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Tupac Shakur and the bloody history of U.S. hip-hop
It is five years since rapper TUPAC SHAKUR was gunned down on the streets of las vegas in a gangland-style shooting that took place on September 7, 1996. Since then he has become the subject of one of modern music’s most bizarre death cults, as he continues to sell millions of records and to top charts all over the world. but behind his death lies a story of hip-hop babylon – a sordid tale of intrigue, egos, drugs, sex, intimidation, violence – and, almost by the way, some great and enduring music. By PETER MURPHY
Peter Murphy, 13 Sep 2001
Black America mightn’t have wanted a martyr like Tupac Shakur but they got him anyway.
Five years after his death, one of hip-hop’s most iconic and controversial figures is doing bigger box office than ever. The latest posthumous Tupac album Until The End Of Time sold almost half a million copies in its first week on the racks last March. Culled from tracks recorded between his release from prison in 1995 and his death the following year, it is the first of two volumes of out-takes from the rapper’s Makaveli period – the second will be released later this year.
UTEOT comes from a seemingly inexhaustible store of Tupac out-takes and afterlife cash-ins. The 1997 double album compilation R U Still Down? (Remember Me) went quadruple platinum. The Greatest Hits compilation has done twice that since 1998. The following year’s Still I Rise, a dog of a record even by Shakur’s standards, went platinum. Last winter’s The Rose That Grew From Concrete spoken word tribute album, with its contributions from Danny Glover and the cast of The Lion King, served as a further index of how to milk a dead man.
These are all weak records, but that’s not really the point. Shakur’s virtual resurrection satisfies almost every quota required by the death myth machinery: the riot-in-cell-block-9 chic of Robert Johnson, the Morrison-ian rumours of a faked exit, the coal-to-stone alchemy that minted money out of Hendrix’s sloppiest archives.
And yet, this isn’t a clear-cut ethical question. Afeni Shakur, the rapper’s mother, acts as co-executive producer on his posthumous projects, and Shakur’s estate could legitimately argue that they have every right to keep his legacy alive. But just what is Tupac’s legacy?
In his lifetime, the rapper veered from bone-hard social commentary to bonehead thug talk, from crass blather to sweet ‘n’ low sentimentality. That his ‘In The Event Of My Demise’ could be included in Thundermouth Press’s Outlaw Bible Of American Poetry alongside Amiri Baraka is a measure of the myth rather than the man.
Danyel Smith nailed it in the Vibe History of Hip-Hop:
“Crazy motherfucker. Coward. Sucker. Sexist. Sex symbol. Superman. Provocateur. Hero. He’s another hero we don’t need, and ’Pac’s built, in death even, to last.”
For newcomers, Until The End Of Time offered ample example of how Shakur pandered to white suburbia’s ghetto fantasies, juggling lip-service platitudes for a better world (‘Letter 2 My Unborn’) with gangsta cant (‘Fuckin’ Wit The Wrong Nigga’).
That duality was programmed into his persona from birth. There was the Good Tupac of ‘Brenda’s Got A Baby’, ‘Keep Ya Head Up’ and ‘Dear Mama’; pro-choice, shouting out to his sisters on welfare, giving respect to his mama like a black Elvis.
Then there was the Bad Tupac of ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’, ‘Hit ‘Em Up’ and the All Eyez On Me album: a wannabe tough guy, author of the kind of misogynistic hate rhymes that gave ammunition to right wing whites and affluent blacks like Reverend Calvin Butts, C Delores Tucker, Bob Dole and former Bush administration drugs czar William J. Bennett, all of whom wanted to shut down Death Row Records, and subject gangsta rap to prohibition.
One anecdote perfectly illustrates Shakur’s cracked actor image. In October 1991, as Oakland Hills was burning with riots, witnesses backstage at a Public Enemy show in the Calvin Simmons Auditorium described Tupac’s face as being cleft perfectly in half, one side the movie star profile, the other a mess of scabs and bruises from a police beating sustained as a result of mouthing off after being ticketed for jaywalking (he later filed a $10 million lawsuit for police brutality).
Tupac Shakur my friends, is just another son of Stagger Lee.
