This is a transcript of Episode 6 of Season 3 of Slow Burn. Listen in the player below, or subscribe here.
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On June 23, 1996, four LAPD officers went to the headquarters of Death Row Records to “verbally admonish” the record label. The officers had issued that warning at the behest of Death Row’s neighbors in the suburban enclave of Tarzana. There had been complaints about armed gang members’ coming and going. There were increasing reports of assaults, auto thefts, and armed robberies.
This might have been a particularly observant neighborhood watch, or it could have been a case of racial profiling.
But it was true that Death Row had become a hangout for gangsters—and not just the Bloods that label head Suge Knight rolled with.
LEIGH SAVIDGE: There’d be Crips on one side on couches and, you know, Bloods on the other side, cause Snoop was Crip-affiliated at that point.
That’s Leigh Savidge, co-director of the documentary Welcome to Death Row.
LEIGH SAVIDGE: And uh, there’d be a donnybrook. It was this thing of violent episodes. And there’s this sense that, oh well, to be authentic and to authenticate this music, we need to have, you know, the real genuine articles that we’re talking about in this music in the, you know here in this mix.
Reggie Wright, Death Row’s head of security, says those tough guys served a purpose.
REGGIE WRIGHT: People always ask me, “Why did you always let , have those gang guys around and all of that?” You needed ‘em. Because you can’t have your security guys going, walking up to the club in New Orleans or wherever, “Hey where’s the weed at?” Or “Go get that chick number for me. I wanna holler at her.’ And plus, gutter niggas recognize gutter dudes. When they know there’s some, some other dudes that have that look, that penitentiary look, or usually done did some time or done heard who they were, they’re like, “Nah, I don’t think we’re gonna run up on those niggas right now.” You knew those dudes were, were bout it bout it.
When he signed with Death Row, Tupac Shakur publicly embraced that gangster ethos.
He got the letters “MOB” tattooed on his right triceps. He said it meant “Money, Organization, and Business.” But some people took it to refer to the Mob Piru—a faction of Bloods from Compton.
It was 1996, and Tupac was the biggest star in hip-hop. But Death Row was starting to fall apart.
Snoop was on trial for murder, in a case stemming from an altercation near his house three years earlier. After he was acquitted that February, he started to distance himself from the gangsta life.
the month after Snoop’s acquittal, Dr. Dre announced that he was leaving Death Row. He’d grown weary of the violence surrounding Suge, and he wasn’t eager to work with some of the label’s newer artists.
LEIGH SAVIDGE: Dre, at some level, just was not that hot on Tupac. So, I think that’s where it’s like Tupac, Tupac, Tupac, and it’s it’s suddenly—Suge is just obsessed with Tupac. And it just, it rubbed Dre the wrong way.
Tupac came to feel the same about Dr. Dre.
He was bothered that Dre never showed up at Snoop’s trial, and he thought Dre didn’t do enough to support Death Row in its beef with Bad Boy Records.
Reggie Wright says Tupac would constantly remind his Death Row colleagues that Dre wasn’t a good labelmate.
REGGIE WRIGHT: He was the one that pointed things out to us. He was the one that was like, “This a disloyal motherfucker. I don’t want, I don’t want to be around him. I ain’t feeling him.”
Tupac’s resentment of Dre became increasingly obvious. Death Row’s publicist, George Pryce, says that the first draft of the art for Tupac’s follow-up to All Eyez on Me showed Dre getting sodomized.
GEORGE PRYCE: I said, “Suge, I’m I’m sorry, but I’m not gonna allow you to put that out.” I took all that shit off of there.
Tupac put that same kind of homophobic taunting into the next single he was planning to release, “Toss It Up.”
“Toss it Up”—2Pac
[From “Toss it Up” by 2Pac]
Still down for that Death Row sound, searchin’ for paydays
No longer Dre Day: arrivederci!
Blown and forgotten, rotten for plotting child’s play
Check your sexuality, as fruity as this Alize
Quick to jump ship, punk trick, what a dumb move
Cross Death Row, now who you gonna run to?
Dr. Dre addressed Death Row’s smear campaign in the October 1996 issue of Vibe. He said, “It’s just a lot of negative bullshit. So from here on out, Death Row Records don’t even exist to Dre.”
It seemed like Tupac and Death Row were going to ride together, everyone else be damned. That’s how it looked from the outside, at least.
But even as Tupac was calling out Dre for disloyalty, he was making his own moves away from Death Row.
In 1996, Tupac formed his own production company, Euphanasia. He was making plans to start a label under his new stage name, Makaveli. He also spent much of that spring and summer filming two movies, Gridlock’d and Gang Related. He told people in the film business that he wanted to start working on different kinds of projects: a Western starring young black actors, and a movie about the uprising led by enslaved preacher Nat Turner.
