This is a transcript of Episode 5 of Season 3 of Slow Burn. Listen in the player below, or subscribe here.
This podcast has language that might be offensive to some listeners.
Previously on Slow Burn: hip-hop’s East Coast-West Coast feud heats up. The Notorious B.I.G. records “Who Shot Ya?” Tupac Shakur tells Vibe Magazine that Biggie and Sean “Puffy” Combs had something to do with the shooting at Quad Studios. Tupac then signs with Suge Knight’s Death Row Records, and Suge helps bail him out of prison. Back in California, Tupac is ready to restart his career and settle old scores.
In the fall of 1995, the Notorious B.I.G. was blowing up. The 23-year-old’s debut album, Ready to Die, was certified double platinum. He was a fixture on radio and MTV.
The sitcom “Martin” even built an entire episode around him.
MARTIN LAWRENCE: Man, say what? [cheers] Biggie Smalls in the house. What’s happening baby baby!
CHRISTOPHER “BIGGIE” WALLACE: Pshhh, you the man. If I had your hands, I’d cut mines off.
MARTIN LAWRENCE: Then you wouldn’t be able to count all that loot you making, man.
CHRISTOPHER “BIGGIE” WALLACE: And if you don’t know, now you know.
Biggie was constantly on the road that year, touring from city to city.
He was also promoting the debut album from his protégés, Junior M.A.F.I.A. And he was collaborating with everyone from the R&B group 112 to Michael Jackson to Shaquille O’Neal.
Christopher Wallace found celebrity dizzying but thrilling. And Biggie made sure his friends came along for the ride.
Here’s one of those friends, Chico Del Vec of Junior M.A.F.I.A.
CHICO DEL VEC: Man, that was a beautiful life! We had fun, man. We had fun. We had fun, man. We traveled the world, man. We been around this—we didn’t let nothing bother us. man.
Biggie had started dating Faith Evans a year earlier. Evans was the first female artist signed to Puffy Combs’ Bad Boy Records. She and Biggie met at a photoshoot. They got married after two months. Their honeymoon period was blissful but very short. Biggie started cheating with other women almost right away, and eventually Evans started having flings, too. By October 1995, she’d moved out of their Brooklyn apartment.
A year later, Evans talked about her relationship with Biggie on the TV show Video Music Box. In the interview, she sounded totally exasperated with her husband.
FAITH EVANS: As far as me and him, I don’t really, we don’t really interact right now cause I think he’s being kind of tasteless about the way he’s doing a lot of things. We are legally married but we don’t live together or anything like that. Every once in awhile, we run into each other. But as of right now, I’m kind of bitter.
Around that time, Evans was busy promoting her music and working as a songwriter. As tensions rose between the East and West Coast rap scenes, she spent a lot of her time flying between New York and Los Angeles. On one of those trips to L.A., she met Tupac Shakur. It was just a few days after he’d gotten out of prison.
When Suge Knight brokered Tupac’s release, he’d promised that Death Row would make him a bigger star. Tupac, in turn, had promised Suge that he’d make Death Row the biggest label in the world.
Can-Am Studio didn’t look like the place to stage a world takeover. It was a nondescript brown-brick building, located in an industrial park in California’s San Fernando Valley.
At Can-Am, Tupac worked furiously. He had legal fees to pay off. And he wanted the world to know that the past couple years—the arrests, the prison time, the Quad shooting—had only made him stronger.
Tupac smoked weed and cigarettes, drank Hennessy, and pumped out song after song. He spent as much as 19 hours a day in the studio. The R&B singer Danny Boy, who was signed to Death Row, worked with Tupac at Can-Am.
DANNY BOY STEWARD: Suge built a bedroom in the office for himself and a shower. This is the studio. We, like, staying in the studio, cause Pac ain’t leaving.
Tupac’s work was driven by pain and rage. He still believed that Biggie and Puffy were responsible for the shooting at Quad Studios. He’d tallied up all the slights he thought they’d directed at him. He’d been dwelling on it for a year.
In prison, Tupac made plans for revenge. Frank Alexander, who worked as Tupac’s bodyguard, said the one thing that kept Tupac going was the thought that, when he got out, he was gonna sleep with Biggie’s wife.
Tupac didn’t wait long to start trying to step to her.
ALLISON SAMUELS: He was that guy who would sit up there and plot for months, you know. That was the way he thought.
That’s Allison Samuels, who wrote about hip-hop for Newsweek in the ‘90s.
ALLISON SAMUELS: What other, better way to get back at someone, a man, than, “yeah, I have your girl”?