Who was Stagger Lee? The glib answer to that is whoever you want him to be: bogeyman, shadow playa, Manitou, shape-changer, superfly, archetypal badass motherfucker. His names were legion: Stagger Lee, Stag Lee, Stagolee, Stackolee, Stackerlee, Stack Lee, Lee Stack, Stack A Lee. But the name’s not important – the deed is.
In a half dozen towns a half dozen times over the last two American centuries, somebody walked into a bar and somebody else got murdered.
The facts, such as they are, record that Stagger Lee shot a man named Billy Lyons in a card game over a five-dollar Stetson hat after the latter accused Stag of cheating. Lyons left behind a wife and two children. Some reckon the murder happened on Christmas Day 1895 in St. Louis bar, others locate it in Tennessee.
Many versions of the tale hold that Stag was born Samuel Stacker Lee in 1847, a rounder, womaniser and heir to the Lee Steamship line. Or perhaps he was Samuel’s son, begat by a mulatto mistress. Or maybe he was a waterfront gambler and roustabout, a small black man with a crossed left eye who took Lee’s name in order to give himself authority. Some say Stag was a black stud and Billy a white sheriff. Some reckon he ended up on a chain gang in Memphis or Nashville, sold as labour by the state to white planters. It’s possible Stag even lived to hear himself commemorated in song on those chain gangs.
The only hard and fast truth is that there are as many versions of the song as the song’s story. Legions of performers have recorded the tune, or various mutations of it: Ma Rainey, Frank Hutchison, Lloyd Price, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, PJ Proby, The Isley Brothers, Dr John, Ike & Tina Turner, Nick Cave. But one song couldn’t hold a character this powerful. His spirit also passed through Dock Boggs and Chuck Berry, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Sly Stone. He was both the vigilante man and the pusher man of Shaft and Superfly, the spirits of Iceberg Slim and Richard Roundtree inhabiting the one body.
Stag found his way to Europe via the slums of Kingston, the genetic bloodline of late ’60s Jamaican toasters like Prince Buster. From there, it was just a boat ride to The Clash’s London Calling album, followed by a six-hour flight back to Grandmaster Flash’s New York and the roots of rap.
By the early 1990s, a rough century after he first appeared in black folklore, Stagger Lee was alive and well and living on Death Row, incarnate in label founder Suge Knight, in former NWA mainstay-turned-hit man Dr Dre and perhaps most ostentatiously in Snoop Doggy Dogg, one part Kingston slum lord, one part blaxploitation cartoon hustler.
But when Tupac Shakur came on the scene, well, here was a little lost lamb just ripe for possession.
“Tupac Shakur grew up around nothing but self-delusion,” Ronin Ro baldly states in his 1998 book Have Gun Will Travel – The Spectacular Rise And Violent Fall Of Death Row Records. Ro’s account of the rapper’s life pretty much confirms the view of him as a middle-class kid who slummed it in order to establish his ghetto credentials, who was cursed with a beautiful face and a sensitivity that made him something of a joke amongst the gangs. Tupac talked too hard to be hard, a chameleon who would wear a blue bandanna around the Crips, a red one around the Bloods, an all-singing all-dancing embodiment of the joke about reversible blue/red jackets being sold in downtown LA.
Shakur’s mother was a high school dropout by the name of Alice Faye Williams who became politicised after moving to Brooklyn and having an affair with one of Malcolm X’s bodyguards. She joined the New York chapter of the Black Panthers in the late ’60s, married one of the group and started going by the name Afeni Shakur, talking about overthrowing the government and killing “the pigs”, activities for which she and her comrades were arrested.
Pregnant (either by another member of the party or a small time drug baron associate named Legs), she was released on bail. However, her husband left when he learned the baby wasn’t his, bail was revoked and she spent time in a Greenwich Village women’s house of detention. There she would refer to her unborn son as the Black Prince and prophesised that he would save the black nation.
The Black Prince – as he became known around his neighbourhood in the Bronx – was born on June 16, 1971.
Between being haunted by the identity of his father and regarded as effeminate (he wrote love songs and poetry in a diary), Tupac was plagued by feelings of “unmanliness” as he was shunted from the Bronx to Harlem, sometimes living in homeless shelters. He sought a way out through acting, and enrolled in a Harlem theatre group.