Here’s Allison Samuels, who covered hip-hop for Newsweek.
ALLISON SAMUELS: I think he knew Death Row was going to be a roadblock for him. Because none of the major studios, those people weren’t going to deal with that. You know, cause, you didn’t know if Suge was gonna go and beat somebody up. You don’t know. And nobody’s gonna do business with you with that.
The surest sign that Tupac was considering a different direction came on August 27, 1996. That’s when he fired Death Row attorney David Kenner.
Kenner was a former defense attorney who’d made his name representing drug traffickers.
He came to power at Death Row by attaching himself to Suge Knight. Kenner got Suge and Death Row’s artists out of a bunch of legal jams, and he came to play a big role in the label’s day-to-day operations.
ALLISON SAMUELS: You knew he was the power in some ways, you know. He was definitely the guy who made things work.
It was Kenner who had engineered Tupac’s release from prison. But first, Tupac had signed a contract with Death Row—an agreement that also made Kenner his legal representative.
Once he was on the outside, Tupac grew frustrated with that arrangement. One of his other lawyers later said Kenner was less than transparent about money Tupac was owed.
The final straw came when Kenner denied Tupac access to some music he’d been working on in the studio. That’s when Tupac fired him—a move that some friends and outside observers considered rash.
To cut ties with David Kenner, as Tupac did, was a very big deal.
ALLISON SAMUELS: You knew that was that first strike. And it was a big strike to say, “I’m, I’m out.”
Death Row’s publicist George Pryce says he came to believe that Tupac’s loyalty only went so far.
GEORGE PRYCE: Tupac wanted to start his own company and that’s why he was doing what he was doing with Death Row to make that money that he needed. That’s the only thing that Suge and I would differ on. Because you know he wanted to say they were such close friends. And I believe that Suge really thought that was the case. But it was not the case as far as Tupac was concerned. Tupac was using Death Row as a means toward an end.
In less than two years, Tupac had been shot five times, gotten convicted of sexual abuse, and been locked up in a maximum-security prison. He’d become increasingly paranoid, defensive, and hostile.
He’d also released two number one albums and become the most famous rapper in the world.
It often seemed like Tupac couldn’t think more than one second ahead. But he also appeared to understand, on some level, that he couldn’t keep acting that way forever. He had to make a decision—about what kind of career he wanted to have, and what kind of life he wanted to live.
In the summer of 1996, he was increasingly essential to the survival of Death Row Records, and increasingly ready to strike out on his own. He was on the verge of making a choice.
And then he went to Las Vegas.
What happened in Tupac Shakur’s final hours? How close was he to quitting the gangsta rap life? And how would one last reckless act come to define his legacy?
This is Slow Burn. I’m your host, Joel Anderson. This is episode 6: Til Somebody Kills You.
In 1996, Mike Tyson was close to finishing his comeback.
Tyson had been convicted of raping 18-year-old Desiree Washington in 1992. He’d served three years. Now he was out, and on a mission to win back the three championship belts he’d lost back in 1990. He’d regained one title by battering Frank Bruno in March 1996. Now, six months later, he was making a run at another one, by going up against Bruce Seldon.
It wasn’t going to be that big a challenge. Seldon was far from the best heavyweight in the world. That was probably Lennox Lewis. But Tyson had paid Lewis $4 million to stand down. He was doing what it took to get back on top.
Tupac Shakur saw Tyson as a kindred spirit. They’d both had tough childhoods, and those experiences had made both of them into fighters. At the height of their careers, they’d gone to prison after juries found them guilty of sexual violence. They both saw themselves as victims.
When Suge Knight pushed Tupac to go to Vegas to see the title fight, Tupac rearranged his schedule so he could go.
There was nothing he loved more than seeing Mike Tyson beat somebody up.
Suge had roots in Vegas—he’d gone to school and played football at UNLV. He’d bought a mansion there with his music-business money—a house he’d seen in the movie Casino. It was two doors down from where Mike Tyson lived.
DANNY BOY STEWARD: Every other place that we went to, we knew it was work. But Vegas was just a place that we came to relax, and enjoy.
That’s the R&B singer Danny Boy. He was part of the crew of Death Row affiliates who made the trip.
DANNY BOY STEWARD: All of Suge’s homies—we were probably a hundred or something some cars deep.
The night of September 7, 1996 was a big one for Suge. He was running a nightclub in Vegas, Club 662, and there was gonna be a party there after the fight. The rapper Craig Mack was scheduled to perform.
Here’s Reggie Wright again.
REGGIE WRIGHT: Craig Mack—it was like his signing party. He was going to be signing to Death Row East.
