Life before Death Row: The brief football career of Suge Knight The scariest man in rap was a star lineman at UNLV — and a scab Los Angeles Ram

Marion “Suge” Knight’s original terrordome was the defensive line. It’s where he starred for four years at Lynwood High School, 20 minutes from Compton, California’s much-loved Tam’s Burgers. Knight faces murder (among other) charges stemming from a January 2015 incident at Tam’s in which he is accused of barreling a Ford F-150 into two men.

Knight’s friend, Terry Carter, 55, was killed. Cle “Bone” Sloan, 51, was injured. All of this followed an argument near a filming location for the 2015 N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. For the better part of three years, Knight has been held at Los Angeles County Jail, where he awaits a January 2018 trial. He is claiming self-defense. “He left the scene,” attorney James Blatt said in February 2015, “because he was in fear for his safety, and life.” Knight has shuffled through more than four attorneys since.

Wealthy white kids at Hollywood high schools were often the target of Knight’s shakedowns when he was at Lynwood. During the early ’80s, however, Knight was far more focused on sports than thugging: He earned letters in track and football all four years.


Harvey Hyde became the head football coach of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 1981. At the time, the UNLV Rebels (recently on the wrong side of the most lopsided college football upset of all time) were new to Division I. The school, established in 1958, had gained national prominence via basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian’s “Runnin’ Rebels” program. It was up to Hyde to make UNLV a two-sport school.

Hyde still calls Marion Knight “Sugar Bear,” Knight’s childhood and neighborhood nickname. They met on a recruiting trip that Hyde made to Los Angeles County’s El Camino Junior College, where Knight excelled in the defensive line’s trenches. The Compton native was 6-foot-2 with big hair and an imposing frame.

“How would anyone know who he was at the time? He was one of the guys that the Rams players were throwing eggs at.”

Hyde, a player’s coach, brought Knight to Las Vegas. As a junior, he started at nose guard and defensive tackle and immediately became one of the Rebels’ best defensive players. Knight was voted UNLV’s Rookie of the Year, named defensive captain and won first-team all conference honors. In a city full of sins, Knight was apparently UNLV’s biggest blessing.

“[Knight] played his butt off,” said Hyde, whose coaching portfolio includes NFL stars Randall Cunningham, Ickey Woods and 2017 Hall of Famer Terrell Davis. “[Knight] was a ‘yes sir, no sir’ guy … the type of player any college football coach would love to have on his team.” Hyde was let go in 1986 after a string of damaging events for the football program, including burglary, the beating by a player of an off-duty policeman, the embezzling of video and stereo equipment, sexual assault and domestic violence, among other issues. Knight, a part-time bouncer at Vegas’ then-hot Cotton Club, wasn’t a blip on Hyde’s disciplinary radar. “He never, ever gave me a problem in any way.”

To many members of the UNLV team, and his close friend Tarkanian, Hyde was the scapegoat for a program he helped save. The lack of institutional control, they believed, wasn’t Hyde’s fault. Hyde has never spoken ill or shifted blame to anyone.

Knight may have been yes-sir-no-sir, but he was side-hustling: Books. Jon Wolfson, who in the early 2000s was a publicist for Death Row Records and is now the manager of Hall and Oates, recalls a conversation he had with Knight about his UNLV days. “He’d say something like, ‘Then I’d play the dumb athlete role and say, ‘Oh, Coach, I lost my books.’ ” The staff never second-guessed Knight, said Wolfson. “They’d give him brand-new books, and he’d sell them to make some extra cash.” Knight enjoyed two impressive seasons at UNLV in 1985 and 1986, lettering in both.

Yet, per Randall Sullivan’s 2003 LAbyrinth: A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the Implication of Death Row Records’ Suge Knight, and the Origins of the Los Angeles Police Scandal, Knight’s demeanor became more ominous and reclusive during his senior campaign. Visitors from his hometown of Compton were frequently sighted, as Sullivan reported. Knight, too, moved in an apartment by himself, and was seen in several late-model sedans. And his reputation on campus evolved far beyond that of the friendly jokester he was the year before. He seemed a man involved in far more sophisticated situations.

Yet when Wayne Nunnely took over as coach in 1986, Knight’s athletic demeanor apparently remained consistent. “He wasn’t a problem guy at all,” Nunnely told the Las Vegas Sun in 1996. This was three days after Tupac Shakur was shot five times near the Las Vegas Strip by a drive-by assailant who remains unknown. Shakur and Knight were at the intersection of Koval Lane and Flamingo Road. Shakur, of course, died. Knight, by then better known as “Suge,” was then gangsta rap’s unquestioned, unrivaled and undisputed emperor. “You didn’t really see,” said Nunnely, “that street roughness in him.”

The gridiron roughness is something Knight didn’t hesitate to talk about. “I think the most important thing, when you play football,” Knight told comedian Jay Mohr in 2001, shortly after being released from prison for serving half of a nine-year sentence for assault charges stemming from the fight with Orlando Anderson in Vegas’ MGM Grand the night Shakur was shot, “you get the quarterback, you stick your hand in his helmet and peel the skin back off.”

He jokingly suggested, even after selling tens of millions of records and doing nearly a five-year bid, that he could still play in the league. “I think I could strap up and intimidate most of those [guys]. I think we could make a few deals and I’ll be like, ‘OK, look. Lemme get ’bout three, four sacks. I’ll let you get a few blocks. We’ll enjoy it.’ ”

According to teammates, Knight dropped out of UNLV before graduation. By 1987, he was back in Los Angeles. One of the biggest songs on the streets was Eazy-E’s gangsta rap bellwether “Boyz n Da Hood,” which dropped in March of that year. But before turning to hip-hop to plant the seeds of a future empire, Knight had one last gridiron itch to scratch: the National Football League.


The first overall pick in the 1987 NFL draft was Vinny Testaverde, who played until he was 44. The second overall pick was defensive stalwart Cornelius Bennett. There was also current University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, Christian “The Nigerian Nightmare” Okoye, 2002 NFL MVP Rich Gannon and Rod Woodson, the only Hall of Famer from this class. Former University of Oklahoma megastar linebacker Brian Bosworth and future Hall of Famer wide receiver Cris Carter were chosen in the supplemental draft. Marion Knight was not one of the 335 players selected. But the NFL eventually did come calling. The league was desperate.

As documented in the new 30 for 30 film “Year of the Scab,” NFL players went on strike shortly after the start of the 1987 season. Today, football players influenced by exiled Super Bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick fight for their freedom of expression. Thirty years ago, players bucked back at ownership for freedom of agency. In 1982, players went on strike demanding 55 percent of revenue. The 57-day standoff cost the league seven games and $275 million in revenues. And another $50 million returned to networks. While united in both strikes, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) gained little ground in either.

“Free” agency in the 1980s wasn’t the spectacle it is today, with hundreds of players changing teams annually. “This was before free agency,” said veteran Los Angeles Times sports reporter Chris Dufresne. “[NFL players] really were indentured servants. They couldn’t go anywhere!” Players were, for lack of a better phrase, property — bound to teams for life. With rare exceptions, they did move to new teams, although many times those were star players with leverage, a la O.J. Simpson’s 1978 trade to the San Francisco 49ers.

Teams could sign free agents, but the cost was steep. The “Rozelle Rule” stated the NFL commissioner could reward the player’s original team with draft picks, often first-round selections, or players. NFL salaries did rise in the ’80s, primarily because of the brief existence of the United States Football League (an entity that featured team owner Donald Trump) and its willingness to lure NFL players with large contracts. But by 1985, the USFL was defunct. Even that era couldn’t hold a candle to the second strike. “The 1987 Rams season,” said Dufresne, “was the craziest I’ve ever had in journalism.”

In a city full of sins, Knight was apparently UNLV’s biggest blessing.

Training camp started with star running back Eric Dickerson warring for a new contract. On Aug. 21, 1987, running back and former Heisman Trophy winner Charles White, after drug issues that plagued him while with the Cleveland Browns and at USC, was arrested after being found in a field. “[He had a] trash can lid, pretending to be the Trojan Warrior,” Dufresne recalled. “That’s how the summer started.” White led the NFL in rushing that same strike season, with 1,374 yards.

The strike started after Week 3. Players said they wouldn’t show up for Week 4, owners called what they thought was bluff, and then had to scramble to fill rosters with replacement players: former college players, undrafted players, construction workers, bartenders, even ex-cons. Replacement players, otherwise known as “scabs,” were ridiculed.

Somewhat like Faizon Love and Orlando Jones in 2000’s The Replacements, Knight was one of those replacement players. Dufresne, 30 years later, doesn’t recall the future head of a gangsta rap empire. “I have no recollection of Suge being there. I must have seen him,” he said. “[But] why would I remember him? How would anyone know who he was at the time? He was one of the guys that the Rams players were throwing eggs at.”

The strike lasted only a few weeks, but it got ugly. It sounds ridiculous to say Knight was bullied, but such was life in the NFL during the 1987 lockout for “scabs.” Knight, a man who would evolve into an intimidating pop culture tour de force, had eggs thrown at him. First-year Rams offensive tackle Robert Cox smashed the window of a van carrying replacement players after union players began rocking the van.

These incidents were common throughout the league. Frustrations were at a boiling point. Once stars such as Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Dorsett, San Francisco’s Joe Montana, the Oakland Raiders’ Howie Long and Seattle’s Steve Largent crossed the line, the NFLPA recognized the ship was sinking. “They had a weak union compared to the baseball union,” Dufresne said. “But the things they were fighting for were real.”

The strike lasted 24 days. Knight officially played two games as a Los Angeles Ram, against the Pittsburgh Steelers and against the Atlanta Falcons. Although Knight’s official stats are all but lost to history, this YouTube video compiled his official NFL stat line: eight plays, zero sacks, zero tackles and one penalty. John Robinson, Rams head coach from 1983-91, said the team had too many bodies that year between union and replacement players. He, too, has no recollection of coaching Knight.

“Suge,” said Dufresne, “was just an anonymous nobody in the surroundings.” The anonymity wouldn’t last long.


In October 1987, as the regular NFL players reported back to work, Knight’s rap sheet ballooned and his boogeyman persona began to take shape. In Los Angeles, Knight was charged with domestic violence after grabbing future ex-wife Sharitha Golden (whom he’d later implicate in Shakur’s murder) by the hair and chopping her ponytail off in the driveway of her mother’s home. That Halloween, he was arrested in Vegas for shooting a man in the wrist and in the leg, and for stealing his Nissan Maxima. With felony charges looming, Knight skated away from any serious penalty in part because of a contrite courtroom appearance and his history in the city as a famed football player. The felonies were reduced to misdemeanors: a $1,000 fine and three years probation. “I shot him with his own gun,” Knight told The Washington Post in 2007.