By this time, Afeni Shakur had taken to the pipe after once more hooking up with Legs, who subsequently died of a crack-induced heart attack shortly after being arrested for credit card fraud. The family moved to Baltimore, where Tupac became a 15-year old rap fan, sometimes calling himself MC New York in an attempt to establish street cred.
In September of 1986 he joined the Baltimore School for the Arts, studying acting and ballet alongside white kids, gaining the praise and stewardship of the school’s head. Two years later, after a youth gang killing, Afeni sent her children to stay with a friend in what she believed was an affluent suburban area of Marin County. It was anything but. Tupac began selling drugs and trying to hang out with local gang members who tolerated him but remained suspicious of his background.
By 1990, Tupac had scored a gig as a dancer with rap outfit Digital Underground. His star turn entailed simulating sex with a rubber blow-up doll to the tune of their hit ‘The Humpty Dance’. After the tour, Shakur sought out his own deal and sent a demo to Monica Lynch, head of the Tommy Boy label. Lynch passed on him, but the demo made its way to Interscope A&R scout Tom Whalley, who passed it onto his boss, who in turn handed it down to his teenage daughter, who loved it. A deal was signed.
At around the same time, Tupac accompanied his friend Money B to an audition for the film Juice – to be directed by Spike Lee cinematographer Earnest Dickerson – and managed to scam the part of Bishop right from under his buddy’s nose. The film was released in tandem with Tupac’s debut album 2Pacalypse Now in 1991, which sold half a million and was an instrumental factor in Time Warner increasing their share in Interscope, despite the denunciations of one Dan Quayle.
The following year Shakur moved to LA and became completely enamoured of gang culture. According to sources, he would soak up the stories of a street like a method actor on reconnaissance, gathering material that would eventually make its way onto his albums. This was crucial in cementing the accepted, if erroneous image of Tupac as a bona fide hood. In 1993 he even tried to get a showcase project for young rappers off the ground, but the proposed series of Thug Life albums was rejected by Interscope. Worse, some of the gang-bangers Tupac recorded felt like they were being exploited for their stories.
This nagging lack of credibility among his peers was a constant thorn in Tupac’s side, to the degree that he took up practising gunplay, got tattooed and began lifting weights in order to offset the natural delicacy of his features. Compare Shakur with his contemporaries of the time – the slow-rolling pimp gait of Snoop, the pit bull squint of Ice Cube, the sussed sneer of Ice T. Next to these guys, Tupac always looked like a matinee idol.
Nevertheless, trouble seemed to follow Tupac Shakur around. Shortly after the release in 1993 of his second album Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z (including what is regarded as his finest tune ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’), the rapper was accused of assaulting a limo driver. The charges were later dropped. At a show in Michigan, he attempted to beat up a rival MC with a baseball bat after the homeboy upstaged him in an onstage challenge and the audience jeered. For that he was sentenced to ten days in jail.
In the summer of 1993, John Singleton cast Tupac opposite Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice, a film most notable for the fact that Jackson requested her co-star be tested for HIV before shooting any kissing scenes. That Halloween in Atlanta, Tupac had yet another brush with the law. While stopped at a red light, he saw two white pedestrians arguing with a lone driver he believed to be black. Tupac confronted the men, one of who pulled a gun, hoping to frighten Shakur away. Tupac reached into his car for his own firearm, shot and hit one man in the abdomen, the other in the buttocks.
An hour later, Tupac was arrested at his hotel. The two men – brothers by the name of Whitwell – were off-duty cops. Despite the fact that both were drunk and the gun Mark Whitwell produced had been taken from his precinct’s evidence room, Tupac was charged with two counts of aggravated assault and released on bail.
Worse was to come. On November 14th, 1993, Shakur attended a Manhattan club called Nell’s. There, he was introduced to a 19-year-old girl by the name of Ayanna Jackson. Reports of what happened over the next couple of days read like a lurid version of he says/she says. Tupac claimed the girl came onto him, even giving him head on the club’s dance floor. She said it was the other way around, and that he forced her head down onto his penis. Either way, she went back to his hotel room and they had sex.
They met again a few days later in the Parker-Meridien hotel in New Jersey. Two of Shakur’s friends were also present, drinking vodka and smoking weed. The rapper took the girl into a separate room where she gave him a massage and they kissed. After about half an hour, the other men entered the room. According to Jackson, Tupac and one of his friends restrained her while the third man forced himself into her mouth, before tearing her clothes off and preventing her from leaving. Some time later she stormed out, threatening that it wouldn’t be the last they’d hear of it.
