The Devil’s Bargain: The Inside Story of Tupac Shakur and Suge Knight

In an excerpt from ’Changes: An Oral History of Tupac Shakur,’ those close to the late rapper recount a fateful relationship that would set into motion Tupac’s untimely demise—and change the trajectory of hip-hop history
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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.

The fraught relationship between the rising superstar and his ruthless would-be mentor is captured in this excerpt from Changes: An Oral History of Tupac Shakur.


LESLIE GERARD (FORMER A&R, INTERSCOPE RECORDS) When Tupac was 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.

VIRGIL ROBERTS (FORMER PRESIDENT, SOLAR RECORDS) 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.

ALEX ROBERTS (FORMER HEAD OF BUSINESS AFFAIRS, DEATH ROW RECORDS) 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.”

WENDY DAY (RAP COALITION FOUNDER) 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.

PUDGEE THA PHAT BASTARD (RAPPER) He stayed loyal as fuck.

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The young Shakur was influenced by the first wave of rap stars like Flavor Flav, seen with him in 1989

WENDY DAY 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 onstage 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.

JUSTIN TINSLEY (JOURNALIST) By the fall of 1995, it was like, wait a minute, this label has Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and this label has now added Tupac. We talk about super teams and big threes in the NBA—Suge had those three guys all on this label at one time. Of course, that was very short-lived: Dre left by, like, the spring of ’96. And Dre leaving it should have been the first telltale sign. But Death Row at its peak was such a powerful example of Black entrepreneurship.

“Tupac and Death Row felt like a great marriage at first. Once he hooked up with Suge and his whole camp, it was like signing a deal with the devil.”

LESLIE GERARD I’m at a party at MCA. In walks Suge Knight with a trail of people behind him. The first person in line is Tupac. The next person was Snoop. It’s this kind of line of succession. Tupac sees me, jumps out and gives me a big hug. When Pac breaks from the line, everybody stops, waiting for him to get back in the line. It was like they weren’t allowed to continue until Tupac got back in front.

ALEX ROBERTS When Suge got him out, Pac went straight into the studio and wrote All Eyez on Me. You would think it would’ve been straight to the strip club. No. He made it known that we’d signed the right person.

KENDRICK WELLS (PERSONAL ASSISTANT) The closer we came to the release date, the more stressed out he was. I’d never seen him smoke so much weed. What I realized later was he had signed his way out of prison based on what this album was going to do. You think, “Oh shit. What if this doesn’t sell?” Then, like, one hour into it coming out, you find out it’s fucking double platinum. I saw him go from, like, being on edge to being the baddest motherfucker on the planet because he did it.

MOE Z MD (PRODUCER) Not even two months later, there was “California Love.” I remember I pulled over to the side of the road. I was blown away by how far they’d taken it.

KENDRICK WELLS Those sessions were a party going in and a party going out. It was kind of weird because you going and you’re like, “I’m at crazy-ass Death Row, the Motown of right now.” But you get patted down by guards when you go in.

TIM NITZ (ENGINEER) 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.”

TOMMY “D” DAUGHERTY (ENGINEER) I can remember one of the Jacksons sitting there in a session or the guys from Bell Biv DeVoe. It was amazing, the people that would show up saying they wanted to be part of Death Row. It was like, “You don’t even know what you’re dealing with here.“

PUDGEE THA PHAT BASTARD One conversation I had with Biggie, he expressed to me very implicitly how he wished he was on Death Row. He liked the gangster and the elevation of Pac and them, of what their movement was doing.

GREG KADING (FORMER LAPD DETECTIVE) Puffy is not some gangster. He’s not Tony Soprano. He was in fear for his life and for good reason. He knew that Suge had it out for him. He knew that Suge held him responsible for the murder of Jake Robles.

JUSTIN TINSLEY 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.

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With Snoop Dogg at the American Music Awards,
in 1996

GREG KADING Jake Robles’s murder—that was when blood was first spilled. Then what kind of exacerbates this whole thing is these labels starting to say that, you know, Bad Boy West and Death Row East, and that they were going to encroach on each other’s territories. This just goes back to gangster mob mentality: “That’s our turf.” Then you get a murder, and now it’s really real. The violence is real.

ALEX ROBERTS The East Coast/West Coast thing was great for business. There was a 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 on 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.

TOMMY “D” DAUGHERTY 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.

JUSTIN TINSLEY Pac’s solo career was only from 1991 to 1996, and he basically spent all of 1995 in jail. He was such a maniacal worker that it always felt like he’d never slept.

TOMMY “D” DAUGHERTY Suge wanted him to do a dis album where he’s dissing all the New York rappers.

GOBI RAHIMI (VIDEOGRAPHER) Suge had his own little-boy complex or whatever, flexing on who’s a bigger CEO between him and P. Diddy.

VIRGIL ROBERTS Suge was the hunter that got captured by the game. If you’re going to be the leader of thugs, you’re supposed to be the baddest thug of them all.

