The Death of a Hip Hip Legend
"Death is not the greatest loss in life"
“Hello no, you my money, you ain’t gonna get in no fight, get over there…” If then manager Suge Knight would have only controlled his talent “Tupac would still be alive today.” These are the words of Tupac Shakur’s former body guard James McDonald aka Mob James describing the post match brawl in Las Vegas that culminated in the rap super-star being gunned 2 1/2 hours later at a traffic light in one of the city’s busiest thorough fares. The demise of one of the hip-hop worlds’ brightest stars is still one of the most infamous unsolved homicide cases in the U.S.
For decades there has been a flurry of speculation of who was both the mastermind and gunman in Tupac’s death, investigative journalism and research documentaries, as well as cold case detectives have come to a shaky consensus that Tupac’s death was strongly linked to the gangland rivalry of the Bloods and Crips of Compton L.A. Just how one of the most successful and famous musical talents of 90’s hip-hop ended up being victim to a gangland drive-by shooting is still hotly contested.
Many trace the beginning of Tupac’s homicide to the record label known as Death Row and its infamous company chief Marion “Suge” Knight. Death Row was a stronghold of talent, intimidation and gang affiliation. Founded in 1992 by a handful of hip-hop talent, including Dr. Dre, Death Row was one of the biggest producers of the most influential hip-hop of that decade. The label made starts of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog and Tupac Shakur. At its speak success Death Row was generating over $100 million dollars a year.
Yet with its rise, it steeped ever deeper into the formal world. From the mid 90’s, Suge Knight had rose to prominence and eventually took full control of the label through violence, intimidation and extortion. With Suge Knight at its helm Death Row began to take on an even deeper criminal connection. The label was located in the affluent Beverly Hills neighborhood of L.A. The building itself was decorated in all red, as a tribute to one of L.A.’s most violent criminal elements, the Compton Bloods.
To ensure his dominance at the record label Suge began to fill the building with paid thugs loyal to only him, ex-cops, ex-convicts and active Blood gang members. A anonymous music executive said back in 1997, “Some of the security guys… were gangsters just out of the penitentiary. They would look at you, staring right through you. No words would have to be said.” A metal decor was placed at the front door an a strict list of who could enter with a firearm was established. The menacing offices served as an appropriate front for the even shadier business practices of Suge and his cronies.
Stories of Suge and Death Row are infamous within the music industry. There were rumors of Suge personally beating a rival record label owner and forcing him to march naked in the Death Row offices. Another of Suge attending a board meeting in downtown L.A. executive offices with a gang member bodyguard who flashed his firearm when royalty negotiations hit an impasse. A lawsuit was filed against Death Row when a man was beaten to death at a Death Row party in early 1995.
These stories all fall in line with Suge’s actual criminal record, with a laundry list of aggravated assaults, possession of illegal fire arms and extortion. It was in this environment which Tupac was brought into the Death Row family. Tupac himself was famously split between what he himself referred to as his “good” and his “evil” sides. This was a product of his up bringing, and the ups and downs of his own family life. His mother Afeni Shakur and father Mutulu Shakur were both members of the Black Panthers and active in the Black Liberation Army.
Tupac Amaru Shakur
Tupac was born as Lesane Parish Crooks on June 16, 1971, a month after his mother was acquitted in the trial of the Panther 21 for conspiracy to detonate a bomb in a department store. His first name was given to him as a tribute to the last Incan Emperor who fought against the Spanish and died, “A warrior for his people”, while the surname Shakur was adopted by his parents, also as a flag of revolutionary resistance, as Afeni Shakur would later explain. Tupac’s early life in Baltimore was one of marginal privilege.
He attended a school for the arts and was noted for his dancing and acting skills. As Avra Warsofsky, a former classmate put it, “He was a dear, sweet person, there were inner city kids at the school who were tough, who stole—but he was not that, not one bit.” But this encouraging artistic environment would eventually collapse when Tupac’s living situation at home deteriorated during his late teens. His mother was estranged from his father and began abusing crack cocaine.
