Entertainment Weekly Dec. 6, 1996
DEADLY BUSINESS: RAP WORLD RESPONDS TO TUPAC’S MURDER
By Dana Kennedy
Although more than a dozen people, including two women, have confessed to the Sept. 7 shooting of rapper Tupac Shakur in Las Vegas, his murder remains unsolved. Las Vegas police - and even homicide detectives in Compton, Calif., who have been investigating the case - say those claims are from bogus publicity seekers and admit they have no real leads. ''We've heard every theory, but we don't know anything,'' says Lieut. Danny Sneed, seated in the bunkerlike headquarters of the Compton police. After 12 shootings in Compton, some in direct retaliation for the attack on Shakur, the police arrested 23 local gang members in a predawn sweep - but there are still no official suspects. ''It's a mystery,'' says Sneed.
It's no mystery, counter current and former Compton Crips, only one of whom will give his name, who say they know the shooter and claim police could crack the case if they wanted. The story on the street in Compton - admittedly just one of the theories that abound in the Shakur case - is that the shooting was done by a Crip in connection with the fight involving Shakur and Death Row Records president Marion ''Suge'' Knight (long associated with the Crips' rivals, the Bloods) in Las Vegas after the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon fight at the MGM Grand.
''The cops don't want to find out who did it - they think whoever did it did them a favor,'' says aspiring rapper Jerome ''Butter'' Wilson, 19, who says he has been a Crip on the deceptively placid-looking streets of Compton since age 9 and served time in the California Youth Authority. ''Tupac shot a cop, after all. [In 1993, he was charged with, but not convicted of, shooting two Atlanta police officers.] They're just happy someone took Tupac out for them.''
Far from being a mystery, the identity of the killer is well-known to some, claims Wilson. While his story could be street hyperbole, Wilson spouts specific details about the case - including the type of gun with which Shakur was shot - that police have not released publicly, and at least one California police source grudgingly concedes he may be telling the truth. According to Wilson, who's with the In-Hood Crips (another subgroup of the same gang), the killer belongs to the Southside Compton Crips - and it isn't Orlando Anderson, a Southside Crip who was questioned Oct. 2 in connection with Shakur's shooting but later released. Wilson claims that two people he knows were with the gunman in the white Cadillac with California plates when it pulled up alongside Knight's black BMW 750 sedan following the clash at the MGM Grand. In Wilson's version, Knight, 31, and Shakur, 25, encountered half a dozen members of the Crips with whom they had scuffled ringside before the Tyson bout. ''They were out to get Suge and Tupac got in the way,'' says Wilson. ''Tupac beat one guy up, then the guy went and told his homeboys. They got strapped and got in the Cadillac and ended up killing a million-dollar man. Tupac wasn't really a gang-banger, but you can't go up against the hood like that.''
Whether or not Wilson's tale is true, he is right on one account. When it comes to the nearly $1 billion-a-year rap industry, it doesn't matter if you're a superstar like Shakur, a ruthless, behind-the-scenes kingpin like Knight, or just a local gang member with a demo tape like Wilson - it's risky to go up against the hood. Shakur's Sept. 13 death exposed just how deadly - if phenomenally profitable - the business of rap can be. (Shakur's posthumous album, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, a coarsely produced, cobbled-together effort, debuted on the Billboard charts at No. 1 and has sold more than a million copies since its release Nov. 5.)
But most chilling, Shakur's murder, while it may be spurring a move toward more positive, less violent rap, also highlights how even success and fame cannot always insulate rap's biggest powers from the violent culture that spawned and, in many cases, still surrounds them. ''This incident not only has people in the industry thinking, it has black kids thinking, it has mothers thinking,'' says New York rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy. ''I've never seen a situation like this in the black community over a cultural person. [Tupac's] almost like Elvis.'' (And there are even fervent fans who believe Tupac lives. Chuck D, echoing postings on the Internet, calls Shakur's death an ''unclear incident. But until Tupac shows up, we'll just have to assume he's dead.'')
If Tupac is like Elvis, then Suge Knight, of course, was his Colonel Parker. But Knight too is struggling with the ghosts of his not-so-distant past. His Corleone-esque control of the thriving Death Row Records began to unravel with the acrimonious departure of the label's cofounder and creative force, Dr. Dre, in March and the murder of Shakur, the label's biggest star. To make matters worse, the FBI reportedly is investigating the label for alleged gang connections and racketeering. At press time, Knight, who could not be reached for comment for this story, remains in L.A. County Jail awaiting a ruling on four possible parole violations (stemming from a 1992 assault on two aspiring rappers at a Hollywood recording studio) and Death Row's future is in doubt.
