Just six months after Tupac Shakur was killed in Las Vegas, the Brooklyn rapper Notorious B.I.G. was slain Sunday in a drive-by shooting that took place outside Vibe magazine's post-Soul Train Awards party. The rapper, whose given name is Christopher Wallace and who goes by the name Biggie Smalls, was sitting in his Chevrolet Suburban at a traffic light on Wilshire Blvd. when an unidentified car pulled alongside the passenger side of his vehicle and opened fire out of its driver-side window. Smalls was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center but did not survive.
Police had no leads or suspects as of Sunday evening. But many rap fans suspect the shooting is connected to the East Coast-West Coast feud that has become prevalent in the hip-hop community over the last several years. Smalls and the label he's on, Bad Boy Entertainment, had been in a fierce rivalry with Tupac Shakur and the Los Angeles-based gangsta rap label Death Row Records, and Shakur had accused Smalls of involvement in a 1994 robbery in which Shakur was shot.
The Vibe party, which was held at the Petersen Auto Museum in the heart of Los Angeles' Miracle Mile, was relatively tension-free. Record executives, hordes of beautiful people, and such stars as Seal and Aaliyah nibbled and mingled. The only evidence of the coastal feud was the singing of "Baaaaddd Byooooyyy," a New York chant guaranteed to irritate West Coasters.
Shortly before 1 a.m., Smalls exited the party with Bad Boy Entertainment head Sean "Puffy" Combs. Apparently in a good mood, they paused to pose for photos with several fans waiting outside the museum.
Combs and a half-dozen bodyguards piled into one Suburban and headed off. Smalls, and Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Little Caesar lingered in the parking lot with a remaining bodyguard, blasting Smalls' new album from their vehicle.
After a few minutes, Smalls eased his 300-pound frame into the front passenger seat. "Biggie always would ride shotgun and lean way back, as if he was sitting in the back seat," said Meshack Blaq, publisher of the L.A. rap magazine "Kronick: The Underground Chronicle" and a friend of the rapper. The bodyguard drove the car out of the Petersen lot, turning right onto Wilshire. He was about to head north into the Hollywood Hills when Smalls was shot.
"Within two minutes, women started running back into the parking lot saying, 'There's shooting out there," Blaq said. "Then a brother runs up to me and says, 'Hey, man. They shot Biggie. I saw him slumped over in the car.'"
Smalls was just two minutes from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, but he couldn't hang on. Emergency room doctors managed to restart his heart, but they were too late to save him.
An overnight sensation after he released his first album, "Ready to Die," Smalls leaves a chilling legacy. His follow-up, due to hit stores March 25, is called "Life After Death ... Til Death Do Us Part," and one advertisement for the album shows Smalls standing beside an image of his own tombstone.
Hours afterward, speculation about Smalls' and Shakur's murders flew across radio stations from coast to coast as fans debated alleged gang ties, coast rivalries, and twisted plots involving financial motives.
The beef between the East and West Coast centers largely on who created the hardcore style known as gangsta rap, a genre that has become popular and immensely profitable. Such West Coast artists as Shakur, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Doggy Dogg and East Coast rappers Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep have sold millions albums in the last few years.
The feud between the two coasts nearly exploded into violence at last year's Soul Train Awards, where East Coast and West Coast rappers accused one another of pulling weapons backstage. Things seemed to reach a boiling point when Shakur claimed in a song that he had sexual relations with Smalls' wife, recording artist Faith Evans, who was then pregnant.
Shakur's murder in September seemed to cool passions, though, and record executives and radio stations called for peace between the coasts. Days after Knight's sentencing in late February, a highly publicized truce meeting brought Combs and Snoop Doggy Dogg together for a photo op designed to put an end to the feud.
Obviously, not everyone was paying attention. Russell Simmons, who helped pioneer rap at Def Jam Recordings and co-produced the Shakur star turn "Gridlock'd, felt in the hours after Smalls' death that no one was safe.
"We're doing Newt Gingrich's job for him, killing ourselves,'' Simmons said. "I think the fact that no has been arrested for anything is the scariest thing in the world. That says a lot about the community and how unprotected we are when you realize that these are very famous people."