While conspiracy theories abound, the murders of two of rap’s biggest stars go unsolved.
by Cathy Scott
Just before 3 p.m. on a spring afternoon in May 1998, 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.
This a nation long hardened to the idea of black-on-black crime. Although a shooting in a white suburban school is cause for a national outcry, a gun battle in a black ghetto barely raises an eyebrow – at least from authorities.
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 was the latest in a string of murders in the 1990s that blighted the reputation of rap culture and the image of young African-American men. Among the most famous victims were two of the biggest names in rap music: Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.
Now, nearly 16 years after the murder of Tupac Shakur, no arrests have been made. The killing raises many questions but provides few official answers. Many fans see a conspiracy to cover up the real facts.
Does the police’s failure to solve Tupac’s murder simply reflect what investigators consider the randomness of the violence, or is it the result of a troubling reluctance to solve murders in which the victims are black? Have investigators failed because some facts are being concealed? Some Tupac fans believe that a sinister pattern links Tupac’s murder to the shooting death of Biggie Smalls six months later with many seeing a conspiracy to cover up the real facts of the cases.
It is 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, brought to light in large part by the late Gary Webb, a reporter who turned a series of investigative stories for the San Jose Mercury News into a book.
It is common, of course, for rumors of conspiracy and cover-up to accrete around icons like Shakur and Smalls, especially when there was a wall of silence surrounding their deaths. But not solving the murder of Tupac, not to mention Biggie’s, might just be the biggest crime of all.
The Brilliant Tupac
Shakur was a modern-day American storyteller. His mix of rhythms and rhymes were a raw and vivid chronicle of the life of young black man, raised in the nation’s ghettos. He came of age in a housing project on the outskirts of San Francisco, and he translated his experiences from the street into raps and rhymes.
Brilliantly talented, he turned the poetry he wrote about the mean streets into raps. Arrested eight times between 1991 and ‘96, he had created a thug image, and those rough-and-tumble lyrics made him a mega star. Shakur went on to record one gold and four platinum albums before his death and gave young America a new voice to relate to.
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.”
Tupac appeared to have it all. Lots of money, fancy cars, and the company of beautiful women. He had escaped from a life in the projects; he couldn’t, however, seem to get the ‘hood out of his veins.
As for Biggie Smalls, he grew up on the streets of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, raised by a single mother who supported her son by substitute teaching. 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. Wallace lives in a lavishly furnished condominium in Teaneck, New Jersey, that 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 – Wallace 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, and they would hang out together. They were very, very close.”
The First Attempt on Shakur’s Life
Although Smalls and Shakur started out as friends, as their reputations grew, their friendship cooled. And for those who have claimed a connection between their murders, that narrative begins on November 30, 1994, in Manhattan’s Times Square. It 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 in Times Square. As he entered the lobby, three men ambushed him. 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 surprise of much of the music industry, an angry Shakur publicly accused Smalls of knowing that Tupac was about to be set up. Smalls denied any involvement in the shooting, saying that Shakur had simply been the victim of a botched robbery.
Police agreed. The day after the shooting, John Hill, commanding office of New York Police Department’s 19th precinct, held a news conference. “Rap star Tupac Shakur and three members of his group were robbed and shot,” Hill said. That was it. No suspects. And, a few days later, the investigation into the shooting was dropped. Detective George Nagy of the New York Police Department explained it like this: "His lawyer never called back. No one called back. They more or less handled it their own way.”
But Tupac refused to back down from his accusations about Biggie.
Also, the day after the Quad Studios shooting, a heavily bandaged Shakur was found guilty of one count of sexual abuse for having molested a female fan in November 1993. He was pushed into the courtroom in a wheel chair. Soon after, he was sentenced to a prison term of one and a half to four and a half years. While Tupac maintained his innocence, his financial resources were stretched to the limit by the legal action; he couldn’t make bail.
As 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, following Tupac’s example. 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, Tupac had served eight months in prison. 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 criminal record, was one of the most powerful and feared men at the time in the music business. He had built Death Row into a top rap label, with $100 million in sales. But Knight wasn’t without controversy, especially his known connection to the Bloods, a street gang in Compton, where Knight grew up, and rival of the Southside Crips. Still, Shakur signed with Death Row. In return, Knight posted Tupac’s $1.4 million bond.
Shakur and Smalls, the two biggest gangsta rappers in America, were now on the two biggest hip-hop labels. And Shakur was not about to let old rivalries die. Knight and Shakur repeatedly ridiculed Smalls and Combs in public and in the press.
The beef between the two rappers escalated even more after Shakur boasted in a song that he’d had an affair with Smalls’s wife, Faith Evans. It triggered what became widely known as the East Coast-West Coast war. Smalls and Shakur soon found themselves overtaken by the very 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 1996 BMW 750iL 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. A bullet grazed Knight’s head, but Shakur was not 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 had begun.
Tupac Shakur was executed in cold blood. The Cadillac fled the scene. Tupac never regained consciousness and died six days later, on Friday the 13th. He was just 25.
Who Killed Shakur?
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 Anderson murdered Shakur, 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 this 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 "Kadafi" 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 did not 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 Las Vegas police 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, other 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 turf, the West Coast. “Yes, Christopher was comfortable,” Wallace says. “Maybe he was too comfortable.”
The Murder of Biggie Smalls
|The Notorious B.I.G|
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, Los Angeles fire marshals 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 sat in the passenger seat of a rented GMC Suburban. Combs sat in a car in front of his, 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,” says Combs’ attorney, Kenny Meiselas. “The (murders) 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 and Combs hired to protect him on his trip to L.A. Bad Boy, however, has denied ever hiring gang members for security.
The murders led to an explosion of theories about the deaths of the two top performers in rap. Some say that the killings were the result of an effort to rub out black gangsta rappers. Still others think they were deliberate hits by rival hip-hop 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,” Voletta 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.
Even 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 have been outlandish, but what is perhaps equally bizarre is how widely they are believed. (After Shakur’s death, I wrote a book titled 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. Still, every day I get e-mails, social media messages and phone calls from fans unable to accept that Tupac 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 observed. 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?”
After Shakur was killed in Las Vegas, Nagy says, Las Vegas police did not contact the NYPD to see if the murder might have been 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 10 minutes before he was shot, Christopher was under surveillance by the FBI,” Biggie Smalls’s mother 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, weren't talking.
Bad Boy, though, run by Sean “Diddy” Combs (formerly “Puffy”) was 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 stopped answering reporters’ questions about the shootings. “Puff’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. “Sean Combs 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” in 1997, Combs repeatedly implored the crowds to remember Smalls. This could have been a sincere gesture or a publicity opportunity. “Believe me,” Voletta says, “it’s 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, despite many stalls throughout the years. 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. Fifteen years later, however, its investigation, though still open, has stalled as well.
The real story behind the death of Tupac Shakur may never emerge. In the meantime, his murder has become so encrusted with conspiracy theories and myths, it’s difficult to tell where the truth lies. Strip away hyperbole, innuendo, theories, and emotion, and the facts speak for themselves. Smalls’s and Shakur’s deaths have absorbed the rage, the sorrow, the confusion, and the pain in communities in which many have lost friends and relatives to violence.
In 2011, a joint law-enforcement task force investigating gang activity for more than a year in the Los Angeles area looked into both cases. The task force ended its probes without resolution. Both murders remain unsolved.
Cathy Scott is the author of The Killing of Tupac Shakur, which was published on December 31, 2008.