Three years later, in Vegas once again, he pleaded guilty to felony assault with a deadly weapon after pistol-whipping a man with a loaded gun and breaking his jaw. Knight again evaded serious penalty.

Knight by then was immersing himself in the music industry, serving as a bodyguard for superstars such as Bobby Brown. He eventually maneuvered his way into the circles of rappers like The D.O.C., Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E. Knight partnered with Dr. Dre to create Death Row Records in 1991. Dr. Dre’s 1992 The Chronic (Death Row/Priority) and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle (Death Row/Interscope) the following year became instant pop gospels and solidified Knight and Death Row as not only major players but also undeniable and controversial cultural focal points.

It’s been years since Coach Hyde has seen his former player. He’s not sure if he will again, but, “You can’t get me to say anything negative about Suge Knight,” he said. “Whatever somebody is accused of, he’s still a football player of mine. He’s still part of the family when I was at UNLV.” Hyde pauses momentarily, then continues, “I’m not endorsing all the certain things they accuse him of, because I really don’t know. I have no idea! He doesn’t judge me and I don’t judge him. We just have our old feelings of each other. I just think that’s what it’s all about. You don’t forget people.”

“When I watch the news, it’s like I’m watching someone else,” Jon Wolfson said. “That’s not the guy I know.”

As for Dufresne, he’s not on either side of the aisle. He’s more shocked that Marion Knight, a guy he only mentioned in passing through roster lists, morphed into Suge Knight, the Death Row Records impresario who was once worth more than $100 million. Suge, he recalled, wasn’t the only notorious figure to come about during his time covering the Rams. Darryl Henley, a former cornerback for the Rams (1989-94), was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 1995. He is currently serving a 41-year prison term for conspiring to murder the federal judge who presided over his trial, as well as the former Rams cheerleader who testified against him. And the Rams’ 1996 first round pick, running back Lawrence Phillips, received a 31-year sentence for domestic violence, spousal abuse, false imprisonment and vehicle theft and was later charged with first-degree murder of his cellmate. Phillips committed suicide in 2016.

Dufresne recalled the bitterness of rap in the ’90s, the “East/West thing” as he dubbed it. And he remembered the personal sadness that followed Shakur’s murder. Yet, it wasn’t until this phone call where he put one and one together. Marion is Suge. Suge was Marion. Suge Knight was a replacement player during the most untamed year of my career.

“Marion Knight, out of UNLV, who did what a lot of guys did and had a dream to play [in the NFL] and maybe didn’t understand what the players were fighting for, he was just another guy,” he said. He stops, as if he’s shocked. “Little did we know.”

Kennedy Center is bringing hip-hop center stage and Simone Eccleston is making it happen A full season at the nation’s premier performing arts venue signals the art form is adulting

Four decades after its birth in the Bronx, New York, hip-hop has moved into the era of adulting. Among the many markers of maturity, one of the most significant happens today when the nation’s premier home for the performing arts announces its first full season of hip-hop programming.

The performance season at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., was curated by A Tribe Called Quest co-founder Q-Tip along with the center’s first director of hip-hop programming, Simone Eccleston.

And while this moment says something important about the evolution of a still-young art form, it also marks a necessary evolution in the tradition-bound world of high art. After years of lower-profile partnerships with hip-hop festivals and free performances in its lobby, the Kennedy Center is moving hip-hop out of the programming D-League to join theater, opera, jazz, dance and classical music as featured art forms.

The season will open Oct. 6 with a performance featuring Q-Tip and Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, and closes in spring 2018 with a multimedia performance of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 book-length letter to his son, Between the World and Me.

Besides the big-name acts to open and close the season, the schedule is light on live performances, relying heavily on curated dance parties. The center is also re-upping its longstanding partnerships with hip-hop advocacy organizations Hi-ARTS and the D.C.-based Words Beats & Life. The programming, which isn’t limited to music, includes a staging of Chinaka Hodge’s Chasing Mehserle, a performance piece about Oakland, California, and gentrification.

The Kennedy Center will host a 35th anniversary screening of Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, a documentary about the early days of hip-hop, followed by a panel discussion including Fab 5 Freddy, Grandmaster Caz and Busy Bee.

The commitment of full-time staff and space to hip-hop sets the Kennedy Center apart from other marquee arts institutions such as Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center while expanding the definition of American culture. Like jazz and the blues — and even the iPod one might play them on — hip-hop is a uniquely American invention, a beacon of coolness that shines brightly around the globe.

“As the nation’s cultural center, that’s a heavy-duty title that we hold,” said Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter. “It’s important that we have all of the nation represented here. And candidly, we still have a long ways to go. … Hip-hop is a 40-plus-year-old art form. It ain’t going away. It isn’t a fad. This is an art form that continues to develop and grow and have impact, and it is broadly seen throughout several generations as the voice of their generation, and how could we not have it fully here at the center? The sophistication of the work that’s being done has to be brought here.”

The hiring of Eccleston, 37, and the announcement of the new season are only the latest in a series of events that suggest hip-hop is thriving even as it starts to get gray around the temples. That maturation isn’t just an accounting of raw years of existence, but also the emotional growth in the genre’s most high-profile acts. Certainly, earlier hip-hop featured adult, introspective voices such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Little Brother, Consequence and Talib Kweli. But witness the confessional nature of Jay-Z’s 4:44 or Dr. Dre confronting his past sins as a woman beater in the HBO documentary The Defiant Ones.

Simone Eccelston

André Chung for The Undefeated

Hip-hop is now old enough to inspire nostalgia and reflection. In the past few years, there have been the retrospective gazes of The Get Down and The Breaks, and Jigga’s induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame — heralded by consummate Jay-Z fan President Barack Obama. And don’t forget about Snoop Dogg pooh-poohing misogyny, releasing an album one critic called “the audio version of linen pants and fish fries,” and co-hosting an Emmy-nominated reality show with an ex-con 30 years his senior, Martha Stewart. Even Atlanta trap god Gucci Mane seems like a new man after exiting federal prison last year. Rather than touting his time as a signifier of masculinity, Gucci was candid about just how unpleasant the experience was.

It was only roughly 20 years ago that Eccleston was hopping on the D train from the Kingsbridge stop of her childhood home in the Bronx to go to her first rap concert at Madison Square Garden. Now, her task of making hip-hop a fixture at the Kennedy Center seems obvious, if not overdue.

Wait. Wasn’t this already a thing?

When the Kennedy Center announced in 2016 that it had netted Q-Tip as its artistic director of hip-hop culture, the move was part of a trajectory that had been in the works for years. Moran had been lobbying Rutter for more hip-hop programming. So had former White House social secretary Deesha Dyer, who had covered the scene in Philadelphia as a freelance journalist.

“[Dyer] and Jason really pushed me over the edge to say, ‘OK, we should do this more than just one-offs and really make it something,’ ” said Rutter, whose background is in classical music. “We have programs for young artists rising, and then we were doing these big names … but how do we really have that bigger impact? We were going to need somebody to curate it all. And that’s where having an artist and then an administrator [came in], because you can’t really have an artist who’s not supported by an administrator.”

Q-Tip offers name recognition and communicates something about the center’s intentions tastewise. Eccleston, on the other hand, is an experienced arts administrator well versed in the nitty-gritty duties needed to realize an artist’s vision. Before traveling south to Washington, she spent more than 11 years at Harlem Stage, finishing as its program director.

Previously known as Aaron Davis Hall, Harlem Stage is known for promoting artists of color. Eccleston was a natural fit for its hip-hop ambitions: a product of the borough whose Latino and black musical influences melded to birth the genre in the first place, she completed graduate studies in arts administration at Drexel University and studied curatorial practice in performance at Wesleyan University. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Eccleston’s first job was at Artistas y Músicos Latino Americanos, a nonprofit in North Philadelphia.

Rutter and Harlem Stage executive director Patricia Cruz say Eccleston possesses a valuable skill set: She’s got a good ear for finding new talent, she’s passionate about nurturing relationships with artists, and she’s got a knack for developing community outreach and education programs.

While at Harlem Stage, Eccleston took responsibility for an initiative to connect New York City students with playwrights, choreographers, musicians and dancers from around the world. Also, Cruz said, “She developed programs that were scholarly, that really communicated to an audience what this artist’s intent was, what their philosophical approach to what they were doing was, so that audiences could understand this was not just performative.

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

“We’re not just putting people on the stage and saying, ‘Here. Enjoy them.’ It’s not entertainment, in that regard. It’s about the ideas the artist is representing. … For us, if art is to have a meaning for people in their lives, I think it is critical to have a context and talk about the history.”

Q-Tip may be the initial draw, but if you want to see your favorite act on stage at the Kennedy Center (cough OutKast cough), Eccleston’s the person you want to lobby.

Let’s talk about sex music!

Perhaps surprisingly given her age, Eccleston is not an evangelist for ’90s hip-hop. Sure, she grew up loving De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Kwamé, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte and Lauryn Hill. She watched WNYC-TV’s Video Music Box and remembers dancing in the street when someone would start playing their radio in Kingsbridge.

But she’s not stuck in the decade.

“We’re always like, ‘It’s the golden age, it’s the golden age,’ ” Eccleston said. “I think that that doesn’t allow for the music and the artists to evolve. I think it’s about creating space for the next generation of artists. Who knew Kendrick [Lamar] was coming? When you think about the fact that [’90s artists] created space for alternate views of black masculinity, just the joy in music, just the intellect. It’s like being brilliant and comfortable with that. Not having to necessarily play to specific ideals of what masculinity looked like, what it meant to be black at a specific point in time.

“I think that they created space for us to be complex, diverse and really tell our stories. They were able to create these pathways within that generation of artists. I think that it’s interesting to see people that kind of take on the mantle and continue to move it forward.”

When it comes to revealing her musical tastes, Eccleston is a skilled politician. Asked to choose between Biggie or Tupac, the native New Yorker initially named Biggie. But there was an addendum: “You know what? Tupac was also very brilliant,” she said. “Just from an activist standpoint, in terms of being a woke MC.”

Eccleston has the potential to be an inspired choice as an administrator for a genre that has a complicated relationship with black women. While she straddled the East Coast/West Coast divide, for instance, she was fully comfortable sharing her thoughts about Kendrick Lamar’s lyrical endorsement of stretch marks on “Humble.”

