On Nov. 14, 2005, a SWAT team filed into the Monterey courthouse and took up positions around the third-floor courtroom, automatic weapons at the ready. Outside, more law enforcement personnel patrolled the halls and balcony, securing a perimeter around Judge Adrienne Glover’s courtroom.
When sheriffs brought the plaintiff into the courtroom wearing a prison jumpsuit and handcuffs to meet with his estranged wife, the door was locked behind them. Michael and Lydia Harris greeted each other pleasantly and sat down with their respective lawyers. The unusual meeting was set up so the prisoner and his wife could figure out how to split $107 million.
So began the most heavily armed divorce hearing in Monterey County history, and one of the last chapters of the remarkable tale of Death Row Records, the legendary rap label that boasted a history as violent and flawed as it was brilliant and influential.
In March of 2005 a Los Angeles judge had awarded Lydia Harris a $107 million civil court judgment in a lawsuit against Marion “Suge” Knight, the bigger-than-life hip-hop mogul. The judgment vindicated her claims that she had co-founded Death Row Records with $1.5 million seed money provided by her husband, Michael “Harry O” Harris, a cocaine kingpin doing 28 years for conspiracy to commit murder and drug trafficking, and who also happened to have an impressive and diverse track record as a legitimate businessman.
In siding with Harris, the judge effectively threw the switch on Death Row Records, killing the landmark West Coast hip-hop label that sold 18 million albums and earned more than $325 million in its first four years alone with renowned talent like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. After skipping several court hearings and refusing to disclose his assets, Suge Knight finally filed for bankruptcy on April 4 in a last-ditch effort to avoid losing control of the valuable Death Row library.
It was an ignoble end to the once-glorious label that expanded on the style of West Coast gangsta rap made famous by artists like N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) while sparking a deadly bicoastal feud and making a martyr of its most famous artist, the fiery young Tupac Shakur. It is the stuff of dark legend, a tale of artistic genius, ruthless ambition, betrayal and murder set to a Compton Boulevard bump. And at its center stood Suge Knight, an indelibly scary icon with trademark bling, cigar, and the unspoken promise of violence.
But while Suge Knight glowered from magazine covers and television screens over the last 10 years, few outside the inner circle of Death Row records knew about the label’s silent partner, a shadowy but highly respected man who was represented by his loyal wife, “Lady Boss,” and a little black phone in the Death Row recording studio that only received collect calls, a line that was to remain open under all circumstances.
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Michael Harris and Lydia Robinson were introduced in a Houston nightclub in 1985. Born and raised in Houston, Robinson came from a close family. Her parents both worked, her mother for a glass company and her father at Delta Airlines, and she was brought up with a strong determination to succeed.
The critically-acclaimed 2001 documentary Welcome to Death Row tells a bit of Michael Harris’ story, and his upbringing couldn’t have been more different. Precocious and intelligent, he came up on the streets of South Central Los Angeles and learned how to survive by slinging dope on the street corner. Through his wits and instinct, he beat the odds and survived, transforming himself into Harry O—one of the original gangstas, the type of urban icon that, for better or worse, inspired a generation of hip-hop artists.
Over the course of the ‘80s, according to the documentary, Harry O built his small operation into a multi-state cocaine distribution empire with connections to the Columbian drug cartel. But the 26-year-old was a smart man and saw that he needed to legitimize his fortune. Soon after he met Lydia in the Houston nightclub, Harry O became the first African-American to ever produce a Broadway hit. The comedy Checkmates starred two relatively little-known actors named Denzel Washington and Vanessa Williams.
“He’s a brilliant entrepreneur. He’s a visionary. He’s a very, very smart black man. No one can take that away from him,” Lydia Harris told me by phone from Houston, where she raises the couple’s 10-year-old daughter, LyDasia.
Yet in her memoir, Married To The Game, Lydia Harris is also circumspect about her husband’s early line of work.
“The lack of legitimate opportunities in black urban society is what Michael calls ‘slave economics,’ and, yes, he profited from it. It’s a complicated thing, and I doubt that it’s going away because it’s everywhere and because it’s incredibly attractive to many, many young African-American males,” she writes.
In her memoir, Lydia Harris describes the allure of her future husband. “Just meeting Mike, just that moment, showed me a totally new lifestyle,” she writes. “Upscale, you know. Just completely different than what I was used to. Different people with different ways of handling themselves. Little things, like opening a car door for me.”
In some ways Michael Harris had a very different way of handling himself. According to her book, early on Harris offered Lydia $100,000 to have his baby.
“I couldn’t have a baby for money,” Lydia writes. “I’d want to raise my own child, and the father and I would have to be married.”
