This is a transcript of Episode 1 of Season 3 of Slow Burn. Listen in the player below, or subscribe here.
This podcast has language that some people might find offensive.
It was November 29, 1994, and Tupac Shakur was in trouble.
He was on trial for sexual abuse, sodomy, and weapons possession. A woman had accused him of setting her up to be raped in his New York hotel room. The jury started deliberating that morning.
Tupac was facing the possibility of a long prison sentence. His career was already suffering. He’d lost a movie role and a guest spot on a TV series.
And his legal bills were piling up. Tupac needed cash.
During the trial, he would spend his evenings going from one recording studio to another. He was trying to rap his way out of financial ruin.
Easy Mo Bee was a producer from Brooklyn. He was in the studio with Tupac a lot of those nights.
EASY MO BEE: It was 6 p.m. Six o’clock every day. So what he would do is he would go to to court by day and 6 p.m. sharp boom! He’d bust through the door, a bundle of energy. “Yo Yo we gonna do this.” He’s talking real fast. He was a bundle of energy or he was just you had to really, really keep up with him.
On the night of November 29th, Tupac’s first session was with Ron G., a local mixtape DJ. This was for free—Tupac was hoping a hot verse would keep his music coming out of boomboxes even if he got locked up.
The next session was for money. Tupac was cutting a track with Little Shawn, a rapper whose biggest hit to that point was “Hickeys on Your Chest.” This collaboration wasn’t gonna get Tupac back on top of the charts, but it would earn him $7,000.
The session was at Quad Recording Studios in Times Square. Quad was a busy spot. SWV, Mobb Deep, and Deborah Cox were also recording that night.
And so was Junior M.A.F.I.A., the rap group started by Christopher Wallace, better known as the Notorious B.I.G. Biggie was in the studio, along with Sean “Puffy” Combs, the head of his record label.
As Tupac approached the building with three friends, they heard a voice from eight stories above.
CHICO DEL VEC: And Cease was like, “Yo, that looks like Tupac walking up the street.”
That’s Chico Delvec, a member of Junior M.A.F.I.A. and Biggie’s childhood friend. He and Lil’ Cease, who was also in the group, were taking a break on the balcony, smoking blunts and dumping cups of water on passersby.
A few years before, Chico had been the one to convince Biggie to get off the stoop and onto their block in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Basically, Chico turned Biggie into a small-time crack dealer. He gave Biggie confidence, pocket money, and street credibility. When Biggie became a rich and famous rapper he returned the favor by making Chico a member of Junior M.A.F.I.A.
That’s how Chico found himself at the Quad that night, recording songs for the group’s first album.
CHICO DEL VEC: And we were, like, “Tupac? What you mean?” So we all ran to the balcony and looked over there and was like, “Wooo wooo, yo Pac, yo Pac.” And he was walking up, like, “Yo, who dat, who dat?” And we like “Yo Pac, Pac.” So bunch of niggas scream, “Yo Tupac wooo wooo.” And Cease was like, “Yo, It’s Lil Cease. We up here in the studio.” And Tupac is like, “Lil Cease? What’s up, my nigga?” We talking to him from the balcony.
Chico considered Tupac a friend—you can hear it in his voice. The same thing was true of the rest of Biggie’s circle. They looked up to Tupac. They’d welcomed him when he visited Brooklyn.
CHICO DEL VEC: So we screaming like, “Yo, come around the corner. Cease gon come downstairs and get you.” Like, “yo word? What’s up my nigga?!” He was so happy. Like, “yooooooooo!”
Tupac headed into the lobby of Quad Studios to see his friends and record a verse. A few hours later, he’d leave the Quad on a gurney, his body full of bullet holes.
When I started reporting on Tupac and Christopher “Biggie” Wallace a few months ago, there was a lot I didn’t know—about their relationship, where it went wrong, and how their murders changed the course of hip-hop.
But this moment on the gurney: this was one part of their story that I thought I had locked down.
There’s this iconic photo, maybe you’ve seen it. It was taken that night, outside Quad Studios. Tupac is on a stretcher, with a big brace on his head and neck. And he’s sticking up his middle finger.
He looked angry, at everyone and everything.
I always assumed he was flipping the bird at the photographer. That he was pissed off at the media for invading his privacy in this incredibly vulnerable moment.
