Music

The Moment Tupac Became America’s Most Dangerous Rapper

What happened when a cop-killer said Tupac’s music made him do it.

Ronald Ray Howard in Texas in 1997.
Ronald Ray Howard in Texas in 1997.
Per-Anders Pettersson/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Ronald Ray Howard grew up in South Park, a tough neighborhood in Houston. He described it as a war zone. Howard attended nine different elementary schools and was held back three times. When he was 16, he dropped out of high school.

Howard ended up selling drugs in the town of Port Lavaca, two hours down the Gulf Coast from Houston. That’s where he was headed the night of April 11, 1992, when a Texas Highway Patrol officer pulled him over.

Howard wasn’t a fan of law enforcement, but he had another reason to be wary: He was a drug dealer driving a stolen car. The patrolman who pulled Howard over was Trooper Bill Davidson. He’d been on the force for about 20 years. As Davidson approached the car, Howard shot him in the neck with a 9 mm pistol. Davidson died three days later.

Howard was arrested not long after he fled the scene, and he confessed to the crime. In most cases, the murder of a highway patrolman would have remained a local tragedy. But the killing became a national story—one that would change the shape of the music industry.

That’s because of the cassette tape that was playing in Howard’s car: a dubbed copy of
2Pacalypse Now, Tupac Shakur’s solo debut album focused on police harassment and brutality. One of the songs on the tape was “Soulja’s Story.” That song describes a traffic stop that ends with a gunshot.

Cops on my tail, so I bail till I dodge ’em

They finally pull me over and I laugh

“Remember Rodney King?” and I blast on his punk ass

Now I got a murder case?

As Howard’s defense attorney, Allen Tanner, listened to the lyrics, he realized he could argue that Tupac’s words had gotten inside his client’s head.

“I didn’t know what gangsta rap music was at the time, but here’s a young kid from Houston who had had problems with police in his neighborhood,” Tanner said. “I was kind of fascinated by this music that he was listening to. And that’s where I got the idea to use that as a potential defense.”

The idea was built on a vilification of hip-hop that had been years in the making, starting with an outcry from law enforcement in 1989 over N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police.” Three years later, after the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted on almost all charges, setting off one of the biggest race riots in American history, another song about police brutality became the focus of protests: Ice-T’s “Cop Killer.” Police unions nationwide called for the record to be pulled from stores and targeted Time Warner, the label’s owner. Sixty members of Congress sent Time Warner a letter calling the song “vile” and “despicable.” Vice President Dan Quayle even weighed in. Ice-T and his defenders tried to keep the focus on police abuse, but after officers protested outside Time Warner’s annual shareholder’s meeting, he caved and pulled the song.

As soon as the press reported that Howard had been listening to 2Pacalypse Now, Tupac replaced Ice-T as America’s most dangerous rapper. Quayle jumped back into the fray, demanding unsuccessfully that Time Warner pull the album from stores. “There is absolutely no reason for a record like this to be published by a responsible corporation,” Quayle said.

There was no dispute about Ronald Ray Howard’s guilt. His lawyer conceded that reality in his opening statement, and the jury found Howard guilty of capital murder in less than an hour. The only part of the trial that was truly contested was the penalty phase: Would Howard get a life sentence or lethal injection? In a jailhouse interview, Howard said that Tupac’s song was so intoxicating it had driven him to murder.

“The music was up as loud as it could go with gunshots and siren noises on it and my heart was pounding hard,” he told a reporter. “I was so hyped up, I just snapped.”

Tanner asked the 12 jurors, only one of whom was black, to consider the possibility that Tupac had made his client snap. He then played a series of gangsta rap songs, including Tupac and N.W.A. The judge wore earplugs while the music played.

Jury deliberations stretched for days. The jurors twice said they were “hopelessly deadlocked,” but the judge sent them back in. On the sixth day, July 14, 1993, the jurors sentenced Howard to death. He was executed 12 years later.

This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to Slow Burn Season 3: Tupac and Biggie now on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And to hear the interviews we just couldn’t fit into the main episodes, join Slate Plus.