DEAD POETS SOCIETY
|Almost two years after the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, the biggest names in rap music, there have been no arrests. The killings raise many questions but provide few answers, and many in the African-American community see a conspiracy to cover up the real facts.|
George Magazine (Oct 1998)
Just before 3 p.m. on a spring afternoon last May, a car drove up to a crowded car wash on a street corner in Compton, California. An argument broke out between two groups of men and a minute later the sound of gunfire erupted. When the smoke cleared, four men were sprawled out, bleeding, on the ground. Two were already dead. And a third died early the next morning.
The U.S. is a nation long hardened to the idea of black-on-black murder. Although a shooting in a white rural school is cause for a national outcry, a gun battle in an African-American ghetto barely raises an eyebrow.
The slaughter at the car wash would have been quickly forgotten but for the notoriety of one of the dead -- 23-year-old Orlando "Little Lando" Anderson. A member of a Los Angeles gang known as the Southside Crips, Anderson was the man widely suspected in the murder of rapper Tupac Shakur.
The killing of Anderson is but the latest in a string of murders that have blighted the reputation of rap culture and the image of young African-American men. Among the most famous victims are two of the biggest names in rap music: Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.
Eighteen months after Smalls's murder, and two years after Shakur's, there have been no arrests. The slayings raise many questions but provide few answers. Does the police's failure to clear up the murders simply reflect the apparent randomness of the violence, or is it the result of a troubling reluctance to solve murders in which the victims are black? Or have the investigators failed because some facts are being concealed. Some people in the African-American community believe that a dark pattern links the murders. And many see a conspiracy to cover up the real facts of the cases.
It's perhaps no big surprise that conspiracy theories are alive and well in the African-American community. Such theories are the refuge of the disaffected and the disenfranchised. Those who already perceive themselves to be disempowered find it easy to believe in obscure forces. The assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., continue to be questioned. The theory that the CIA helped flood crack cocaine into the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles has been debated from the streets of South Central all the way to Capitol Hill. There were howls of horror when Spike Lee announced in a magazine advertisement that "AIDS is a government engineered disease," but the fact is that many believe that theory to be true. A 1990 poll of New York City's African-American community showed that 29 percent believed that AIDS may have been "deliberately created in a laboratory in order to infect black people," and 60 percent thought the government could have "deliberately" made drug available to poor people.
It's common, of course, for rumors of conspiracy and cover-up to accrete around icons like Shakur and Smalls, especially when there is a wall of silence surrounding their deaths. Out of the dozens of people contacted and interviewed for this story, few would comment on the record. And those who would were, more often than not, attorneys speaking on their clients' behalf. "This is a nonstory. No one is interested anymore," explains Kenny Meiselas, the attorney for Sean "Puffy" Combs, who is the CEO of Smalls's record label, Bad Boy Entertainment. It seems this is a crime few want to solve. But not solving the murders of Shakur and Smalls might just be the biggest crime of all.
Shakur and Smalls were modern-day American storytellers. Their mix of rhythms and rhymes were a raw and vivid chronicle of the life of young African-American men in the U.S.
Shakur came of age in a housing project on the outskirts of San Francisco. Brilliantly talented, he started writing poetry, eventually turning his poems into songs. Arrested eight time between 1991 and '96, he definitely had a thug image. But his rough-and-tumble lyrics made him a huge star. Shakur went on to record one gold and four platinum albums before his death and gave young black America a new voice. Shakur was also a rising film star, having appeared in such movies as Poetic Justice, with Janet Jackson; Gridlock'd, with Tim Roth; and Gang Related with Jim Belushi. Poetic Justice director John Singleton praised Shakur's acting at the time, saying, "He's what they call a natural. You know, he's a real actor." It seemed Shakur had it all. Lots of money, fancy cars, and the company of beautiful women. He had escaped from a life in the ghetto, but he couldn't seem to get the ghetto out of his blood.
Biggie Smalls grew up dealing crack on the streets of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Then he discovered his natural talent for rap. He quickly rose to prominence by rapping about what he knew best: sex, drugs, and violence. He was a street poet who fashioned himself after a Chicago mobster and shared Shakur's love of the gangsta lifestyle.
"I spoke to Tupac on the phone a lot, but I never met him," says Voletta Wallace, Smalls's mother. These days Wallace sits in the black-and-green-furnished condo in Teaneck, New Jersey, she inherited from her son. "It's designed as if it were made for 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,'" she says. Though his fans knew him as Biggie or the Notorious B.I.G. -- thanks to his six-foot-three, 300-plus-pound frame -- she still calls her only child Christopher. "When Christopher started his music, Tupac was his friend," she says in a steady, confident voice. "They would go to clubs, ad they would hang out together. They were very, very close."
