Slow Burn

To Live and Die in L.A.

Read a transcript of Slow Burn: Season 3, Episode 7.

This is a transcript of Episode 7 of Season 3 of Slow Burn. Listen in the player below, or subscribe here.

This podcast has language that some people might find offensive.

On the night of September 13, 1996, Christopher Wallace, the Notorious B.I.G., was in a recording studio in New York. It was about a week since Tupac Shakur had been attacked in Las Vegas, and Biggie and his crew still figured Tupac would pull through.

NASHIEM MYRICK: When Pac got shot, we was like, “Aight, Pac got shot. He’ll live.” You know what I’m saying. He always lived. It’s not the first time he had got shot. 

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That’s Nashiem Myrick, one of the producers who was working with Biggie back then.

Myrick was in the studio with Biggie all the time, and they weren’t doing anything all that special on September 13th. But everything changed when they heard the grim news out of Vegas.

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NASHIEM MYRICK: When that shit came across—because I had the TV on, everybody had the TV on—and when they said Pac just died, we was like, silent. We was like, “wow.” 

Biggie and his wife, Faith Evans, were living apart. He called her that night. She described his voice as “low and small.” He was crying and seemed afraid. “Something ain’t right, Faye,” he told her. “Shit got fucked up somewhere along the way. But that was my nigga.”

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Biggie was clearly hurt by Tupac’s death. He was also scared to realize that Tupac’s money and security guards hadn’t protected him from the violence of the streets.

But at the same time, Biggie wasn’t exactly mourning his former friend. Tupac had told the world that Biggie and Sean “Puffy” Combs were involved in the shooting at Quad Studios. Tupac had also boasted about sleeping with Biggie’s wife, and fantasized, in his lyrics, about killing Biggie and everyone around him. No matter the bond they’d shared when times were good, Biggie wasn’t going to forget the bad stuff. “This nigga—he made my life miserable,” Biggie said to his friend dream hampton. “He told lies, fucked with my marriage, turned fans against me. For what?”

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Biggie told hampton he wasn’t going to Tupac’s service. It turned out he couldn’t have gone, even if he wanted to.

Two days after Tupac’s death, on September 15th, New York police arrested Biggie and his friend Lil’ Cease for marijuana possession. The cops took their Lexus, and when they got it back the car wouldn’t drive. The dealership gave them a new ride: a Chevy Lumina.

The next day they took the Lumina on the New Jersey Turnpike. Cease was driving, and Big was in the passenger seat.

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Here’s Biggie’s old friend Chico Del Vec of Junior M.A.F.I.A.

CHICO DEL VEC: It was raining and Cease tried to spin off through the lane of a exit and ran into the barricade. PKKKKK!

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Cease’s face hit the steering wheel, shattering a bunch of his teeth. Biggie fractured his leg in three places and had to be cut out of the van.

Biggie spent much of the next two months at a rehab facility. He also started seeing a therapist and talking to God. Biggie decided that he needed to slow down and change his life.

Even before the accident, Biggie had started thinking beyond his hometown. He’d

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left his beloved Brooklyn for a quiet gated community in Teaneck, New Jersey. Now 24 years old and a platinum-selling artist, he already had a young daughter, and Faith was expecting his son. He wanted to buy his mother a home in the Poconos. He’d teamed up with an old friend to start a record company, Undeas Entertainment. He’d learned from watching Puffy that the real money was behind the scenes.

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If Biggie wanted to secure his future, there was still one huge thing he needed to accomplish. He had to make his peace with the West Coast.

No one had been charged in Tupac’s shooting, and rumors were rampant about who might be responsible. Some blamed the Southside Compton Crips. Others blamed Bad Boy, specifically Biggie and Puffy.

All the speculation had made Biggie somber, and withdrawn. He told one music writer, “It’s not worth it anymore. That’s why I just stay in the muthafuckin’ house.”

The only way he could squash the beef, Biggie thought, was to do what he did best. He ended up recording a California anthem—a tribute to the West Coast sound. “Going Back to Cali” would be one of the best-known tracks he ever made. He and Puffy also made another move, setting up a splashy promotional trip to Los Angeles.

