The 1990s hip hop mogul is spending his 50th birthday in jail as he faces a murder charge, but the latest legal drama is just part of a troubled past. Here’s what you need to know.
How to say his name: Suge is pronounced like sugar, which is where he gets the moniker from—Sugar Bear was a childhood nickname. He was born Marion Hugh Knight Jr. in Compton, Calif., to Maxine and Marion Knight Sr. on April 19, 1965.
Why he’s famous: He’s best known for co-founding Death Row Records, the gangsta rap hub that was home to artists such as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur and many others in the 1990s. But he’s as famous, if not more so, for his repeated run-ins with the law (of which there are many timelines) that continued even after Death Row declined (thanks in part to a five-year prison stint related to an assault and the exodus of several artists from the roster in the wake of Tupac’s murder). Death Row Records filed for bankruptcy in 2006.
His current legal drama: Knight was charged with murder, attempted murder, and two hit-and-run counts this year after a January incident in which he allegedly put his car in reverse and ran over two men, killing one of them. The confrontation was reportedly a continuation of an argument that took place on the set of the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton (in which Knight is played by R. Marcus Taylor). Knight has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His attorney says Knight was behind the wheel but that he was trying to flee out of fear for his life. Knight’s health in the months since has made headlines, too: He’s been hospitalized multiple times since being charged, as recently as this week.
His sports past: Knight played football throughout college and had a very brief NFL career. He was cut from the Los Angeles Rams during training, but he went on to play two games for the the team as a replacement in 1987 during the NFL’s players’ strike. It was after that that he got into music, working as a concert promoter and a bodyguard for Bobby Brown.
Famous feuds: Knight had a reputation for allegedly using brute force to conduct business in the 1990s. He was rumored to have dangled Vanilla Ice off a balcony in order to get him to sign over “Ice Ice Baby” royalties (one of Knight’s clients co-wrote the song but hadn’t been paid), though the rapper and others have denied the story.
A few years later, Knight ignited rap’s west coast-east coast rivalry when he took shots at Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs of Bad Boy Records in an acceptance speech at the 1995 Source Awards. “Any artist out there that want to be an artist and stay a star, and don’t have to worry about the executive producer trying to be all in the videos … come to Death Row,” he said.
In 1996, Knight was behind the wheel of the car Tupac was murdered in during a drive-by shooting, and rumors that Knight orchestrated both Tupac’s death and the later murder of Notorious B.I.G. rank among the greatest conspiracy theories in hip-hop. Knight has never been charged in either shooting and has denied any involvement. His relationship with Snoop Dogg declined after that, and the two exchanged harsh words in the media for several years before burying the hatchet in 2013.