Soon his family were unable to pay rent, his mother hopped from one abusive relationship to another, even staying in multiple houses with the kids during the week. By the age of seventeen Tupac would get on a bus for California to escape his home life. But life in California would not start out so smoothly either. Tupac would recall later, “They teased me all the time. I couldn’t play basketball, I didn’t know who basketball players were. I was the target for… the street gangs. They used to jump me, things like that. I thought I was weird because I was writing the poetry and I hated myself, I used to keep it a secret. I was really a nerd.”
Tupac’s mother would eventually follow him to California where their relationship continued to be up and down. It wasn’t till his involvement with the hip-hop group Digital Underground did Tupac’s situation begin to improve and his road to the world of hip-hop began. At first employed as a dancer and then road manager, Tupac had begun making mix taps of his solo rap songs in his free time. One such tape found its way to one of the founders of Interscope records and Tupac was signed to the label in 1990.
The following year Tupac would release his debut album 2pacalypse Now. This album would set the tone for Tupac’s entire career. The album itself being a seething dissemination of the struggle between inner city youth and police brutality, and the fierce lyrics even caught the attention of then Vice President Dan Quayle. He went on to say that the lyrics in 2pacalypse Now had “no place in our society.” The controversy launched Tupac’s music into mainstream notoriety.
The second of Tupac’s albums would be his full induction into the world of gangster rap. Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z was a product of Tupac’s infatuation with gangster style, image and persona. Tupac’s former road manager Ma Mane would recall, “He started hanging around thugs. He would suck it up out of them and then use that, in his music and his acting. People would be saying, ‘Fred just got killed’…next thing you know, it’s in his song.” Yet as Tupac solidified his status in the hardcore rap scene, he was simultaneous gaining notoriety as a serious musical talent.
He would be bothered by the whispers of those in the rap scene that he was a “fake gangsta”, eventually incorporating more bravado and thug mannerisms that would make his public persona. The same road manager would go on to say, “Pac felt, I have to prove that I’m hard. I would say to him, ‘Most gangsters are people who wish they didn’t have to be hard.’” These qualities would come to play a role in the build up to his ultimate demise. Tupac’s stardom in the early 90’s hip-hop scene was prolific and notorious.
Born on the East Coast, but eventually moving to California, Tupac would make a name for himself on the West Coast, bringing a style of South Central L.A. to the forefront of hop-hop and making his own brand of “gangsta rap”. His first two solo albums, 2Pacalypse Now and Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z…, had launched Tupac into mainstream fame through his raw talent and closeness controversy. Tupac’s behavior became more and more aligned with his persona as an artist, as a hardened thug, a gangster.
Yet two events would come to first stunt and ultimately ignite his launching career and launch him in the stratosphere of super-stardom. The first of these events began on a 1994 on a trip in New York City as Tupac awaited trial for his involvement in a sexual assault case. The trial had been a huge blotch on what would have been an otherwise finically successful year. The mounting legal defense fees meant Tupac was taking contracts to make guest appearances on others artists albums.
The Quad Recording Studios Incident
He would feel increased finical strain despite his marketable success. On this same trip Tupac decided to drop in on his friend and confidant, another hip-hop legend in the making, Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace. The visit was pre-arranged as Tupac had come by Biggie’s studio in downtown Time Square Quad Recording Studios. Story has it, Tupac and his entourage arrived, and a friend yelled from upstairs that Wallace was there recording along with Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and a Bad Boy records entourage.
As Tupac entered the building, several men inside wore camouflage, a typical style of Brooklyn residents at the time, assuming these were part of Biggie’s own security detail. Tupac walked up causally to the men to greet them. He was met with several revealing their 9mm pistols and Tupac and his people were ordered lay down on the floor. Rather than listen to his would be assailants Tupac brandished his own pistol. In the flurry of single shots that followed, Tupac lay bleeding on the ground, and the camouflaged men set to taking his wallet and jewelry.
Playing dead until his shooters left the building, Tupac then dragged himself to the elevator and rode it to the top floor. As the elevator doors opened, Tupac’s first sight was of another group of men along with Biggie and Puff. In Tupac’s own words, “They looked surprised and guilty as hell”. Though all the men came to aid Tupac and call an ambulance, Tupac thought it unforgivable that Biggie not only did not know who the men who robbed him were, but was unable to find out the identity of his attackers.