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That turned out to be a huge mistake.

How did the hip-hop world change in the months after Tupac’s death? How did his killing reignite a gang war in L.A.? And why did Puffy and Biggie risk everything by going to the West Coast?

This is Slow Burn. I’m your host, Joel Anderson. This is episode 7: To Live and Die in LA.

When Tupac Shakur punched Orlando Anderson at the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas, he was jumping into a much bigger fight. Tupac had been rolling with a crew of Mob Piru gang members.
Anderson was a Southside Crip. When Tupac got shot, the Pirus didn’t wait for a police investigation to decide who was responsible.

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ALEX ALONSO: Suge and them knew it was the Southsides immediately.

That’s Alex Alonso, a sociologist who studies gangs in L.A.

ALEX ALONSO: You see, you gotta understand: the Pirus and the Southside Compton Crips had already been fighting. They already had been warring. This just probably reignited a new war that had already existed between two neighborhoods that hated each other. 

Two days after the shooting in Vegas, a Southside Crip was shot in the back in Compton. The day after that, on September 10 at 2pm, two Mob Pirus got shot, probably in retaliation. Three hours later, the brother of one of Suge’s most notorious enforcers took a bullet. And within minutes of that shooting, MOB Pirus went onto Crip turf and shot up a car.

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Robert Ladd and Tim Brennan were gang detectives with the Compton Police Department in the 1990s. In their book, Once Upon a Time in Compton, they argued that all of this violence stemmed from the Vegas shooting. The big issue, as far as gang members were concerned, wasn’t the attack on Tupac. It was the attempt on Suge’s life. “Suge Knight was seen as a symbol of the Pirus,” they wrote. “Shooting at him was an act of epic disrespect. Disrespect one, you disrespect all.”

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Although nobody was killed in that cluster of shootings in L.A., gang detectives were overwhelmed. With all those crime scenes to visit, they couldn’t keep an eye on known gang hot spots. And with the cops otherwise occupied, the violence went to another level.

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On the morning of September 11th, a man named Bobby Ray Finch dropped his 10-year-old daughter at school and headed for the gym in his new Acura. A Honda Civic pulled up next to him. Shots were fired. Finch was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead as soon as he arrived. He was 30 years old.

Some people thought Finch had been mistaken for a neighbor, a member of the Southside Crips. Others pointed to his baby-blue casket and suggested he was a member of the gang himself.

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Two days later, Marcus Duron Childs and Timothy Flanagan were shot and killed while they were working on a car. They were both known to be members of the Mob Piru.

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ALEX ALONSO: And it just created a snowball effect to where other people that weren’t even directly connected to the conflict were getting killed as well. There have been other intense conflicts in Compton before. You know, I don’t know how to compare it from other wars that have existed between the Pirus and the Crips. But I mean, this was definitely an intense conflict.

No one was charged with any of those killings. Instead of making a few targeted arrests, law enforcement went bigger.

REPORTER: It began before dawn. The crime sweep involved 300 officers, 10 agencies, including the FBI. At more than 37 locations in the Compton, Lynwood, and Long Beach areas. Compton police say the arrests were for local crimes in connection with 12 shootings that occurred in the city of Compton that resulted in three deaths.

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The police raids started in the early-morning hours of October 2nd. Twenty-three people were arrested that day. One of them was Orlando Anderson, the Southside Crip who Tupac had gone after in Las Vegas.

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Anderson was arrested on suspicion of an earlier murder that wasn’t related to Tupac’s.

Suge Knight was arrested later that month. When he’d helped Tupac beat down Orlando Anderson, he’d violated the terms of his probation for an earlier assault charge. He was placed in Los Angeles County Jail to await sentencing.

Suge had been born in Compton. He’d grown up around gangs and had brought gang members along with him when he became a successful businessman. It was predictable that an attack on him would give rise to recriminatory violence—that had been the pattern in Compton for a very long time.