“I was like, ‘Go ahead, Kendrick!’ ” Eccleston said, grinning.

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

“I think that there are certain images, certain artists, that are celebrated who may have had some augmentation. That is seen as beauty, or as beautiful. Then young women that may look up to the artist, or the ideals that are being portrayed in music videos, they then think that they have to alter who they are in order to be considered beautiful or attractive. We need to interrogate that, which is why it was great that Kendrick celebrated stretch marks.”

While hip-hop isn’t the only genre that features misogynistic themes and lyrics, it is the one that often gets publicly dinged for it. Eccleston, like many of her feminist friends who are also hip-hop fans, has experienced times where she felt that a particular artist or song just wasn’t for her.

“I think it’s important for us to maintain healthy critique,” Eccleston said. “I think that it’s also important for us, as we’re looking at the songs that we may want to challenge, or the artists that we may want to encourage to dig a little deeper, to look at all of the other work that’s being done that either celebrates us or provides a multidimensional portrayal of who we are.

“It’s delicate because you have to provide space for an artist to be an artist, you can’t censor them. … It’s just real complex because we all have our hopes for something that we’ve seen ourselves reflected in, something that provides us with a sense of space. I think we’ve all got to continue to complicate it and disrupt it.”

Eccleston now has the power to further that disruption. With the Kennedy Center’s resources, she can expose audiences to lesser-known female emcees such as Brooklyn, New York, rapper Jean Grae and Snow Hill, North Carolina, artist Rapsody. She wants to bring more female graffiti artists and beat girls into the fold.

“There’s a whole generation of hip-hop … culture producers that are impacting literature and theater and scholarship, and it’s getting pressed into that. I think that one of our roles as an institution is to create space for the celebration of all of those things so people understand the depth, the breadth, the complexity of the culture,” Eccleston said. “I think it’s important for people to know hip-hop culture isn’t just one thing.”

What now?

One of the most significant challenges Eccleston faces will be making the Kennedy Center feel accessible to everyone.

While it’s a national institution, it’s situated in a city that for decades was majority black and is still majority minority. Eccleston is adamant about wanting the community to feel a sense of ownership and investment in the center, rather than seeing it as a stodgy, predominantly white institution finally granting validation to a still relatively young art form.

While existing partnerships, such as those with Hi-ARTS and Words Beats & Life, the D.C. nonprofit dedicated to advancing hip-hop culture, provide a foundation, the Kennedy Center faces hurdles that predate Eccleston in attracting eventgoers who are economically as well as racially diverse. The most obvious hurdle may be geography. The Kennedy Center is situated in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom/West End, a neighborhood that’s home to George Washington University, where tuition and fees run nearly $70,000 per year. Its immediate neighbor is the Watergate complex.

Of course, black people frequent the Kennedy Center. They show up for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s yearly appearance. They line up to see Brandy play Roxie Hart in Chicago, to hear George Benson, to witness the brilliant athleticism of Misty Copeland. And it has no problem selling out concerts like the ones Nas and Lamar did with the National Symphony Orchestra.

But the center is still figuring out how to extend the same sort of welcome to audiences with fewer resources, and that’s where the inclusion of free dance parties, open to the public, appear to come into play.

Simone Eccleston

André Chung for The Undefeated

These concerns aren’t exclusive to the Kennedy Center. They bubble up every time hip-hop veers into spaces such as Broadway that are traditionally coded as white. Class and accessibility were a big part of conversations surrounding Hamilton, so much so that its practice of making tickets available to those who couldn’t necessarily afford its astronomical market rate prices has become central to the show as it’s expanded into multiple cities. That includes the upcoming production of Hamilton coming to the Kennedy Center. (Hamilton, while heavily influenced by hip-hop, is still under the Kennedy Center’s theater programming slate.)

“Part of the goal in terms of instituting hip-hop as an integral part of our institution’s work is about creating space for the community to engage in the work that we’re doing,” Eccleston said. “To see themselves and their culture reflected. Right? That’s how I got into the arts, understanding the significance of it. As many opportunities as we can create for people to know that this space is theirs and open to them. A place that they can call home. I think that that is important.”

While there’s a moral argument for expanding hip-hop into a dedicated programming season at the Kennedy Center, there’s a financial one as well, especially when you consider the graying fan base for opera and classical music. The Kennedy Center relies on funding from corporate sponsors, philanthropists and paid memberships that unlock access to ticket presales and opportunities to hobnob with talent. If additional hip-hop programming results in more memberships from rap fans with money to drop, that’s all the better for hip-hop and the Kennedy Center. So far, it appears Q-Tip and Eccleston will have to figure out how to find a balance between buzz and revenue. While names such as Fab 5 Freddy and Kurtis Blow may draw older, more financially established attendees, a healthy dose of current voices is necessary too. Yes, hip-hop is famous for its backward-facing references and samples, but it’s always charging forward to new musical territory, thriving on the spirit of reinvention.

Still, if this experiment goes well, who knows? We might one day see the same programming in the ritzy fine arts institutions of New York — you know, the birthplace of hip-hop.

With the new movie ‘Crown Heights,’ Nnamdi Asomugha relies on everything he learned from football The former superstar cornerback won Sundance with the story of a man who went to prison for a murder he didn’t commit

Nnamdi Asomugha is taking a quick break.

There’s a photographer, and the photographer’s assistant is setting up a new orangish background. Asomugha, in a gray Converse crewneck and slim-fit black pants, overhears a conversation that’s disdainful of grimy movie theaters and movie theater chains.

He jumps in, makes a funny face and shakes his head adamantly in disagreement. Asomugha loves movie theaters. Always has. When he wasn’t on a football field — the former Cal Bear and first-round draft pick spent his first eight National Football League seasons with the Oakland Raiders — he would sneak into theaters and sit there all day, soaking it up, consuming content and daring to dream of something beyond academics and athletics.

At the Manhattan photo shoot, the Pro Bowler gives a sly smile. This is a full-circle moment.

For 11 seasons, Asomugha was one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. After his years with the Raiders and stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers, he walked away from the NFL in 2013 at age 32 via a one-day contract with the Oakland Raiders so that he could officially retire in the city in which he came of age. A true shutdown corner, Asomugha retired with 15 interceptions, 80 passes defensed and two sacks.

Oakland Raiders’ Nnamdi Asomugha (21) breaks up pass intended for Dallas Cowboys’ Keyshawn Johnson (19).

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

But if you don’t know his name for those reasons, don’t worry, soon you will — and it’ll have absolutely nothing to do with football.

Asomugha is an actor. And a producer. And not because he’s indulging an ego-driven post-athletic career fantasy realized through his ability to cut a big enough check and buy his way onto a set. No. As an actor, Asomugha expertly brings to the screen the story of a man we all should know about — and as a producer, he’s brilliant at finding and financing stories that need to be told.

His Crown Heights, which opens in select New York theaters this week and has a wide release next week, is the true story of Colin Warner, a Trinidadian resident of the Brooklyn neighborhood Crown Heights who was wrongly accused and convicted of murder. Warner served 21 years for the crime, while his best friend, played by Asomugha, tirelessly worked to prove his innocence.

He also happens to be married to Kerry Washington (Scandal, Cars 3, Confirmation), and like his wife of four years — they have two children, Isabelle and Caleb — Asomugha rarely speaks publicly about their marriage or partnership, preferring instead to focus on the work. And it’s understandable, especially in his case, considering that his ambition to become an actor dates back years — before he married his wife in 2013 even, and years before she became famous. The furthest thing from Asomugha’s mind is attaching himself, and this full deep dive into a new career, to his famous and famously talented wife, who happens to be one of very few black women in Hollywood who can consistently commandeer mainstream magazine covers.

Asomugha’s focus is on this second act — and on getting people to see beyond his storied football career. Especially now that he’s doing the thing that ignites him as much as covering wide receivers used to.

“Then we went onstage to perform. And I felt the rush. I loved every bit of it. It was the moment where I said, ‘Oh, this is what gets me close’ …”

“I went to the Los Angeles Kings game,” he said, “and the national anthem started playing. Anytime the anthem comes on … I was fresh off of leaving football, and was just really taken by the moment. There was this [feeling] of, ‘I’m not going to be able to hear that and be ready to go on the field anymore.’ We watched the Kings win the championship, and then I went and called one of my former teammates, Charles Woodson, and said something like, ‘I need that feeling again, of getting ready to go out on the field. With the crowd and all of that.’ I was missing that.”

His friend had advice. “He said, ‘You have to find something that gives you a feeling close to that, because you’re never going to get that again. You’re never going to be able to go out on the field and get 70,000 people screaming when they announce your name. But look for whatever gets you closest to that point.’ ”

Asomugha said that maybe three or four months later, he was in New York doing a reading of a play at the Circle in the Square Theatre. “When you’re backstage,” he said, “and you’re coming out with the actors, you go through a tunnel before you get out there. And then you stop right before you go onto the stage. It was just a reading. But I had that moment. I was back in the tunnel. Then we went onstage to perform. And I felt the rush. I loved every bit of it. It was the moment where I said, ‘Oh, this is what gets me close. …”


Asomugha was born in 1981 in Lafayette, Louisiana, to Igbo parents. He loathes the term “Hollywood” as an adjective. He mock-scowls — hard — when he hears it being said. Asomugha was reared in Los Angeles, the entertainment industry nestled practically in his backyard. But “going Hollywood” is akin to someone saying you’re fake. Or out for self. Or perhaps more mystified by the bling than the hard work. “That’s not,” he said, “me.”

André Chung for The Undefeated

Who he is: a guy who came up in a Nigerian family that celebrated academic excellence and embraced the high arts. The creative space has always had a strong hold on him. It came to him naturally, more so, even, than his athletic prowess. “I come from a performing family,” he said. “My parents are Nigerian, and their parents and their parents — and it’s all about performance in their culture, you know. The music. The dancing … you’re told to stand out at family gatherings and perform in some sort of way. You’re just kind of born into it,” he said. “Me and my siblings … were forced to get up in the church and do some sort of play for the rest of the church. We’re like 7, 8 years old. It’s just what you had to do. It was always sort of in my blood.”

But the performing arts had to be a quiet passion. Especially once he got older. Football was king. So was basketball. And he played both at Narbonne High School in Harbor City, California.

“We took piano lessons. And I remember going to football practice — me and my brother. We were late to practice one time, and … I remember the coach standing us up in front of the whole team and just saying, ‘Nnamdi’s late, guys, and I wanted to tell you, he had a piano lesson.’ Everyone’s laughing, and I’m just sitting there like …” He shakes his head at the memory. “That stuff wasn’t cool at all.”