Death Row East was Suge’s expansion plan—his attempt to move in on Puffy’s turf. Craig Mack had a hit a couple years earlier with “Flava in Ya Ear.” It was on Bad Boy. Biggie had a verse on the remix. Signing Craig Mack to Death Row would be a coup, and a statement of purpose.
It’s not clear how firm these Death Row East plans really were. Craig Mack, who died in 2018, said the reports that he’d signed with Suge were premature.
But if Suge was trying to bait his East Coast rivals, Reggie Wright assumed they were on safe ground.
REGGIE WRIGHT: We’re on the West Coast. The last thing was on my mind was getting in trouble uh in Vegas.
Let’s take a quick time out.
When Mike Tyson walked to the ring to face Bruce Seldon, there was a new Tupac song bumping from the speakers at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The track was called “Let’s Get It On,” and it featured a promo for the party at 662.
“Let’s Get It On (Ready 2 Rumble)”—2Pac
[From “Let’s Get It On (Ready 2 Rumble)” by 2Pac]
Aight this ain’t goin’ last long, y’all know how Tyson do it
So what, we gon’ wipe beat this boy silly
And then we go all go party at 66 deuce, mob style
So Tyson - do ya thang, boy. Do yo thang.
ANNOUNCER: In the blue corner tonight, challenging for the title, please welcome the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world! Introducing the one and only Iron Mike Tyson!
Tupac was right: the fight didn’t last long.
Tyson knocked Seldon down twice in the first round, and the ref stopped the bout after just 109 seconds. As soon as it was over, fans started chanting, “Fix! Fix! Fix!”
ANNOUNCER: The winner by way of total knock out is the new WBA heavyweight champion of the world—Iron Mike Tyson!
COMMENTATOR: I agree with the fans and their reaction: a very unpopular victory here for Mike Tyson.
There’s no evidence that Seldon took a dive. And not everyone in the arena was disappointed with what they’d seen.
Tupac’s bodyguard, Frank Alexander, said Tupac was thrilled by the fight, and jumping around hysterically. “Fifty blows! I counted them,” Tupac told his entourage. Then Tupac and the Death Row crew headed for the floor of the MGM Grand.
Some of the people in that Death Row group were members of the Bloods. One was a guy named Travon Lane. A couple months earlier, Lane had been jumped by a group of Crips in a Foot Locker at a mall. They’d taken his chain, which had a diamond-covered Death Row pendant.
At the casino, Lane spotted one of the guys who’d attacked him in the shoe store. He pointed him out to Tupac.
Tupac had a history of acting incautiously. He’d started fights, and menaced gangsters and hit men. He’d released a track in which he’d violently threatened a long list of prominent East Coast rappers.
But now, flush with success, and high from the rush of the Tyson knockout, he did something as reckless as he’d ever done.
Here’s Reggie Wright.
REGGIE WRIGHT: I hate that Pac, showing his loyalty, took off and did what he did.
What Tupac did is chase after the Crip who’d stolen Travon Lane’s pendant. His name was Orlando Anderson. He was 22 years old.
You can see the blurry footage from the MGM security cameras on YouTube. Tupac appears from the left in a flash, having already landed a punch. He then follows up with a kick as his crew joins in pummeling Anderson.
ALEX ALSONSO: Pac should not have been that close to the action.
That’s Alex Alonso, a sociologist who studies gangs in L.A.
ALEX ALONSO: He’s your number one artist and you’re walking around with him like he’s a member of Mob Piru. And it shouldn’t have went down that way.
In that moment, Tupac was no longer a performer—he was a gangster.
Casino security broke up the beatdown and the Death Row crew hustled out of the casino. Tupac was still pumped.
“I took him out faster than Tyson,” he boasted to Frank Alexander as they walked back to their hotel.
“For Pac,” Alexander wrote in his memoir, “braggin’ after a fight was like having a smoke after sex.”
Tupac and his team stopped at the hotel, then stopped at Suge’s house. Finally, they headed to Club 662. Tupac rode in the passenger seat of Suge’s new BMW 750.
They were blasting Tupac’s new album so loud that a bike cop told them to turn it down.
At about 11:17 p.m., Suge stopped his car at a red light. Frank Alexander was in the car behind them. He watched as a white Cadillac rolled up next to Suge’s BMW. Then he saw an arm come out of the Cadillac’s window. Then a 40-caliber Glock pistol.
REPORTER: Tupac Shakur was riding in this black BMW when the gunfire erupted. Shakur was shot several times in the chest. The driver—his record producer—was grazed in the head.
Witnesses say Tupac tried to scramble over his seat to dodge the gunfire. But he wasn’t able to escape. He got two bullets in his chest, one in his leg, and another in his hand. Suge wasn’t seriously hurt. He floored the BMW and made a U-turn into traffic, sending vehicles scrambling across the road.