While most people in the rap industry say much of the so-called feuding between East Coast and West Coast rappers is no more than hype to sell records, the thug life mythologized by Shakur and other gangsta rappers is still very real. ''You haven't seen the last of this violence," warns a former Compton Crip who did not want to be identified. ''Suge's a Blood. They bring no money back into the hood. He's become an untouchable nigger. Tupac was the intended hit. The idea is to kill everything around Suge. They want him to die slowly. Tupac was his boy. Everyone who is making Suge money is in danger.''
The sleek corporate offices of Death Row Records look out over Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, less than 20 miles from Compton but worlds apart. Since Knight founded the label in 1992, he claims it has sold more than 26 million records and grossed in excess of $170 million. But gang members like Jerome Wilson can still remember Knight when he hung out with the Bloods in Compton and was an usher at the neighborhood cineplex. ''I've known that fool since back when he had no money,'' says Wilson. But now that Knight does have money, and more than most can imagine, many of his former friends in the hood resent him. ''A lot of motherf---ers are mad because guys like him aren't real anymore,'' says Wilson. ''Us rappers out here rap about the struggle we're going through. That's why the first album you make is always the best, because it's real.''
That may be so, but Death Row plans to make plenty of money off its late star. (Not to mention how his murder boosted sales of Shakur's previous releases - for example, his previous album All Eyez on Me reentered Billboard's Top 10.) Besides Killuminati, Shakur had recorded enough material before his death for at least three more albums. ''With Tupac dead, they stand to make more money than they ever dreamed possible from him,'' says one rap industry source who feared giving his name. ''Did you see the speed with which they got Tupac's video off to MTV? Three days after he died? The future of Death Row has never looked brighter.''
Maybe. Maybe not. Knight, the brains - and, at 6 foot 4 and 330 pounds, the brawn - behind Death Row, is behind bars for the time being. Gangsta godfather Dr. Dre, whose breakthrough hit with N.W.A was ''Fuck tha Police,'' has severed all ties with Death Row and, with songs like the new ''Been There, Done That'' on his just-released Dr. Dre Presents... The Aftermath, is proclaiming that he has renounced his violent gangsta past. As a result, Death Row Records, like the rap industry itself, is at a crossroads. The label's only real remaining stars are Snoop Doggy Dogg, who just released Tha Doggfather, which debuted at No. 1 and has sold more than half a million copies, and Tha Dogg Pound. Death Row has signed such unlikely future stars as has-been pop rapper-turned-wannabe gangsta MC Hammer, and 18-year-old Gina Longo. Longo, the only white performer signed to the label, is the daughter of Lawrence Longo, the deputy DA of L.A. County who, perhaps not so coincidentally, recommended a plea bargain for Knight last year in the assault case. (Longo has since been under investigation by the DA's office for conflict of interest.) ''When Dre left Death Row, that was the end, everybody knew it,'' says an industry source who does not want to be identified because he fears Knight. ''No Dre, no Death Row. The fact that they had Snoop and Tupac kept them in the game...but it was all about the masterful influence of Dre and his creative skills.''
Even if Death Row, which, after all, is now calling itself the ''new and untouchable Death Row,'' manages to stay in the game, it may never regain the kind of prominence and Godfather-like swagger of the Tupac era. It may be replaced, if not by a kinder and gentler rap culture, then by a savvier, more sophisticated one. ''It was sad what happened with Tupac, because he had something going,'' says Yo Yo, a popular and respected L.A.-based female rap artist whose fourth solo album, Total Control, was just released on EastWest Records. ''He could have moved on. But it was his choice to stay in that game. Like Dr. Dre is [moving on], and people need to see that. Here's this guy who was once considered to be the hardest gangsta rapper from the group N.W.A, and now he's like: 'You got guns, I got straps. It's time to move on. You can't keep dwelling on the same shit.'''
