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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.
Last Christmas, Shakur and Knight gave away an expensive toy to every child at a Compton elementary school.
"It's important to bring a little light through the rain of sadness, pain and violence," Shakur said that day. "Having been a part of the rain, it's important for me to become a part of the light." Someone mentioned the public relations value of the giveaway. Shakur shrugged. "But the children don't know about that," he said.
A couple years ago, Shakur seemed to start rethinking extremism of his lyrics and lifestyle. Once he tearfully apologized to the youth of America for "falsely representing them." In an interview with Vibe magazine, he proclaimed, "Thug Life, to me, is dead. If it's real, let somebody else represent it, because I'm tired of it."
But Shakur seemed emboldened by his association with Death Row, bent on retribution for insults from his former East Coast comrades while he was in prison. "Fuck Biggie, fuck NAS, Mobb Deep, Puffy, and anybody down with that Bad Boy clique!" Shakur snarled during his House of Blues show. "I say fuck 'em all! Whip they muthafuckin' asses! I say Snoop for president! He represents the gangstas!"
Snoop Doggy Dogg heard about the attack in Las Vegas while at the home of rapper Warren G. The men were watching a closed-circuit broadcast of the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon heavyweight fight, accompanied by Death Row security guards in walkie-talkie contact with Knight and Shakur, who attended the bout. Snoop and Shakur had become close friends: Shakur frequently turned out for Snoop's trial to show support, and Snoop appeared prominently on Shakur's last album. After the shooting, Snoop went to visit the unconscious Shakur at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas.
"Snoop stayed with Tupac for a while, prayed with him, kissed him on the forehead when he left," says Abrams. "Snoop took it bad. He took it hard. None of us could really believe he was gone."
Ricky Harris, who directed Shakur in the video for "Cradle to the Grave" and appeared with him and Janet Jackson in the John Singleton film Poetic Justice, never expected Shakur to die, despite the severity of his wounds.
"That cat already had been through so much trauma, I just knew he was going to pull through," Harris says. "It kinda blew my mind. I don't even think he realized his potential, what he could have done. I shed some tears for the young brother, my love goes out to him and I hope he has a safe journey, wherever."
The day Shakur died, there was another tribute, sentimental but ominous, on the answering machine of Dat Nigga Daz, a rapper and producer with Tha Dogg Pound:
A sad time keeps tickin',
and the world keeps spinnin',
Tupac rests in peace
when niggaz keep livin'.
Money makes the world go 'round
outta town, Homie,
money makes the world go 'round.
It's Friday the 13th
I lost a homie that's close to me,
D-A-Z from the D-P-G,
Death Row 'til I die
and so you suckaz out there
do or die
I mean, I don't cry,
don't shed a tear.
I do what I got to do
I'm on a mission.