Here’s how Faith Evans tells the story in her autobiography. She was at a club in L.A. when she ran into her friend Treach, the leader of the rap group Naughty By Nature.
Treach told her that Tupac was at the club too, and that he wanted to meet her. Tupac flattered her, telling her that he listened to her music every day while he was in prison. He asked her to sing on his next record. Evans said she’d do it for $25,000, and Tupac agreed.
Not long after that, they both ended up at the same event—a launch party for the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack. That album was a showcase for the era’s biggest female R&B artists: Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, TLC, and Evans herself. Although Tupac and Evans didn’t go together, he walked with her down the red carpet, and he sat at her table all night. He was very publicly staking a claim.
In her memoir, Evans wrote, “I saw Whitney Houston from across the room, and she gave me a look that said, ‘Oh, word? You’re with him?’ and my heart sank.”
Later that night, Tupac jumped into Evans’s limo and rode to an afterparty with her. They agreed to record together in a few days. Tupac said that he’d send a car to bring her to the studio.
When the car came, it was a convertible, and Tupac was driving it himself.
Evans says she was shocked when they pulled up at the Death Row studio. She claims that before that day she hadn’t known that Tupac had signed with Suge Knight’s label.
Evans waited to be called in, recorded her part, and asked for her check. Tupac said he’d give her the money at his hotel. When they got there, he told her, “I love New York, but I’m not fucking with New York right now. Cause niggas set me up that night.”
When she asked for the money again, Tupac said, “If I give it to you, then you my bitch.” He suggested that she perform oral sex on him. She left without the check.
Evans has always maintained that she never had sex with Tupac.
Tupac would tell a very different story.
How did Faith Evans get caught up in the feud between Bad Boy and Death Row? How did Biggie respond to Tupac’s attempts at vengeance? And in a rap beef, are there lines that you should never cross?
This is Slow Burn, I’m your host Joel Anderson, this is episode 5: Wrath of a Menace.
Maybe Suge Knight felt threatened by Puffy Combs’ success. Maybe Suge thought a beef between Death Row and Puffy’s Bad Boy Records would be good for business. Or maybe Suge just felt most comfortable in an atmosphere of hostility. No matter the explanation, Suge was doing everything he could to stoke a conflict.
According to a column in Billboard, Puffy skipped an industry convention in Miami because of threats from Suge.
Here’s the writer and former music executive Dan Charnas.
DAN CHARNAS: I believe that this beef is really about the small mindedness and insecurity of Suge Knight.
The R&B singer Danny Boy was part of Suge’s entourage. He remembers that Suge made a point of entertaining one of Puffy’s ex-girlfriends.
DANNY BOY STEWARD: O yeah! Suge—like, that was Suge’s way of getting to you, too. Like, like, I’m gonna get your girl. And he got her. Like, I don’t give a damn who you was.
For a long time, Puffy and Bad Boy refused to take the bait. And then, finally, the fight became two-sided. What made Bad Boy crack was Death Row coming onto their turf.
In December 1995, Suge Knight sent Snoop Dogg and Tha Dogg Pound back east to film a video for the group’s new single, “New York, New York.”
The song itself isn’t particularly incendiary. It’s a five minute boast from Dogg Pound member Kurupt. The only time New York gets mentioned is in the hook, which is sung by Snoop.
“New York, New York”—Tha Dogg Pound ft. Snoop Doggy Dogg
[From “New York, New York” by Tha Dogg Pound ft. Snoop Doggy Dogg]
SNOOP DOGGY DOGG: New York New York big city of dreams
And everything in New York ain’t always what it seems
You might get fooled if you come from out of town
But I’m down by law, and I’m from the Dogg Pound
Even though the song was innocuous, shooting the video in New York might have seemed like a provocation. To make things worse, the song was built on a beat that Biggie had already used—in a commercial for St. Ides malt liquor.
[From St. Ides Advertisement by The Notorious B.I.G.]
I know you’re thinkin’, “Well, goddamn, what he drinkin?”
The crooked letter, no other beer feel better
Biggie responded by calling into a local hip-hop station. Here’s Reggie Wright, Death Row’s head of security.
REGGIE WRIGHT: After Biggie got on the radio and was like, “How these dudes out here filming this New York, New York video? When we gonna allow this to happen?”
Was Biggie being playful or was he trying to incite his hometown? There’s no way to know. But at least one person took the on-air instigation seriously.
Shortly after Biggie made that call, someone fired shots on the video set in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The bullets were aimed at the trailer where Snoop and Tha Dogg Pound were hanging out. No one was hurt. And no one was ever identified as the gunman.