TOMMY “D” DAUGHERTY Suge didn’t have any respect from the Bloods. They were just taking advantage of him. They didn’t consider him a gang member at all.

ALEX ROBERTS 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.

TOMMY “D” DAUGHERTY 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.

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Three weeks before his murder, Shakur (right) attends a Los Angeles rally opposing California’s three-strikes law with Snoop Dogg (center) and Hammer.

GOBI RAHIMI Tupac sent his assistant to take me up to the Malibu house that Suge Knight was renting from the assistant DA of Los Angeles, of all people. Immediately, Pac got on a call with Suge, and they started getting into an argument. They were arguing about money—“I’m selling millions of albums, and you’re giving me pennies.”

WENDY DAY 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.

ALEX ROBERTS 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.’”

COLIN WOLFE (PRODUCER) Tupac and Death Row felt like a great marriage at first—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.

ALEX ROBERTS We owned a car dealership—West Coast Exotics—because everybody we were signing we were giving cars to. Suge said, “Never, ever register the title in their names.”

KENDRICK WELLS When it comes to Death Row, I think they were doing some divide-and-conquer shit, and [Tupac] kind of backed their play. I realized, “Oh, shit, he can’t do nothing about it.”

GOBI RAHIMI He had a tremendous amount of sadness. I would find a lot of the pictures that I took him in, he would sort of be looking down at his rings and contemplating, and you could just see that he was a million miles away.

LESLIE GERARD Right before he went to Vegas, he said, “Suge told me that I’m worth more to him dead than alive.”

GOBI RAHIMI 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.”

CATHY SCOTT (FORMER LAS VEGAS SUN CRIME REPORTER) I got a call in the middle of the night, at about two a.m., from one of my sources at homicide that said, “Get down to the Strip. Two-pack Shack-er”—that’s how he pronounced it—“has been shot.”

GREG KADING A couple of [Metropolitan Police Department] guys hear shots fire. They see cars peeling out. They don’t know who’s fucking shooting whom. They see Suge make this abrupt U-turn and pull away. And so if you’re seeing that type of driving, you’re like, “Fuck, maybe those are the shooters.”

CATHY SCOTT They saw Suge turn around. Instead of calling for backup, they both took off, chasing Suge Knight down the Strip as he’s trying to get through traffic.

GOBI RAHIMI My gut was telling me that Suge did it.

WENDY DAY The one thing that I knew about Suge was, Suge really demanded loyalty. To the point where when Pac was killed, I genuinely thought Suge Knight had him killed. I remember calling some guys that I knew—gangbangers that were rappers as well—and asking if that was possible. Everybody came back saying no.

CATHY SCOTT [Knight] wasn’t running away from the cops. He didn’t know where the shooter was, and he’s trying to get help for Tupac. Plus he was shot—he had shrapnel in the base of his skull.

GREG KADING The fight at MGM Grand came about because of a preexisting incident between a gang member named Orlando Anderson, who was a member of the South Side Crips, and a guy named Trevon Lane, who was a member of Suge Knight’s entourage. [Lane] had his necklace stolen [by Anderson] at the Lakewood mall [near Compton]. And so there was already conflict between these gangs. So when Trevon saw Orlando kind of hanging out, loitering, Trevon did what any person would do: “Hey, there’s that motherfucker that robbed my chain.” And Tupac took it upon himself to kind of step up and retaliate for that.

ALEX ROBERTS Pac didn’t need to go after Orlando Anderson. Just let him keep the fucking chain. But there were other people around, and Suge was in sight. If they hadn’t been around, Pac wouldn’t have gone after him.

WENDY DAY A lot of the problems that he had in his life were due to him retaliating for other people.

CATHY SCOTT Orlando was pissed. Gangbangers don’t forget; they retaliate. They’re looking for him; they all know where he’s going. So they went down to Club 662 and waited for him. They came across them [on the road], and instead of having to do it at Club 662, they decided  to do it there. It was like a Bonnie and Clyde kind of thing—rat-tat-tat-tat, shoot up the side of the car.

GOBI RAHIMI We called his business manager, Yaasmyn Fula, and found out that he was at University hospital. When we got there, me and Tracy were the only two people from Pac’s camp. We didn’t trust Death Row. We didn’t trust Suge. So we didn’t know who to trust. It was scary.

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Smalls and Shakur in 1996. Once close, they became bitter enemies in the rap wars.

RGR COLLECTION / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

JOHN FILDES (UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER) I was at home that night, and I never saw Tupac and I never treated him. But as the director of trauma at University hospital, I personally know all the physicians who treated him in trauma and who operated on him and who cared for him in the ICU. He had low blood pressure and was treated with IV fluids and blood and immediately prepped for the OR. He also was intubated and artificially ventilated. He went to the operating room and he had life-saving surgery and then was taken to the ICU and was managed minute by minute, 24 hours a day. A lot of the physicians didn’t know who he was when he came in. They didn’t realize until later that evening, or till the next day, that Tupac was of importance to the media and the arts. So he was treated cutting-edge, he was treated aggressively, and he was treated well, like every other patient gets treated.