As chance would have it, the rapper Biggie Smalls aka The Notorious BIG arrived shortly after Jackson left. Biggie (real name Christopher Wallace) was six foot three and weighed three hundred pounds, a former small time Brooklyn crack dealer with a taste for new clothing. When a demo tape sent to The Source magazine ended up with Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, he found a new career as a rapper. Puffy was attracted by Biggie’s melodic delivery and oversaw the recording of his debut single ‘Party And Bullshit’ for Uptown Records. However, Wallace continued dealing crack as a sideline, and also had a taste for Hennessy and marijuana. Combs had his work cut out keeping Smalls on the straight and narrow, mainly because Biggie’s $20,000 advance was chump change compared to what he was making as a dealer. All the same, Puffy was depending on the rapper to be the flagship act on his own fledgling Bad Boy label. Together, they spent 18 months working on Biggie’s debut Ready To Die.
Tupac and Biggie had been friendly since meeting on the set of the film Poetic Justice, where the former professed himself a fan. Shortly after Smalls’ arrival at the Parker-Meridien, uniformed police arrived with Ayanna Jackson, who stepped forward and identified Tupac and his friend Charles Fuller. Shakur was led away in cuffs.
Tupac’s troubles made Interscope chief Jimmy Iovine nervous about his label’s ties with Time Warner. Interscope was expanding and Tupac’s antics were bad for business. Iovine asked Suge Knight to accept Shakur onto the Death Row roster, essentially an independent label funded by Interscope. Since the release of Dr Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop’s Doggystyle, Knight had established Death Row as the dominant rap label (between 1992-1996 it would sell a reported 45 million records).
It seemed to make perfect sense: Knight was so anxious to sign this latest great black hope that he offered him $200,000 for one song on the soundtrack to Above The Rim. But despite Death Row’s credibility and track record, plus the prospect of working with Dr Dre, Shakur was reluctant to leave Interscope.
More trouble: in March of 1994, Tupac was sentenced to ten days in Los Angeles County Jail for striking director Allen Hughes, one half of the Hughes brothers who had graduated from hip-hop promo videos to movies like Menace II Society. Then, on November 28th in Manhattan, the day before the jury began deliberating charges of sodomy, sexual abuse and weapons possession in the Ayanna Jackson case against Tupac, he got a call asking him to appear on a recording by an Uptown artist called Little Shawn. Tupac agreed to do it for $7000 – between cancelled shows, astronomical legal fees and trying to support his extended family, he badly needed the cash.
Still, he was uneasy upon arrival at the Quad Recording Studio in Times Square. Before entering the building, Tupac saw two black men whose behaviour he regarded as suspicious. As he pressed the elevator button, both men produced 9mm handguns. He was shot five times and had tens of thousands of dollars of gold chains and rings stolen from his person, but it wasn’t until he made it upstairs to the studio that he realised the extent of his injuries.
There were about 40 people in that studio, including Biggie Smalls and his label head and mentor Sean Combs. Tupac was taken to Bellevue hospital and treated for wounds to the head and the groin (he lost a testicle). He also underwent an operation for a damaged blood vessel in his leg that went on until four in the morning. Fearing for his safety, Tupac checked himself out less than 16 hours later. His reproductive faculties were intact, but he would suffer headaches and nightmares for some time to come.
On November 30th, less than two days after the shooting, Tupac showed up to hear the outcome of the Jackson case. He was convicted of the sexual abuse charges but acquitted of the others. Sentencing was postponed. While recuperating in the Metropolitan hospital, he received anonymous calls that prompted him to go into hiding at a friend’s apartment.
Three months later, Shakur received a sentence of up to four and a half years at Riker’s Island penal colony. As he began doing his time, rumours buzzed along the hip-hop wire: Tupac was suffering marijuana withdrawal symptoms; Tupac was getting a hard time from Latin gangs who heard rumours that the girl involved was Hispanic; Tupac had been raped by Riker bulls. All these were dismissed by Shakur as lies spread by guards or jealous inmates, but when the rapper was transferred to Clinton Correctional, one of his lawyers noted him being subjected to what he considered unnecessary rectal searches. Shakur consoled himself with his third album’s appearance on the Billboard chart. On April Fool’s Day, Me Against The World entered at number one.
