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. (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 Aaron Hernandez [url=http://www.cybermondayfinals.com/]wholesale jerseys Jerseys[/url] 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 jerseys wholesale to Tehachapi to Lancaster to Soledad and back to San Quentin. They were married inside Lancaster State Prison by the same judge who nfl store 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."