But Chico Del Vec told me I had it wrong: Tupac was giving the finger to Biggie and his crew.
CHICO DEL VEC: Tupac gets off the elevator, on the hospital bed, they wheeling him out … and he looking at us with his middle finger up like, “Fuck you niggas.”
JOEL ANDERSON: To y’all?
CHICO DEL VEC: Right. He was saying, “Fuck y’all niggas.” On the camera. But while they rolling him off the elevator, he looking at us against the wall and, you like, he saying, “Fuck you niggas.” With the middle finger. You ain’t see the picture?
JOEL ANDERSON: “I’ve seen the picture of him sticking up – I thought that was to the media, though.”
CHICO DEL VEC: “Nooooo. That was to us!”
Chico was telling me that this was it—this was the moment when allies became enemies. I’d seen the photo, but I hadn’t seen that.
What else had I missed? What else did I need to know to understand who Biggie and Tupac were, and how they’d both end up dead?
This is Slow Burn season three, Biggie and Tupac. I’m your host, Joel Anderson. Over the next eight episodes, you’ll hear about the creative lives and tragic deaths of two of hip-hop’s foundational talents, from voices and angles you’ve never heard before. You’ll hear about how a friendship gone bad turned into a nationwide turf war…how lyrics about violence blurred into the real thing…and how investigators have failed to solve the murders of two of the 20th century’s most important artists. This is episode 1: Against the World.
In 1994, Tupac seemed bound to become the brightest star hip hop had ever produced.
He was 23 years old: charming and profane and really handsome. He could switch in an instant from poet to revolutionary to wannabe thug. He’d starred in a movie with Janet Jackson and had dated Madonna.
At the same time, those close to Tupac thought that he seemed doomed. Easy Mo Bee wondered if Tupac was fated to find trouble wherever he went.
EASY MO BEE: I don’t know for whatever reason it seemed like … like my parents, they’re from the South. I’m about to speak some of their lingo. But it seemed like the devil was on his trail.
Tupac was born into conflict. In 1969, his mother Afeni and her husband Lumumba Abdul Shakur were two of the 21 Black Panthers charged with planning bombings all over New York City. Pregnant and facing a 300-year prison sentence, Afeni Shakur chose to represent herself in court, although she had never finished high school.
Afeni and 12 other Black Panthers were acquitted on May 13, 1971. A month later, she gave birth to Tupac.
Tupac’s early years were hard. After Afeni divorced Lumumba Shakur, she and Tupac and his sister Sekyiwa bounced from New York to Baltimore to Marin City in northern California. Afeni became addicted to crack cocaine. The family was homeless for a while.
No matter where they went, Tupac struggled to fit in. Skinny, broke, and unathletic, Tupac was never one of the cool kids. He said he even failed at selling weed.
But he was a reader and a thinker, and he saw himself as a survivor. Here he is in 1988, when he was a 17-year-old high schooler.
TUPAC SHAKUR: My mother had a really bad childhood. And my father had a bad childhood. And I had a bad childhood. But I loved my childhood, even though it was bad, I love it. I feel like it’s taught me so much. And I feel like nothing can phase me.
Tupac’s artistic talent was obvious. In Baltimore, he started acting and dancing; in Marin City, he wrote poetry and said he wanted to perform Shakespeare. He got his first break as a back-up dancer with the Oakland rap group Digital Underground.
Things moved fast after that. In November 1991, he released his first album, 2Pacalypse Now. A couple months later, he starred in his first movie, Juice.
He was 20 years old, and all of a sudden, he was famous.
Both the album and the movie focused on the ills of the ghetto: broken institutions, poverty, police brutality. His character in Juice, Bishop, was the kind of kid that sociologists and politicians were calling a “super predator.” Bishop was a black teenager who loses himself in anger at his circumstances and becomes a remorseless killer.
TUPAC SHAKUR AS BISHOP IN JUICE: I am crazy. But you know what else? I don’t give a fuck. I don’t give a fuck about you. I don’t give a fuck about Steel. I don’t give a fuck about Raheem, either. I don’t give a fuck about myself.
The movie was just OK, but critics said Tupac was “magnetic” and “convincingly psychotic”.
