In 1995, Tupac Shakur was in Rikers Island on sexual assault charges when L.A. rap entrepreneur Suge Knight offered to pay his $3 million bail on the condition he sign with Knight’s Death Row Records. A year later, Shakur was dead, assassinated in a drive-by shooting on the Las Vegas Strip.
in prison, he couldn’t get bailed out. It was a $3 million bond and Suge Knight paid for it, and he said, “If I pay for this, I want you on my label.” At that point, Tupac was on the up. He was hot. He was the guy.
Tupac had been signed to Interscope. Interscope didn’t know what to do with him. Suge was really good at recognizing talent, and he recognized the talent in Tupac. He basically went to [Interscope president] Jimmy [Iovine] and said, “Give me Tupac—sign his contract over to me. I know what to do with it.” So he then went and got Tupac out of jail and turned him into a Death Row artist.
It was Snoop who brought up the idea of Pac on Death Row. It’s when he’d gone into Rikers on that bullshit charge. He’d been in and out of trouble already. Suge said, “I need to ask you, because this could hurt us: Do you really think Pac is innocent?” I said, “From my lips to God’s ears, yes.” “Why?” “My experience with him. How polite he was.”
He came from a very poor background and never had money. So when the money started to come, he assumed that it would continue to come, and he spent accordingly. There were people in his life that were taking advantage of him, and he knew that. They were there for him in the beginning when he had nothing, so even though he knew they were stealing from him, he wasn’t going to do anything because he felt a sense of loyalty. Loyalty was extremely important to him.
He had loyalty to Death Row. He didn’t sign just for financial reasons because at that point, any label would have picked him up. Part of the reason that he chose Death Row was because he felt like the East Coast was against him. He believed that all of the powerful music influences—from Andre Harrell to Puffy—were a cabal. Remember, when Pac was incarcerated—and I believe this was a Suge Knight chess move—[Knight] got on stage and dissed Puffy. I believe he did that because it was the perfect way to instill in a new artist your intention to ride for them.
Can-Am Studios was a place that Death Row had leased for like two years. Once you’re in there, there was this constant “I gotta watch my back in here” vibe. There were stories of Suge Knight having a big office called the Red Room. There were rumors about how this one guy—this videographer—did a video for them and something went wrong and they made him go in there and drink piss. It wasn’t the ideal environment for an engineer. I go in and, like Nate Dogg is sitting behind me on the couch with a pistol. And I’m like, “Wow, my back’s to the guy with the gun.”
What really set this thing off was what happened in Atlanta in September 1995 when Big Jake was allegedly killed by Puffy’s bodyguard at the time. At least before that, it was just people dissing each other; but after that, there was blood on the ground.
The East Coast/West Coast thing was great for business. There was beef, but we leveraged it to sell records more than anything else. It sold one hell of a lot of records. I’d tell people to look at the positives, just don’t push it too far. And nobody needs to get shot. If you’re pushing it too far, you might as well go back to the hood and stand in a corner where you have to win every second of the day. The heat wins once, and you’re done. Dre and Eazy and Cube, they’d worked so hard to get away from that life and get welcomed into Beverly Hills.
What I liked about Death Row was, the music was fucking the bomb. I mean, the beats were just slamming. It was real shit from the hood; it wasn’t a bunch of commercial garbage. Everything was spontaneous. Songs would happen so quickly. [Tupac] was so fast, it was ridiculous. We did “Hail Mary” in 15 minutes. Me and Lance, the other engineer, just looked at each other like, “Can you believe what just happened?” We wanted to listen to it more, but he was ready to do the next song. We must’ve recorded 125 to 150 songs. He only signed on to do three albums, which is like 40 songs.
Suge could get whatever he wanted because people were so intimidated. What annoyed me was you have all the money, and you don’t take care of the right things. He didn’t need to be on the cover of Vibe magazine with Dre, Pac, and Snoop. Everything was over the top.
Death Row wasn’t as fun as [Tupac] thought it was gonna be. I could just tell he wasn’t digging it at all. He was really pissed, too, because he realized he wasn’t getting paid shit for what he was selling on those records.
I did notice that in the summer right before he died, he had stopped wearing the Death Row chain. He started wearing an angel pendant. That was when I reached out to him to make sure everything was OK. He’s like, “I’m going to be leaving Death Row. I want to start shopping a deal for my company. Since I helped the East Coast and the West Coast go to war, my first project I want to put out is called One Nation.” And that’s what I was working on when he was shot.
The rumors of Pac leaving Death Row were true. He wanted to marry Quincy Jones’s daughter. Quincy said to Pac, “Are you going to be able to get out clean without any trouble? You think you’ll be OK?” I told Pac, “I know Suge’s been good to you. But by the same token, do you have anything in your name? Do you know how much money you have made?” Pac started thinking about it. He had all the watches, the gold jewelry, drove whatever he wanted. But nothing was in his name. I was really close to Suge, and I’d brought it up before. He’d go, “Alex, I’m doing it because they’re gonna take that money—whether it’s 100 grand or 200 grand or 500 grand—get it on a Friday, and we wouldn’t see them for a week. And then they’d be calling, saying, ‘Hey, I’m in Vegas, and I’m broke.’”
Tupac and Death Row felt like a great marriage at first—a great place to go to get that Cali gangsta shit. Once he hooked up with Suge and his whole camp, it was like signing a deal with the devil. I guess his ego got in the way, being that he wanted to be thug life. But I think he found after a while that, yeah, this whole thing ain’t right. That’s why everybody left. All of those cars and houses—none of that was in their names.
I convinced Tracy [that we should] go to Vegas for her birthday because I knew that Pac was going, and in my gut, I felt like something was going to go wrong. She was like, “Hell no, I’m not going to Vegas” and “Hell no, I don’t want to be around Suge and Death Row for my birthday.” We were at Club 662 waiting for Pac to show up when, after a couple of hours, Nate Dogg came through the crowd, came straight up to us, and said, “Pac and Suge have been shot.”