Although a groundbreaking businessman and a door-opening gentleman, Harry O was also a criminal. Yet Lydia Harris claims she had no idea what kind of business he was in when they met.
“I didn’t even know what drugs were,” she told me. “I just heard it after the fact. That was another side of the life I didn’t know about and didn’t need to know about. People would say ‘Oh, Michael’s a drug dealer.’ But to me he’s saying, ‘I don’t do drugs.’”
Months after meeting Michael and falling in love with him, Lydia found herself on the first of many, many hard courtroom benches.
“When I started going to court for Michael, I just sat back and listened and observed. And during the trial I really saw for the first time who Michael ‘Harry O’ Harris really was,” Lydia Harris writes. “But somehow I managed not to dwell on Harry O. I just concentrated on the man who chose me out of all the other girls and wanted me to have his baby.”
Harris says she chose not to think about what he had done.
“He asked, ‘Would you hang in with me?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’ll hang in there with you.’ It’s do or die. It’s not what he told me to do, it’s what I did do and my word is bond,” she says. “A great deal of loyalty. When I’m down wit’ you, I’m down wit’ you.”
So began the unusual but undeniably resilient and long partnership of Michael and Lydia Harris.
“We never lived together,” she says. “When he was sentenced it was devastating.”
Over the next 15 years, Lydia Harris visited Michael every weekend as he made the rounds from the Federal Detention Center in downtown LA to San Quentin to Pelican Bay to Tehachapi to Lancaster to Soledad and back to San Quentin. They were married inside Lancaster State Prison by the same judge who had sentenced Harry O to prison. In 1994, the couple conceived their daughter during a conjugal visit.
“It certainly wasn’t normal, but I make the best of it,” Lydia says. “I make it normal. I draw strength from my belief in God, my faith. I have to switch to be a mother, a businesswoman, a wife. Now I have to be a single parent. I have to maintain my sanity.”
According to her memoir and the documentary, Harry O placed a great deal of trust in Lydia—and in a lawyer named David Kenner—to manage and expand his empire while he was in prison. Despite his heavy sentence, Harry O was flush with the success of his Broadway venture and interested in expanding his interests in the entertainment business.
“I always loved music but I never thought I’d be in the entertainment business,” Lydia says. “But Michael had a passion for music. It was his dream.”
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Around the same time that Harry O met Lydia in that Houston nightclub, LA’s Ruthless Records released the now-classic album, Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A. Loaded with songs like “F**k Tha Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta,” the album eventually went triple platinum, made stars of Eric “Eazy E” Wright and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, and changed the landscape of the music industry.
Thanks primarily to Eazy E, a street dealer who openly admitted he sold crack to finance the label, N.W.A. and Ruthless Records had a reputation for criminality. According to the documentary, Eazy E posted bail for a young man named Andre “Dr. Dre” Young on the condition he lay down tracks for the album in repayment. Dre would go on to become one of rap’s greatest producers.
Of course, Eazy E didn’t know this at the time, and made the mistake of not paying Dre for his work. As a result, Dre fell in with a local heavy named Suge Knight, a hulking 6’4” ex-NFL lineman who’d broken into the music business as a bodyguard for Bobby Brown, and had a thug reputation from a story that he had dangled Vanilla Ice over a balcony to force him to pay royalties. (Vanilla Ice denies Knight dangled him over the balcony, but says he paid up regardless.)
It was the beginning of Knight’s legend and a glimpse of the street gang business tactics to come.
According to a lawsuit filed by Eazy E, Suge Knight and some associates busted into the offices of Ruthless Records and physically intimidated Eazy and his partner Jerry Heller with baseball bats until they agreed to sign an artist release for Dr. Dre.
Meanwhile, according to Lydia Harris, Harry O had decided he was going to make her a star after hearing her sing over the telephone. To accomplish this he had her record a demo for a local producer with ties to Dr. Dre and Suge Knight. Harry O and Knight talked over the phone and the next day Lydia met with Knight at Solar Studios.
According to Harris, Knight seemed more interested in her husband’s money than in her music, but Dre listened to Lydia’s demo and told her he could remix it. The album was never to materialize. Instead, in late 1991, Suge Knight, Lydia and Michael Harris, along with the lawyer David Kenner, founded a company called Godfather Entertainment. Michael Harris bought 50 percent ownership of the venture with a $1.5 million investment.
“When we started Godfather Entertainment, Michael would always say, ‘Lyd, make sure you always document everything—you know, keep records of everything.’ And at the time I didn’t know anything about anything, really, so I just followed his directions. What paperwork I didn’t keep, David Kenner had on file for the company, as part of a good-faith agreement with us.”