In August 1992, while he was working on his second album, Tupac went back to Marin City for a music festival. After the show, he posed for photos and signed autographs. Then he got into an argument with a bunch of people he’d grown up with.
Reports said these old friends were angry that Tupac had insulted Marin City on Yo! MTV Raps—although that might have just been a rumor. A gun came out, shots were fired, and a six-year-old boy, was killed by a stray bullet. Witnesses said the shooter had come to the festival with Tupac, but nobody was ever charged with the killing.
Afeni Shakur later said that the boy’s death “hurt Tupac deep inside.” On his next album, using an oddly distorted voice, Tupac paid respects to the slain six-year-old, and blamed the shooting on people who were envious of his success.
“Something 2 Die 4”—2Pac
[From “Something 2 Die 4” by 2Pac]
Remember that name
Cause all you mothafuckas
That go to your grave with that name on your brain
Cause jealousy and recklessness
Is not something 2 die 4
That album was called Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. Most of it was an indignant response to Tupac’s enemies and critics. Tupac lashed out at the police, the media, and Vice President Dan Quayle—you’ll hear about their feud in our next episode.
But the track that got the most attention sounded totally different from everything else on the album.
“Keep Ya Head Up” was an inspirational ode to black women, the kind of song that got played at church youth dances and cookouts. Afeni appeared in the video. It reached No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Critics of hip-hop accused rappers of glamorizing the mistreatment of women. “Keep Ya Head Up” took a hard look at that kind of misogyny.
“Keep Ya Head Up”—2Pac
[From “Keep Ya Head Up” by 2Pac]
And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
The song was released as a single on October 8, 1993. A month later, Tupac made national news, and it had nothing to do with his music.
REPORTER: Tupac Shakur, rap star and movie star, was arrested in New York and charged with sodomy and sexual assault.
Tupac and two other men were arrested at the Parker Meridien Hotel in Manhattan.
REPORTER: Rap singer Tupac Shakur was released on $50,000 bail today, accused of a sexual attack in a New York hotel.
Tupac met Ayanna Jackson at a nightclub in New York, where he was preparing to shoot a movie. That first night, they kissed on the dance floor. Tupac would later say that Jackson performed oral sex on him right there. Jackson claimed she’d just kissed his crotch. Later, they went back to his hotel suite, where they had consensual sex.
Four days after that, she came over again. When Jackson arrived for that second visit, she started giving Tupac a massage. And then, some other men entered the room.
One of them was Tupac’s road manager Charles Fuller. Another was Jacques Agnant, better known as “Haitian Jack.” You’ll be hearing more about him later.
In court, Ayanna Jackson testified that Tupac wanted to share her with these other men. She said Tupac told her - quote - “They’re not going to hurt you. What you do for me, you do for them.”
She described the events again in an interview in 2018. She remembered saying to Tupac, “No, no, no, no, I don’t want this. This is not what I want.”
She remembered her black pantyhose and her black spandex dress being ripped off of her body.
“I’m not gonna say that I had sex with him,” she said about Tupac. “I was raped by him that night, because it wasn’t consensual.”
For as long as he’d been a public figure, Tupac had been in trouble with the law. In the year and a half before his arrest, he was accused of slapping a fan who’d asked for his autograph, assaulting a limo driver, trying to hit another rapper with a baseball bat, and attacking Allen Hughes, the co-director of the movie Menace II Society.
Most seriously, Tupac had been arrested in Atlanta after he shot two off-duty police officers. But there was evidence he’d fired in self-defense, and the charges were dropped.
These earlier run-ins with the law hadn’t really hurt Tupac’s standing in the music or movie business. If anything, they’d burnished his tough-guy image.
The sexual abuse case was different.
The possibility of prison time and his loss of paying gigs made Tupac feel threatened. He didn’t take the stand in New York. But on the first day of jury deliberations he defended himself in an impromptu press conference outside the courthouse.
TUPAC SHAKUR: Why would she make something like that up? Because hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. You know what I’m saying? I’m guilty of a lot of things. I’m guilty probably of being a male chauvinist pig. I’m guilty of probably not caring as much as I said I’m guilty of not spending enough time with people like I should. But I’m not guilty of rape.