Yet, the more he ruminated on the shootings and the more letters he read from friends, the more Tupac convinced himself Biggie Smalls had something to do with it. In an interview with Vibe magazine, he publicly accused Sean Combs and Biggie of setting him up. The situation was only aggravated by events that took place at The Source Awards that August.
Chuck D described the infamous East/West coast feud as the lowest point in hip-hop’s 15-year history. Certainly, the badmouthing that took place at The Source awards on August 3rd, 1995 made about as much sense as two men fighting over a five-dollar Stetson.
The trouble may have begun because Suge Knight felt threatened by Combs, a young entrepreneur who had moved from intern, to head of A&R, to signing a multi-million dollar distribution deal with Arista for his Bad Boy label. Puffy produced platinum selling albums for Jodeci and Mary J Blige and also made a name as a producer and co-director of promo clips. He was also regarded as a control freak who seemed to make cameo appearances in all his acts’ recordings and videos, despite having little or no talent in the flow department. That said, Biggie Smalls’ forthcoming debut Ready To Die was hotly tipped to be the East Coast’s most powerful challenge yet to Death Row’s supremacy.
Suge Knight must have been feeling the squeeze, because when he took the podium at the televised The Source awards, he said, “If you don’t want the owner of your label on your album or in your video or on your tour, then come to Death Row.” To his credit, Combs did nothing to inflame the situation, making a point of hugging Snoop when presenting him with his Artist Of The Year (Solo) award as well as beseeching the East and West coast factions to put on a united front. Nevertheless, there was bad feeling in the air.
On September 24th 1995, both Suge Knight and Sean Combs attended a prominent hip-hop producer’s birthday bash in Atlanta. According to Combs, he didn’t see Knight all evening until he was leaving and there was a fracas at the door to the club. Puffy said he saw Suge standing at the club’s entrance and checked to see if he was okay. As they were speaking, they heard gunshots and turned to see that Jake ‘The Violator’ Robles, a friend and foot soldier of Suge’s, had been wounded. Knight immediately accused Combs of having something to so with it. Puffy denied it, both then and later in the press, as rumours of a contract on his life began doing the rounds.
One local newspaper claimed the gunman was one of Puffy’s entourage. Suge maintained that Puffy had set up an attempt on his life and Robles died trying to stop it. Meanwhile, the Bloods were mad at Knight because they figured Jake had taken a bullet intended for him. Adding to the surreality, Warren Beatty was now hanging out with Suge by way of research for a movie. Knight, on the other hand, seemed to be starring in his own private version of Scarface, headquartered in a bejewelled bunker surrounded by security cameras.
Meanwhile, Tupac was still doing time. Egged on by Snoop, Suge Knight seized on Shakur’s troubles as an opportunity to get the rapper on Death Row. While still in prison, Tupac finally signed to the label (a contract Afeni Shakur’s lawyers later described as a joke). Knight, Time Warner and Interscope posted a 1.4 million bond, and Shakur was released on October 12th. That same night he was in LA working on his first album for Death Row.
By now Dr Dre, the in-house Spector of hip-hop and all round hit-man, was getting antsy with the direction of the label and Knight’s dictatorship. Death Row had made him a rich man, but creative differences were brewing, with Knight insisting he work on R&B and soundtrack projects Dre didn’t care for. To make matters worse, Knight tried to talk him into producing MC Hammer who had fallen on hard times and ended up doing ads for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Even worse, he let Tupac perform some of his godawful raps over Dre’s pristine backing tracks. The only fruitful product of a Dre/Tupac collaboration would be the ‘California Love’ single, replete with its extravagant Mad Max style video.
Dre was sick of the gangsta element of Death Row and disillusioned by the new signings. Former comrades were slandering him, some spreading rumours that he was gay. There were recurring stories of Death Row acts and employees being beaten and even raped. There were also whisperings that Tupac was present at a Christmas party in a Hollywood Hills mansion where a friend of Puffy’s was reportedly tied to a chair, beaten with broken champagne bottles and made to drink a glass of Knight’s urine while the label head demanded both the address of Combs and his mother. Either way, Dre was getting ready to defect to Interscope.