Even though Smalls and Shakur started as friends, as their reputations grew, the friendship cooled. And for those who see connections between their deaths, the narrative begins on November 30, 1994. That was the first time someone tried to kill Tupac Shakur.
Just after midnight, Shakur was on his way to a recording session at Quad Studios. As he entered the lobby he was ambushed by three men. After a scuffle, Shakur was shot five times, taking a bullet to the head, and left for dead. The gunmen fled as Shakur stumbled into the elevator. He went up to the eighth floor, where Smalls was recording with his producer, Combs.
Accounts of what may or may not have happened start here. To the horror of much of the industry, an angry Shakur publicly accused Smalls of knowing that he was going to be set up. Smalls denied any involvement in the shooting, saying that Shakur had simply been the victim of a botched robbery. But Shakur refused to back down on his accusations.
The day after the Quad Studios shooting, Shakur, heavily bandaged, was found guilty on one count of sexual abuse for having molested a female fan in November 1993. Soon after, he was sentenced to a prison term of one and a half to four and a half years. While Shakur maintained his innocence, his financial resources were being stretched to the limit by the legal action, and he couldn't make bail.
While his lawyers worked on his appeal, Shakur was locked up in a New York prison. It was during this time that Smalls exploded on the rap scene. He was the 1995 Billboard rap artist of the year and became Bad Boy's biggest talent when his debut album, Ready to Die, went platinum. By October 1995, Shakur had served eight months in prison and was desperate to get out. He signed a record contract with Marion "Suge" Knight, CEO of Death Row Records. Knight, a six-foot-three, 315-pound former bodyguard with a violent criminal record, was one of the most powerful and feared men in the music business. He had built Death Row into the most successful rap label in history, with $100 million in sales. But he was also said to be connected to the Bloods, a Compton gang and rival of the Southside Crips. In return for Shakur's signing with Death Row, Knight posted his $1.4 million bond.
Shakur and Smalls, the two biggest gangsta rappers in America, were now on the two biggest hip-hop labels. Shakur wasn't going to let old rivalries die. Knight and Shakur repeatedly ridiculed Smalls and Combs in public and in the press. And the head between the two rappers escalated after Shakur boasted in a son that he had an affair with Smalls's wife. That was the start of what became known as the East Coast-West Coast war. Smalls and Shakur would soon find themselves overtaken by the violence they rapped about.
On September 7, 1996, Shakur attended the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon heavyweight fight in Las Vegas and was on his way to a party. Knight was at the wheel of his black BMW 750 sedan; Shakur was riding shotgun. At a stoplight at the busy intersection of Flamingo Road and Koval Lane, a late model white Cadillac with four men inside pulled up next to Knight's car. Suddenly, a gunman sitting in the backseat started shooting at the passenger side of the BMW. Knight's head was grazed by a bullet, but Shakur wasn't as lucky. He frantically tried to climb into the backseat to avoid the gunfire but was struck by four bullets. The gunfire ended as quickly as it began. Shakur was executed in cold blood. The Cadillac fled the scene. Shakur never regained consciousness and died six days later, on Friday the 13th. He was just 25.
In the search for answers for Shakur's murder, speculation again focused on Smalls. "My son had nothing to do with Tupac's murder," Voletta Wallace says. "He was shocked and upset." Wallace says her son laughed at comments made by Shakur accusing Smalls of being involved in the Quad Studios shooting. After Shakur was killed, Smalls's mother says, he quit laughing.
By October 1996, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department had a possible suspect in the murder, Orlando Anderson, but was unable to link him directly to the killing. If Shakur was murdered by Anderson, a Southside Crip, the reason seemed relatively simple: Shakur's association with Suge Knight and the Bloods, the Crips' rival, was well known. Shakur had even appeared in photographs wearing a red scarf -- the gang color o the Bloods. Anderson had another, more immediate motive for the killing: Security video at the MGM Grand Hotel showed that just three hours before the shooting, Shakur and his entourage, including Knight, had beaten and stomped Anderson in the hotel lobby. Could the killing have been revenge for the assault? Shakur's mother, Afeni, thinks so. In fact, she filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Anderson. Her lawyer announced that two crimes were committed against Shakur: one by Anderson and the other by an incompetent police investigation. The case was scheduled to go to trial this past September. Now that Anderson is also dead, it never will.