“You don’t know who shot me in your hometown, these niggas from your neighborhood?”. This falling out would set the foundations for a East Coast vs. West Coat Rivalry in the hip-hop world. Only five days later a second event would dramatically change Tupac’s life. Tupac would be handed down a guilty verdict on charges of sexual assault in a New York hotel room the year prior, from what most legal experts agree was questionable evidence.
Having been brought to court in a wheel chair due to the cast around his leg from his gun wounds, Tupac would hold his hands in his head, his lawyers and family consoling him all the while. The guilty verdict brought with it a three and half year sentence pending bail of $1.4 million. The massive bail set, Tupac resigned himself to jail time, further financial peril and the possibility of his career ending as well. He could see how his gangster persona tied him to his fate as the jurors were surely influenced by his albums as much as the evidence.
As Tupac was quoted in Vibe magazine, “I can be free. When you do rap albums, you got to train yourself. You got to constantly be in character. You used to see rappers talking all that hard shit, and then you see them in suits and shit at the American Music Awards. I didn’t want to be that type of nigga. I wanted to keep it real, and that’s what I thought I was doing. But . . . let somebody else represent it. I represented it too much. I was thug life.”
As the sexual assault charges had originated in New York City, Tupac was incarcerated in Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York. There in prison, rumors started coming to him about Biggie and his Bad Boy entourage’s role in the shooting at the recording studio. First stories emerged that Biggie had known that the attack and robbery was planned that day.
Later it would be whispered to Tupac that Biggie himself had helped in organizing the plan. A commentator observed “But when Tupac was in jail he was getting letters from people saying Biggie had something to do with it, he started thinking about it, it got so out of hand, it grew—and once it got that big, publicly, you had to go with it.” As far as Tupac was concerned his friend had betrayed him. All he had then was time in his jail cell to ponder these accusations of betrayal.
Tupac and Death Row Records
A childhood friend of Tupac would say of his time in jail, “It was a terrible experience for him, to be captive, in a horrific situation, with guards threatening to kill him, inmates threatening to kill him… He said, ‘I have never had people demean me and disgrace me as they have in this jail.’” It was in these circumstances that Tupac came to the attention of Suge Knight and Death Row records. Tupac had met Suge before, the producer was a great admirer of the young rapper.
Suge was always eager to work with Tupac in the hopes that one day he might pry him from his own contract and bring him into Death Row as he had done with the likes of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog. Tupac’s seminal album Me Against the World, would reach no. 1 in the charts while Tupac still was incarcerated. The smashing reviews and sales could hardly be celebrated as even these proceeds were not enough to cancel his legal debt. With these fees still unpaid and bond set, Tupac had to mortgage his mother’s house to help fund these expenses.
By 1995, at Tupac’s own request, an appeal for help was sent directly to Suge Knight. He was informed that Tupac was broke and needed help to save his mother’s home. Suge, sensing an opportunity for leverage, immediately responded by providing Tupac’s mother with $15,000. Far from charity, the mogul knew he had the prolific talent right where he wanted him. “Suge sent $15,000 and put it on his books,” Reggie Wright Jr., Death Row’s head of security recalled.
What was known within the music community at this time that Death Row, was that Suge Knight was one of the most notorious businessmen and moguls in the music industry. Suge always looked to have power over his business and talent, being in debt was akin to a strangle-hold. Rather than reflect on the seriousness of the situation and debt he was in, Tupac was over joyed at first. He even requested that Suge come out to visit if he was able to.
With over 26,000 miles between Los Angeles and Upstate New York where Tupac was being held, there could hardly be a greater distance between two points in the U.S. Suge made the coast to coast trip several times. During these visits there is no record of what was said between Tupac and Suge Knight but after one visit another notorious moment in hip-hop history occurred. This visit in the summer of 1995 had come right on the eve of the Source’s second annual hip-hop awards.
East Coast vs. West Coast
Death Row records had spent considerable amounts of money in helping fund the award show and were being given the award for best soundtrack of the year for a film Tupac had started in, Above the Rim. Having seen Tupac only hours before Suge walked on stage and accepted the award. Rather than thanking his label and it’s employees, Suge instead launched a blistering attack on his East Coast counterpart Puff Daddy at Bad Boy Records.
