Death Row Records is one of the most iconic record labels in music history. Without it, the entire landscape of the game as we know it might look entirely different. Boasting a repertoire that includes the likes of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me, Snoop Dogg’s Tha Doggfather, Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food, The Lady Of Rage’s Necessary Roughness, and more, Tha Row’s musical pedigree and boundary-pushing sound remain relevant to this day. Standing behind the curtain is the one called Suge Knight.
Formidable in both stature and business savvy, Suge’s reputation has retained a legendary quality. A boogeyman of sorts, cigar-toting in a nigh-cartoonish display of villainy. Associated with no shortage of controversy, often embroiled in violence. Yet in a perverse way, such tendencies were what made Death Row so special. The industry was a different place in the early nineties. Many young rappers came directly from the streets to share their stories; the concept of “internet fame” may as well have been a flying car. For Snoop Dogg, signing with Death Row marked an opportunity for a Rollin 20's Long Beach Crip to make some real money.
Though the tale of Snoop Dogg’s rise is one worth telling, its an epic saga in its own right. For the purposes of understanding his history with Suge Knight, there are a few basic facts to consider. For one, Snoop Dogg was Dr. Dre’s protege and worked closely with the producer on a creative level; seeing as Dre is one of music’s most brilliant minds, it’s clear that the pair had a budding musical connection. Far from a creative, Knight kept the business end handled, retaining ownership of the label’s spoils and doling out rewards as he saw fit - at least, that’s how Snoop described it during a 2018 interview with VladTV. So while Dre and Snoop were cooking up classic records watching their respective stars rise at a meteoric rate, Suge was gaining in both musical equity and net worth.
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At the height of his post-Doggystyle fame, Snoop found himself wrapped up in a widely-publicized murder trial. A Washington Post article from 1996 reports on the day he was acquited - should he have been found guilty, Snoop would have been put away for eleven years "For the last few months, I've been trying to figure out if I'd be able to raise my son, you know what I'm saying?" he told reporters, upon his acquittal. At this point, Dr. Dre was already feeling dissent, put off by Suge’s increasingly violent ways - he left without having contributed production work on Snoop’s sophomore effort Tha Doggfather. Yet like Dre, Snoop was also growing tired of Tha Row’s violent content. As he explained to VH1 in 2011, “Tha Doggfather was a rebirth of me...I’m not gonna glorify none of this negativity that Death Row wanted me to do. I'm gonna bring a positive side of music.”
Doggfather was Snoop’s last album on Death Row. With morale low after the death of 2Pac and departure of Dr. Dre, things went even further south after Suge Knight’s arrest for probation violation, leading to a nine-year prison sentence. Snoop ultimately left Tha Row behind and linked up with Master P’s No Limit Records, a stylistic departure that ultimately led to a pair of the most underrated records of his career. Yet his final parting thoughts toward Suge were far from positive; by this point, Snoop had seemingly come to resent Knight’s philosophies toward ownership, which is to say, everything to him. Juxtaposed against Master P’s contrasting outlook, closer to that of an educator, and No Limit felt like greener pastures indeed.
"PIMP HAND STRONG"
Somewhere along the line, possibly coinciding with Suge’s forced removal from the game, Snoop became more outspoken about his disdain for Suge. A documentary recap from BET highlights an older interview in which Snoop spoke on his decision to leave Tha Row. “I was working against the devil, and through the grace of God Master P and Priority Records put a deal together that was suitable for me.” The same documentary shares also Suge Knight’s perspective, evidenced by prison-phone calls and archived interview footage. Essentially, Knight claimed that without him, there would be no Snoop Dogg. Another clip finds an MTV News reporter asking Snoop about Suge’s latest dismissal - “he used to be a superstar now he just a No Limit solider- prompting an absolutely legendary response from Snoop: “he used to be a CEO now he’s just an inmate.” The middle finger served as the perfect punctuation mark.
Clearly, tensions were running high. Throughout his sentence, Suge maintained a sense of love toward Snoop, given everything they built together. Yet the damage was done, and absence had the adverse effect of making the heart grow fonder. Before Suge was ultimately released from prison in 2001, he told a reporter from The Observer of his intentions to revert the game to the “wild wild west.” “I got plenty of scores to settle,” he declared, in a foreboding fashion. By this point, Snoop had released three records with No Limit, appropriately concluding with Tha Last Meal. Meanwhile, Suge moved to reassemble Tha Row, bringing in names like a young Crooked I, Eastwood, and more. It appeared as if he intended to make good on his earlier threats, going so far as to press Xzibit about his relationship with Uncle Snoop. Yet Snoop’s gangsta was not to be tested. Though Suge carried himself in an imposing fashion, Snoop decided it was time to put his former associate on blast for all to see.