In video from that day, November 29th, you can see a crowd circling Tupac and the scrum of reporters. Tupac remained poised, but you can feel his exasperation building. He hinted at a conspiracy to silence him for his political beliefs. It was the kind of argument his Black Panther mother might have made 25 years earlier.
Tupac seemed resigned to the fact that jurors would see him as nothing more than a thug rapper.
TUPAC SHAKUR: It’s hard for me to believe that a jury full of older more middle-class women are gonna understand where I’m coming from because y’all barely understand where I’m coming from and y’all cover murders and shit every day. And y’all treat me like I’m New York’s most notorious criminal and y’all know it’s people throwing babies out of windows and puttin’ em in the incinerator. All I do is make raps. All I do is rap and talk loud! My biggest crime is talking loud, you know what I’m saying? Y’all don’t have nothing else besides that.
If Tupac was convicted of all the charges he was facing in New York, he was looking at years of prison time.
To make matters worse, he’d also made a dangerous enemy: his co-defendant, “Haitian Jack” Agnant.
Jack and Tupac had become friends while he was doing research for Above the Rim, a movie in which he played a violent drug dealer. Jack had been born in Haiti but came of age in Brooklyn as a baby-faced, heavy-set stick-up kid. He’d made his reputation by robbing drug dealers, but he wanted to get into the music business.
Derrick Parker was a New York police detective in the 1990s. Back then, he heard a lot about Haitian Jack.
DERRICK PARKER: People said that when he went to clubs and went to places people respected him. You know like you got out of his way. He had that kind of rep.
JOEL ANDERSON: Why? He wasn’t a big dude, right?
DERRICK PARKER: Nah but he was one of them crazy guys you know. People get reps. So - he ran the streets and he ran around. You know, he was one of those dudes that was quick to come at you if you came at him the wrong way.
When Jack and Tupac hung out, Jack got the women and the weed, and Tupac paid the bill. Jack claimed he gave Tupac his first Rolex. He also got Tupac to spruce up his look with jewels.
But as their case headed to trial, a rift formed between the two of them. Jack secured his own lawyer, one who often worked with the New York police union. Tupac came to believe Jack had set him up.
TUPAC SHAKUR: They were all in the same hotel as me. They were all right in the same room with me. Why am I the only one in court right now? Why has the cameras all on me? And in the report and all these charges. I didn’t do nothing. I’m charged with being in concert with some guys. Well where they at?
Tupac tried to disassociate from Haitian Jack. In one interview, he called Jack a “hanger-on.” When they ran into each other at one of Puffy’s parties, Tupac ignored Jack and instead stuck close to Biggie.
This was blatant disrespect. Even enemies acknowledged each other’s presence, if only with a head nod. And disrespecting someone like Haitian Jack was dangerous.
So that’s where Tupac was on the night of November 29, 1994: facing prison time, beefing with a gangster, burning through money on criminal defense lawyers, and heading into Quad Studios to make what he hoped would be an easy seven Gs from Little Shawn.
One possible obstacle was Little Shawn’s manager James Rosemond, who went by the name Jimmy Henchman. Jimmy was from Brooklyn, where he’d earned a rep for robbing and drug dealing. Jimmy had faced charges ranging from weapons possession to second-degree murder. He tried to get into the music industry by representing rappers.
On the same day that Tupac made that big speech outside the courthouse, he called Jimmy Henchman to ask for directions to Quad Studios. On that call, Jimmy said he didn’t have the $7,000 he’d been promising. When Tupac threatened not to show up for the session, Jimmy hung up the phone. Minutes later, Jimmy called back and said he’d make sure Tupac got his $7,000.
Arguing about money with Jimmy Henchman was not a good idea. But Tupac was fearless to the point of recklessness. Maybe it was the character of Bishop rubbing off on him, or maybe he was acting out of desperation. But he wasn’t about to let himself get ripped off.
Tupac and his friends entered the lobby of Quad Studios just after midnight. That’s when Chico Del Vec and Lil’ Cease saw them from the balcony. While Chico stayed upstairs, Cease headed down in an elevator with Nino Brown, another member of Junior M.A.F.I.A.
Down in the lobby, two men wearing boots and army fatigues sprang into action.
The men had guns, and they ordered everybody in the lobby to get on the floor. Everyone obeyed—except for Tupac, acting recklessly again.
