Bury Me Like a G: The Short Life and Violent Death of Tupac Shakur

And the rapper's singular, enduring legacy

October 31, 1996
Tupac on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Danny Clinch

At 4:03 p.m. on Sept. 13, Tupac Amaru Shakur, rapper and actor, died at the University of Nevada Medical Center in the Wild West gambling town of Las Vegas, the result of gunshot wounds he had received six days earlier in a drive-by shooting near the glittery, hotel-studded strip. Shakur, a.k.a. 2Pac, was 25. The rapper is survived by his mother, Afeni Shakur, his father, Billy Garland, and a half sister, Sekyiwa.

The official cause of Shakur's death was respiratory failure and cardio-pulmonary arrest, according to a medical-center spokesman. At press time, the police still had no suspects and no leads in the Sept 7. shooting and were having a difficult time getting witnesses to cooperate in the investigation. "The only evidence we have is the number of rounds fired and the physical evidence," said Sgt. Kevin Manning of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department's homicide unit, "and we can't reveal that."

Tupac Biopic Finally Ready to Film

Another officer, however, offered his own theory about the shooting. "In my opinion, it was black-gang related and probably a Bloods-Crips thing," says Sgt. Chuck Cassell of the department's gang unit. "Look at [Shakur's] tattoos and album covers – that's not the Jackson 5 . . . . It looks like a case of live by the sword, die by the sword."

At the time of Shakur's death, his fourth album, All Eyez on Me, was No. 65 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and had sold nearly 3 million copies, according to the Recording Industry Association of America; his previous release, 1995's Me Against the World, sold 2 million copies. In addition to making music, Shakur was also an actor: He appeared in three movies: Juice (1992), Poetic Justice (1993) and Above the Rim (1994). When he died, he had recently completed two new films, Gridlock and one tentatively titled Gang Related, in which he plays a detective.

Shakur, whose songs often detailed the misery, desperation and violence of ghetto life, grew up a troubled and sensitive child, living with his family in one inner-city community after another. Along with his million-selling albums and massive following, the rapper had often come under fire in his professional life for his offstage behavior. Since '91, Shakur had been arrested eight times and served eight months in prison for a sexual-abuse conviction. He was the subject of two wrongful-death lawsuits, one involving a 6-year-old boy who was killed in Northern California after getting caught in gunfire between Shakur's entourage and a group of rivals.

Four days after Shakur's death, his father, Billy Garland, told Rolling Stone in an exclusive interview that he wanted people to focus on the rapper's accomplishments. "My son is dead, and he don't deserve to be talked about like some common criminal," he said. "He wasn't perfect, but he did do some great things in a little bit of time."

The events leading up to Shakur's shooting remain sketchy, but this much is known: On Sept. 7, he attended the Mike Tyson/Bruce Seldon fight at the MGM Grand Hotel with 31-year-old Marion "Suge" Knight, the CEO of Shakur's label, Death Row Records. At 8:39 p.m., less than two minutes after it had begun, the boxing match was over when Tyson knocked out Seldon. At about 8:45, according to the Las Vegas Metro Police, Shakur and other members of the Death Row entourage – which reportedly included several bodyguards – got into an argument with a young black man while leaving the event. The quarrel escalated into a fight in which either Shakur or members of the entourage knocked the young man to the floor and began kicking and punching him; the altercation was captured by an MGM Grand security camera. The hotel's security staff quickly rushed in and broke up the squabble, and the Death Row entourage left the building at about 8:55.

Shakur and the entourage then stopped by the Luxor Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip for reasons the police have yet to determine. Shortly thereafter, they drove to Knight's home in southeast Las Vegas. While there, they changed clothes for a highly publicized anti-gang youth event put together by a Las Vegas Metro Police officer. The event was to be held at Knight's Club 662 (which spells out "MOB," reputedly for "Members of Bloods," on a telephone pad), located at 1700 E. Flamingo Road.