Following Shakur's murder, Knight was incarcerated. The courts decided that the assault he and Shakur had carried out on Anderson at the MGM Grand was a violation of Knight's probation from a prior assault conviction. He has been sentenced to nine years in prison at the California Men's Colony, in San Luis Obispo, but many in the industry claim they still fear him. Knight refused to be interviewed for this story. (While writing the article, I was warned off by entertainment writers and attorneys. Their biggest fear, they claimed, was Knight and his reputation of strong-arm tactics.)
At the time of Shakur's murder, the police blamed witnesses for not providing them with enough information to make any arrests. But there was one witness, Yafeu Fula, who said he could possibly identify Shakur's killer. Fula was a rapper in Shakur's backup group and was riding in the car behind Knight's on the evening Shakur was mortally wounded. But the police let him go home to New Jersey without interviewing him about possible suspects.
On November 10, two months after Shakur died, Fula was visiting his girlfriend at a housing project in Orange, New Jersey. In the middle of the night, gunfire erupted inside a dark hallway. When the police arrived, they found the 19-year-old Fula slumped against a wall near a stairwell. The bulletproof vest he was wearing didn't save him: He died hours later, having been shot in the face at point-blank range. "Execution style," was how Orange police described it.
Orange and Las Vegas police insist that Fula's death was unrelated to the Shakur investigation and that it was not the result o trying to silence a witness. The day after Fula's murder, Sergeant Kevin Manning of the LVMPD said that Fula was simply one more young black man to be gunned down. "The odds were against him" because of his race, not because he was a witness to Shakur's murder.
In the months following Shakur's murder, more rappers began taking precautions, hiring bodyguards and wearing bulletproof vests. Even with the apparent danger, though, Smalls took a break from New York and traveled to Shakur's home turn, Los Angeles. "Yes, Christopher was comfortable," Wallace says. "Maybe he was too comfortable."
On March 9, 1997, two weeks before the release of his second album, Life After Death, Smalls, 24, was celebrating at a party at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. About midnight, the L.A. fire marshal broke up the party because the crowd of 2,000 exceeded the building's fire-code capacity. Combs and Smalls headed to another party. Smalls was sitting in the passenger seat of a GMC Suburban. Combs sat in a car in front of him, and security guards followed in a Chevy Blazer. The streets were packed with people as the caravan waited at a stoplight on Wilshire boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. Suddenly, a dark-colored car pulled up alongside Smalls's vehicle, and an unidentified black male wearing a suit and bow tie opened fire on the passenger side with a 9mm pistol. Smalls was hit seen times in the chest and was dead on arrival at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
The immediate assumption on the streets was that Smalls's killing was a reprisal of Shakur's death. "Nonsense," Kenny Meiselas says. "The incidents were not connected. I think everyone who has investigated the cases or has had direct information about them knows they were not."
The most plausible explanation for Smalls's death was that he owed money to someone, possibly to a street gang he had employed as security while in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times backed up this theory when it reported, using unnamed police sources, that Smalls's shooting was suspected to be over a financial beef the rapper had with a Crips gang member whom some say Smalls hired to protect him on his trip to L.A. Bad Boy, though, denies ever hiring gang members for security.
The murders led to an explosion of theories about the deaths of the two biggest performers in rap. Some say that the killings were the result of an effort to rub out black gangsta rappers. Still others think that they were deliberate hits by rival rap camps with gang affiliations. Some conspiracy theorists go so far as to say that the federal government was involved and that the police have conspired not to solve the crimes. "The other thing I heard," Wallace says, "was that the shot was not meant for my son. The shot was meant for Puffy." That Combs, and not Smalls, may have been the intended victim has not been ruled out by the LAPD. "It's pending," detective Fred Miller said recently.
But, stranger still, many believe that Shakur is not dead, that he faked his own death, perhaps to avoid returning to jail. Some subscribe to what has become known as the Seven-Day Theory; Shakur was shot on the seventh, the numbers of his age, 25, add up to seven, and his posthumous album, for which Shakur adopted the name Makaveli, was entitled The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. Chuck D, an elder statesman of rap and now a reporter for Fox News, responded to the death with a list of 18 reasons that led him to believe Shakur was still alive. They included number six: "The name of Tupac's next album is Makaveli [Machiavelli] was an Italian war strategist who faked his own death to fool his enemies. Perhaps Tupac is doing the same thing!"
The theories are often outlandish, but what's perhaps equally bizarre is how widely they are believed. (After Shakur's death, I wrote a booked called The Killing of Tupac Shakur. In an effort to quell the rumors, I included a photo of a very dead Shakur on the autopsy table. But every day, I get e-mails, letters, and phone calls from fans who refuse to accept that the rapper is gone.)