Enter “Pimp Slapp’d,” a brazen diss track aimed directly at Suge’s dome. In one of the opening bars, Snoop leaves nothing to the imagination, rapping “Suge Knight’s a bitch, and that’s on my life.” It doesn’t take long before Snoop extends the invite to a one-on-one, be it by the fist or the knife. Even Suge’s prison time is put under the microscope, with Snoop questioning why such a self-proclaimed hardened individual was never locked down on level four. Given that he’s become such a cultural staple, it’s easy to forget that Snoop has never been one to bow down. The man is a Death Row alumni, after all. To add insult to injury, the barrage isn’t reserved for Suge; former friend and collaborator Kurupt, who had recently switched sides on Snoop, gets a few lines. As does Xzibit, albeit more of a love-tap. In a time where nobody dared fire shots on Suge Knight, Snoop Dogg pulled out a pair of proverbial shotguns and let fly with callous precision.
It’s fair to say that 2002 marked one of the beef’s highest points, with animosity between both parties reaching an all-time high. So the story goes, Suge and Snoop both attended that year’s Vibe Awards, and might have come to blows had it not been for the intervention of that old, eternal peace-keeper Steve Harvey. And while nothing was directly corroborated, the 2004 Vibe Awards incident found Dr. Dre on the receiving end of a sucker-punch; though the attacker was swiftly dealt with, and quite severely thanks to one Young Buck, the tensions between the Aftermath/Snoop camp and a newfangled Death Row/Murda Inc alliance should not be ignored. Especially not since each party was well represented, including both Snoop and Suge. It’s even said that Suge was sitting a mere “few feet” from Dre, with the attacker having reportedly claimed that Knight was the one who orchestrated the attack. Naturally, Suge’s legal team staunchly denied the claims. Despite the tensions between Snoop and Suge reaching near-apocalyptic levels, fate would intervene once again after a probation violation sent Suge Knight back to jail.
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UNITY IN THA ROW
It’s not uncommon for men to outgrow their hate, and eventually look to employ forgiveness. As far back as 2013, Snoop has spoken respectfully of Suge, to the point where he described their relationship as “cool as a muthafucka.” He initially touched on their rekindling during a conversation with Vlad TV, praising Knight as one of the “best businessmen to ever come out of the West Coast.” As he tells it, Suge, himself, and those involved helped build one of the greatest dynasties the rap game has ever seen. “We was heartless,” he explains. “We had a bunch of wild-ass crips, a bunch of wild-ass bloods. You had Dr. Dre, the greatest producer in the world. And Suge Knight, a young business-minded man. D.O.C, great with the penmanship and mentoring. All the right pieces in the right place.”
It seems fair to say that Snoop made peace with the darker days, and came to reevaluate his role in shaping history. He’ll always carry Death Row Records with him, and Snoop decided to wear his association like a badge of honor. After sharing the story with Vlad in 2013, Snoop revisited the topic with Arian Foster in 2018, explaining how he and Suge took the first step in squashing the beef. As he tells it, Snoop and his security guard were rolling through Vegas when they happened to cross paths with Knight.
Though Snoop’s big homie was quick to step forward, Suge swore he meant no ill-will. Still, the animosity between the men was still running high, by Dogg’s own admission; he mimes a pulled trigger for added emphasis. “I had n***as who--they seen him before I did,” recounts Snoop, claiming he had to pull the time-out. “When I finish with the little woo-wop I’m with,” he continues, addressing Suge. “I’ma have my folks come tell you what room I’m in. Then when you come up to my room, ain’t gon’ be nobody in there. Just me and you.”
Forty-five minutes later, Snoop and Suge were having a face-to-face. “Nobody in there except me and my n***a Soopafly,” reveals Snoop. “Soopafly ain’t no threat, he just a producer n***a who want to hear exactly what’s happening. So [Suge & I] are chopping it up, and the whole conversation is, ‘I loved you, n***a. I could have saved you. I had nothing but love for you.’ And his conversation is ‘n***a I loved you, I ain’t got nothin’ but love for you.”
Snoop retorts with a harsh, but fair question. “Why’d you try to get me pop-popped, if you loved me? You know what, I forgive you. I ain’t gon’ do nothing to you. There’s n***as outside that want your head right now. They ain’t gon’ do nothing to you. You gonna walk on out of here and we gon’ be cool from this day forward. And we been straight.”
Today, all signs point to a harmonious relationship between Suge and Snoop, a testament to the power of forgiveness. In fact, Snoop even went so far as to honor Suge with a dedication track, his latest single “Bygones Be Bygones.” Given everything they have been through, the fact that Snoop could dub his former enemy a “real one” is one of hip-hop’s great plot twists of the past few decades. Yet it does bode well for the future - perhaps we’ll one day see collaborations from 50 Cent and Rick Ross, or Drake and Pusha T? If Suge and Snoop can bury their blood-stained hatchet, is there really anyone who can’t?