After the shooting, Tha Dogg Pound added a new scene to the video. It showed the group rampaging through New York like Godzilla, destroying the skyline and crushing cars in the streets.
That wasn’t nearly enough wreckage for Tupac. He saw this latest shooting as yet another personal attack.
REGGIE WRIGHT: And he took offense to it. “They doing this. They just, they were just around when I got shot at the studio. And now they gon’ shoot up the trailer because I’m with y’all? I’m with y’all for two months and now they shooting at y’all?”
Tupac had launched his own revenge plot against Bad Boy Records well before the shooting on the Brooklyn video set. That plot centered on Faith Evans.
In November 1995, he’d met his old acquaintance Kevin Powell on a different video set. That was the shoot for “California Love,” in the desert about a hundred miles from L.A.
KEVIN POWELL: And I remember getting to the set, and um you know, looking for Pac. Finally someone said, “There’s his trailer over there.” And I remember knocking on the door, you know. The door opened somehow, and a gust of marijuana smoke came out. And I was just like, “Oh.” Because I remember from the Rikers Island interview, Tupac saying he wasn’t gonna smoke weed anymore. There he was.
This was Powell’s third interview with Tupac in three years. He thought the star wasn’t in good shape.
KEVIN POWELL: But I remember thinking to myself, “My gosh, um. This is not going to end well.” Because it seemed like this was a desperation move for Pac, you know, to to be in this space.
Powell’s story, headlined “Live from Death Row,” came out in the February 1996 issue of Vibe Magazine. In the story, Powell quoted an anonymous source saying “Tupac and Faith are now very, very close.” Asked about the relationship, Tupac said, “You know I don’t kiss and tell.”
Right around that time, the New York Times Magazine published a profile of Suge Knight. In the article, Suge teases Tupac about his fancy patterned shirt, and claims that Evans bought it for him.
“And how did you thank her, Tupac?” Suge asks.
“I did enough,” Tupac replies, in a tone that the writer, Lynn Hirschberg, describes as “rather salacious.”
It was a new low in a rapidly spiraling conflict.
Here’s Kierna Mayo, who was a staff writer at The Source.
KIERNA MAYO: It’s almost as if Faith wasn’t a full human being. Women—in particular, those of us were writing about and talking about it—um you know, just chalk this up as yet another example of a woman being used as the pawn in between male beef.
Faith Evans would later say that the story in the New York Times Magazine sent Biggie into a jealous rage. She said that he practically beat down the door of her hotel room, screamed and cursed at her, grabbed her arms, and shook her.
Still, a little while later, they reconciled briefly, and conceived a son, Christopher Jordan Wallace.
Let’s take a quick break.
Tupac’s fourth album, All Eyez on Me, came out in February 1996, just four months after he was released from prison. The 27 songs, all of which he recorded in those marathon sessions at Can-Am, were less thoughtful and less political than his earlier work. Now he sounded like the reckless gangsta rapper his critics had long accused him of being.
“Ambitionz Az a Ridah”—2Pac
[From “Ambitionz Az a Ridah” by 2Pac]
It was my only wish to rise
Above these jealous coward motherfuckers I despise
When it’s time to ride, I was the first off this side, give me the nine
I’m ready to die right here tonight, and motherfuck they life
Music journalist Cheo Hodari Coker wrote that All Eyez on Me “finds the rapper even more venomous than he was before his incarceration for sexual abuse.” You can hear all that venom on the song “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch?” It’s the track that Tupac had asked Faith Evans to sing on, although she’s not credited on it.
In episode 4 you heard about C. Delores Tucker, the activist who accused Tupac and other rappers of objectifying and disrespecting women. In “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch?,” Tupac responded to that charge.
“Wonda Why They Call U Bitch?”—2Pac
[From “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch?” by 2Pac]
Dear Ms. Delores Tucker, keep stressing me
Fuckin’ with a motherfucker mind
I figured you wanted to know
You know, why we call them hoes bitches
And maybe this might help you understand
It ain’t personal, strictly business, baby, strictly business
Allison Samuels says Tupac changed after Ayanna Jackson accused him of sexual abuse.
ALLISON SAMUELS: Everything I think was a result of that case because he felt like he’d been lied on. I think it absolutely soured him on his faith in people. I think he lost trust in people after that. And I think it made him incredibly angry at women.
Pac was an artist capable of real depth and empathy. If anyone should have been able to rise above misogynistic tropes, it was Tupac.
What does it say about him that he didn’t? Here’s Samuels again.
ALLISON SAMUELS: Hip-hop doesn’t do right by women and particularly to me, women of color.
JOEL ANDERSON: What would doing right look like?