“Any artist out there wanna be an artist, and wanna stay a star, and don’t have to worry about the executive producer trying to be all in the videos, all on the records, dancing… come to Death Row,” Suge announced. What involvement Tupac had in the outburst at the award ceremony can only be speculated. But his grudge against Biggie and Puff over the recording studio shooting surely would have come into play.
Suge Knight had been more than acquaintances with the Bad Boy pair before this night. Having several meetings with Puff Daddy over record industry strategies and ways to monopolise existing hip-hop contracts, Suge had even invited Biggie out to California at his expense the year prior. What is recorded were the prison logs for the night after the Source award ceremony. Suge had come straight back to Clinton Correctional to meet with Tupac after his blasting of Bad Boy records.
According to sources it was there that Tupac would sign a three album contract with Death Row Records set to begin whichever day Tupac would step out of jail. “I need you to ride with me because I’m going to destroy Bad Boy Records. I believe they had something to do with me getting shot,” Tupac would be quoted as saying. This would be the official beginning of Tupac’s involvement with Death Row Records and under the watch of Suge Knight.
What’s more, this was the first instance of the East Coast v. West Coast rivalry that would come to dominate the world of hip-hop in the mid 1990’s. “I know I’m selling my soul to the devil,” Tupac would tell a friend later after he had signed with Death Row. From the very beginning of Tupac’s tutelage under Suge Knight, his time with Death Row was fraught with problematic elements. The contract, wasn’t written in jail, and wouldn’t stand any legal scrutiny or above-board business arrangement.
Clearly Suge exploited the situation Tupac found himself in while in prison, and took every advantage to make his hold over him air tight. In the same contract, Suge had though to stipulate that Tupac be represented by the Death Row Record’s acting attorney and that for the next three albums Tupac would make, Suge would be his exclusive manager and Death Row the exclusive label he would be allowed to work with. For this, Tupac would be given a one million dollar advance.
After serving just eight months on a three-year sentence for a sexual assault charge, Tupac was released from Clinton Corrections. He again had Suge Knight to thank for posting his full bail and allowing for his early release from prison. Convinced that he had made fair trade of money for talent, and now reinvigorated with a vendetta against his now enemies at the Bad Boy label, Tupac got straight to work on his next album All Eyes On Me.
The work rate upon his person was immense, upon arriving in a Death Row acquired recording studio in the Bay Area California, Tupac set straight to writing. Reportedly he hammered out the lyrics and beats to one of the albums most famous tracks, Ambitionz Az a Ridah, just hours after his release. This was a blast track made with vimm and anger, quite possibly a reflection of the feeling of Biggie’s betrayal which haunted him during his incarnation.
Tupac’s workpace during his first weeks out of prison continued at a feverish pace. Given his new agreements with Death Row he was provided anything he wanted in the studio. Two independent rooms were set up which would simultaneously be working on different tracks for the Tupac album. He would leave halfway through one recording to begin working on another, then circle back. It was said that Tupac would often stay up all night after the recording staff and fallen asleep at the decks, he would only be taking in Cognac and chronic.
The effort was well worth it in the end. All Eyes On Me became one of the best selling and most finically lucrative albums in the history of Death Row and hip-hop in general. Gaining $10 million during its first week on the shelves and eventually going on to sell 10 million copies in the US alone. Suge had completed a master stroke for himself and Death Row. The record deal he completed with Tupac was strung out to be a cash-cow and would only get bigger now he had one of hip-hops biggest star under his control.
In an interview with Rolling Stones magazine in 1996, Suge would famously be quoted as saying, “They couldn’t make him a superstar. But the minute I got Pac out of prison…” Nor was the speed at which Tupac had produced these albums. With the contract written by the Death Row acting attorney and fixer David Kenner who now represented Tupac as well, an agreement was struct for three albums to be exclusively produced by Death Row.
