Prison did not change Suge Knight

MIAMI _ Five years in prison might have taken hip-hop impresario Suge Knight off the street, but it didn’t take the street out of Suge.

Seven months after being sprung from California’s Mule Creek State Prison, where he served time for violating parole, the man who made Dr. Dre,

Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur into hip-hop legends says he’s ready to launch a new empire fueled by his best asset: authenticity.

‘”I believe we are going to put excitement back in this business,” said Knight on Friday in his suite at Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hilton. Knight and other execs from his label were in town to promote their new roster of artists at the Billboard/Airplay Monitor radio conference.

‘”There’s nothing new in the business now,” he said, wrapping his lips around a stogie. “I’m taking talent from the inner cities. I gave people reality, and now I gotta be able to establish distribution for these guys in the ghetto. We have power because we have street credibility.”

Before his prison sentence, Knight’s Death Row Records was pushing $100 million of gangsta rap a year. The songs, filled with lyrics about shoot outs, fights with cops and hard-core womanizing, lift Knight into hip-hop lore, and heaps of controversy.

A widely reported feud between West Coast and East Coast rappers came to a deadly head in 1996, when Tupac Shakur, one of Knight’s top stars and closest friends, was shot to death in a car near the Las Vegas strip. Knight was sitting beside him. Hours earlier, the two had attacked a member of the Crips gang in a casino.

Knight was indicted after the attack for violating parole stipulations from a 1994 assault conviction, and jailed. A year and a half later, Wallace, a k a Notorious B.I.G., a top act with Sean “Puffy” Combs’ label, was fatally gunned down. The police targeted Knight in the investigation, but eventually dropped it for lack of evidence.

But today, Knight, 36, said he is primed to start anew, renaming the label Tha Row to break with the past.

”Too many people in this business are living off of history,” he said. “I don’t like to see people living off the past. It’s only right to give new artist a chance to make history.”

His new artist roster includes Crooked I and four other acts Knight is priming to cultivate into stars.

‘”It’s gangsta, definitely,” he said.

“How can we avoid what we are, what our culture is? How can we talk about caviar and golf when we aren’t eating caviar and playing golf?”

Snoop and Dre left Death Row, and the label was dropped by Time Warner after Knight was sent to prison. But now, with the entire industry in a tailspin, Knight said being an independent is an asset.

Profits are down at four of the five major labels, and smaller hip-hop labels are getting the ax. Knight, however, owns the masters and cataloges of all of Death Row’s music.

Tha Row recently released a collection of Snoop’s greatest hits with Death Row, and plans to release another Tupac compilation in the coming months.

“‘For me, it’s always about being in control,” he said. “I have nothing against the majors, but I would rather sell records from my trunk before being a slave.”

Knight bought his childhood home in a hard-bitten area of Compton, Calif., to keep things ”real.” That’s what distinguishes his label, he said, as well as its artists.

“A lot of these guys from the East Coast are not guys doing ghetto activity,” he said. “Dre’s not a guy you’re going to see in Compton.”

Knight said while five years on the inside mellowed him out, it didn’t necessarily make him a whole new man.

‘”I definitely got wiser. My spiritual side is more tuned in with God,” he said.

“But at the same time I’m not a hypocrite. If you try to hit me, I’m going to break your neck.”

Hip-hop insiders, for their part, are keeping a close watch on Knight, to see whether he can spin ghetto once again into gold.

Gangsta was fresh and new when Knight helped launch it six years ago, but hip-hop has evolved and grown since then.

“‘As long as music reflects what’s going on in neighborhoods of the hip-hop community, there’s always going to be a demand for it,” said Kim Osorio, music editor for the Source, a leading hip-hop magazine.

“You look at artists on Death Row and see how successful they were. People are

just waiting to see whether he can do that again.”