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Michael Harris’ story ranges from Death Row Records to freedom

Death Row co-founder Harry O had his sentence commuted on Donald Trump’s last day as president

In Donald Trump’s final act as commander in chief, the now-former president unleashed a flurry of pardons and commutations. The list included political allies such as former chief strategist Steve Bannon and musicians such as Lil Wayne and Kodak Black, both of whom have expressed vocal support for the 45th president.

One of the most interesting of the 143 people who Trump granted freedom is Michael “Harry O” Harris, whose story is tied to a business institution revered for both its unparalleled success and unmatched infamy.

In 1991, Marion “Suge” Knight stepped into the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles. Not as an inmate, but as a visitor. He was there to see Michael Harris, better known on the streets as “Harry O.” Harris was a Bounty Hunter Blood who had amassed a fortune in the 1980s’ most lucrative and dangerous industry: cocaine. But by the time of Knight’s visit, Harris was in the early stages of a lengthy sentence for attempted murder and drug trafficking. Harris had heard about Knight, a former college football player (and briefly an NFL scab) and bodyguard who had moved into the music industry. Following Dr. Dre’s split with N.W.A., influenced by an alleged physical altercation between Knight and Eazy-E, Knight and Dr. Dre were working on a project that would define their new label. They needed money, yet Knight wasn’t interested in going to the expected corporate outlets for the resources.

A 1994 release party given by Interscope/Death Row Records for Snoop Dogg’s (left, with Dr. Dre) record Murder Was the Case.

Mark Peterson/Corbis/Getty Images

“I knew the difference between having a record label and an organization,” Knight would later say in his record label’s historic 1996 VIBE feature. “First goal was to own our masters. Without your master tapes, you ain’t s—. Period.”

Harris was no stranger to the entertainment industry. In 1988, he helped finance a show in which Denzel Washington made his Broadway debut. Through a mutual acquaintance, attorney David Kenner, Harris came to learn of the enterprising young Knight and an agreement was made. Harris had money to invest and he believed in Knight’s vision and Dr. Dre’s promise to deliver as a solo artist. Godfather Entertainment became known as Death Row Records.

In the label’s earliest days, Harris’ influence was well known and enforced. There was a specific phone in Death Row Records’ office dedicated to taking Harris’ calls. One night in 1992, Knight found two rappers using the phone. They initially refused to hang up, and Knight eventually caught assault charges for his punishment of both.

For a few years in the ’90s, Death Row was the symbol of Black power and dominance. It helped acquit Snoop Dogg of charges in a murder case and secured Tupac Shakur’s freedom following a sexual assault conviction. Yet, almost simultaneously, it was hammered by Dr. Dre’s departure, Shakur’s death, Snoop Dogg bolting to No Limit Records and Knight’s incarceration. As the years passed and Death Row’s influence plummeted, so did the acknowledgment of Harris’ role. In 2005, Knight was ordered to pay Lydia Harris $107 million for her 50% stake in Death Row and in unpaid royalties. In the final moments of Trump’s presidency, it was one of the label’s flagship talents, Snoop Dogg, who quietly pushed the idea that Harris could be released after three decades locked down.

President Donald Trump announced 143 pardons and commutations as he left office, including the commutation of Michael Harris’ sentence.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Now 58, Harris is far removed from the street impresario he once prided himself on being. Most of his life has been spent in prison. Meanwhile, the company he helped start in Death Row was forced into bankruptcy and is now owned by Hasbro (of My Little Pony fame). Which makes his pardon all the more fascinating. Harris, who was originally staring at a 2028 release, is now a free man thanks to a president who during protests this past summer repeatedly emphasized the need for law and order.

Interestingly, though, Harris is just the latest connection between hip-hop and Trump. The genre once honored him as a symbol of capitalist success. He enjoyed support from Kanye West, demanded A$AP Rocky be released from a Swedish prison and saw Ice Cube, Lil Wayne and Kodak Black align themselves with him for varying reasons in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election. But in recent years, opinion has done an about-face and artists such as Jay-Z, Snoop and T.I. became harsh critics of the president and YG and Nipsey Hussle released the profane, yet prolific anthem “FDT.”

It’s difficult to think of a label with more of a public downfall than Death Row — which is why a quarter century after its peak it remains as fascinating as ever to examine. After 30 years, Harry O is now free, a survivor of both prison and a label whose name foretold its future. Shakur was killed less than a year after agreeing to sign on. Knight, the quintessential rap villain who once so effortlessly wove fear and unparalleled success, will likely spend the rest of his days in the belly of the beast. Only Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg are seen as Death Row’s survivors. So many ancillary figures never found happiness or success after their time on Death Row. The game has always been the game.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.