All Eyes On Me was released as one of the first double disc hip-hop LP’s and in a single effort Tupac fulfilled two of the three Death Row albums he was contacted to. Yet even with his artistic freedom and super fame Tupac could not release himself from the gangster yoke that Death Row and Suge Knight trapped him in. In this gangster mentality Tupac would double down on his efforts to win his vendetta against Bad Boy records and ultimately destroy Biggie Smalls.
Since his release from prison and All Eyes on Me’s biting blast tracks, Tupac did more than anyone to create and fan the flames of the East Coast v. West Coast narrative, as a record label manager put it, “The trouble with what Pac was doing, with this East Coast West Coast thing, was it was just something that got out of hand, a publicity thing, but brothers in the street think something is really going on, and they’re gonna die for it,”. Tupac even went as far to put out the rumor that he had slept with Biggie’s wife Faith Evans. He would go on to mention this in his album, “I fucked yo bitch, you fat fuck”.
This war of words would soon spill over it into real life violence. Stories emerged of Death Row contracts being out for retribution for anyone associated with the Bad Boy label. Suge even went on to accuse Puffy Daddy for the murder of his friend. At one particular party hip-hop industry party Tupac and Suge with the help of other Death Row thugs successfully cornered a Bad Boy records event promoter, tied him to a chair and beat him with bottles. Even forcing the bound man to drink urine out of a jar according to a police report.
A close friend would later recall at this time, “When Tupac was with Suge, Suge would get him all stirred up, and he’d try to behave like a gangster.” The hardened gangster and father figure which Suge Knight would come to represent to Tupac was soon an unbearable and suffocating force in the rapper’s life. Slowly but surely, Tupac came to realize how indebted he was to Death Row and Suge Knight. Even from the astronomical success of All Eyes on Me, Tupac would see only the money given to him sporadically from Suge himself.
The Death of a Hip Hop Legend
On September 7, 1996, Tupac had come back to Los Ageles from an out of town trip. That same evening Suge had convinced him to attend a Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas with a Death Row entourage and a party at Suge’s club afterwards. The boxing match lasted all but three minutes after one of Tyson’s signature K.O.’s, but the real drama would be in the event lobby afterwards. On that day that Death Row bodyguards consisted mainly of South Central L.A. Bloods.
Only days earlier in Los Angeles, one of the bodyguards present had been beaten and robbed of their Death Row pendant, a gift given to all in the labels inner circle, by a group of Crips. The Death Row entourage passed by Orlando Anderson, a known member of the South Central L.A. Crip’s, who was identified as the thief to Tupac. With the encouragement of Suge, Tupac and company chased after and jumped Anderson in the lobby in plain view of cameras and passers by.
Anderson was knocked out by a final kick from Knight and the entourage left the scene. Hours later, Tupac was picked up outside his hotel by Suge Knight himself driving. It was an odd move, since both typically would drive with armed bodyguards in their vehicle and with a security detail tailing them. This evening Suge arrived with only himself in the front seat, the car behind filled with other Death Row artists heading to the after party. The two cars were on their way to Suge’s own Las Vegas club. At a red light on a bustling Las Vegas strip, a white car pulled up along side Tupac and Knight, and a man pulled out a .40 calibre Glock hand gun and fired 13 rounds into the car.
Four of those shots hit Tupac in the chest, another grazing Suge across his forehead. The car sped away leaving Tupac hunched over in his seat. After being rushed to the hospital and sedated in a critical condition, Tupac would undergo a series of intensive surgeries to treat his wounds. Despite these attempts to save his life, he would die several days later on September 13, 1996. Tupac’s death is one of the most high profile murder cases in the U.S. today, and remains largely unsolved. The adoption of his gangster rap persona is often blamed for his demise, yet his death is shrouded in conspiracy.
Theories of who killed Tupac range from the man he assaulted on the night, Orlando Anderson, to a contract hit paid for by Biggie Smalls. Even Suge Knight has come under suspicion, with letters from that time revealing Suge had known about Tupac’s desire to leave Death Row. Tupac’s violent death would be one of the most sensational stories of the industry at the time and change the course of hip-hop during the 1990’s.
His super stardom would take on a mythical proportion after his death, and his last album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, finished just days before his murder, debuted at number 1 on the charts. This would be one of Death Row Records last hit albums as legal and street trouble soon began to overtake Suge Knight.