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."
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.
A third theory for the Shakur shooting, which doesn't seem to hold a lot of water, is that the rapper's death is somehow related to the simmering feud between East Coast and West Coast rap artists. For some time now, Death Row, which is based in Los Angeles, has been at odds with the East Coast-based Bad Boy Entertainment and one of its artists, Biggie Smalls (a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G.). When I interviewed Shakurafter he was shot five times during a robbery in November 1994 (in which thieves made off with $40,000 of his jewelry), the rapper implied that he felt Smalls and Bad Boy's chief, Sean "Puffy" Combs, who were in a recording studio in the building where Shakur was shot, knew who was responsible for the shooting. Combs and Smalls have denied any involvement in either Shakur shooting. More recently, Combs sent his "deepest condolences" to the late rapper's friends and family.
To compound matters, Knight and other members of the Death Row entourage have been remarkably silent about the shooting, consistently telling the police that they didn't see any of Shakur's assailants, only the white Cadillac. Nor have any credible witnesses who were at the intersection of Flamingo and Koval at the time of the shooting come forward. Death Row publicist George Pryce would not comment onShakur's murder, although one man at the label's offices did say, "Tupac ain't got nothin' to do worth my bread and butter."
As people flocked to Las Vegas in the days after Shakur's shooting, there were constant whispers that the rapper's condition was improving. Many of us who had followed Shakur over the years – the legion of fans, the pop-culture pundits and the Tupac haters – believed he would bounce back, just as he had after he was shot in 1994. "I'm still waiting for Tupac to call me; I never thought he was gonna die," Keisha Morris, a former girlfriend of Shakur's, would later tell me. "I thought he was going to walk out of the hospital just like he did before."
Word of Shakur's death traveled quickly on Sept. 13 – via cellular phone, fax, beeper and e-mail. By the time I got to the medical center, a throng of well-wishers-turned-mourners, mostly young and black, already stood inside and outside the trauma center where Shakur had been hospitalized. Some wept hysterically, some stared into space, and others sipped on bottled water or malt liquor. A few homeys spilled liquid on the ground in honor of Shakur. One young woman with thick braids and a flowered dress said, "I hope you tell the truth about Tupac. He was a hero to me, and he kept it real for the hood."
Jeeps and cars drove ominously through the intersection of Goldring Avenue and Rose Street, transforming the blocks surrounding the hospital into Las Vegas' version of Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles on a Sunday night. Some of the vehicles blasted Shakur's music. Inside one black Hummer, four young men slouched in their seats and stared blankly in the direction of the hospital.
Even though it was September, the temperature soared above 100 degrees, and a thick, melancholic feeling hovered in the air. Reports that there had been retaliation for Shakur's death sifted through the crowd. Las Vegas Metro Police smothered the area as television crews, newspaper stringers, magazine reporters and freelance photographers all worked the outer edges of the crowd. Some onlookers flashed the familiar West Coast "W" hand signal on behalf of Shakur. "The boss man is dead," said one teenage boy wearing an all-black outfit of a baseball cap, T-shirt and jeans.
When a black Lexus drove up to the entrance of the trauma center, the crowd stopped what it was doing to see who was inside. The 6-foot-4-inch, 315-pound Suge Knight emerged from the passenger seat, smoking a cigar. As he walked slowly into the hospital with three other men, Knight's face was emotionless. Several young black men in the waiting room flocked to him, including Death Row's teenage singer Danny Boy, the only person in the contingent who cried openly. The crew hugged for a moment, then quickly pulled apart.
After Knight was told that Shakur's body had been removed from the hospital, the Death Row CEO and his boys made their way, very slowly, back to the Lexus. Knight didn't appear concerned with his own safety, in spite of rumors that he was the target of whoever had shot Shakur. A collective sigh went up when Knight and his buddies drove off.
Like Kurt Cobain before him, Shakur had become a living symbol of his generation's angst and rage, and for that he is now looked upon as a martyr. But his fame and the controversy and misunderstanding that surrounded his life have also rendered Shakur – like Cobain, Marvin Gaye, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and even Malcolm X – an enigma.
"Tupac had an anger; he had a temper just like all people do – but it certainly didn't drive his actions," says Wendy Day of the Brooklyn-based Rap Coalition, an organization dedicated to creating an awareness of issues associated with hip-hop culture. "When the media portrays him as somebody who goes around beating up video directors and limo drivers, and shooting at cops, that's not the reality. I'm not saying he didn't do that, because it certainly was part of his personality. But I found him to be a warm, sensitive, caring, sharp businessman. Tupac had a wonderful point that he used to make: He would say, 'Before I made a record, I never had a record,'" referring to crime.
