A 2001 documentary from Santa Monica-based production company Xenon Pictures, called Welcome to Death Row, tells the story of Suge Knight's infamous imprint, and its producers are publishing interviews conducted for the film in a book next year. With the company's blessing, we began excerpting some of that material yesterday, focusing on the making of The Chronic.
See also: The Making of The Chronic
Today we focus on the longstanding rumor that Suge Knight once dangled Vanilla Ice over a balcony, threatening to drop him to his death. It remains part of hip-hop lore despite Ice's insistence that it never happened. But even if it's apocryphal the story surrounding Knight and Ice's “Ice Ice Baby”-era encounter is interesting nonetheless.
VIRGIL ROBERTS (attorney and former Solar president): Suge first came to see Dick Griffey (the founder of Solar Records, who partnered with Knight) because he was managing a young guy named Mario Johnson, aka “Chocolate,” who had written a number of songs on a Vanilla Ice album…Chocolate had gotten some credit on the album, but they hadn't paid him. They wouldn't return his phone calls.
MARIO JOHNSON: The album was actually released on Ichiban Records in 1989. I couldn't get in contact with [Vanilla Ice] but the record wasn't doing anything at the time. When the video hit BET, the record took off.
JAY KING (producer): The problem for Vanilla Ice was that he was blacker than most of us. And he put himself in a world he was never gonna get out of. He was too black for white folks and he was never gonna be black enough for black folks. But he sold [millions of] albums before it stopped working.
MARIO JOHNSON: I remember bein' at Vanilla Ice's attorney's office. I found out his album had two million pre-orders before it was [released] so I knew we had a big record…Suge didn't know how to handle a big potential lawsuit like that — a record of six, seven million, at the low end. When we started the lawsuit, the record was still climbing like hotcakes so we needed somebody to consult with us, instead of just tryin' to do it ourselves.
SUGE KNIGHT*: The thing happened so fast, it blew up so quick they tell me, “Look, we'll give you a couple of dollars if you'll let bygones be bygones.” I wouldn't go for it.
VIRGIL ROBERTS: Dick told Suge, “How do I know this guy wrote the songs?” So Suge brought Chocolate into the office. And I interviewed Chocolate — and he was able to produce handwritten sheets for songs like “Ice Ice Baby” and explained how he and Vanilla Ice had actually worked together in a club in Texas. And he had a girlfriend who'd been at the kitchen table when he'd written these songs. He put together a pretty good case that he was entitled to be paid for these songs and hadn't been. So Dick and I ended up making a deal for Suge and Chocolate with Sony Music's publishing company. And Sony paid a substantial advance, and when I say “substantial” I mean hundreds of thousands of dollars to Chocolate for doing this publishing deal. And that was the first business transaction we did for Suge.
DICK GRIFFEY: We had to sue EMI and [Vanilla Ice] to recover that money.
MARIO JOHNSON: We knew where [Vanilla Ice] was staying because I was supposed to be hearing some tracks he was doing. He wanted me to come by myself. But Suge said, “I'm going with you”.
VANILLA ICE**: I went to my hotel room and Suge was in there with several people. He let me know he wanted to get some points off the record “Ice Ice Baby.” Suge took me out on the balcony, started talking to me personally. He had me look over the edge, showing me how high I was up there. I needed to wear a diaper that day. I was an “investor” in Death Row Records with no return on my money.
MARIO JOHNSON: When we went to the hotel that day, it was strictly for conversation. Nobody got pushed — nobody argued, no shoving — nothing…When we got there everything was peaceful. Attorney David Kenner showed up, took a statement, and we got all our paperwork together. We didn't make [Vanilla Ice] sign papers. Our attorneys, through Sony, fought my case against Vanilla Ice.
VANILLA ICE: He didn't hang me off from any balcony, okay? The story's been kind of blown out of proportion and I want to clarify that Suge and I have no bad feelings towards each other.
MARIO JOHNSON: Vanilla Ice made so much up in his mind, he actually started believing it. Cause I was there; no threatening, no nothin'. We had a normal conversation. He tried to pay Suge for my flight ticket for comin' out there to produce stuff…We sued using normal courts and attorneys. You just heard it from me. It was more than a year in the settlement of that lawsuit that Chocolate finally got paid. Doesn't mean [Vanilla Ice] didn't get hung over a balcony, but if he did, it didn't make him pay.
*Suge Knight quotes taken from a 1996 BET interview
**Vanilla Ice quotes taken from a 1999 episode of Behind the Music
See also: The Making of The Chronic