Tupac was shot five times. He fell to the floor. The armed men kicked him and snatched his $30,000 diamond ring and $10,000 in gold chains. They didn’t take Tupac’s diamond-studded Rolex watch—that had been a gift from Haitian Jack.
Up in the penthouse studio, Biggie and Chico Del Vec had no idea any of this was happening. And then, their friends Cease and Nino Brown rushed back in to the penthouse and told them what they’d seen in the lobby. Biggie told his crew to stay where they were. He and Chico were going to see what was happening downstairs.
The gunmen had already fled the scene. But the lobby of Quad Studios was still bloody chaos.
CHICO DEL VEC: By the time we get down there, police is there. So we all downstairs getting searched by the cops. And we like, “Oh shit—we smell gunpowder.” We like, “Damn, Cease they was not lying. Someone really got at this dude.” And we see this dude Tupac’s bandana on the ground and blood there, and we like, “Oh shit.”
But no Tupac. Some time before the cops arrived, and before Biggie and Chico got down to the lobby, Tupac made it onto an elevator that was going up.
He rode up to the eighth floor, then dragged himself to the studio where he was supposed to meet with Little Shawn. Bullets had grazed his head and punctured his hand, thigh, and scrotum.
He made it into a chair and used paper towels to try to stop the bleeding.
The room was filled with New York hip-hop luminaries. They’d heard what was happening to Tupac and were there to check on him. Puffy was there. So was Puffy’s mentor, Andre Harrell, and various members of Junior M.A.F.I.A.
Biggie and Chico were still downstairs, held there by the cops.
Tupac was confused, upset, and… suspicious. He later said that no one in the room would even look him in the eye. Maybe Jimmy Henchman had ordered a hit on him. Maybe it had been Haitian Jack. Maybe the men in the studio knew who’d done it and weren’t saying.
Chico denies that Biggie and Junior M.A.F.I.A. had any connection to the shooting. Chico says that Biggie came downstairs with a gun because he was ready to defend Tupac.
CHICO DEL VEC: And if you see that footage, you see us coming out Quad Studio, and the police are out there. And it’s so funny Big had the gun on him walking out, past the police. So how we try to set you up, and nigga, we came to hold you down!
Detective Mordecai Dzinkansky was one of the homicide cops who responded to the shooting. When he got up to the eighth-floor studio, he started questioning everyone, including Tupac, who was still there, tending to his own wounds.
MORDECAI DZINKANSKY: It’s a who’s who of Andre Harrell and all the other people. I had no idea—zero. To me it was all about Tupac being shot. He was the victim and getting the bad guy. But on the flip side, he wasn’t going to cooperate with us. And I understand it now. I mean in retrospect, Okay. You’ll take care of it. You’re going to do what you gonna do. There was nothing I could have done to coerce him to speak.
The paramedics arrived and carried Tupac out of Quad Studios on a stretcher. He was nearly naked, and very disoriented. This was the moment when he extended his middle finger towards Chico and Biggie.
CHICO DEL VEC: And they caught him. And we looking at him putting the middle finger like, “Fuck you niggas.” And Big is like, “Yo, why is this dude mad at us about something…about what the…we didn’t do nothing wrong,” you know what I’m sayin’?
Chico and Biggie figured Tupac was confused—after all, he’d just been bum-rushed and nearly killed. They couldn’t believe he’d blame them for the shooting. And in fairness to Chico and Biggie, there’s very little evidence that they were involved.
After he got carried out of Quad Studios, Tupac was taken to Bellevue Hospital. A team of 13 doctors worked to repair a damaged blood vessel in his right leg.
When he got out of surgery, Tupac said that he felt vulnerable around all of the unfamiliar doctors. He also didn’t like that his enemies would know where to find him.
Tupac understood that men like Haitian Jack and Jimmy Henchman had the power to finish the job, even at a hospital.
He also thought the men who attacked him looked like the kind of dudes Biggie hung out with in Brooklyn. And Tupac found it fishy that he was the only one—among all the stars at the Quad that night—who got robbed and shot.
If you were Tupac, it might’ve seemed like a set-up to you, too.
So Tupac checked himself out of the hospital, less than three hours after the surgery on his leg. His surgeon said he’d never seen anybody leave like that.