ALLISON SAMUELS: Not overly sexualizing women in the videos. Not overly sexualizing relationships in songs. You know, just sort of having more of a respectful tone. And, it sounds old school to say that, but the fact that he thought getting back at Biggie was through his woman, which was the most insulting and degrading thing he could do to Faith. The fact that he didn’t care that he was degrading her.
JOEL ANDERSON: Right.
ALLISON SAMUELS: You know, understanding that there are human feelings connected to you, sort of, just disregarding a person and thinking that they’re not, you know, that they’re second-class citizens.
JOEL ANDERSON: I’m not going to make an excuse for hip-hop here but I’m gonna ask you: is that a hip-hop problem or is that a man problem?
ALLISON SAMUELS: I think it’s a man problem. I think in hip-hop, again, because I think a lot of times with a lot of young rappers, when I talk to them, I feel like a lot of them are coming into the game. They get this fame, they get this money, and they have no outlet. They have no one to talk to. They have no one to sort of guide them. And so I think it could be maybe intensified in hip hop because a lot of them are coming from backgrounds where they didn’t have that guidance.
Thanks to Tupac, Faith Evans became a punchline. And there were plenty of folks in hip-hop who were happy to laugh along. A column in Vibe asked, “Is the new, slimmer Faith losing weight from all that running back and forth between the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac?” Evans knew she was being used. In her 1996 interview with Video Music Box, you can hear that she was fed up with it.
FAITH EVANS: All the stories he concocted and all that I mean, he ain’t gotta do that. I mean if they got beef with each other, him and Big, then they’re two men. They need to go at each other and not—you know what I’m saying? I ain’t got nothing to do with him.
Here’s Kierna Mayo again:
KIERNA MAYO: Like, it was fucked up. Definitely. It was horrible. In addition to what she was suffering in the marriage, in the context of all of that, and being an artist on Bad Boy—like just all of it, when you just think about it in hindsight, unbelievable. Like, she’s a survivor.
We’re gonna take a time out.
With the release of All Eyez on Me, Tupac again proved there was a huge market for the kind of music C. Delores Tucker called “pornography.”
The double album went straight to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Suge Knight had made good on his promise to Tupac: Death Row had made him a bigger star. That stardom, though, had come at the expense of other Death Row artists.
Here’s Reggie Wright.
REGGIE WRIGHT: He had Dre and Snoop at the time, and Tha Dogg Pound—that album was out doing well. It kind of got pushed to the side because of Pac coming.
One of the people who got pushed to the side was Death Row’s other founder, Dr. Dre. Dre had been working on “California Love” on his own. Suge insisted that Dre put Tupac on the song. It was Pac’s first single off All Eyez on Me. More than any other track on that album, “California Love” sounds like a celebration.
“California Love”—2Pac ft. Dr. Dre
[From “California Love” by 2Pac ft. Dr. Dre]
2PAC: Out on bail, fresh out of jail, California dreamin’
Soon as I step on the scene, I’m hearin’ hoochies screamin’
Fiendin’ for money and alcohol, the life of a Westside player
Where cowards die and the strong ball
Only in Cali where we riot, not rally, to live and die
“California Love” turned out to be the biggest hit of Tupac’s career. It would also be one of Dre’s final songs for Death Row. The 30-year-old producer had gotten tired of the label’s gangster theatrics.
“If it keeps going this way,” Dr. Dre said, “pretty soon niggas from the East Coast ain’t gonna be able to come out here…and vice versa.”
On March 29, 1996, the East Coast and West Coast scenes converged at the Soul Train Awards in Los Angeles. It was the first time Tupac and Biggie were in the same room since the shooting at Quad Studios. It was a triumphant night for both of them.
Tupac’s Me Against the World—his last record before joining Death Row—won Best Rap Album. Biggie’s “One More Chance” remix took Song of the Year.
“One More Chance (Remix)”—The Notorious B.I.G.
“[From One More Chance (Remix)” by The Notorious B.I.G.]
First things first: I, Poppa, freaks all the honeys
Dummies, Playboy bunnies, those wanting money
At the award show, Biggie performed “One More Chance” in a black tux and a black bowler hat. Puffy sat on the stage at a white piano. Faith Evans sang the hook.
It was the fulfillment of Puffy’s vision of elegant showmanship—a far cry from Death Row’s gangsta image.
Here’s Larry Hester, a hip-hop writer known as The Blackspot. Hester profiled Bad Boy Records for the September 1996 issue of Vibe.
LARRY “THE BLACKSPOT” HESTER: We’ve seen them start from the bottom and work their way to the top and then reap the rewards. And they showed us everything that they reaped. Again, and again, and again!