Dr. Dre's shedding of his gangsta skins may be one of the first signs that West Coast rap is slowly evolving from its hardcore origins. ''It's too early to tell which direction the music will take because [Tupac's] death just happened in September,'' says Big Jon, creative director at EMI Music Publishing. ''But from the inside, I can say people are more aware now, more conscious. I think you'll see people like Snoop coming out with straight party jams. People will see how you can't take nothing for granted.''
But it is on the East Coast where some of the smoothest entrepreneurs in rap are laying claim to the next generation. And none are cannier than 26-year-old Sean ''Puffy'' Combs, the head of Bad Boy Entertainment in New York City. Combs has long played a kind of politic Jay Leno to his longtime rival Suge Knight's cranky David Letterman. ''I'm not a gangster,'' insists Combs, even though he and Bad Boy's Notorious B.I.G. (who declined to comment) have long and loudly feuded with Shakur and Knight. ''I never professed to be that. We never made any negative statements toward Tupac or Death Row. We never made negative records, we never did anything. We just try to make positive moves and make music.''
Combs admits that the culture of the rap industry, no matter how powerful the participants, often still mirrors rough street life. In 1995, at a birthday party in Atlanta, Jake Robles, a friend of Knight's, was shot and killed. Knight blamed Combs and his entourage, though Combs denied any involvement. And at last month's hip-hop conference in Miami, shots were fired at a party given by Heavy D.'s Uptown Records. ''I've been in a lot of parties where shots rang out, so it wasn't like nothing I was new to,'' says Combs. ''A lot of time in parties, urban parties, shots ring out. It's a sad thing, but it has nothing to do with the music. It's the environment.''
That environment, Combs says (perhaps a bit disingenuously, considering all the money he's made off of gangsta rap), is what he hopes to change with his booming Bad Boy Entertainment - and a reported $75 million deal with Arista may provide ample incentive to toe the line. The word hood isn't used as much in New York, but Combs claims to be funneling some of his company's profits back into the inner city. He is only too happy to provide a list of the projects he plans, casting himself as something approaching the Mother Teresa of rap. He says he's buying a building in Harlem to house his year-old outreach organization for inner-city kids, called Daddy's House Social Program. (Combs boasts that he is donating more than 20 percent of his gross to Daddy's House.) ''My company right now is 100 percent black,'' says Combs. ''And it's 100 percent people who didn't have any prior experience. People that just needed a chance, just like me when I got my foot in the door.''
Monica Lynch, longtime president of New York-based Tommy Boy Records, says rap needs that kind of fresh blood. ''I think that musically and creatively rap has reached an impasse and things sound a little bit stale right now,'' says Lynch. ''There are a lot of people out there bored with rap, and there need to be musical innovations, new types of musical hybrids in rap.''
Back in Compton, and eating heartily from a cafeteria tray laden ith macaroni and cheese, chicken wings, apple pie, and grape oda while his beeper goes off every few minutes, Jerome Wilson onders who will help him get his foot in the door. He has a demo tape but is not sure how to shop it around. Plus he's mbivalent about what he sees as selling out. ''Don't kid yourself; a lot of these rappers aren't really gangsters,'' says Wilson, who claims he's ''been shot three times, stabbed. These guys talk like they're living the life, but all they're doing is getting rich off people in the ghetto.''
Living the life for many high-profile rappers actually means wearing the best Versace and Moschino, downing Cristal, checking their Skypagers, and dialing up their tiny $1,000 StarTAC cell phones. But as in the case of Shakur, or even less prominent rappers like his backup singer Yafeu Fula, 19 (a witness to Tupac's shooting whose own Nov. 10 murder remains unsolved), their money won't always protect them. Said Rev. Jesse Jackson after Shakur's death, ''Sometimes the lure of violent culture is so magnetic that even when one overcomes it with material success, it continues to call.''
In the meantime, the trail leading to the identity of Shakur's killer and his motivation for gunning down the star seems to be growing cold. Wilson says he doubts the killer will be caught anytime soon - if ever. ''Right now he's lying as low as a leprechaun with his legs cut off,'' says Wilson. ''He's not talking and nobody else is talking either.''Shakur's fellow West Coast rapper Ice Cube rejects the notion that the young star was killed because of the kind of music he performed. It all comes back to the dangers of going up against the hood, even when you're a big star. ''Gangsta rap didn't kill Tupac,'' Ice Cube says. ''His music didn't come out of the speaker and kill him. Anybody can get murdered. Anyone can die.''