“Football taught me so much just about life,” he said. “The confidence of me being onstage or performing in some sort way … that was nurtured … and blossomed because of football.”

He shifted. Went full throttle into football, leaving the creative arts, and his equally passionate desire to excel in them, behind. It wasn’t until years later in college — he attended and played for the University of California, Berkeley — that he was reminded it was possible to live in and do well in both worlds.

“It was my junior year at Cal. A [teammate] of mine came up to us after practice like, ‘Hey, guys, I’m doing a performance down at Wheeler [Hall].’ I don’t even know what the play was. Like Porgy and Bess or something. Immediately I started making fun of him. You make fun of someone when they start talking about this, especially in the football world. I got all the guys to make fun. Like, ‘This guy, he’s doing a play!’ We went there to clown him,” Asomugha said. “[But] I’ll never forget he was brilliant onstage. I will never forget it … because it was one of the moments where I was like, ‘Oh, no, this is cool. This is OK, even though we play football.’ He opened my mind up.”

Cal Berkeley rid Asomugha of his own boundaries. It was transformative. He loved football, and knew he’d make a career out of it, but he also knew that when football was over, he’d transition into something more creative. And it was football, ironically — even with that early atmosphere of being anti anything that didn’t scream hypermasculinity — that gave Asomugha the confidence to pursue the creative arts. He’s appeared in the Friday Night Lights television series, as well as on The Game and Leverage; he collected his first credit in 2008.

“Football taught me so much just about life,” he said. “The confidence of me being onstage or performing in some sort way … that was nurtured … and blossomed because of football. Just being able to do things that you didn’t think you can do, that you can’t turn around. You have to do it and doing it in front of thousands, and then millions, that are watching. You’re onstage. It’s not that I don’t have the fear, it’s just that I know how to handle the fear, you know? I can have the fear and still think.”


For the new Crown Heights, Asomugha didn’t make it easy on himself.

He helps tell the real story of Colin Warner. In 1980, Warner was wrongly convicted of murder. In the film, which is based on a This American Life episode, Asomugha portrays Warner’s best friend Carl King, the man who devoted his life to proving his friend’s innocence, and to getting him out of prison. Lakeith Stanfield portrays Warner, and the film is an important moment for both actors. Stanfield pulls off an emotionally complex role, and Asomugha displays impressive dramatic chops.

Nnamdi Asomugha as Carl King in the new film “Crown Heights.”

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“One of the interesting things about Nnamdi is how calm and assertive he is,” said executive producer Jonathan Baker, who founded I Am 21 with Asomugha. “He’s an extraordinarily even-keeled individual. His experience with sports created a sense of get-up-and-do-it-again. The discipline. People respond to him as a natural leader, and it’s evident in everything that we do.”

Asomugha even nails a very distinct Trinidadian accent. “He took it seriously,” Carl King himself said of Asomugha’s portrayal. “He’d call me and ask me questions. ‘Am I bothering you?’ It seemed like he just wanted to do the best job he could have done. And he told me he wanted to do the story justice. It’s a deep story. It’s not one of the stories that you can make up. This is a story about an injustice that was done to this kid in 1980. He had to endure 21 years of the very worst. And portraying me? I’m very pleased.”

The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year and was a critical darling and a fan favorite, nabbing the Audience Award. And Asomugha was ready for the moment, good and bad, both as a producer and a co-star of the film.

“This is cool. This is OK, even though we play football. It’s OK to live in both worlds.”

“I’ve played for the Raiders and the Eagles,” Asomugha said before laughing, “Those fans will prepare you for any event that you have to go through in life! I’m able to explore and just take risks, and just really go after something that I’m passionate about. I can take whatever’s going to be thrown at me.”

That preparedness was crucial.

“I didn’t bat an eye. Football taught me was how important the preparation is before the actual moment. And then when you get into the moment, being able to throw away the preparation and just hope that it’s in you somewhere, that it stayed in you. And that’s what I think with this,” he said. “The project came [along, and it] didn’t feel daunting. I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe this!’ I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve trained for this. I’m excited. I can’t wait to go into a character [and] put something on film! And then it got such a great reception at Sundance, so I was happy.”


There’s more coming from Asomugha. He’s hell-bent on bringing more stories like Crown Heights, which will be co-distributed by Amazon Studios and IFC, to life. Asomugha’s company, I Am 21, is prepping to shoot the highly anticipated Harriet Tubman biopic. It’ll be an important film: Tony winner Cynthia Erivo is starring, and it tells the story of the former slave-turned-abolitionist who worked tirelessly as an Underground Railroad conductor, nurse and spy.

The plan is to start shooting sometime this fall, and Asomugha said the film falls right in line with the mission of I Am 21.

“There’s an element of true story, an element of stories that connect to social issues that effect some sort of change in the world,” he said. “There’s also fun stories that aren’t true, but just have amazing characters at the center. Whether it’s a woman or it’s a person of color, whether it’s a person [who is] just ‘other’ … telling the underdog stories, and how they’ve risen out of that.”

And as for the future of his own acting career? He’s been ready. “I’m the type of person that always has a goal of greatness,” he said. “My mindset is, I can take all the chances in the world. I don’t put stress on myself. What I do is enjoy preparation. It’s just who I am.

André Chung for The Undefeated

“There was a long stretch where practice was much harder than games for me. I felt a level of dominance and being in the zone, for years. Game after game, after game — practice was always harder. So, if there’s any level of stress in this, it’s not being onstage, it’s not the moment that the camera turns on. It’s the preparation that comes before that.”

In ‘The Defiant Ones,’ the HBO doc on Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, finds journalist Dee Barnes’ voice Director Allen Hughes kept the revealing interview under wraps for years

Allen Hughes is, perhaps, one of Hollywood’s best secret-keepers.

For years, he’s been quietly working on a documentary about the creative partnership of legendary music producer and label executive Jimmy Iovine and music producer and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Dr. Dre. At its best, the doc illustrates how two kids — one white Italian kid from Brooklyn, New York, one black kid from Compton, California — rose, joined forces and ultimately inked a multibilliondollar deal with Apple. The work to get there was tremendous. But it’s the little intricacies that sell it.

Hughes — who co-directed with his twin brother, Albert, classics such as Menace II Society, Dead Presidents and The Book of Eli — kept it unusually quiet, away from in-the-know Hollywood trade publications and even from the very people he targeted for revealing sit-down interviews.

Keeping a lid on the production was especially challenging in 2015, when Straight Outta Compton, a hugely successful and well-reviewed feature about the origin story of N.W.A., came under fire because of the film’s omission of Denise “Dee” Barnes. Barnes, a hip-hop journalist, was physically assaulted by Dr. Dre in 1991. At the time of the assault, she was the host of Fox’s popular hip-hop show Pump It Up! The heinous and infamous incident was all over the much-watched MTV News and was in the Los Angeles Times. Dr. Dre eventually pleaded no contest and was sentenced to probation; Barnes settled out of court with him for an undisclosed amount. Dr. Dre issued a statement at the height of the film’s success.

“Dre, Jimmy and I are going into this,” Hughes said via phone from Los Angeles, “we all had to agree what we were going to touch on. And Dre was, that was the first thing he brought up. And this is before Straight Outta Compton got greenlit.”

In Hughes’ documentary, Dee Barnes is a voice of authority and puts the rise of N.W.A. and the departure of Ice Cube into proper context.

The thing is, Dr. Dre had revisited the incident in great detail with Barnes for the four-part documentary, scheduled to debut Sunday. With Allen Hughes leading the discussion, Barnes (who is working on a memoir) and Dr. Dre talked about the moments that led up to the assault, the incident and its aftermath. The statement that Dr. Dre released — “I apologize to the women I’ve hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives …” — is a moment in the documentary.

Allen Hughes and Dr. Dre.

G L Askew II/courtesy of HBO

“I’m not just going to call it an apology,” said Hughes. “I think it’s more of an atonement than an apology. And then cut to a year later, we were editing the film, we have it, and then this thing breaks out … the Straight Outta Compton controversy.” That section in The Defiant Ones, which premieres its first of four parts at 9 p.m. EST Sunday on HBO, is an important one. Very unlike the Straight Outta Compton feature film, this documentary is a 360-degree look at specifically Dr. Dre and Iovine’s twin rise and features organic-feeling sit-downs with the likes of Bono, Gwen Stefani, Sean (Diddy) Combs, Eminem, Will.i.am, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, MC Ren and more.

Hughes said he filmed Dre and Barnes talking about the physical assault well in advance of the blowback from the feature film. But for many reasons, he kept his work under wraps. He wanted to protect the integrity of his documentary. He also knew that if folks were aware he was working on a documentary about two of the most influential men in popular culture, the price of all of the rich archival music and film footage would go way up. And, more importantly, Hughes didn’t want his interview subjects to get contaminated by gossip about what someone else might be saying. The Dee Barnes situation kept him up at night.

“That caused a depression,” he said. “These are real people. These are human beings. I was raised by a feminist, activist woman. I was more into, as a child, women’s issues than black issues. So this hit home for me.”

“I’m not just going to call it an apology. I think it’s more of an atonement.” — Allen Hughes

Barnes’ voice is an important one to hear in the documentary — more so, even, than the apology Dr. Dre offers her. In Hughes’ documentary, Barnes is a voice of authority and puts the rise of N.W.A. and the departure of Ice Cube into proper context. She also talks about what happened after she filed a civil suit against Dr. Dre for assaulting her: She all but lost her career.

Her story felt oddly familiar to Hughes’ own story. He was assaulted by Tupac Shakur’s crew while filming his classic 1993 debut, Menace II Society.

“I had an intense, great relationship with Tupac,” said Hughes, “and then there was this moment of violence that happened that was really bad. Him against me at one point, with a bunch of people. … It lasted about five minutes. Everyone knows our relationship based off of that one moment.” He said he relates to Barnes because she is not a victim. “She’s an activist. Quite the activist,” he said. “I didn’t know whether she would agree to the interview or not. She goes back to the World Class Wreckin’ Cru days. She was like their little sister.” Hers was a story that people needed to hear.

Dr. Dre

G L Askew II/courtesy of HBO

“She [was] her own artist. A voice in the culture. She was there, and it was great. It was fun, it was glorious, until that moment. And, you know, everyone’s got to do what they’ve got to do to move past that moment or whatever, but … she really inspired me. She taught me. She had moved so far past that s—, and she wasn’t in that place anymore. She just hadn’t been heard.”