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For Harry O, incarceration was a major impingement on his ability to effectively run his new business. He had to rely on Kenner and his wife, who had little business experience. As a result, Lydia Harris says, Kenner was able to ingratiate himself as her confidant, and became integrally involved in the business while remaining the sole point of contact between Suge Knight and Michael Harris.
With the influx of money from his new investor, Suge refurbished a recording studio, founded Death Row Records as an arm of Godfather, and finished the label’s first album, Dr. Dre’s mega-selling masterpiece The Chronic.
To launch Death Row, Knight threw a glitzy party at Chasen’s in Beverly Hills. The party marked the beginning of a stupendous rise in fortune for Knight and Death Row Records. At the party, David Kenner, during a videotaped interview, raised his glass and said, “Special thanks to Harry O!” The tape was eventually confiscated by the FBI.
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Death Row’s fortunes proceeded to skyrocket. The label had no problem finding talent. Every hip-hop artist on the West Coast wanted in. Suge Knight created a family environment underlined by a constant and oddly paternal threat of violence. Albums went platinum, hype exploded and Suge became a folk hero who ruled his empire with an iron fist.
When he began appearing on the covers of magazines alongside his artists, Harry O told him he was making a mistake, that glitzy exposure would only increase his vulnerability. Knight ignored his incarcerated partner’s advice and eventually began ignoring Michael Harris altogether. Harry O suspected that his own lawyer was spending more time defending Suge Knight and Death Row’s stable of legally-troubled artists than he was trying to get him out of prison. The Death Row documentary points out that, at the time, David Kenner was dealing with six pending cases for Death Row, including murder charges against a bodyguard that implicated one of the label’s biggest stars, Snoop Dogg.
Simultaneously, a media storm was brewing over the Death Row stable’s raunchy and violent lyrics. Led by conservatives like William Bennett and Dan Quayle and bolstered by support from the National Political Congress of Black Women and centrists like Joe Lieberman, Washington DC applied pressure on gangsta rap and ultimately convinced Time Warner to sell its stake in Interscope back to Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field, the young team that had founded the label.
Meanwhile, Michael Harris told his wife he suspected Suge Knight had an interest in keeping him in prison, and might be instructing Kenner not to work on his case, according to her memoir.
Even more worrying were the indications that Knight was wheeling and dealing independently behind Michael Harris’ back. Suddenly that open telephone line was busy or no one answered when Harris tried to call. At the heart of the problem, Lydia Harris writes, stood Kenner, who played Suge and Harry O against each other.
From prison, Michael Harris began to believe he was being crossed by both sides. Michael responded by putting down his grievances in a lawsuit. When that lawsuit was shown to Interscope, Iovine and Field quickly settled with Harris, according to the documentary.
Meanwhile, although Death Row continued to produce multi-platinum albums by Snoop Dogg and Dre, Suge Knight’s draconian rule over Death Row began to dissolve into chaos.
According to Harris, as Suge got more and more involved in the real gang culture, things got out of hand.
In 1995 Knight signed a firebrand named Tupac Shakur, who was poised to become one of the great icons of hip hop. Knight bailed the young Shakur out of jail after allegedly signing him to a contract on toilet paper.
Shakur was released in September of 1995, went right down to Death Row Records and began recording All Eyes On Me, an album that would become the biggest selling hip-hop album of all time.
At the same time, a rift opened between West Coast-based Death Row and East Coast-based Bad Boy Entertainment. The media-fed conflict would spawn violent and lyrical reprisals and ultimately cost both labels the lives of their best artists, Tupac Shakur and Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace.
Snoop Dogg responded by getting an attorney and leaving Death Row Records; Dr. Dre wasn’t far behind, ditching the label he had helped establish. It was the beginning of the end for Suge Knight and Death Row Records. By 1996, all of Death Row’s primary talent was either dead or gone. Then Knight’s own legal problems began to catch up with him.
According to Reuters and Associated Press reports, the government had begun keeping tabs on Knight in the early 1990s, shortly after he and Dre had launched Death Row. As part of the probe, prosecutors tried to establish whether Knight’s label was underwritten with drug money from Harry O, but no money laundering charges were filed.
Knight had eight criminal cases on his rap sheet before he wound up in prison. He was incarcerated in October 1996 when a judge determined that he had violated his probation on a previous assault conviction by kicking a man in a Las Vegas hotel a month earlier. (Incidentally, just hours after the scuffle in the Las Vegas hotel, Shakur was shot to death in the passenger seat of Knight’s car as they drove to an after-party.) As a result, Suge Knight served two sentences for assault and conspiracy to possess a weapon in Mule Creek State Prison.