In February 1996, Tupac’s All Eyez On Me album was released, selling well over half a million copies in its first week. It was riddled with attacks on his former friend Biggie Smalls. In interviews, Shakur claimed that he had slept with Smalls’ wife, R&B singer Faith Evans. Out of all this came ‘Hit ’Em Up’, one of the most notorious Tupac tracks, a spew of doggerel aimed at his former confederate: “I fucked yo bitch you fat motherfucker… You claim to be a playa but I fucked your wife… Fuck Mobb Deep, fuck Biggie, fuck Bad Boy… I’ll make sure all yo kids don’t grow.”
Tupac and Biggie came face to face for the first time since Shakur’s shooting backstage at the Soul Train Awards in Los Angeles in March. Smalls was shocked by Tupac’s demeanour. He seemed to have turned into the Bishop character he played in Juice, a hooded, fork-tongued devil whose morality and loyalty vanished as soon as a gun appeared in his hand. Both rappers and their entourage circled each other as if enacting some old-style Mexican standoff. Someone even pulled a gun, but the event passed without bloodshed.
Meanwhile Suge’s life was getting hairier by the minute. The FBI began investigating Death Row to ascertain if the label had been founded on drug money from an associate of Knight’s, and if plans for an East Coast version of the label were really a front for a drug cartel.
On September 6th, Tupac and Suge attended the Mike Tyson/Bruce Seldon fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Because of the intense heat, Shakur left his bulletproof vest at home.
After the fight, in the lobby, Tupac, Suge and some of the Death Row mob became involved in an altercation with a Crip who’d been fingered as taking part in a scrap with a DR employee some months previously. At 10.30pm, Tupac and Suge left the latter’s house in a rented BMW and headed towards a place called Club 662, leading a convoy of at least six cars, perhaps as many as fifteen. The BMW stopped at a red light in front of the Hotel Maxim. A Cadillac containing four men pulled up, one of whom pulled a Glock and fired ten to fifteen shots. Tupac was hit in the chest, the hand and the leg, and shrapnel grazed Suge’s head. The Cadillac roared off as Suge made a U-turn, chased by two policemen. He stopped the car. Tupac was stretched out in the back seat, bleeding heavily. One of the policemen held a shotgun on Knight as the ambulances arrived.
At the University Medical Centre, Tupac underwent an operation as his mother, Mike Tyson, and Reverend Jesse Jackson waited for news. He remained in critical condition until six days later, Friday September 13th, when he was pronounced dead. He was 25.
Initially Compton police denied that the murder had sparked a gang war, but within a couple of weeks admitted that it may have triggered up to a dozen shootings. Towards the end of the month, Compton police orchestrated major gang sweeps, and one of those taken into custody was Orlando Anderson, the man who’d been beaten up by Tupac and his cronies at the MGM Grand. However, no charges were brought against Anderson and he was released.
Suge Knight was not so lucky. By failing to show up for two court ordered drug tests, he violated the probation he received for an attack on two brothers named Stanley back in 1992. The judge also ruled that he was an active participant in the attack on Anderson. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.
The 1997 Soul Train Awards took place in an atmosphere of extreme tension in Los Angeles. Suge Knight’s sentencing and the shadow of Tupac’s death hung heavy over the hip-hop community. Biggie Smalls was booed from the audience, some of who threw gang signs from the balcony. The night after the awards, Vibe magazine threw a party in the Wilshire district. At about 12.45, Smalls and Puffy left the party. Puffy drove first, followed by Smalls and two friends, followed in turn by bodyguards in a third car, one of them an off-duty cop.
Still within sight of the Vibe party venue, the three cars stopped at a red light. A dark green car pulled up beside Biggie’s, a number of passengers got out and about a half dozen shots were fired into Biggie’s car door. A security guard drove him and Combs to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre, where Biggie was rushed into surgery. Soon after, he was pronounced dead. No arrests were made, even though up to 200 people had witnessed the murder.