GOBI RAHIMI The first night, they had him on the first floor, and he was visible from outside the windows. I felt like I was Enzo the Baker—the Persian version. It was unreal [Tupac] was the number one rapper in the world, and it became so clear that a Black man didn’t “deserve” what white people did. I called the cops, and they were like, “Should something happen, there’s a foot patrolman in the hospital. We’re a little understaffed right now.” The security guard started laughing. He told me there was a rodeo star that had broken a leg the year before, and they gave him four policemen around the clock and six honey wagons for his family. After the fact, I learned that a couple of the Outlawz [Tupac’s former group] were outside and had gats with them, and they were ready to blast anyone who came in.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL (AFRICAN AMERICAN STUDIES CHAIR, DUKE UNIVERSITY) It surprised no one that he stayed alive for another week. It was just something about his spirit and his nature. We talked about him, broadly, as kind of a warrior. It wasn’t a surprise that he fought to stay alive for so long.

JOHN FILDES The kind of gunshot wound that he had is immediately fatal for most people. And for those who survive the surgery—a surgery that required removal of a lung—80 percent of them don’t survive. He survived that injury better than any other patient in my 30-year career.

GOBI RAHIMI I didn’t go in and see him, for whatever reason, until the fifth night. It was a horrific sight. His head was twice the size of normal, and everywhere that he had a bullet wound had a patch of gauze. I went up and put my hand on his arm, said a little prayer, and walked out.

RYAN D ROLLINS (RAPPER) Days passed, and then somebody close to the situation called me and told me that he’d died that morning. I remember thinking it was weird. I just knew in a minute we were gonna hook back up. I’d come down to Hollywood or wherever he was. I was just like, “Wow, it’s over that quick.”

KHALIL KAIN (ACTOR) I was on this show called Lush Life when Pac passed. And Lori Petty was the one who told me. We were setting up a closer. Lori came up from behind the camera: “Your boy just died.” We were on the Warner Bros. lot, on the soundstage. I walked right off the set. I sat down outside the door on the soundstage and just cried my eyes out.

CATHY SCOTT I walked into the coroner’s office and said, “I’m looking for the coroner’s report on Lesane Crooks.” [Tupac’s real name] The woman handed me the report for a five-dollar fee. I was back in the newsroom for about five minutes when she called and said, “We made a mistake. I shouldn’t have given that to you because it’s an open investigation. Would you return it?” I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t.” I got that autopsy report almost immediately because I knew the police were just shutting down everything. Orlando Anderson went home on Saturday.

In the first 24 hours, Compton PD got the Cadillac [used in the shooting], which went back to this auto repair shop. So they did bodywork on it and got rid of bullet holes because Tupac’s entourage shot back. CPD is saying Orlando Anderson is bragging to all of South Central that he shot Tupac. They shared that intelligence, and Las Vegas cops did not do a thing. After the beatdown at the casino, they didn’t even take his name. They didn’t even do an incident report. It was a really shoddy investigation into one of the biggest murder cases in Las Vegas history, including the mob.

GREG KADING Las Vegas PD knew that Orlando Anderson was the primary suspect in their case. They knew that he had gotten into a fight with Tupac and knew that he had been involved in other violent crimes and knew that other members of the South Side Crips were in Vegas. These weren’t incompetent investigators that were trying not to solve the crime.

CATHY SCOTT I think that [the Las Vegas police] are partly responsible for all the conspiracy theories surrounding the case because they didn’t just come straight out and say what happened. It was as if they didn’t care enough to solve it. If it had been a white rapper—if it had been Eminem—or if it had been a white singer who did a different genre of music, they would have solved the crime. They just looked at [Tupac] as a thug. They could easily just name Orlando Anderson as the killer, close that case. They won’t do it. It’s almost like it is stubbornness on their part.Because all the evidence points to it.

GREG KADING Of course, in 1998, Orlando died. Until we got involved, we didn’t even actually know exactly who was in the car. And nearly everybody in there has died. Like universal karma. Orlando died in the exact same way that he should have died. Like, perfect justice.

KENDRICK WELLS I recorded some footage for a song called “Unconditional Love.” It was originally entitled “Things Change.” Tupac went to Tower Records and grabbed this sample. And Johnny J hooked that shit up, like, instantly. They brought in a bass player, a guitar player, and a keyboard player in the making of this song. Johnny J and Tupac are bantering back and forth, having fun, laughing. And, you know, recently I was looking at that footage, and it was like that was the last of the peaceful times. They’re all having fun. I look at this video and I’m like, “Damn, four dudes in this video are dead.”

From CHANGES: An Oral History of Tupac Shakur. Copyright 2021 by Sheldon Pearce. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.