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In many minds, Tupac Amaru Shakur was a dead man walking from the moment Death Row CEO Marion "Suge" Knight bailed him out of Riker's Island prison in New York last October--pending review of Shakur's conviction for sexual assault--and whisked him into a Death Row Records studio in Tarzana, California, where he quickly recorded the multiplatinum album All Eyez on Me. Shakur's release began a yearlong passage to his death.
The night of September 7, a gunman in a white Cadillac sprayed bullets at the black BMW carrying Shakur and Knight on the Las Vegas strip. Knight, who was at the wheel, suffered only a grazing head wound, but Shakur was hit with four bullets in the chest. Six days later, he died in a Vegas hospital. He was 25.
Las Vegas police remain stymied by the attack--"We have no motives, no leads and no suspects," says a department spokesperson.
In Compton, California, police are investigating a possible connection between a September 14 shooting there in which a gunman opened fire on three men in the driveway of an apartment complex, killing two and wounding the other. Published reports describe the Compton shooting as a reprisal and suggest that Knight's ties to the Piru Bloods gang are at the root of the Shakur/Las Vegas incident, linking it to an earlier Vegas confrontation between groups of Bloods and Crips.
Many insiders had predicted Tupac Shakur's end, alternately citing Suge Knight's apparent gang ties, Shakur's unsettled personal history and the two men's intense and sometimes violent rivalry with East Coast hip-hop figures, especially rapper Biggie Smalls and Bad Boy Records executive Sean "Puffy" Combs.
The sign that most alarmed the manager of one prominent Southern California rapper was Shakur's sudden abandonment of his longtime label Interscope Records in favor of Death Row, and how easily Interscope let him go.
"Interscope didn't used to need undercover police to watch the lobby or surveillance cameras to scan the place," the manager said at the time. "Interscope started as a rock label. When it got into rap, it was with Markie Mark and Gerardo and stuff like that. But eventually they got all these gangs in there. Just like in the 1940s, when the Mafia was battling over the record business, now it's the Bloods and the Crips." He paused, lowered his voice, and made a prediction: "This shows that Suge is getting stronger and stronger. It's getting really deep. Some people will end up getting hurt."
Knight has always characterized his alleged gang ties--from Bloods sets in his hometown of Compton to Death Row artists who come from Crips neighborhoods in Long Beach--as an effort to build unity through prosperity. "I'm about making money, getting respect," Knight said last spring, "no matter what color flag you wear."
Knight could not be reached for comment on Shakur's death, and few others in the West Coast hip-hop community are willing to talk openly about it. Some are afraid of being drawn into a deadly conflict. Others are offended that they are sought by the press only during negative situations. And many of them are convinced that whatever they say will be misconstrued by mainstream journalists that don't understand them.
Ice Cube, a founder of West Coast gangsta rap in the late '80s as a member of Compton's N.W.A, is one of the few willing to speak out. "I'm not gonna say Tupac was squeaky clean," Cube says, "but he was about being true to what he said and did. The audience can figure out who's fake. What happened to Tupac Shakur can happen to all of us, known or unknown. Somebody walked up and shot John Lennon one day for nothing. The same thing is happening right now to somebody we'll never hear about."
Shawn Abrams, better known as Shawn Dogg, is a longtime member of the Death Row entourage. Abrams was in the car with Snoop Doggy Dogg three years ago during a shooting in Palms, California, that led to a high-profile murder trial, and he was onstage with Shakur a few months ago during a Fourth of July show at the House of Blues. "Tupac was nothing like the media portrayed him," Abrams says. "Everybody always focused on a narrow concept of gangsta rap and Tupac's run-ins with the law. That's all the press seemed to be able to take in. Then they ran with it."
There was a lot to run with. Shakur had faced criminal charges six times since March 1993 and he took four bullets in an ambush outside a Manhattan recording studio in November 1994. Meanwhile, his lyrics caught the attention and condemnation of Dan Quayle. Shakur's array of tattoos included the words "THUG LIFE" scripted across his torso.
Less prominently reported was Shakur's less-controversial side. He eagerly and capably discussed Shakespeare's plays, Machiavelli's theories, Robert Frost's poems, even Don ("American Pie") McLean's folk songs. Abrams describes him as lovable and outspoken with a smile as quick as his notorious temper.