Riding the Rap

A new book chronicles the bloody rise and fall of Death Row Records

Knight didn't just have them shaking in his own part of the world; he started fights in other rap territories. His odd, intense blood feud with East Coast rap impresario Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs led to the identical shootings of their star artists, Shakur and Biggie Smalls. All of this ruckus made people in, out and around the industry fear for their lives. As one music writer brilliantly points out in the book: "White people have been in the record business for years.... But you don't see them trying to fucking shoot each other! You don't see fucking Clive [Davis, head of Arista] trying to steal Mariah Carey from Sony. He says, 'Fuck you, I'll get my own Mariah Carey.' So he got Toni Braxton."

Although most of the participants of this soap opera publicly claimed firsthand experience in the world of gangsta rap, they were merely playing the part. Dr. Dre is shown more as an irresponsible genius: a control freak laying down perfection in each song he produces while making promises to execs, artists and colleagues that he can't vouch for (he's the James Cameron of rap). Tupac Shakur, whose maverick thug veneer made him a James Dean-like icon in his own right, was the biggest poseur out there. A onetime attendant of the renowned Baltimore School for the Arts ("I was fucking white girls," he exclaimed), Shakur used his spongelike intellect to infiltrate the rap world and absorb it -- until it finally absorbed him.

Have Gun, Will Travel documents what we always suspected of the music game: It's an insane, treacherous world. The only thing that matters at the end of the day is who brings home the most record sales. But Suge Knight and Death Row Records took their position as a powerful enterprise of the rap world one chain-shackled step too far. The strong-armed authority they brought to the game, the urge to be at the top by any means necessary, is the tragic flaw that led to their decline. For a brief time, Death Row Records figuratively and literally made a killing.

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