Competition between rival record companies is natural, but when it came to the premier rap labels, Death Row and Bad Boy, the rivalry went from nasty to vicious to deadly in short order. Despite many denials and explanations issued by both companies, the antagonism between the labels was at least partly fueled by their larger than life founders, Suge Knight of Death Row and Puffy Combs of Bad Boy.
Marion 'Suge' Knight was raised on the same streets in Compton, California, where the infamous street gang, the Bloods, made their name. His parents called him "Sugar Bear" as a child because of his sweet nature, and the nickname stayed with him, later shortened to "Suge." He didn't run with the gangs when he was in high school, preferring to play sports and capitalize on his extra large size. He grew to be six-foot, three-inches and weighed over 300 pounds, and eventually played professional football with the Los Angeles Rams during the strike-plagued 1988-89 season. He worked as a bodyguard for singer Bobby Brown, then in 1990 started promoting gangsta rap acts. Two years later he formed Death Row Records in association with Interscope Records. But according to Ronin Ro in his book Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records, the seed money for Death Row came from a convicted drug dealer named Michael Harris who put up $1.5 million. Death Row went on to make hundreds of millions of dollars, but allegedly Harris never saw a return on his investment.
As the prime mover behind gangsta rap, Suge Knight was able to walk the walk, reportedly doling out beatings to whoever crossed him. Though he had avoided the Bloods when he was growing up, he embraced them when he became head of Death Row, allying himself with the Mob Piru Bloods (named after Piru Street in Compton) and proudly wearing the Blood color, red. He had red suits and fedoras made for himself and even had his house painted red.
Bad Boy founder Puffy Combs was a straight arrow by comparison. Though Combs often said that his father was a Harlem drug dealer, according to Randall Sullivan in his book LAbrynth, Combs's father died when Puffy was two-and-a-half-years-old. Combs had attended an all-white Catholic school and became an altar boy. At age 11, his family moved to suburban Westchester County, north of New York City, where Combs worked two paper routes. He later went to an all-boys prep school in Manhattan, then enrolled at Howard University where he majored in business administration. His drive to succeed and knack for discovering musical talent earned him a job with Uptown Records where at the age of 22 he became vice president for A&R. Threatened by the up-and-comer, the president of Uptown fired Combs, but the young entrepreneur bounced back a few months later, signing "a $15 million distribution deal with Arista Records." (Combs would later brag that his company, unlike Death Row, was founded with legitimate money.)
The former altar boy did have his problems with the law, a condition that became de rigueur for anyone who was anyone in the rap world. In December 1999, Combs was arrested and charged with gun possession and bribery after a shooting incident at Club New York, a Manhattan night club. Victims testified that they had been shot by Combs who fled the scene with his then-girlfriend singer/actress Jennifer Lopez. He allegedly offered his driver a bribe if he would claim that a gun found in Combs's Lincoln Navigator belonged to him. Combs, who was represented by attorney Johnnie Cochran, was ultimately acquitted on all charges.
Over the years Bad Boy Entertainment has been rumored to have an affiliation with the Crips gang, the arch rivals of the Bloods, using them for security work, but Combs has always denied any official alliance between his company and the Crips.