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Tupac’s murder was also seen in the context of another battle. This one was the rivalry between East Coast and West Coast. That conflict had only begun to get serious with the Quad Studios shooting in 1994. It wasn’t clear how that feud would play out in 1996, in the wake of Tupac’s murder. Would there be recriminations there, too?

Nine days after Tupac’s death, the Nation of Islam convened what it called a Day of Atonement for the hip-hop community.

CONRAD TILLARD: It was a sad period. But it was something that was not totally a shock. And as a activist and as a minister, I knew instinctively the community needed healing.

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That’s Rev. Conrad Tillard, who was then known as Conrad Muhammad. He was the minister of the Nation of Islam’s mosque in Harlem. To many, he was known as the “Hip-Hop Minister.”

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Tillard was a rising star in the Nation of Islam, which was in the midst of resurgence. The Nation had real influence in black communities in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when it was one of the few stable institutions left in urban areas ravaged by crime and drugs.

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Leaning on his connections in hip-hop, Tillard announced the upcoming Day of Atonement while making a guest appearance on a local radio show. He hoped the event, held at an auditorium in Harlem, would serve both as a memorial for the rapper, and as an opportunity for Death Row and Bad Boy to reconcile. But he also wanted hip-hop and its audience to mend their ways.

CONRAD TILLARD: We were in the season of atonement. The Million Man March had just happened. And ah, it was the right note for what young people needed at that time. And it turned out to be a blessing that it rained that day, because about 5,000 people came and, you know, we didn’t have room for everyone. We put speakers outside, and so, and people stayed in the rain. 

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The problem was, none of the major players in the feud showed.

CONRAD TILLARD: Puffy um said he would come and Biggie—he would bring Biggie. And I told him, I said, “This is important. You need to be here.” Because I had gotten word that some Death Row people were going to be there. And he said, “I’ll be there.” And uh, I mean—the coup de grace that day would have been Puffy and Biggie there.

Most of the rappers in attendance were veterans who’d made their bones before gangsta rap existed, among them Grandmaster Flash.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: It’s a black-owned art form but it was made for the whole world to listen to. And if we as the creators do not take responsibility for what this is, it’s gonna be gone.

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The Nation of Islam couldn’t bring the East Coast and West Coast together. A comedian did.

STEVE HARVEY: This rivalry stuff, we gotta stop it, man. We stop that, we stop a lot of this violence.

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In February of 1997, Snoop Dogg and Puffy made a joint appearance on the sitcom The Steve Harvey Show. With Suge Knight in jail, Puffy and Snoop appeared to have the power to put the controversy to rest. In the script at least, that’s what they did.

SEAN “PUFFY” COMBS: Aye yo, Steve, check this, man. All this East Coast-West Coast stuff is a bunch of media hype. This been my dog from day one, you know what I’m saying? It’s all good between me and him. That’s my peoples.

SNOOP DOGGY DOGG: For real. That’s what we came here for. We came here to light it up and right it up. We make music for everybody.

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Let’s take a quick time out.

EASY MO BEE: I was trying, I was trying to get everybody on one accord, even if it’s through nothing but the music.

That’s Easy Mo Bee, a producer from Brooklyn. If anyone was the bridge between the coasts, it was him. He produced six of the songs on Biggie’s debut Ready to Die. He also collaborated with Tupac on Me Against the World, his final album before signing with Death Row.

As Biggie started working on his second album, Life After Death, Mo Bee had an idea. He wanted to put together a song that could bring the East and West together.

EASY MO BEE: I realized that “More Bounce to the Ounce” is like what “Love is the Message” by MFSB is to us here in New York. It’s a anthem. It’s a L.A. anthem.

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EASY MO BEE: I realized that “More Bounce to the Ounce” is like what “Love is the Message” by MFSB is to us here in New York. It’s a anthem. It’s a L.A. anthem.