When Knight was released in 2001, he tried to revive Death Row with little success. In December 2002 he was jailed again for violating his probation by associating with gang members, the same year that Lydia Harris initially filed her civil lawsuit for unpaid royalties and profits, claiming she was entitled to a 50 percent stake in Death Row Records. After Knight’s second release, he was jailed yet again in 2003, for assault.
It’s been downhill for Suge ever since.
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According to his lawyer, Steven Goldberg, Michael Harris filed for divorce in June 2005 when he learned Lydia Harris was engaged in independent settlement negotiations with Suge.
“There were negotiations between Knight and Lydia in an attempt to settle the case that Michael had been formerly unaware of,” Goldberg says.
By filing divorce papers from Soledad prison, Harris was able to impede any settlement talks between his wife and Knight, and guaranteed that his divorce case would be heard here in Monterey County. Lydia Harris, for her part, denies she ever tried to cut her husband out.
“Yes, I spoke with Suge Knight’s attorney. I no longer had an attorney so I just had to negotiate. I had the right to do it and it got misconstrued to Michael,” she says. “They didn’t come to him with the right story.
“You been locked up all those years, you already angry. You hear your wife doing something behind your back. You going to react,” she continues. “It’s the divide-and-conquer strategy. I’m so privy and close to it because I saw the same moves between Suge and Michael Harris as Michael and Lydia Harris. They manipulate and try to show another picture. They been speculating.
“This case never should have got into my personal relationship and that’s what caused all the problems today,” she says. “Everyone’s so worried about my personal relationship.”
On Aug. 29, 2005, a day after Suge Knight was shot in the leg at a party, Judge Adrienne Grover added his name as an “interested party” to the divorce of Lydia and Michael Harris—a move that placed a block on Knight’s accounts.
Earlier this month, after four no-shows at court-mandated hearings, Knight heard from Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sohigian that he would take control of everything Knight owned, including Death Row and its valuable library of master recordings, unless he presented documents revealing the location and extent of his assets.
On April 14, the morning he was likely to be held for contempt and that his assets were to be placed in receivership, Knight filed petitions for bankruptcy on behalf of himself and Death Row. According to Steve Goldberg, the move will only forestall the inevitable.
“It’ll be a lengthy process, but Knight is going to have to make full disclosure of his assets in bankruptcy court. If he fails, that’s a felony. You can get prison time for it,” Goldberg says. “The bankruptcy court has nationwide powers to gather his assets and then they do get reserved and ultimately liquidated and distributed to his creditors, the primary being the Harrises.”
According to an April 5 Los Angeles Times article, the other creditors listed in the petitions include the Internal Revenue Service, owed $11.3 million, and the law firm of Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil and Shapiro, owed $350,000. Goldberg says all of Knight’s creditors, first and foremost the IRS, are likely to get paid.
“He’s got homes, cars, jewelry, and cash, but the real value is in the music library,” Goldberg says. “Knight and Death Row have a very, very valuable music library. Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, and others. That’s something that will be collected and auctioned. It’s worth in excess of the debt.”
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After six hours of discussion in Judge Grover’s Monterey County courtroom, Michael and Lydia Harris agreed to divide the $107 million.
“[Lydia] basically thought that since they started the business together [they were partners],” says Debra Crawford, Lydia Harris’ divorce lawyer. “[and] they worked together. He was in prison when they started the business.”
Michael Harris may even be able to enjoy the money before long. Goldberg says Harry O’s criminal lawyers are optimistic that their client may be released in as little as a year.
(Interestingly, according to the documentary and Lydia Harris’ memoir, Michael Harris was given an opportunity to get out of prison in 1996 in exchange for testifying against Suge Knight. He refused. This year marks his 17th year of imprisonment.)
Today, Lydia Harris owns a small restaurant in Texas and dotes on her daughter LyDasia. Yet nearly two decades after settling into her first hard courtroom bench to stand by her man, she finds herself still stuck in the court system.
Despite the major victory against Suge Knight, her long saga of legal troubles are far from over. She still has a number of pending cases, including a suit against Xenon Pictures, the company that made Welcome to Death Row.
“All these past years seem to have been filled with people talking at me and about me, people on the fringe, people wanting to walk through me to get whatever it is they think I have, wanting to get to the music and the money,” Harris writes in Married To The Game.
Yet somehow, against all odds, despite the battlefield of tragedy and genius that was Death Row records, Lydia Harris stayed true to her husband and her conscience just long enough to get paid.