There are so many nuggets in this documentary, such as the Iovine-hosted weekly football games. Former Death Row executive Suge Knight and former first son John F. Kennedy Jr. play with and against one another. “Every single thing [I’ve] ever made,” said Hughes, “the protagonist either died or went to jail at the end of the movie. This is the first one where it’s a happy ending.”

Hughes wants people to be inspired. “These are human beings,” he said. “They f—ed up, they f— up just like all of us. They go through the same s— we all go through, and they’re … opening up and revealing how they did it. They said, ‘Here’s how we did it. Here’s what happened.’ You don’t have to be a hyperintellectual or sophisticated to understand it. Here’s how I got past that tragedy. All of it. I think people [will] walk away and go, ‘OK. I’m going to go get my hustle on.’ And have some fun.”

Why Ice Cube should be a future Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee The film mogul is one of rap’s all-time great wordsmiths — and cultural forecasters

This week, Berry Gordy, Jay Z, and James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. They will join immortals such as Little Richard, Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford, Dolly Parton, Nile Rodgers, Jerry Garcia, Marvin Gaye, Cyndi Lauper and more. This week The Undefeated celebrates future Songwriting Hall of Famers — the ones who make the whole world sing and bop, and even milly rock.


For 400 years — I got 400 tears, for 400 peers/ Died last year from gang-related crimes/ That’s why I got gang-related rhymes

— Ice Cube, from 1991’s “Us

Ice Cube pulls up on a group of friends. It’s the summer of 1989 in Los Angeles. All young black men, all from the South Central area, his friends are slanging crack. Cube, by then, is already famous, the most vicious wordsmith of America’s worst nightmare: the rap supergroup N.W.A. He rolls the window down on his Jeep.

“Yo, y’all don’t need to be out here,” he said. “All you’re gonna do is get arrested.”

His boys looked at him, puzzled. In 1980s South Central Los Angeles, the streets were a war zone. Born O’Shea Jackson in 1969, four years after the Watts riots and during the rise of the black liberation movement, Cube’s life was a courtside seat to gang and police violence. He saw black boys’ and girls’ lives cut short by violence that turned neighborhoods into prisons, and to graveyards.

Does a résumé as decorated and diverse as Cube’s obscure who he is as a songwriter?

As in many major U.S. metropolitan areas, crack was the crème de la crème narcotic. For users, crack was an escape. “It is also a drug of desperation, linked to the urban poor’s struggle to be part of the greater society,” said Joyce Hartwell, founder and director of New York’s Recovery Hotline and Addiction Anonymous Education Project. Fast money, cheap product, economically deprived ‘hoods: an elixir for violence.

Ice Cube in 1992

Waring Abbott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In Los Angeles alone, the murder rate had risen every year since 1985. In 1988, the year N.W.A. released Straight Outta Compton, there were 452 gang homicides — 29.7 percent of all area murders. In 1989, 554 gang homicides accounted for 32.7 percent of all homicides. The numbers would only increase, rising to 803 gang murders (39.4 percent of all) by the time the Los Angeles riots popped off, for a long list of reasons, in the spring of 1992.

So it makes sense that Cube’s friends were dumbfounded. The songs he wrote, for example, for Eazy-E’s 1988 Eazy Duz It, weren’t soundtracks of their lives. Nor were the songs quite entertainment. Cube’s lyrics, motion picture moments on records like Straight Outta’s “8 Ball (Remix),” were their lives. Cube’s friends were trapped in a hell of crack, guns, gangs, liquor stores and funeral homes. “Everybody can’t rap,” one of his friends said. “You’re living good, so you can say s— like that. If you wasn’t making money, you’d be right out here with us.”

Cube recognized quickly his platform, and the responsibility that came with being one of the most recognizable rappers in the country. For Cube, his art was chemotherapy for a cancer the country had long ignored in neighborhoods portrayed as ground zero on nightly news broadcasts. He thanked his friend and bought him a beer.

“[I said] thanks for setting me straight. Peace,” Cube told Spin in 1989. “No, I didn’t say ‘peace,’ cause peace is a fictional word. Peace is a dream.”


Thirty years after the Straight Outta Compton album, Ice Cube is a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer. He’s sold over 15 million albums through his solo work and compilations and as a leader of N.W.A. and Westside Connection. Cube has long since established himself as a force in Hollywood as a producer, screenwriter and actor, starting with 1991’s timeless ode to life in South Central, Boyz N The Hood. From there, cult classics such as 1998’s The Players Club, acclaimed smashes such as 1999’s Three Kings, as well as his Friday, Barbershop and Ride Along series strengthen his portfolio as he heads into thriller territory. Come later this month, he’ll have successfully placed Allen Iverson back on a basketball court with the creation of his BIG3 basketball league. And just last weekend, Cube gave Bill Maher a lesson in the use of the N-word. But is one of rap’s finest lyrical storytellers the victim of society’s selective amnesia? Does a résumé as decorated and diverse as Cube’s obscure who he is as a songwriter?

“It’s Ice Cube’s lyrics that forced people to take the West Coast seriously.” — Todd Boyd

“Ice Cube is the first guy outside of New York to get recognition and visibility for his lyricism,” said Todd Boyd, professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He’s the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture. “It’s Ice Cube’s lyrics that forced people to take the West Coast seriously.”

Cube’s relentless output during the late ’80s and early ’90s writes its own chapter of American history. He’s one of gangsta rap’s main creators, along with Ice T, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. His music shed light on the despair, anger, yet resiliency of life in the ’hood. Cube’s 360-degree view of the black experience in America was a persuasive counterpoint to politicians and critics who painted black individuals and groups with broad strokes.

It was Cube’s call of duty to tell South Central Los Angeles’ story — which, in turn, spoke for the millions nationwide dealing with similar situations. By doing so, he warned America of a simmering resentment. His graphic street scriptures, however bold and outright disrespectful of women, law enforcement and whatever else, function as the Old Testament for what exploded on television screens across the world in the wake of the Rodney King verdict.

The first three songs on the album Straight Outta Compton, which sold 3.5 million copies (and led eventually to the acclaimed and successful 2015 biopic of the same title), became part of a 1988 hip-hop trifecta, along with Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back and the launch of Yo! MTV Raps, which changed the culture, and music as whole. Straight Outta Compton represented art by fire. And Cube was its lead arsonist.

“Straight Outta Compton”: Straight outta Compton, crazy m—–f—– named Ice Cube/ From the gang called N—–s With Attitude/ When I’m called off, I got a sawed-off/ Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off/ You, too, boy, if you f— with me/ The police are gonna have to come and get me/ Off you a–, that’s how I’m going out

“F— Tha Police”: F— the police, coming straight from the underground/ A young n—- got it bad ’cause I’m brown/ And not the other color so police think/ They have the authority to kill a minority/ F— that s— cause I ain’t the one/ For a punk m—–f—– with a badge and a gun/ To be beaten on, and thrown in jail/ We can go toe-to-toe in the middle of a cell

“Gangsta, Gangsta”: Here’s a little something about a n—- like me/ Never should’ve been let out the penitentiary/ Ice Cube, would like to say/ That I’m a crazy m—–f—– from around the way/ Since I was youth, I smoked weed out/ Now I’m the m—-f—— that you read about/ Takin’ a life or two, that’s what the hell I do/ You don’t like how I’m living?/ Well, f— you!

“Not all of what we say on records describe us,” MC Ren said in 1989. “We also describe the exploits of people around us. So this is telling it again, like it is and how people really behave.” As N.W.A.’s acclaim and infamy spread, so did its influence. Fishbone’s 1991 The Reality of My Surroundings, the Geto Boys’ 1990 “City Under Siege” and Public Enemy’s 1990 “Fight The Power” further enunciated a desperation. For Cube, it wasn’t about taking — or making — rap music literally, lyric for lyric. It was a reclamation of identity.

“[Black people] lost 400 years of teaching, of schooling of any kind of knowledge of our culture,” Cube said in a 1991 interview. “Right now, we’re in the process of getting that back through rap music.” Cube’s music was the crystal ball. On 1990’s “The N—- Ya Love To Hate,” Cube advises: The day is coming that you all hate / Just think if n—-s decide to retaliate … then Kicking s— called street knowledge / Why more n—-s in the pen than in college.

But it’s his second solo album, 1991’s Death Certificate, where final warnings were spelled out. This was Cube masterfully executing a concept album in the early ’90s, a new task for the still-infant genre, yet Death is comparable to Marvin Gaye’s 1971 What’s Going On, or Stevie Wonder’s 1973 Innervisions. Aside from Cube’s spectacular songwriting was his attention to sequencing detail. While the first half of the project revolves around life in the ghetto (“The Wrong N—- To F— Wit,” “My Summer Vacation” and “A Bird In The Hand”), the second half is Cube offering cultural and societal critiques (“Us,” “True To The Game” and “Color Blind”).

Certificate’s complex commentary provided validation that Cube was far more — if more was required — than a “gangsta rapper.” And importantly, gangsta rap itself was far more than violent imagery. “Cube was of that moment,” Dr. Boyd says. Racial and political tensions were high in the early ’90s. “And if you were tapped into that moment, you understood something was about to pop off. You didn’t know what it was. You didn’t know what form it was going to take. But you felt it. Cube personified that.”

His music shed light on the despair, anger, yet resiliency of life in the ’hood.

On Death’s “I Wanna Kill Sam,” Cube skillfully lacerates the federal government: Tied me up, took me outside/ And I was thrown in a big truck/ And it was packed like sardines/ Full of n—-s who fell for the same scheme/ Took us to a place and made us work/ All day and we couldn’t have s— to say/ Broke up the families forever/ And to this day black folks can’t stick together/ And it’s odd/ Broke us down, made us pray — to his God.”

Cube’s cutthroat examination of the medical discrimination black people receive in South Central also goes under the microscope “Alive on Arrival:” Woke up in the back of a trey / On my way to MLK/ That’s the county hospital, jack, ha/ Where n—-s die over a little scratch/ Sittin’ in the trauma center/ In my back is where the bullet entered/ “Yo, nurse, I’m gettin’ kinda warm!”/ B—–s still made me fill out the f—— form.

For “Black Korea,” Cube experienced backlash for his attack on Korean-Americans: So pay respect to the black fist/ Or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp/ And then we’ll see ya/ Cause you can’t turn the ghetto into black Korea. “Korea” was largely viewed as a lyrical retaliation for the March 1991 killing of Latasha Harlins by a Korean-American store owner — a death that, along with the Rodney King verdict, is canonized as the two biggest sparks for the riots. Cube apologized for the song in February 1992, saying the record was not an indictment of all Korean-Americans but a rebuke of a select few stores “where my friends and I have had actual problems.”