The shooter’s car peeled off and made a right turn. When the smoke cleared, it was gone.
We’ll be back in a second.
Danny Boy had already made it to Club 662 for the after-party. He was waiting on the Death Row contingent to arrive.
DANNY BOY STEWARD: Suge and them wasn’t there in the time I thought they should have been there neither. And then one of the homies kinda like just bust in you know through the security. You know, “Suge and them just got killed up on the Strip!” And that’s when everything became crazy.
Suge was actually treated and released not long after the shooting. But Tupac was in intensive care.
REPORTER: Rapper Tupac Shakur remains in critical condition this morning at a Las Vegas hospital after he was shot repeatedly over the weekend.
HOSPITAL SPOKESPERSON: He is severely injured internally. He has multiple gunshot wounds to the chest.
On the morning of September 8, Tupac underwent emergency surgery. His mother Afeni rushed to his side. Friends and supporters, including Tyson, Jasmine Guy, and Jesse Jackson, were there too. One family member told a reporter that Tupac would “pull through.” After all, he’d survived a shooting before.
DANNY BOY STEWARD: You know, he was he was just, he was in bad shape. But you didn’t think that he was gon’ die.
While Tupac was in the hospital, there were rumors about possible gang-related retaliation.
DANNY BOY STEWARD: People were making threats, saying that they were going to finish what they started.
A Bad Boy employee reported getting a death threat, and some Bad Boy artists canceled appearances. In Compton, there was a flurry of gang-related violence, with at least three people killed. It was just a hint of the warfare that was coming.
Suge Knight gave a brief statement to Las Vegas police. He described the casino fight as mere “pushin and shovin.” He downplayed rumors that the East Coast-West Coast beef might have played a role in the attack, though he did tell police that Death Row may have been a target because “we sell more records.”
On his second day at the hospital, doctors operated on Tupac again, this time to remove his right lung. After that operation he momentarily opened his eyes, raising hope that he might make it.
On September 12th, Tupac started convulsing violently. His doctors were afraid he’d hurt himself, so they put him into a coma.
On September 13th, six days after he was shot, Tupac had to be resuscitated several times. His mother Afeni eventually told the doctors to stop trying.
DALE PUGH: This is Dale Pugh, marketing and public relations director for University Medical Center. This message is being recorded at approximately 5:15 on Friday September 13th. Tupac Shakur passed away today at University Medical Center at approximately 4:03 p.m.
Kevin Powell had been keeping vigil in Vegas. When Tupac died, he wandered out of his hotel in a daze.
KEVIN POWELL: There was mad people out there. There was a lot of Hummers. Everybody was playing Tupac’s music. I had some liquor. I went to that corner um and I poured liquor on the ground and I remember just crying and I was drunk. Um, and I don’t remember anything else.
Most mainstream news outlets told a story of a young man destined for an early death.
REPORTER: Good evening. A controversial rap artist who led a troubled existence has lost his fight for life.
REPORTER: He had already survived one near fatal shooting, but he couldn’t survive a second. Rap star Tupac Shakur died last night after a brief life in a rough business. He was 25.
Allison Samuels said it was a challenge to get her editors at Newsweek to see Tupac as something other than a gangster rapper.
ALLISON SAMUELS: I think they still didn’t understand this this is gonna be someone—this is a legend. And they wanted him in all the you know gang, and just sort of looking—and I was like, “no, we’re gonna have him looking wonderful and nice.” Because there were beautiful pictures of him. And so I was able to go through and make sure you know we did this respectful tribute to him.
The AP’s story about Tupac’s death quoted the rapper Heavy D. “I hope this is a wake-up call for a lot of us,” he said.
Orlando Anderson, the man Tupac and the Death Row crew beat down at the MGM Grand casino, has long been considered a suspect in Tupac’s murder, although he was never charged. You’ll hear about the murder investigation in a later episode.
Anderson himself was shot and killed in a gang dispute at a Compton car wash two years later.
If Anderson was the shooter, that suggests that Tupac’s death was just another incident in a long sequence of violence and reprisals within the West Coast gang world—that it had nothing to do with rap music, really.
Plenty of more intricate theories flourished in the wake of the murder. One of the most widespread holds that Suge Knight was involved—that he saw Tupac pulling away from Death Row and refused to allow it. Knight himself has always denied that he had anything to do with Tupac’s killing.
There were also rumors centering on Death Row’s feud with Bad Boy Records—rumors suggesting that Biggie and Puffy might have had Tupac’s blood on their hands.
Next week on Slow Burn: Going back to Cali.
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 Leigh Savidge, who co-directed the documentary Welcome to Death Row, and co-wrote the movie Straight Outta Compton. He gave us an inside look at Suge, Tupac, Dre, and the rise and fall of Death Row.
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.