That much is true, but the last five years of Shakur's life were fraught with arrests and tragedy. Shakur's most notorious arrest came in 1993, when he was charged with raping a Brooklyn woman. He was ultimately convicted of one count of sexual abuse and served eight months of a four and a half year sentence. While in jail, Shakur married his girlfriend, Keisha Morris, but the marriage was annulled shortly after he signed with Death Row Records. Shakur was also arrested in 1993 on charges of shooting two off-duty police officers in Atlanta. Because of a lack of evidence, that case never made it to a grand jury. Witnesses had testified that Shakur and his entourage had shot in self-defense after the officers, wearing civilian clothes, fired at Shakur's car.
In addition to these and other arrests, Shakur was hit with a couple of civil suits. In 1992, at a festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of Marin City, a Northern California ghetto enclave nicknamed the Jungle, a confrontation occurred between members of Shakur's entourage and another group of festival-goers. A gun was fired by someone in Shakur's crew, and a 6-year-old boy was shot and killed. No criminal charges were filed, although a civil lawsuit against Shakur and his then-label, Interscope Records, was settled out of court for a reported $300,000 to $500,000. That same year, lawyers defending a man accused of killing a Texas state trooper claimed that their client had been influenced by Shakur's first solo album, 1991's 2Pacalypse Now, which contains references to violence against police officers. The trooper's widow filed a multimillion-dollar civil suit against Shakur, Interscope and its then-parent company, Time Warner.
Shakur began his musical career as a roadie and dancer with the Bay Area rap group Digital Underground. He had appeared on that group's 1990 collection, This Is an EP Release, and the 1991 album Sons of the P. That same year, Shakur released 2Pacalypse Now, which includes the singles "Brenda's Got a Baby" and "Trapped." In 1992, then-Vice President Dan Quayle targeted the album in his war against the breakdown of traditional values in the entertainment industry. Shakur's second album, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., came out in 1993, but it wasn't until two years later, with the release of Me Against the World, that the rapper became a multimillion-selling artist, partly because of his high-profile legal cases. This year's double album All Eyez on Me – Shakur's first for Death Row, which is distributed by Interscope – debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top 200 chart.
Shakur's success mirrored that of two other Death Row artists, Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. The label was co-founded in 1992 by Dre, a former member of the original gangsta-rap group, N.W.A., and Suge Knight, an ex-University of Nevada football player. Knight has successfully created a myth around himself as an executive not unlike a Hollywood mob figure who has strong-armed his way into the entertainment industry. Many people inside the music business, afraid of his perceived power, were reluctant to speak on the record for this article. In 1991, Knight was sued by former N.W.A member Eazy-E, who died of AIDS, in 1995. Eazy-E, who ran the rap label Ruthless Records, claimed that Knight had assaulted him with baseball bats and pipes, forcing Eazy-E to release Dre from his contract with Ruthless. The suit was dismissed.
Since its founding, Death Row, whose logo portrays a man strapped in an electric chair, has sold nearly 18 million records and grossed more than $100 million on the strength of Dre's The Chronic, Snoop's Doggystyle, Tha Dogg Pound's Dogg Food, and two compilation albums. Despite its successes, however, Death Row has suffered major setbacks during the past year. In 1995, Time Warner, under fire from conservatives like William Bennett and anti-gangsta-rap activist C. DeLores Tucker, sold its 50 percent share of Death Row distributor Interscope Records back to the label's founders, Jimmy Iovine and Ted Fields, who then sold it to MCA Music Entertainment. (Neither Iovine nor Fields would comment on the Shakur murder or Interscope's recent business dealings.) Earlier this year, Dre split acrimoniously with Death Row, telling the Hollywood Reporter only days before Shakur's shooting, "Gangsta rap is definitely a thing of the past. I've just moved on."
Even before Shakur's death, sales figures showed that rap has suffered a slump since its 1991 peak, when rap accounted for 10 percent of all records sold. Rap's market share dropped to 6.7 percent in 1995. Gangsta rap's place has been largely filled by the more melodic, pop-oriented sounds of rap artists such as the Fugees and the more street-oriented R&B of artists like R. Kelly. Even Death Row has now branched out into R&B.