Two months after the apology, the four Los Angeles Police Department officers who assaulted Rodney King were acquitted. To Ice Cube and residents of South Central, the verdict wasn’t surprising. This was no isolated incident. And soon, the Los Angeles skyline was painted with smoke rising from the flames that enveloped Los Angeles streets. The deplorable conditions that Cube had lamented for years, attempted to explain in interviews and broadcast to an entire country had finally come to fruition.

“That’s the only way you can get white people to hear what black people have to say. If you tear s— up,” Cube said of the riots. “This country uses violence for its justice. But then the country gets mad when we use violence for our justice.”

Ice Cube didn’t necessarily predict the L.A. riots as much as he diagnosed urban illnesses. Communities were ravaged by drugs. Resources provided to other parts of the vast city were omitted from South Central. Desperation led to violence. Although rap music had its faults, and didn’t please a lot of people, Cube’s music wasn’t created with the intention of making people feel good.

It was created with the intention of the listener feeling the pain and hopelessness of so many of the people Cube grew up around. He peeled back American hypocrisies and, in his own way, changed the course of American pop history. Cube did it for his people. He did it for those same friends he pulled up on in his Jeep, some of whom may not even be alive anymore.

“When it comes to records,” he recently told Apple’s Beats 1 radio station, “I just think you gotta be a voice for the voiceless.”

13 documentaries to dive into this summer — on Netflix, PBS, or at the cinema A Baltimore step team. Dr. Dre. A woman wrestler. Freedom of the press. This summer’s docs aim to entertain — and educate.

If you’re looking for deep dives into real-life information to go alongside the usual summer offerings of massive explosions and budget-busting superhero fights, we’ve got just the thing. There’s Stanley Nelson’s latest project focusing on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Step, the film about a group of girls on a Baltimore step team that netted raves at Sundance. Debuting in theaters Aug. 11 is Whose Streets?, the film from artist-activists Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis about the killing of Ferguson, Missouri, teen Michael Brown and the aftermath of his death. If the date sounds familiar, it’s because the film is opening on the anniversary of Brown’s death.

There’s a wide range of subjects to peek at this summer, both unfamiliar and not, with edifying works that will leave you a little bit more knowledgeable about the world than you were when you walked into the auditorium to see them.


Unacknowledged | May 9

Director: Michael Mazzola

Remember the warm, fuzzy feeling of hope and intrigue that you felt after walking out of Arrival? Well, Unacknowledged is a film about aliens too, although it will likely leave you feeling uneasy, paranoid and maybe more than a little willing to don a tricornered hat made of Reynolds wrap. Unacknowledged bears a tenor not unlike Alex Gibney’s explosive 2016 documentary Zero Days — they both set about to reveal things the U.S. government purportedly doesn’t want you to know, and in the case of Unacknowledged, it’s the government’s apparently vast secret apparatus directed at all things extraterrestrial. Assuming you believe in that sort of thing, Unacknowledged boasts footage of UFOs and, in an effort to distance itself from the inventions of supermarket tabloids, interviews with government officials. At the center of the film is Steven Greer, founder of the Disclosure Movement, which agitates to get the government to release whatever information it has about aliens and their contact with humans. This movie is now available to stream on Google Play, iTunes and Amazon Video.

Dumb: The Story of Big Brother Magazine | June 3

Director: Patrick O’Dell

In every generation, there’s a group of maniacs who insist upon rule-breaking, not in the name of some sort of principled stand for freedom but simply because they’re a bunch of roustabout, devil-may-care libertines. And that’s basically the characterization of the skateboard fanatics behind Big Brother magazine. The ideological predecessor and inspiration for Jackass, Big Brother was a chronicle of all tricks great and stupid, instructing its readers in the art of hell-raising, interspersed with the usual NSFW sex stuff about Big Brother-certified hotties. In short, it was sought-after contraband for teenage boys before YouTube, or The Man Show, or Tosh.0. The movie will be available to stream on Hulu.

The Defiant Ones | July 9

Director: Allen Hughes

Hughes (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents) followed Dr. Dre and Interscope records co-founder Jimmy Iovine for three years, resulting in a four-part HBO documentary that shares a name with the 1958 film starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. Iovine was instrumental in the astronomical success of Beats by Dre headphones, and the two men’s professional partnership is one that’s netted many millions for both. Hughes’ look at their empire includes interviews with Dre’s protege Eminem, plus Nas, Ice Cube, Gwen Stefani, Tom Petty, Trent Reznor, Snoop Dogg, Iovine’s business partner David Geffen, and Bono. Promos for the documentary series have promised never-before-seen footage of recording sessions with N.W.A, J.J. Fad and Eazy-E.

City of Ghosts | July 14

Director: Matthew Heineman

One of the challenges of America-centered rhetoric about Syria and the Islamic State group: It’s generally framed as a discussion of how what’s going on there affects the interests of the United States. But City of Ghosts, the latest film from Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman, is a searing look at the people who are most directly victimized and terrorized by ISIS: other Muslims, particularly those who refuse to pledge allegiance to the group’s extremist ideology. Heineman’s film follows those who are risking their own lives to document and stop ISIS’s campaign of terror, and who risk the lives of their families to do so.

Step | Aug. 4

Director: Amanda Lipitz

If you liked The Fits, chances are you’ll enjoy Step, Amanda Lipitz’s look at a real-life step team providing hope, confidence and motivation to a group of impoverished Baltimore teen girls, which netted admirable buzz and even better reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. With a cast of compelling subjects, Step reels you in as the seniors on Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women strive to become the first individuals in their families to attend college.

Whose Streets? | Aug. 11

Directors: Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis

Even the release date of Whose Streets? — which coincides with the anniversary of the death of Mike Brown, the teen slain in 2014 by former Ferguson, Missouri, Police Officer Darren Wilson — makes a statement. Whose Streets is a story about not just Brown’s killing but also the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the violent reaction to news that Wilson would not be indicted for killing Brown. The story is told from the viewpoint of those who were on the ground in Ferguson — Folayan identifies herself as an activist — and serves as a counterweight to national media struggling to fairly and accurately cover the result of decades of injustice that came to define black life in Ferguson. After Whose Streets? premiered at Sundance this year, film critic Nick Allen declared it the documentary he’ll recommend when people ask about the Black Lives Matter movement in 50 years.

Wrestling With Chyna | release TBA

Director: Erik Angra

Even if you weren’t a consummate wrestling fan, it was nearly impossible during the late ’90s not to have encountered Joanie Laurer — although you likely knew her as Chyna, the muscular, 5-foot-10 star of the WWF, and wrestling’s “Ninth Wonder of the World.” Angra takes a look at the tumultuous life and career of Laurer, from her struggles to reconcile her career and physique with pressure to look and appear traditionally feminine, to the struggles with drugs that led to her 2016 death at age 46. Angra captures Laurer as a smart, self-aware, tortured figure, including footage of an interview with Laurer days before her death. Wrestling With Chyna is a sober look at one of pro wrestling’s most magnetic performers just as hype begins to surge for Glow, Netflix’s forthcoming dramedy series about female wrestlers.

Served Like A Girl | release TBA

Director: Lysa Heslov

In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about the specific challenges many female soldiers face, whether it’s a military structure not exactly conducive to identifying and punishing perpetrators of sexual assault or the debate over women serving in combat roles. But less attention is given to female veterans returning from war. In her debut feature, which premiered this year at SXSW, Heslov follows the lives of five female vets as they compete for the title of Ms. Veteran America. Yes, it’s a pageant, but it’s also more than Miss Congeniality with combat fatigues: The pageant serves as a fundraising event for homeless female vets.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities | release TBA

Directors: Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams

For so long, education has held a particular significance in the black American community: valued as an engine of freedom, social uplift and economic advancement. While recent studies show education is not a salve for the racial wealth gap, Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams take an in-depth look at the importance of HBCUs, historically and culturally, beginning with the rise of such schools during Reconstruction. Nelson is perhaps best known as the director responsible for Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and here, with Williams, he delivers another chapter of black history on film, in the exact moment that chronically underfunded and undervalued HBCUs are facing new threats and uncertainty about their futures.

500 Years | release TBA

Director: Pamela Yates

Bursting with color and inspiration, 500 Years examines the aftermath of the conviction of former Guatemalan President José Efraín Ríos Montt, who stood trial in 2013 for genocide and crimes against humanity. The title draws its name from the five centuries of violent apartheid to which the indigenous Mayans of Guatemala have been subjected, a subject Yates examined in the 1983 film When Mountains Tremble and again in 2011 with Granito: How to Nail a Dictator. Now, the Mayans face new challenges as they assert their voice politically — namely, destruction of their homeland from multinational corporations seeking to mine the land and control their water with hydroelectric dams. Yates, a familiar and regular presence at Sundance, is an accomplished director when it comes to telling the stories of people living under repressive and unjust regimes. Besides her epic trilogy following Guatemala, she’s explored the subject in The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court, and in 2015 told the story of political documentary filmmaker Haskell Wexler.

Give Me Future | release TBA

Director: Austin Peters

Granted, a whole concert documentary about the electronic dance music group Major Lazer sounds, well, eye-roll-worthy, but Peters manages to sneak in more than a little bit of a look at Cuban youth culture and politics. Turns out Major Lazer was the biggest American name allowed to perform in Cuba in 2015, not long after President Barack Obama began normalizing relations with the country. Besides following Diplo, Jillionaire and Walshy Fire behind the scenes, Give Me Future offers a glimpse into what it’s like to live in a place that for so long has been largely immune to America’s most potent export of all: its pop culture.

40 Years of Rocky: The Birth of a Classic | release TBA

Director: Derek Wayne Johnson

Forty years after the release of the film that came to define Sylvester Stallone’s career, director Derek Wayne Johnson (Broken Blood, John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs) captures the actor and Rocky director John G. Avildsen discussing work on the most recognizable boxing movie of all time. Johnson brings a passion to the story of Rocky and Stallone that practically makes him the Ken Burns of the subject. Besides 40 Years, Johnson is also responsible for a biographical documentary about Avildsen and another yet-to-be completed project about singer-songwriter Frank Stallone, Sylvester’s younger brother.

