violation.

Knight was born in 1966 in Compton, one of Los Angeles' roughest districts. His nickname comes from "sugar bear".

He attended the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and tried out for the LA Rams gridiron team before gravitating towards the record industry.

Bodyguard

He started out as a bodyguard - he weighs around 23 stones - to performers such as Bobby Brown, before starting his own label in 1989.

Tupac Shakur
Tupac was signed after Knight posted $1.4m bail
From its early days, Death Row Recordings was accused of using violence to serve its own ends.

The rise of the company was played out against the continuing gang warfare which had riddled Compton for many years.

A lawsuit filed against Knight and rapper Dr Dre claimed he brought along bats and pipes to help persuade Ruthless Records boss Eric Wright - otherwise known as NWA rapper Easy-E - to release Dre from his contract.

Easy-E - who formed NWA alongside Ice Cube and Dr Dre in 1987 - had ties with the Crips gang from the south of Compton, while Knight was linked to the Bloods, based in the north.

Dre was released from his contract and the Knight-produced album The Chronic sold five million copies after it was released in 1992.

Assault

While the case was settled out of court, allegations about Knight's business practices continued. In 1995, he was convicted of assaulting two rappers who he caught using a telephone in a studio without his permission, and was put on probation.

The same year, rapper Tupac Shakur was convicted of sexually assaulting a female fan. Knight put up $1.4m bail to ensure Tupac's release - and his presence on Death Row.

Death Row label
Knight's empire: Death Row Records
Tupac became Death Row's biggest artist - but he was also a magnet for trouble.

He was shot and robbed in 1994 - and Tupac alleged New York entrepreneur Sean "Puffy" Combs and his Bad Boy Entertainment label were involved. Combs denied it - but an east coast-west coast feud was born.

Knight attacked Combs - now himself a multi-million selling rapper as Puff Daddy - for appearing in his artists' videos, while Bad Boy artists renamed Tupac "One-pac" because he had lost a testicle in the 1994 shooting.

Bodyguards from the two camps were also caught brawling.

Tupac murder

In September 1996, Tupac and Knight had attended a Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas when Tupac confronted a young man in the lobby of the MGM Grand Hotel - reportedly accusing him of being a Crip.

Security cameras caught Tupac punching the man, Orlando Anderson, while Knight and the rest of his entourage kicked him in the head and body before leaving.

A few hours later, Tupac was shot by a gunman who pulled alongside the car carrying him and Knight through Las Vegas. He died a few days later.

Anderson, who was himself murdered in 1998, was a suspect, but his family have always maintained his innocence.

Jailed

In November 1996, a Los Angeles judge found Knight guilty of breaking his probation by taking part in the assault on Anderson. The Death Row empire was about to crash down around him, as he was sentenced to nine years in jail.

"Mr Knight, you blew it," Superior Court Judge J Stephen Czuleger told him in February 1997.

"In the interest of public safety I cannot put you back on probation."

Sean
Knight was involved in a feud with Sean "Puffy" Combs
Shortly after Knight was sentenced, the east-west coast war looked set to intensify after a second killing - that of Notorious BIG, a Bad Boy artist whose real name was Christopher Wallace.

However, tempers cooled, although police did raid Death Row Records' offices two years later. As in the case of Tupac's killing, no charges have been brought regarding Wallace's death.

Release

Since Knight's incarceration, his old rival Sean "Puffy" Combs has become a household name around the world.

Meanwhile, Death Row has fallen from its once-dominant position, with posthumous Tupac Shakur albums boosting its income.

Acts such as Dr Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Nate Dogg have left the label.

Many people in the industry are dreading Knight's release - others will be pleased to have his talent-spotting skills back.

His publicist Jonathan Wolfson said he is keen to return to the fray.

"Death Row Records has been behind bars for the last four-plus years," he said.

But fresh trouble could still be in store. After five years, a federal grand jury is still investigating Death Row's affairs amid allegations of drug trafficking and money laundering.

Whatever happens, 2001 looks like being a very interesting year for hip-hop fans.

See also:

19 Apr 01 | Music
Hip-hop boss to leave jail
17 Mar 01 | Entertainment
Puff Daddy's life of rhyme
17 Mar 01 | Entertainment
Puff Daddy cleared of gun charges
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