It's an unseasonably chilly night in jersey City, N.J., four days after Shakur's death, and the rapper's father, Billy Garland, is sitting in the modestly decorated apartment he shares with his wife. "Me and Pac's life is so similar, you wouldn't believe it, bro," says the tall, copper-colored 47-year-old man with thick eyebrows, deep dimples, a long nose and a hoop earring in his left ear. Garland looks hauntingly like Shakur – or, maybe I should say, Shakur looked like his father. The husky baritone voice is there, the lean body, the punctuating hand and facial gestures, the bright eyes and toothy smile.
As Shakur's song "Dear Mama" fills the space in the apartment, I am astonished that this man is the father whom Shakur had told me several times before did not exist. "A lot of times I feel responsible," Garland says matter-of-factly, his eyes wet as he sits nervously on the edge of a dining-room chair. "A lot of times I shed tears, 'cause a lot of shit he could have avoided. My son talked about father a lot. He didn't know I was alive when he made 'Dear Mama.'"
Nor did Tupac Shakur know the world that created him. Garland and Afeni Shakur, Tupac's mother, were both members of the Black Panther Party in 1970 when they met; Garland lived in Jersey City, Afeni in New York. "Just like Tupac," says Garland, "I moved around a lot and never felt like I belonged to any community or family, until I joined the Panthers." A year earlier, Afeni and 20 other New York Panthers – including her then-husband, Lumumba Abdul Shakur – had been charged with multiple felonies, including conspiracy to bomb public areas in New York. While out on bail, Afeni dated Garland and a low-level gangster named Legs.
"When Afeni told me she was pregnant," says Garland, "I knew it was mine."
Afeni Shakur's bail was revoked in early 1971, and she found herself in the Women's House of Detention in New York's Greenwich Village, pregnant with Tupac. In a previous interview, she told me, "I never thought he'd make it here alive." In May 1971, Afeni and 13 of her co-defendants were acquitted of all charges, and on June 16, 1971, her son was born. Afeni called him Tupac Amaru, for an Inca chief whose name means "shining serpent"; Shakur is Arabic for "thankful to God."
By the time his son was born, Garland, who had two other children from previous relationships, was, as he puts it, "doing [his] thing, and Afeni was doing hers." The couple drifted apart, although Garland would see Tupac off and on until he was 5 years old. After that, Garland didn't have any contact with his son until 1992, when Garland saw Tupac in a poster for the film Juice.
In the intervening years, Tupac and his sister, Sekyiwa, lived with Afeni in the Bronx and Harlem, in New York, in homeless shelters and with relatives and friends. Tupac told me a few years ago that the political idealism of the Black Panther Party did not mesh with the harsh economic realities of his family's life. "Here we was," the rapper said, "kickin' all this shit about the revolution – and we starvin'. That didn't make no sense to me."
Afeni attempted to channel the creative energy of Tupac – who was often teased by family members and neighborhood boys for being "pretty" – by enrolling him in a Harlem theater group when he was 12. In his first performance, Tupac played Travis in A Raisin in the Sun. A ghetto child who never quite fit in, Shakur said it was on the theater stage that a new world unfolded for him. "I remember thinking, 'This is something that none of them kids can do,' " Shakur told me. "I didn't like my life, but through acting, I could become somebody else."
What seems to have affected Shakur even more than a disillusionment with who he was and where he lived was the absence of a father in his life. He had assumed that Legs, once connected to the legendary New York drug kingpin Nicky Barnes, was his real father, and Shakur admired him. "That's where the thug in me came from," he said.
Legs was the person who would introduce Afeni to crack, a drug she was haunted by for much of the '80s. After Legs was sent to prison for credit-card fraud in the mid-'80s, Afeni, tired of her struggles in New York, moved her family to Baltimore. When she called to alert Legs of her whereabouts, Afeni learned he had died of a crack-induced heart attack. "That fucked me up," Tupac told me. "I couldn't even cry, man. I felt I needed a daddy to show me the ropes, and I didn't have one."
In 1986, Tupac Shakur was accepted into the prestigious Baltimore School for the Arts. A natural actor, he immersed himself in school productions and felt he had finally found his niche. "That school was saving me, you know what I'm sayin'?" Shakur told me. "I was writing poetry and shit, and I became known as MC New York because I was rapping, and then I was doing the acting thing. It was a whole other experience for me to be able to express myself – not just around black people but also around white people and other kinds of people. It was the freest I ever felt in my life."