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press | June 23

Director: Brian Knappenberger

The result of Hulk Hogan’s 2013 lawsuit against Gawker Media was a chilling one for journalists. Financially backed by venture capitalist and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, Hogan sued the Nick-Denton-founded media company for invasion of privacy. With a $140 million judgment hanging over the company’s head, Gawker was forced to declare bankruptcy, sell itself to Univision and settle with Hogan for $31 million. Knappenberger’s (We Are Legion, The Internet’s Own Boy) film, which will air on Netflix, seeks to put the lawsuit and its fallout in a broader context: Thiel’s involvement in the case set a dangerous precedent. Don’t like what a news organization says about you? Find someone rich enough to help you sue them out of existence.

The long-lost ‘T-Wayne’ is finally here The T-Pain and Lil Wayne collaboration dates back to 2009

All it took was eight years and a #TBT for T-Pain and Lil Wayne to give the people what they want.

On Wednesday, T-Pain randomly hopped on the ‘gram and posted a photo of an album cover featuring a split image of the Tallahassee “rappa ternt sanga” and New Orleans’ own Lil Wayne, with the caption “I’m feelin reeeeeaaaaalll spontaneous right now #2009#TheMissingPageInTheHistoryBook.”

Pain also tweeted the image with the two words “Do it?” and a follow-up tweet, saying, “This ain’t for y’all new n—as. These the lost files from ’09 and I’m tired of em just sittin on my hard drive. #FreeC5” — a nod to the long-awaited unreleased fifth installment of Wayne’s Tha Carter series.

Then, on Thursday, he did it. T-Pain just up and dropped the eight-track T-Wayne almost a decade after the project was set to release in 2009. If you remember, back then, Pain and Wayne were both at the peak of their reigns in the hip-hop and R&B games. If we’re being foreal, it was hard to find a track that Lil Wayne and T-Pain weren’t on. They were go-to artists, especially for features. So when they teamed up on the smooth 2008 hit “Can’t Believe It,” it was an absolute swish. And when they went on the road together on the I Am Music Tour from December 2008 to April 2009, tickets were a must-cop. (I still have a “T-Wayne” T-shirt from that tour, btw.)

Eventually, though, T-Pain’s career began to fall off after Jay Z essentially ended it himself with his 2009 track “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” — a lyrical shot at the audio technique Pain popularized on his songs. Meanwhile, Lil Wayne went to jail, and his time behind bars forever changed him musically.

That left us without the anticipated collab project, save the banger “Damn, Damn,” which dropped in 2010 before Wayne began his sentence. So Thursday was truly a delightful surprise. We aren’t blaming Pain and Wayne for taking so long since, you know, life happens. And, to be honest, a lot of people probably forgot that T-Wayne was actually a thing.

But, we are always here for the spontaneous drop — even if it takes years.

Maybe, for #TBT next week, Dr. Dre will bless us with Detox. Or, we’ll get the Tha Carter 5. Fingers crossed.

New Beats By Dre ad features 4 NBA stars Pro athletes head to arena in latest ad

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If I only watched the commercials, I’d assume that Beats By Dre was worn only by professional athletes warming up for games or trying to ignore the public. The company, started by rap mogul Dr. Dre, became popular with players a while back, but the company does not seem to have branched out from that marketing tactic since it took hold.

Back in 2014, as part of the “Hear What You Want” campaign, we got ads with LeBron James, Kevin Garnett and Colin Kaepernick doing just that. In the latest commercial, we get more of the same, to an extent. This time, to the tune of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” we get focused dudes headed to the arena, ready to show their support. But you’ll notice, they’re not actually wearing the headphones while driving — but they are when the power walk starts.

Good to see that Beats is promoting safety first, as distracted driving is a real threat. Ask Gregg Popovich.

Jay Z, Live Nation ink $200M deal which means the ‘Forbes’ richest hip-hop artists list needs to change

When Shawn Carter is 57 years old, he’ll still be touring.

According to Variety, Jay Z and Live Nation have signed a deal for his exclusive performance rights that’s reported to be in the $200 million range. Their previous deal together, signed in 2008, was worth $150M. At the time, when Jay was 38, many questioned the sense of such a big move for the events company. A slew of Made In America festivals later that have made their mark on the country’s pop culture landscape, and boom — they were right.

For those of you who have been following Jay’s actual recent music career, this news comes with a bit of irony. As my colleague Breana Jones said, “Guess he did not, in fact, hold out for three.” That’s in reference to his 2012 song with Rick Ross and Dr. Dre (more on him in a second) titled “3 Kings.

I ran through that buck fifty Live Nation fronted me
They workin’ on another deal, they talkin’ two hundred fifty
I’m holdin’ out for three
Two seventy five and I just might agree

Also interesting is that we might have a change at the top of the Forbes richest artists in hip-hop list, which was just released Wednesday. This list is always a fascinating one. In an era in which record sales aren’t how anyone makes big money anymore, the lists are more representative of the best businesspeople in the game. Mind you, this was released Wednesday.

  1. Diddy – $820M
  2. Jay Z – $810M
  3. Dr. Dre – $740M
  4. Birdman – $110M
  5. Drake – $90M

So, unless Sean Combs announces something before the end of the week, he’s already off the top of this list by a reasonably large margin, depending on the breakdown on the payout for Jay. Of course, this is all based on net worth. Perhaps more interesting to me, though, is how wide the gap is between Birdman and Dre. There’s an argument that while you’ve got those three at the top, an overall look at the top 10 would be far more informative as to who’s really doing the best with their talent in the hip-hop game.

Clearly, no one’s catching up with the men on the medal stand, but they’re also not really making music with any regularity anymore. Which is basically why they’re rich. They did that in an era in which record sales mattered, then parlayed that into branding opportunities and general wealth acquisition through business that was smart and fruitful. You’ll note someone who’s not on this list who once was: 50 Cent. But that’s a whole other story.

Rounding out the top five is an old tale of music industry shadiness. Birdman, who heads Cash Money Records, is being sued by Lil Wayne. And not just for Lamborghini money — we’re talking $50M. That’s nearly half of Baby’s worth, according to those Forbes numbers. Also, there’s a lawsuit involving Drake’s work with them from early in his career. Basically, the whole thing is a mess over rights and royalties, which is really sad. Particularly when you know explicitly that Drizzy is responsible for a not-insignificant portion of that label’s hits.

Point is, by next year that list will likely be very different at the bottom.

All Eyez on VIBE magazine’s 1996 Death Row cover The only thing wilder than Death Row Records’ rise was its public and violent fall

Appropriately titled “Live From Death Row,” VIBE ’s February 1996 cover featured the already-notorious label’s faces: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Suge Knight and Tupac Shakur in a Goodfellas-inspired collage. To understand the significance of the cover image is to understand the chain of events that led to it — and to the label’s downfall shortly thereafter.

Let’s take it back to an era before the internet, blogs and social media reigned, to when hip-hop magazines were the unrivaled scripture for America’s most beloved, bemoaned culture. By the outset of 1996, two publications were responsible for driving the conversation around hip-hop and R&B, its biggest stars and its most provocative news: VIBE (created by Quincy Jones in 1992) and The Source (launched in 1988). The transcendent XXL didn’t launch until the summer of 1997. These magazines satisfied a pre-Wi-Fi audience’s yearning for news and images about rap’s greatest, most dissected and, at its lowest, most heartbreaking era.

Amid financial disputes, Dr. Dre had split from Eazy E personally, N.W.A as a group and Ruthless Records in 1992. With Knight, a former bodyguard, Dre launched Death Row Records. Dre was already seen as a musical savant, a producer who helped make N.W.A a name America had come to love, loathe and fear. The decision to branch out on his own with a business partner known for violence and gang ties was potential career suicide, a possibility both Dre and The Source milked with its startling November 1992 cover. Then came Dr. Dre’s 1992 The Chronic, one of rap’s most influential albums ever.

“We could’ve put Tupac on the cover every single month and it would’ve sold. There was nobody that our readership cared about and reacted to the way that they responded to him.”

A year later, with Doggystyle, Dre’s protégé Snoop Dogg became Death Row’s second bona fide star. Acts like Lady of Rage and The Dogg Pound filled out the roster as Suge Knight assumed a mafia-esque aura: rap’s John Gotti with a cigar. By the fall of 1995, Death Row was worth more than $100 million. This was in part due to urban legends about Suge’s violent style of persuasion and negotiation, as well as a bubbling beef with Sean “Puffy” Combs and Bad Boy Records. Death Row’s rebellious appeal increased as its aura of thuggishness swelled.


Tupac Shakur stewed in New York’s maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility for much of 1995. Less than a year prior, Shakur suffered an attempt on his life that left five bullet wounds in his body, including two to his head. Days after the shooting, he was found guilty of sexual assault. At his sentencing in February 1995, tears streamed down his face as he apologized to the victim, but he remained steadfast about having committed no crime.

Tupac Shakur and Marion Suge Knight

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

“I’m not apologizing for a crime,” he said in court. “I hope in time you’ll come forth and tell the truth.” The thought of being remembered as a sexual deviant had haunted Shakur before his conviction. “I cannot die with people thinking I’m a rapist or a criminal,” he said in a 1994 interview. “I can’t leave until this s— is straight.” Related and unrelated to the conviction, Shakur felt betrayed by some in his circle.

Suge Knight bailed Tupac out of prison on Oct. 19, 1995 — not even the biggest headline of the month, as it arrived roughly two weeks after O.J. Simpson’s divisive not-guilty verdict and only days after the Million Man March on Washington, D.C. Shakur signed a three-page handwritten contract, an agreement worth $3.5 million, for three albums.

The music, profoundly explicit, was the embodiment of neighborhoods and fractured households ripped to shreds by a society that would have forgotten about it had it not been for hip-hop.

Death Row had landed its crown jewel. Tupac was rap’s premier spark plug, perhaps its most eloquent thinker and America’s most controversial and popular artist. His 1995 opus Me Against The World became the first No. 1 album from an incarcerated artist. Death Row had only gotten stronger, thriving despite headlines that would cause most other companies to crumble. Snoop Dogg’s Los Angeles murder trial — he was acquitted of first- and second-degree murder — was still in progress when VIBE’s Death Row cover hit shelves in early 1996.

The February 1996 issue of Vibe Magazine featuring Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Tupac and Suge Knight of Death Row Records.

If N.W.A had planted its flag as the “world’s most dangerous rap crew,” Suge and Death Row not only upped the ante, they drafted an entirely new set of rules. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac were all under contract, becoming at the time the greatest collection of superstar hip-hop talent on one label simultaneously. The cover captured the fleeting moment of Death Row Records at its apex.

The plummet began shortly after the cover’s ink dried.