Tupac didn’t want to go somewhere he could be found, so he holed up at the apartment of a friend: the actress Jasmine Guy. They’d met when Tupac guest-starred on her sitcom A Different World.
JASMINE GUY: First of all, he was shot five times, somebody wanted him dead, and walking around knowing that really affected Tupac’s spirit. And there was a lot of what I call, spiritual fortification, going around him. I mean, we were really trying to just give that life back to him.
Tupac returned to court the next day to hear the jury’s verdict in the Ayanna Jackson case. He looked as frail as he was. He arrived in a wheelchair, surrounded by the security force of the Nation of Islam. His head was topped with a wool Yankees skullcap that covered his bandages. He had to leave before the verdict was read because his leg had gone numb.
Tupac was found guilty of sexual abuse. That meant prison time, though he’d have to wait to hear the length of his sentence.
Tupac’s codefendant, Charles Fuller, got four months behind bars. Haitian Jack pled guilty to sexual misconduct and got probation. That made Tupac even more suspicious that Jack had cooperated with the police.
The judge allowed Tupac to remain free on $25,000 bond while he recovered from his injuries. He spent the next few weeks in Jasmine Guy’s apartment, being cared for by his mother Afeni and a private doctor. The Fruit of Islam and former members of the Black Panther Party stood guard.
He had lots of time to think about who’d shot him, and wonder whether his friends were really his friends.
Tupac thought about how Biggie hadn’t given him a mention in the liner notes of his debut album, Ready to Die. He’d been a mentor to Biggie. That was disrespect.
He thought about how Biggie and Puffy allowed Haitian Jack in their entourage. He told one reporter, “I was hurt. I’m going to trial, I’m probably going to get convicted, and this nigga’s showing up at a party with champagne, hanging with Biggie?”
Most of all, Tupac thought about the ambush at Quad Studios—how Biggie’s friend Lil’ Cease had seen him on the street. How no one else had put up a fight. How, when it was all over, no one could look him in the face.
He felt betrayed, and he thought—maybe Biggie and them were in on it the whole time.
Nobody was ever arrested for the shooting at Quad Studios. There are various theories about who did it. Most of them center on a couple of well-known New York stick-up guys. They’re both in prison today, serving life sentences for unrelated crimes. One of them says he pulled the trigger, and that Jimmy Henchman was behind the operation.
Jimmy Henchman is in prison too. Haitian Jack was deported to Haiti in 2007.
Back in 1994, the people who knew what happened weren’t talking—definitely not to the police. Detective Mordecai Dzinkansky says he knew the case would be nearly impossible to solve.
MORDECAI DZINKANSKY: From the get go, there was zero—let me use the word zero—cooperation. Meaning that nobody was talking to us, which was understandable. I’m not complaining about it. It was part of the, part of the cycle. Because this was a situation where nobody wants to be a rat.
For one thing, cooperating with the cops would have been dangerous. Whoever it was that set up Tupac would be just as quick to punish anyone who snitched.
For another, hip-hop and law enforcement were locked in a very public war.
Next week on Slow Burn: hip-hop versus the cops.
Slow Burn is a production of Slate Plus, Slate’s membership program. You can sign up for Slate Plus to hear a bonus episode of the show this week and every week for the next two months.
In our first bonus episode, we’ve got an interview with one of Tupac’s attorneys, Shawn Holley - a public defender and lawyer to the stars. You’ll also hear about the making of this season from me and Slow Burn producer Christopher Johnson. To hear it, sign up for Slate Plus at slate.com/slowburn.
Slow Burn is produced by me and Christopher Johnson, with editorial direction by Josh Levin and Gabriel Roth. Sophie Summergrad is our researcher. Our mix engineer is Jared Paul. Donwill composed our theme song.
The artwork for Slow Burn is by Lisa Larson-Walker. Special thanks to Slate’s Chau Tu, Lowen Liu, Allison Benedikt, and Jared Hohlt.
Some of the audio you heard in this episode came from the Historic Films Archives LLC, and the “Connie Martinson Talks Books” Collection, from The Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. Thanks to them all.
You can find a full list of books, articles, and documentaries used to research this episode on our show page.
Thanks for listening.