This was still the West Coast. Biggie heard some boos from the L.A. audience when he shouted out Brooklyn during his acceptance speech.
But the real hostility came after the show was over.
Biggie and his crew were waiting for their cars when a black Hummer pulled up. The window rolled down. It was Tupac.
“West Side! Fuck y’all,” Tupac yelled at Biggie. As chaos broke out around them, Biggie just stood and stared at his old friend.
Larry Hester said Biggie couldn’t believe that Tupac was this far gone.
LARRY “THE BLACKSPOT” HESTER: He says Pac was out the window, screaming, you know, “West Side!” and all that stuff like that. He was really confused, you know? And um, Big just wanted it to stop.
In the middle of all this, someone screamed “He’s got a gun!” Biggie got hustled into a limo and hurried away from the scene. It was the last time Biggie and Tupac would ever look each other in the eye.
Publicly, Biggie tried to brush off his feud with Tupac. He contributed some verses to “Brooklyn’s Finest,” a song by an up-and-coming rapper named Jay-Z. In the song, Biggie made a joke out of the idea that Tupac and Faith Evans had slept together.
“Brooklyn’s Finest”—Jay-Z ft. The Notorious B.I.G.
[From “Brooklyn’s Finest” by Jay-Z ft. The Notorious B.I.G.]
THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: If Fay’ have twins, she’d probably have two Pacs
Get it? Tu…Pac’s?
As for Tupac, he took his beef with Biggie to a place that rap feuds normally didn’t go.
“HIT ‘EM UP”—2Pac ft. Outlaw Immortalz
[From “HIT ‘EM UP” by 2Pac ft. Outlaw Immortalz]
2PAC: You claim to be a player, but I fucked your wife
We bust on Bad Boys, niggas fucked for life
“Hit ‘Em Up” came out two months after the Soul Train Awards. It was one of the most brutal diss tracks in the history of hip-hop. Tupac didn’t just boast that he’d had sex with Faith Evans.
He also threatened some of the biggest names in East Coast rap: Puffy, Junior M.A.F.I.A., Mobb Deep, Lil’ Kim.
“HIT ‘EM UP”—2Pac ft. Outlaw Immortalz
[From “HIT ‘EM UP” by 2Pac ft. Outlaw Immortalz]
2PAC: Lil’ Kim, don’t fuck around with real G’s
Quick to snatch yo’ ugly ass off the streets, so fuck peace!
Pretty much everyone thought that Tupac had gone too far.
KEVIN POWELL: I was like, “Wow,” you know? “This is crazy.”
EASY MO BEE: I have a copy of the album with “Hit ‘Em Up” and oh I didn’t like that, man. I heard it for the very first time. I never played it again.
KIERNA MAYO: Everything was moving into a space that was beyond the pale. I mean, the whole damn thing was, was there!
KATHY IANDOLI: Would it be safe to assume that violence would follow? Yes.
But Biggie never threatened to retaliate for “Hit ‘Em Up.” In a story for Vibe, he told Larry Hester that the song said more about Tupac than it did about him or Faith Evans. “If the motherfucka really did fuck Fay, that’s foul how he’s just blowin’ her like that. Never once did he say that Fay did some foul shit to him. If honey was to give you the pussy, why would you disrespect her like that?”
Biggie’s crew felt that Tupac’s diss demanded a response. Here’s Chico Del Vec, a member of Junior M.A.F.I.A.
CHICO DEL VEC: After awhile a few guys in the group was, like man, let’s do some diss songs and get at these dudes, man. And Big was, like, “Nah, man. Leave that alone, man. Like, come on, man. Let’s just stay focused on what we gotta do.” And that’s what we did. We left it alone.
But leaving it alone wasn’t enough to make it stop.
Next week on Slow Burn: Vegas.
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 this season.
In this week’s bonus episode, you’ll hear an extended interview with Larry Hester, a former staff writer with Vibe magazine. I talked with him about interviewing Biggie and Puffy in the midst of their beef with Death Row Records.
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 engineers are Jared Paul, and Paul Mounsey. Donwill composed our theme song.
The artwork for Slow Burn is by Lisa Larson-Walker. Special thanks to Slate’s Chau Tu, Derreck Johnson, Chris Molanphy, Lowen Liu, Allison Benedikt, and Jared Hohlt.
You can find a full list of books, articles, and documentaries used to research this episode on our show page.
And by the way, we created a playlist on Spotify to go with this season. We’ll be updating it each week with new episodes, and songs by Tupac, Biggie, and their collaborators. Check it out every week at the link in the show notes.
Thanks for listening.