About two hours passed before Knight, driving his black, tinted-window BMW 750 sedan with Shakur in the passenger seat, was back in downtown Las Vegas, headed east on Flamingo Road near the intersection of Koval Lane. Directly behind them was a parade of about 10 other vehicles that were part of Death Row's entourage. At about 11:15, according to the police and witnesses, a white, four-door, late-model Cadillac with four people inside pulled up beside the BMW, and a volley of about 13 gunshots from a high-caliber handgun ripped into the BMW. Four bullets hit Shakur (who usually wore a bulletproof vest but did not have one on at the time of the shooting). Some reports suggest that the Death Row entourage returned fire. Immediately after the shooting, the Cadillac fled south on Koval.

Knight, who had been grazed by bullets, made a U-turn from the eastbound left lane of Flamingo and headed west at a high speed toward Las Vegas Boulevard, away from the nearest hospital. Meanwhile, two patrol officers on an unrelated call at the nearby Maxim Hotel had heard the gunshots and called for backup. Two other officers followed Knight's BMW, which took a left turn on Las Vegas Boulevard South, and stopped the car, with two flat tires, at the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Harmon Avenue. Upon discovering that Shakur and Knight needed medical assistance, the officers called an ambulance, which transported the two victims to the University of Nevada Medical Center.

At the hospital, Knight was treated for minor injuries to his head and released; Shakur, who had received two bullets to his chest, was admitted and listed in critical condition. During the following two days, the rapper underwent two operations, including one to remove his right lung to stop internal bleeding. To take pressure off his badly damaged body, doctors placed Shakur in a medically induced coma and on a respirator. Shakur died on Sept. 13; his family had his body cremated and held private services for the rapper in Las Vegas the following day.

In the six days following the incident, rumors flew about who was responsible for the shooting. Some observers within the music industry, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, have suggested that the young man with whom Shakur and the Death Row entourage had scuffled at the MGM Grand shot Shakur and Knight. According to Sergeant Manning, the police "determined that the individual in question could not have possibly followed Shakur because the man was being questioned by MGM security as the Death Row entourage was leaving the hotel." The police never filed a written report on the scuffle, and the videotape, Manning said, is not considered evidence and will not be released to the media. "We have no idea who he was," Manning said. Asked if that was normal police procedure, Manning said it was "not abnormal."

A second theory put forth by people in the industry and on the streets in the days following the shooting is that Knight, who has been associated with the Los Angeles-based street gang the Bloods and who has a great fondness for the gang's color, red, had been the actual target of the shooting. That theory is unlikely, considering that all of the shots were aimed at the passenger seat of Knight's car. In the week following the shooting, a Los Angeles police officer reported that three members of the Crips, a rival gang of the Bloods, had been found dead in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, Knight's home turf. Compton Police Department Capt. Steven Roller, however, would not confirm the gang affiliation of the three dead men. "That quote from the L.A. police is like a cop from Boston commenting on a homicide in New York," he said. "There is no correlation to the Tupac murder."

According to the Las Vegas gang unit, several gangs, among them the Bloods and the Crips, have proliferated in the city during the last few years. The gang unit's Cassell credits this to a gang migration from California dating back to the early 1980s. The weekend of the Shakurincident, Cassell says, six other drive-by shootings occurred, four of which were connected to Hispanic gang activity; none has been linked to the Shakur murder. "Gangs are a serious problem in Las Vegas," says Cassell. "We call it disorganized crime. Everything they do seems random, but they are very powerful and violent."

A twist on the gang theory is that Shakur may have been killed as a warning to Knight. Often, according to sources, rival criminals will execute individuals who are valuable to their foes in retaliation for wrongdoings. Knight is indeed no stranger to crime. In 1992, he was put on probation in Los Angeles after he was convicted for assault with a deadly weapon; he had also received three years' probation in Nevada for transporting weapons across the state line. Last year, Knight was given a 30-day jail sentence for conspiracy to commit a drug-related offense. According to a Sept. 25 New York Post report, the FBI is investigating Death Row Records for alleged organized-crime connections.

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