The LAPD did not discount possibility that the killing was retaliation for Tupac’s murder. Other sources, such as the LA Times, speculated that it stemmed from a personal feud Biggie had with a rogue Crip member. There were also rumours that the triggerman may have been a member of the Crip gang Biggie hired to protect him while in Los Angeles, the same gang accused of killing Tupac. Combs denied ever hiring gang members as security. On March 19th, Smalls’ body was driven through Brooklyn, laid out in a double-breasted white suit and matching hat as mourners lined the streets.
Eight weeks after the murder of Tupac Shakur, Death Row released the album the rapper recorded under the alias Makaveli – The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory.
By now, Afeni Shakur had already launched a campaign against Death Row, accusing the label of robbing her son. Jimmy Iovine stepped in to smooth things over, but not before Afeni had obtained a ruling preventing the label from selling any more Tupac merchandise such as sweatshirts and baseball caps.
The Don Killuminati sold 600,000 copies in the first week of release, eventually going quadruple platinum, and was the source of many of the conspiracy theories and ‘Is He Really Dead?’ hypotheses that began to circulate immediately after the Las Vegas shooting. For a start, the pseudonym was derived from Niccolo Machiaveli, the 16th century Italian philosopher who faked his own death and reappeared seven days later to take revenge on his enemies. Also, the bullet-pocked cover portrayed Tupac in a Jesus Christ pose, and the CD booklet was encoded with various numbers, symbols and fingerprints. Scores of conspiracy theories buzzed over the Internet, some of them plausible, many bizarre beyond belief.
As recently as last April, Rolling Stone published a remarkable story by Randall Sullivan, suggesting a plethora of cover-ups, kickbacks and damning links between the LAPD, Death Row security and gang members. It also presented former LAPD investigator Russell Poole’s theory that Suge Knight orchestrated the murders of both Tupac and Biggie Smalls.
The murders of Tupac and Biggie Smalls remain unsolved. Some believe the LAPD don’t want to solve them – because they’re afraid Johnnie Cochran will defend whoever is charged, giving rise to another case of O.J.
Suge Knight was released from prison this summer after serving almost five years of a nine year sentence. He returns to a Death Row that is a shadow of its former self. During its founder’s incarceration, the label released only seven albums, mostly out-takes collections or posthumous compilations. Dre and Snoop have left, Tupac’s dead and the roster is now entirely made up of young unknowns.
So, Stagger Lee’s dead – long live Stagger Lee.
In his book Rebel For The Hell Of It, Tupac biographer and respected critic Armand White castigated Mikal Gilmore’s Rolling Stone obituary for “dragging out tired old Staggerlee stereotypes to parlay Tupac’s death into rock ‘n’ roll copy”. White knows his stuff, but he missed the point. Stagger Lee is not a stereotype; he is a polymorph. Consider a news report rock ‘n’ roll scholar Greil Marcus found in the Virginian-Pilot in April 1993, telling how one Roy Tolbert was convicted of the second-degree murder of Kerry Bright, a 21 year-old he suspected of stealing his Stetson. Words were exchanged, and Tolbert shot him with a .44 Magnum pistol in the parking lot of a Norfolk bar called the Fox Trap. According to testimony, Tolbert shot Bright “because he couldn’t handle being called a bitch by someone he thought took his hat”.
Now mark the title of the 1993 rap satire Fear Of A Black Hat, a film in which rappers who wouldn’t know the working end of a gun from a cucumber get handed firearms by video shoot prop masters and are suddenly transformed into bad-ass gangstas. As a metaphor for Tupac Shakur’s transformation from soft-faced boy to Thug 4 Life, you could do worse.
One last thing. In 1993, at the height of Tupac’s infamy, Bob Dylan covered ‘Stagger Lee’ (or ‘Stack A Lee’ as he learned it from Frank Hutchinson’s version) on the album World Gone Wrong. In his sleeve notes, Bob wrote this:
“The song says that a man’s hat is his crown. Stack’s in a cell, no wall phone… he is not some egotistical degraded existential Dionysian idiot, neither does he represent any alternative lifestyle scam (give me a thousand acres of tractable land & all the gang members that exist & you’ll see the Authentic alternative lifestyle, the Agrarian one)…
Dylan spotted the gang parallels of course, but he also weighed in with a pretty hefty punch line:
“What does this song say exactly? It says no man gains immortality through public
Tupac Shakur’s Until The End Of Time is out now on Universal. The Death Row back catalogue is currently on re-release, available through RMG