Never mind Suge Knight's eight convictions, or the time he forced a record promoter to drink his urine, or his close ties to assorted drug dealers and felons. When the walls finally caved in on the CEO of Death Row Records -- when the premier "gangsta rap" company was being simultaneously investigated by the FBI, IRS, DEA and ATF and Knight himself was about to be sentenced to nine years in prison -- Suge Knight never lost his confidence. "I'm the fall guy," he said. The fall of Death Row, he claimed, was nothing more than another case of the white establishment busting some black ass.
Ronin Ro, a hip-hop beat reporter who establishes undeniable investigative reporting street cred in "Have Gun Will Travel," makes Knight's claims of racist persecution seem, at best, laughable. The gory details of Knight's reign of terror -- the contract negotiations with a baseball bat, the back room torture, the in-house gang battles -- are impossible to dismiss. Indeed, if only half of what Ro reports is true, he can be excused for nervously looking over his shoulder. Someday, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Knight will be back on the street, and he's not likely to think kindly of the author of "Have Gun Will Travel."
Ro did his legwork. Reviewers are already rushing to laud "Have Gun Will Travel" as the "definitive" account of the rise and fall of gangsta rap, as seen through the prism of Death Row. Other reporters can only shake their heads in awe at Ro's success in penetrating a scene where reporters are generally considered about as welcome as plague-bearing rats. But legwork alone isn't enough. The book reads as if written in a hurry, and could have benefited from a careful edit. More time for reflection might have addressed the one major flaw of "Have Gun Will Travel": its failure to provide perspective.
Ro almost gets there when he details how Sony, Interscope and the rest of the white-run record biz looked the other way at Knight's behavior while the cash came rolling in. But he doesn't draw the consequences. Sure, Knight was a murderous brute, and Death Row Records exemplified the gangsta rap lifestyle with more flair than most real gang bangers. But that just made the record label the most egregious flag bearer for a fundamentally corrupt industry. So what if Knight ripped off his own artists and physically abused them to boot? Treating artists like shit is standard practice in the music business. All Knight did was translate the same sorry old tactics of extortion, abuse and exploitation into flying fists and kicks.
The story of Death Row exerts lurid fascination because the details are so extravagant: They map all too closely to the lyrics of a Snoop Doggy Dog track. But none of it could have happened without the willing cooperation of big-name corporate accounting firms, lawyers and entertainment mega-corporations. Suge Knight is a symptom, not the disease. And in that respect, he is, indeed, the fall guy.