Critics of both the L.A. and Las Vegas police investigations have claimed that if Shakur and Smalls had been white men, the cases would have received more attention. The police, of course, see it differently. They feel they have been continually frustrated by hundreds of witnesses and friends who refuse to talk. Among some sections of the younger African-American community, a code of omerta is observe. Their distrust of the police is so ingrained, and so powerful, that they refuse to cooperate, even when a close friend has been killed or when their own lives are in danger.
In the Quad Studios shooting, the police contend that Shakur, the victim, refused to cooperate, so the investigation was simply closed. "His lawyer never called back. No one called back," explains detective George Nagy of the New York Police Department. "They more or less handled it their own way."
But Nagy -- clearly frustrated -- then goes on to outline the police's attitude in an extraordinarily bold admission of the way things really are: "Why would a guy go out of his way to investigate a case when the guy who was shot didn't even care?" he asks. "Why are you going to try hard when you have a million other cases?"
When Shakur was killed in Las Vegas, Nagy says, Las Vegas police didn't contact the NYPD to see if the murder might be related to the Quad Studios shooting. But Las Vegas police have a different story. They say they did contact New York detectives but were unable to learn who was handling the case.
The U.S. Justice Department, meanwhile, is reportedly looking into another conspiracy. The FBI is investigating Death row's possible links to drug trafficking and money laundering by L.A. street gangs and the New York Mafia. David Chesnoff, Knight's attorney, confirms that a grand jury was convened to look into Death Row and Knight about two years ago, shortly after Knight was jailed. The grand jury has not yet made its findings public. "Unlike the President Clinton grand jury investigations, we don't get to read about what they're doing in the newspapers," Chesnoff says.
Knight has repeatedly denied that any money from illegal activities financed Death Row. He has suggested that the federal probe is racially motivated. "Suge is an exceptionally smart and talented person who got tainted with a bad image that's really undeserved," Chesnoff says. "He's one of the few entrepreneurs who has made significant contributions to the community from which he came. I predict that, like a phoenix, he is going to rise from the ashes."
And then, out of the conspiracy box, came rumors that Smalls, too, was under investigation. The Los Angeles Times reported that federal agents were monitoring him in the week before his death as part of an investigation of criminals allegedly connected to Bad Boy.
If Smalls was under surveillance, were the agents watching when he was murdered? "I was told that ten minutes before he was shot, Christopher was under surveillance by the FBI," Wallace says. "Then when he is shot, all of a sudden they're not there. Maybe the FBI knows who shot him. Maybe the FBI is the one who shot him." The feds, meantime, aren't talking.
Bad Boy, though, is unaware of any federal surveillance of Smalls on the night of his death, and according to Kenny Meiselas, no one at Bad Boy has ever been contacted about an investigation by the FBI. Meanwhile, Combs no longer answers reporters' questions about the shootings. "Puffy's thinking is that talking to reporters has not necessarily changed what they print," Meiselas says. "It's been frustrating for him."
But Wallace wonders if Combs may know more about her son's death than he is telling the police. "Does Puffy know something about my son's death? Maybe he's afraid to talk. Maybe he's intimidated," she says. "But at least do something. Give a hint. Don't just sit back and act as if he was my son's best friend and confidant.... There are a lot of people out there who know something about my son's death. But they're afraid to come forward."
Meiselas disagrees. "Puffy loved Biggie like a brother," he says. "He has done everything possible to assist police in finding the person who took his friend and creative partner away."
During the Puff Daddy and the Family World Tour earlier this year, Combs repeatedly implored the crowds to remember Smalls. This could have been a sincere gesture or, of course, the memorial could simply be cynical showbiz. "Believe me," Wallace says, "its not the buddy-buddy thing that the media says their relationship was. They had a beautiful relationship. But it was a business relationship.... Puffy was not Christopher's best friend." When Wallace hears Combs talking about how he is looking after her financially, she bristles. "Puffy's not taking care of Biggie's mother," she says. "Biggie is taking care of Biggie's mother. Puffy doesn't buy my food, pay my mortgage. Everything was in Christopher's name. He died a very rich man and a very smart man," she says proudly.
LAPD detectives say the Smalls case is still alive. The investigation began with 20 detectives, however; today, four homicide detectives are assigned to the case. Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department says that the Shakur investigation, which from the start was handled by two detectives and one sergeant, is also continuing. Two years later, its investigation, though open, has stalled.
The real story behind the deaths of Shakur and Smalls may never emerge. It says a lot about the communities the victims came from and the society that surrounded them that both murders have become so encrusted with conspiracy theories and myths. Smalls's and Shakur's deaths have absorbed the rage, the sorrow, the confusion, and the pain in communities in which most people have lost friends and relatives to violence.
Additional reporting by William Shaw.