Remembering how it all came together piece by piece is not necessarily a good time for Alan Light. How the media covered rap’s bloodiest and most territorial years remains a divisive topic. But in late 1995, Light, then editor-in-chief of VIBE, was about staying ahead of the curve. In a short time, the publication had established itself as a definitive hip-hop voice. And the magazine tracked Shakur’s story closer than any other.

“We could’ve put Tupac on the cover every single month and it would’ve sold. There was nobody that our readership cared about and reacted to the way that they responded to him,” said Light. “Every one of the stories we did with him, every cover we did with him was bigger each time. There was nobody who had an impact that was comparable.”

For Light, Shakur’s signing seemed inevitable. Shakur and Suge had been linked as far back as 1993, but Death Row’s interest in ’Pac peaked at the August 1995 Source Awards. Though remembered for Snoop saying, as he accompanied Dr. Dre on stage for his Producer of the Year Award, “The East Coast don’t love Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg?!” — the first major clue to Suge’s courting of Tupac was when he sent the incarcerated rapper a kite from the stage: “We riding for him.” Suge capitalized on Shakur’s vulnerability.

“I don’t know that it felt shocking,” said Light, an author who was also editor-in-chief of SPIN and now hosts Sirius XM’s popular Debatable. “It felt like, Yeah, OK. Once again, [Suge] had an opportunity and he took it.”Discussions regarding Death Row coverage began in the VIBE offices almost immediately thereafter. The magazine and the label had established a straightforward rapport. “[Death Row] respected you if they trusted you,” said Light. “It’s not like our coverage of Death Row was uncritical. [But] at that time in particular, how could you hurt them?”

Everyone seemingly had a rap sheet to go along with platinum plaques. Dre and Suge had their own run-ins with the law stemming from assault allegations, Dre most notably after his violent encounter with journalist Dee Barnes. Dre told Light, then a journalist for Rolling Stone in 1991, that he “just threw [Barnes] through a door.” (Andre Young released a statement in 2015 apologizing; Dee Barnes accepted.) Johnnie Cochran was representing Snoop at his trial. And ’Pac’s relationship with law enforcement and courtrooms nationwide made him seem like a modern-day Jesse James. “Anything you said about them being threatening or violent or dangerous,” Light said, “was more power to them.”


By the time of the VIBE shoot, the storylines surrounding Death Row were intense. Could Tupac’s All Eyez On Me, unequivocally hip-hop’s most anticipated album, live up to the hype (it went on to sell more than 10 million albums)? How would the rising tensions between two coasts influence the label’s direction? Did the reality of Death Row eclipse its increasingly notorious myth?

Kevin Powell — who wrote VIBE’s first cover story, about Snoop — became Shakur’s unofficial biographer in the years since. He was assigned to the story, providing an in-depth glimpse into the life of rap’s “ferocious first family.” But how to portray them on the cover proved a less straightforward mission. Ken Nahoum was Death Row’s in-house photographer, a gig “the white Jewish guy from New York” stumbled into via a prior relationship with George Pryce, Death Row’s former director of communications and media relations. Pryce had created the short-lived Modern Black Man magazine in the ’80s for which Nahoum had done a series of shoots. Once in the Death Row fold, Nahoum essentially followed its artists everywhere. He’d shot portraits and album-related images for Snoop Dogg and Dogg Pound.

There was an unavoidable sense of tension surrounding the label. Nahoum says he purposely chose not to involve himself in the rumors — about musical rights, about financial back-and-forths — surrounding Suge and the label. Each person approached the VIBE shoot differently.

“Snoop didn’t give a s— about anything but eating his Popeye’s,” says Nahoum. “Dre was quiet, very businesslike … very professional … very serious about the photos. … Suge was sweating, intense about everything. [Tupac] was in his own world, like sort of above the fray.”

Party given by Interscope/Death Row Records for Snoop Doggy Dogg record “Murder was the Case”.

Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images

Tupac and Suge, Nahoum remembers, wore ankle bracelets. “They all had issues. It was a wild scene. It wasn’t record company business as usual. These were gangsters on the run. Everywhere I went, I went through metal detectors. When I hung out in the recording studio with them, I had to go through metal detectors.”

“It’s not like our coverage of Death Row was uncritical. At that time in particular, how could you hurt them?”

Nahoum shot them all, although he had no idea how the photos would be used in print. That responsibility fell to Diddo Ramm, VIBE’s lead in art direction for the issue. The shoot was unusual, with VIBE opting not to send its own photo unit to California but rather working with what Death Row sent back, pending an agreement with regard to wardrobe and style semantics.

Ramm pieced together photos; it was not created in Photoshop, as the application was not yet in wide use. “[It was] a composition of four different images in the style of a medieval painting where the kings always used a thinking position and the young princes a more agile position,” said Ramm, now CEO and creative director of RELEVANCE, a media agency based in Hamburg, Germany.

Ramm saw Death Row as a “little bit [of] a house of secrets.” Powell’s piece revealed the inner workings of the label, but Ramm desired a more mysterious ambiance, in the tenor of a secret society. He had the work digitally composed, and darkened so that only part of the light fell on Snoop, Dre, Tupac and Suge’s faces. The trick was to do a lot without doing too much. “The faces are placed like a cross,” said Ramm, “giving a subtle thought of the secret power of the protagonists.”

A Death Row Records medallion.

Ken Lubas/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

They were protagonists — rap superheroes to many. So much of what made Death Row a cultural fixture of the mid-’90s was its willingness to create timeless art through the lens of tragedy. Death Row Records was a byproduct of the post-Reaganomics, crack-cocaine era that transformed South Central Los Angeles into a 1980s war zone. The music, profoundly explicit, was the embodiment of neighborhoods and fractured households ripped to shreds by a society that would have forgotten about it had it not been for hip-hop.

1990s rap wasn’t a perfect art form, but neither were the conditions birthing it. When VIBE’s February 1996 issue hit shelves, spearheaded by its simple yet intoxicating cover, art would soon become life. Death Row’s end wasn’t far behind. “There was just no way,” said Light, “that all of that energy and madness could hold for very long.”


It’s impossible for Light to look at the cover the same way he did when he helped lead the charge. In the moment, Death Row had Tupac’s charisma, Dre’s vision, Snoop’s charm and Suge’s muscle. “That, to me,” Light said, “represents the absolute pinnacle moment, top of mountain for Death Row. At the time they felt unstoppable. You didn’t look at it then as, ‘We better do this right now because all hell’s gonna continue to break loose.’ But I feel like [the cover] was something that even months, if not weeks, later you wouldn’t have been able to pull off.”

He’s right. The cover had to happen then. Two months after the magazine’s release, Death Row experienced the first significant dent in its armor. On March 22, 1996, Dr. Dre officially split, opting to create his own imprint under Interscope. This label would eventually become Aftermath/Interscope, which went on to make Eminem and 50 Cent international superstars.

Music industry watchers expected the label to shake off the loss. Snoop Dogg had been acquitted a month earlier. Tupac’s All Eyez On Me — his defiant, post-prison, double-disc diatribe — introduced a more venomous and expectedly paranoid Shakur. It was his biggest album to date. Death Row’s, too.

“The faces are placed like a cross, giving a subtle thought of the secret power of the protagonists.”

The success came with a price tag. Tupac’s 1996 “Hit ’Em Up” — his now-legendary diss record to The Notorious B.I.G., Puffy, Bad Boy Records, Mobb Deep, Junior Mafia and more — planted the Death Row flag in a bicoastal war that had surfaced months earlier at The Source Awards. Chaos swallowed civility. The media covered what became an “East Coast vs. West Coast” rivalry.

Six months after Dre’s departure, Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas, 331 days after he was released from Clinton Correctional. In less than a year with the label, Tupac recorded two albums and filmed two movies (Gridlock’d and Bullet). By March 1997 — ironically, a week before the murder of The Notorious B.I.G. — Suge, on a probation violation, was sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in stomping Orlando Anderson the night Tupac was shot. Only Snoop stood with the label (until his departure in early 1998 when Master P visited Knight in prison, where he agreed to buy out Snoop’s contract, signing him to No Limit Records). Hip-hop’s ferocious first family had caved in on itself.

In the 21 years since the February 1996 VIBE issue, Dr. Dre and Snoop have both seen their celebrity increase tenfold. Despite the stains of yester-decade, Dre has stayed relatively out of the spotlight, allowing business to speak for him. Snoop’s career transformation is unparalleled, having gone from Newsweek cover demon to sportsman to host of a cooking show with Martha Stewart. It’s difficult to think of a rapper who has been as popular for as long as Snoop Dogg. Tupac, in death, is the Hall of Fame patron saint of hip-hop, a martyr. The Benny Boom-directed film about Shakur’s life, called All Eyez on Me, is due in June, on his birthday.

Rappers Dr. Dre (L) and Snoop Dogg perform onstage during day 3 of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 15, 2012 in Indio, California.

Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella

In fact, the only diminished legacy is Suge’s. Death Row never rose again. During the week of his 52nd birthday, he is still awaiting trial for murder. He is accused by the state of California of running over a man with his vehicle in 2015 while visiting a Straight Outta Compton filming location.

“That to me,” said Light, “represents the absolute pinnacle moment, top of the mountain for Death Row. At the time they felt unstoppable.”

These days, another Compton-created startup, Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg Entertainment, dominates discussion, although Snoop deaded those comparisons years back. For Death Row, it was kill or, as the label experienced firsthand, be killed.

“[Death Row] did it with a gangster approach,” Snoop said in 2013. (He would later tell TDE member Ab-Soul the group was a “mini Death Row.”) “We were smashing on n—, we was f— people up. We was determined to be the hardest, meanest, coldest, roughest, toughest in the game. That was our mission.”

Perhaps the brainchild of Suge Knight and Dr. Dre wasn’t supposed to live any longer than it did, roughly the equivalent of one presidential term. A business model based on violence, intimidation and manipulation doesn’t have a long shelf life. Get in. Get out. And hopefully leave with your life and dignity intact. Very few leave with both. The VIBE cover is a reminder. Two did. Two didn’t.

“Tupac was a poet. He was a person with a great vision in life,” Nahoum said. “Snoop is a pot smoker who lives life minute to minute. Dre was the businessman and artist. And Suge was a gangsta.

“They were four different people. But I would have to say Death Row … ”

Nahoum’s voice trails off. His life is a lot different these days. He wasn’t even aware of Suge’s current legal situation, although he wasn’t surprised to find out.

“It’s too bad it didn’t continue,” he said. “It had such an energy for a couple of years … they could have ruled the business. They had the whole world in their hands, and they gave it right up.”