That period ended when Shakur was 17 and his family moved to Marin City. There, his life would drastically change direction. For one, he wouldn't finish high school. He spent the next few years selling drugs, hustling on the streets, crashing in different people's homes and watching his relationship with his mother deteriorate completely. In 1989 things began to look up. Shakur met Shock-G, the leader of Digital Underground, and landed a job as a roadie and dancer. The group's hit song, "Humpty Dance," was just about to become the hip-hop rage. After a tour and some recording with D.U., Shakur embarked on his solo rap and acting careers.
Garland re-established his relationship with Shakur two years later, in November 1994, just after the rapper had been shot in New York. "I had to be there," Garland says softly. "He's my son. I've never asked him for anything – not money or nothing. I just wanted to let him know that I cared."
Garland says Afeni OK'd the visit, and Tupac, though a bit groggy, was surprised and happy to meet him. "He thought I was dead or that I didn't want to see him," Garland says with a tinge of anger. "How could I feel like that? He's my flesh and my blood. Look at me. He looks just like me. People who had never seen before immediately knew I was his father."
Garland's voice trails off. "[Tupac] was a genius, and he was only 25," Garland says. "I just hope all of them kids who sent all these letters learn something from Tupac's life. And I hope the people who murdered my son pay."
During the past three years, I talked with Tupac Shakur on numerous occasions – at his home in Atlanta, inside a New York jail, at a barbecue joint in South Central Los Angeles – and had gotten to know him rather well. He was a complex human being: both brilliant and foolish; very funny and deadly serious; friendly and eager to please, but also bad-tempered and prone to violence; a lover of his people and of women but also a race-divider and a convicted sex offender; generous to a fault but also a dangerous gambler when it came to his personal and professional life; incredibly talented but at times frivolously shortsighted. To me, Shakur was the most important solo artist in the history of rap, not because he was the most talented (he wasn't) but because he, more than any other rapper, personified and articulated what it was to be a young black man in America.
But the demons of Shakur's childhood – the poverty, the sense of displacement, the inconsistent relationship with his mother, the absence of a regular father figure – haunted the rapper all his life. In his song "Dear Mama," from Me Against the World, he sings, "When I was young, me and my mama had beefs/Seventeen years old, kicked out on the streets."
Shakur's lyrics were all over the map. Sometimes you didn't know if he loved black people or if he absolutely despised them. When you juxtapose the deeply uplifting "Keep Ya Head Up" with the venomous "Hit 'Em Up" – on which he refers to the rapper Biggie Smalls and his wife, R&B singer Faith, in the line "You claim to be a player, but I fucked your wife" – you get a clear picture of Shakur's schizophrenic nature regarding issues of race and gender. What made him special, however, was that he wasn't afraid to put himself out there, conflicts and all, for public support or ridicule.
Shakur's music is part Public Enemy and part N.W.A, and his rapping is part preacher and part street hustler. The sound has a chaotic urgency, reflecting Shakur's East Coast roots, but it isn't as sophisticated as the cut-and-paste artistry of P.E.'s Bomb Squad. The beats are very spare, the loops and samples are straightforward. Yet his most popular hits – like the recent "How Do U Want It" – are more melodic than most New York-based hip-hop, more along the lines of West Coast artists like Warren G or Dr. Dre.
By 1995, Shakur seemed tired of the hip-hop game. "I don't even got the thrill to rap no more," he told me. According to his longtime friend Karen Lee, "Pac always carried the weight of a lot of people on his shoulders. All he ever wanted was to hear himself on the radio and to see himself on the movie screen." Given Shakur's iconic status, it's no wonder that some people have already begun to speculate that the rapper is still alive, that he faked his death. Shakur has become a symbol, an anti-hero.
Now that Tupac Shakur is gone, some will charge that it was the music that killed him or that he had it coming because of the choices he made in his life. To me, those are cop-out, knee-jerk responses. Shakur, in spite of his bad-boy persona, was a product of a post-civil rights, post-Black Panther, post-Ronald Reagan American environment. We may never find out who killed Tupac Shakur, or why he did the things he did and said what he said. All we have left are his music, his films and his interviews. Shakur lived fast and hard, and he has died fast and hard. And in his own way, he kept it real for a lot of folks who didn't believe that anyone like him (or like themselves) could do anything with his life.