Written by Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy (@danielmondon)
Hip-hop is happy to rewrite and revise its own history. It’s a culture that devotes support to who yelled last and who was the loudest to do so. A lot of people never get their dues and outside of a few savvy supporters’ fandom, never will. Sometimes those who once yelled loudest are written out regardless. We shrug off the unseemly and the creepy, a culture’s selective memory at work.
Suge Knight is somebody that hip-hop culture turned on. It’s also not hard to tell why the culture turned on him; he remains the genre’s poster boy for hubris. Suge’s violent tactics and linebacker-sized ego were as elemental to Death Row’s downfall as it was to their uprising. Though hip-hop can easily root and cheer on a villain, Knight did not appear to be a character as he was upfront about his Blood connections and famed for his strong-arm tactics. When Death Row fell apart, Suge descended into a vortex of unsuccessful label reboots and TMZ-era villainy that he’s never really bounced back from.
So it comes as a surprise to hear the 90s version of Suge brought back to life at the start of Max Minelli’s recent mixtape Dope Boy Chad. Minelli–a long-time Young Bleed affiliate and Baton Rouge mainstay since the late Nineties–is a passable rapper, the type to enunciate the most mundane bars (“I put on for my city like Jeezy” reappears countless times) in a wonderfully sticky drawl. The instrumentals he chooses are meant to evoke particular pangs of nostalgia: the synthetic regality of early T.I., Boosie-esque fury, the Spanish guitars of Ja Rule’s slow jams. Yet Suge hangs over the tape.
“Dopeboy TV (Intro)” flashes between nuggets of d-boy specialisms and TV static, a sure signal of nostalgia, before arriving at Suge’s infamous speech from the 94 Source Awards. That speech fanned the flames of the East/West conflict, with Suge and Snoop causing a tense New York crowd to nearly explode. You know the moment from clip shows and from having even a passing interest in hip-hop’s history: “the executive producer all in the videos, dancin‘” et cetera. Minelli decides to let the entirety of Knight’s speech play out, and the fact that he thanks God and “my entire Death Row family” at the beginning came to me as a surprise: it’s a moment of faith and unity that humanizes the Death Row owner, an acknowledgement that I was unaware had even been said, a moment erased from the record for not being juicy enough. For a moment, you can bond with Suge Knight as a relatable human being proud of his success rather than a tyrannical ogre.
Minelli allows the ogre to live again, cursing the Bad Boy empire and drawing a line in the sand. In the current super friends era of hip-hop—an era where people lost their shit over Kendrick naming names out of respect –that speech sounds more unhinged. Suge fans the flames with wild abandon, sneering and mocking the crowd; drinking in the boos directed at the stage. The very moment where Suge yells “come to Death Row!” is edited and replaced with a bellow of “come to Crook Muzik Creme Team!”, a cute effort to paint Minelli’s clique as a new Death Row. Its placement at the head of Minelli’s tape shows that there are people that still sympathize and admire Knight’s hard-headedness, his desire to promote realness and strike fear in the hearts of his competitors. It functions to remind people that despite his diminished role in the hip-hop pantheon, Suge Knight still matters to people: not as a warning but as a gully inspiration.