Jimmy Iovine Reveals He Was Behind Suge Knight Bailing Tupac Out Of Jail
In October of 1995, Tupac Shakur signed with Death Row Records. Reportedly inking his deal on a napkin, Pac joined Dr. Dre and Suge Knight’s reigning and equally notorious record label. In that transaction, Shakur was able to post bail and leave Clinton Correctional Facility. In a matter of days, he boarded a private jet destined for Los Angeles, California to record All Eyez On Me. Less than one year from that flight, Tupac Amaru Shakur was dead.
This week, The Defiant Ones docu-series has been airing on HBO. Written and directed by Allen Hughes (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents), the series examines the separate lives and strong relationship between Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. Both music producers/engineers, these two men have gone on to mogul status through record labels, film, and the Beats electronics line. Episode 3 of The Defiant Ones looks at the mid-1990s. One groundbreaking revelation comes as Iovine and others shine a light on why Death Row—not Tupac’s label of five years, Interscope—helped out the Rap star in a time of need.
Iovine recalls a New York Times article that compared the music coming from Interscope Records in the mid-90s to “a mustard gas factory.” At the time, Jimmy was chairman of the label and distributor, whose stars included Rap acts like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac along with controversial Rock artists such as Marilyn Manson. From censorship groups to Capitol Hill to Dionne Warwick, people protested lyrics that were deemed violent, misogynistic, and obscene. At the time, Time Warner had a 50% stake in Interscope. As the larger company was in talks to acquire Turner Broadcasting, they wanted to rid themselves of any negative publicity ahead of the transaction.
“So when all this stuff is going on with Warner, this sort of war begins between Bad Boy and Death Row,” recalls Iovine, who admits he skipped out on the 1995 Source Awards in Madison Square Garden. “And that’s when we all realized, ‘Whoa, we’re not in Kansas anymore.'” Interscope had a partnership with Death Row that was making them millions. Marion “Suge” Knight, Death Row’s CEO, was publicly showing allegiance to Tupac. In The Defiant Ones, Iovine says he wanted to capitalize on the prospects of this musical union.
“Dre wasn’t any faster [at making music] then than he is now. But what Suge told me was he and Tupac wanted to get together, what I thought of was ‘Dre & Pac,'” Jimmy says. In 1995, Dre and Knight were Death Row’s founding partners. While the Doctor produced, Suge handled the business and the streets. According to Iovine, he wanted to bring Interscope’s biggest homegrown Rap act, Tupac, to one of music’s best producers. In the era of the beat, Pac’s albums had not been praised for their music. Meanwhile, Dre was rising as Hip-Hop’s answer to Quincy Jones. As he reveals, despite the fact the Shakur’s third solo album Me Against The World debuted at #1 while he was incarcerated, Interscope’s hands were tied from freeing their star. “Time Warner wouldn’t allow us to bail out Tupac. So what happened was we advanced Death Row the money, and Death Row bailed out Tupac.”
Interscope’s then-Head of Business Affairs, David Cohen puts this revelation bluntly: “I imagine Tupac himself thought Suge bailed him out. But the truth is we and Time Warner put up the money. I mean, look…I was definitely part of bailing out Tupac.” Shakur had been signed to Interscope at the top of the decade, thanks to A&R wunderkind Tom Whalley. Moreover, Pac released three celebrated solo albums and one Thug Life project on the imprint ahead of his Death Row tenure.
According to The Defiant Ones, insulating Tupac from the corporate tug of war allowed Death Row and its artists to make great music. It also allowed Iovine to rid them of scrutiny from the board, keeping their jobs and the company.
Time Warner CEO Michael J. Fuchs began cleaning house. In early 1995, Fuchs ordered the dismissal of Warner Music US CEO Doug Morris. Both executives appear in the doc, recalling a difficult time with some ongoing emotion. As Fuchs moved closer and closer to Interscope and its founders Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field, they had other ideas. “Time Warner’s first instinct was to buy the whole thing and attempt to clean it up: Death Row Records, which was an absurdity,” says Interscope’s attorney Allen Grubman.
Michael Fuchs, reportedly using pro-censorship spokeswoman (and Suge’s neighbor) Dione Warwick, requested a meeting with Knight. As added incentive to reportedly get the CEO/executive producer to consider a Death Row sale to Time Warner, they invited the mayor of Compton, Omar Bradley. Knight was a native of the city and vocally tied to its heritage and streets. More than 20 years later, Jimmy Iovine describes the tactic as “unacceptable in any form of business.” When Suge notified Jimmy of a scheduled meeting, the Interscope chairman and the Death Row CEO holed up in nearby Jerry’s Deli for hours, stalling Fuchs, Warwick, and Bradley. Iovine recalls the “Walk On By” singer frantically calling Suge that morning. Knight, a former NFL player, bodyguard and alleged member of the MOB Piru street gang, stalled his neighbor with excuses. Fuchs eventually leaves, as he says, upset with waiting. An embarrassed Warwick calls Knight. Jimmy laughs recalling the hot-tempered exec’s response, “Suge looks at the phone and goes, ‘Hey, you’re the psychic; how come you didn’t [already] know I wasn’t coming?’ and hangs up.”
As Dre and Tupac went on to make #1 hit “California Love,” Iovine and Ted Field kept Time Warner’s advances at bay. In a New York meeting, Time Warner reportedly offered $150 million for Death Row itself. “F*ck them; I’ve never been so sure,” says Iovine of the offer, despite some pressure from his partners to accept. Eventually, Time Warner, eager to move on its 1996 Turner acquisition, cut Interscope. It sold back the 50% stake for $115 million. Subsequently, Interscope reunited with Doug Morris, then at MCA Records. With David Geffen and Edgar Bronfman, MCA invested $200 million into Interscope for that same 50% share. “This was a defining moment. People lost, which was the Warner side, and people won, which was the Interscope and MCA side,” says Grubman in the HBO series. At this time, Interscope’s partners appeared to view the music of Tupac, Snoop, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, and others as profitable art, not obscenity.
Unfortunately, with Suge Knight’s newfound closeness to Tupac Shakur, there were also consequences. “When Pac and Suge got together, it created a very volatile situation. They were gonna do what they were gonna do, and we couldn’t control that…it came [to] something none of us really understood, it became a street war,” says Iovine. To Death Row/Interscope, Tupac brought his beef. Together, he and Knight shared enemies, which stemmed from the gang-controlled streets of Compton to the Rap industry. Within his first six months at Death Row, Tupac fell out with Dr. Dre, after the pair made just two songs.
“Once he started bad-mouthing Dre, I’m feelin’ like that’s coming from Suge, but it’s still comin’ out of Pac’s mouth. I kinda pushed away from him,” admits Snoop Dogg in The Defiant Ones. Later in the episode, the friend of Shakur’s since the early ’90s states that they were not on good terms when Shakur was killed.
Dr. Dre speaks about his reasons for leaving Death Row in March of 1996. “Everything just changed. It became a lot more violent: engineers getting beat down just ’cause, random people gettin’ beat down, shot at in the studio, in the mic booth, all kinda sh*t that I was just against.” Hughes asks Dre if he witnessed all of those things. “I’m not sayin’ that on camera, Allen” Dre sharply tells the interviewer as he drives. “There’s always incidents that were secret, that we will never speak on,” Snoop declares, moments later. In 1996, Snoop was acquitted of murder charges, while Dre had legal problems of his own.
In the 12 months prior to his Death Row exit, the producer lost his mentor-turned-foe, Eazy-E. In The Defiant Ones, Dre admits there were talks of an N.W.A. reunion shortly before Eric’s death. “Eazy dies; me and him had been talking about getting together and doing music again.” He also fell in love with his now wife and had been distant from his company due to incarceration. Dre and Ice Cube had reunited for a Helter Skelter album that never finished.
Another one of Dre’s ’80s cohorts also speaks about the Death Row culture of violence. The D.O.C., who Suge managed early on, had an office at the label. He tells the story of his working quarters being used as a torture chamber by Death Row muscle. “The beating that they commenced to put on that dude…I just wanted to get out.” The D.O.C., who wrote for Death Row artists, recalls an unnamed man tugging at his pants while writhing on the floor during a bloody beat-down.
“Gangsters spend their whole life trying to become legitimate. [Death Row] guys are earning tens of millions of dollars legitimately, why get involved with any of this nonsense?” asks Iovine. In a recent Sway In The Morning interview, the Brooklyn, New York native said he was unaware of the violence at Death Row then. For years, Knight and Dre’s label had its secure floor in the Interscope building on Beverly Hills’ Wilshire Boulevard. Additionally, Tha Row’s studios were offsite, such as Tarzana, California’s Can Am.
Steve Berman, Interscope’s then-Head of Sales & Marketing recalls asking Suge Knight a similar question directly during a drive. “It’s what I know,” Knight told the man who played an evil record exec in the “Dre Day” video.
While Dre left to form Aftermath Entertainment, and The D.O.C. left to work with MC Breed and others, Tupac dropped anchor. In those events, he apparently only grew closer to Knight. The two were side-by-side on September 7, 1996, at the Las Vegas intersection of Flamingo and Koval when they were ambushed in a drive-by shooting. Knight survived with a reported bullet fragment in his head. Shakur died in University Medical Center of Southern Nevada on September 13.
Jimmy Iovine believes Tupac Shakur should never have perished. “These are things that everybody wished they could have prevented, somehow. If only I had…there was no reason for Tupac to die, especially like that.” He had survived a 1994 robbery-shooting in his days as Interscope’s top Rap act. Riding beside Knight in that black BMW sedan, he could not be saved.
Following Shakur’s death, his estate battled with Death Row for his recordings. While the label, still owned by Knight, would release several platinum titles, Interscope took over as sole parent label following a court ruling. The man who signed Pac, Tom Whalley, now controls his music estate following Afeni Shaur’s May 2016 death.
Nas and Puff Daddy both appear in the episode, as does Whalley, U2’s Bono, Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks, Gwen Stefani, and Dre’s wife.
The Defiant Ones is available in all four parts on HBO.