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“More Bounce to the Ounce”—Zapp

“More Bounce to the Ounce”—Zapp

[From “More Bounce to the Ounce” by Zapp]

More bounce to the ounce

More bounce to the ounce

“More Bounce to the Ounce” was released in 1980 by the funk band Zapp. By the mid-90s, it had become a staple of West Coast hip-hop, sampled by artists including Ice Cube and Digital Underground. After Tupac was killed, Mo Bee used “More Bounce to the Ounce” as the backbone for a new track. He then handed that track off to Biggie.

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Months later, Mo Bee ran into one of Biggie’s friends, who told him the song was finished.

EASY MO BEE: He said, “Yo, he set fire to your joint, man.” He said, “You heard it?” I was like, “What are you talking about?” He said he titled it “Going back to Cali.” Right there in the store I said, “Yo, noooooo!”

Easy Mo Bee was afraid Biggie had used his track to rip the West Coast.

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He shouldn’t have worried. “Going Back to Cali” was a love note. Biggie sang the praises of the state’s weed, weather, and women.

“Going Back to Cali”—The Notorious B.I.G.

[From “Going Back to Cali” by The Notorious B.I.G.]

If I got to choose a coast I got to choose the East

I live out there, so don’t go there

But that don’t mean a nigga can’t rest in the West

See some nice breast in the West

Smoke some nice sess in the West, y’all niggas is a mess

Thinking I’m gon’ stop, giving LA props

All I got is beef with those that violate me

I shall annihilate thee

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If Biggie saw California as a nice place to visit, Puffy saw it as a major market. There were a lot of record buyers and media outlets in California. Making amends with hip-hop fans out there was a business necessity.

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So Puffy organized a trip to California for Biggie in February and March 1997. That was right before the release of Life After Death, and right when Puffy himself appeared with Snoop on the Steve Harvey Show.

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Still, some people thought the trip was a bad idea.

Here’s Matteo Capoluongo, better known as Matty C. He was a writer for The Source and then started working with rappers at Loud Records.

MATTEO CAPOLUONGO (MATTY C): I think there’s a lot of people who feel as though different ways that Puff moved may have also helped put Big more at risk.

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In mid-February, Biggie and Puffy shot the video for the first single off the new album, “Hypnotize.”

They wanted it to look like a blockbuster action movie. They got helicopters, yachts, sports cars, motorcycles—even a live panther.

They shot the speedboat scenes off the Santa Monica coast. As they race across the water, you see them drinking champagne with women in bikinis, smiling at the camera, with Biggie playfully bobbing along to the beat.

“Hypnotize”—The Notorious B.I.G. 

[From “Hypnotize” by The Notorious B.I.G.]

At last, a nigga rappin’ about blunts and broads

Tits and bras, menage-a-trois, sex in expensive cars

I’ll still leave you on the pavement

Condo paid for, no car payment

Chico Del Vec remembers Biggie calling from California to tell him how much fun they were having.

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Chico Del Vec remembers Biggie calling from California to tell him how much fun they were having.

CHICO DEL VEC: “Cali is beautiful, son. We doing our numbers out here, man. The weed, the women, everything is all lovely, man. You got to come out here and see this!” And me I’m like, what?! “Like yo, Cease throwin’ up off of weed, Chic! He’s smokin so much weed, he throwin’ up, his crazy ass!” Da da da da da da.

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We’ll be back in a minute.

While Biggie and Puffy were in Los Angeles, Suge Knight was sentenced to nine years in prison. During a court hearing, it came out that he’d been running Death Row Records from a payphone in his jail cell. All those high-profile attempts at peacemaking wouldn’t amount to much without Suge on board.

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In the meantime, Biggie was busy promoting his album. On March 1st, he joined The Wake Up Show on LA’s 92.3 The Beat. He was in a playful mood. Puffy was then launching his own career as a rapper, and Biggie joked with the hosts that he was now Puffy’s manager.

When the interview turned to Tupac, things got serious. You can hear Biggie’s sadness for his old friend—but, as he says, he had his own struggles.

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CHRISTOPHER “BIGGIE” WALLACE: I mean, it definitely was a loss, you know what I’m saying? A great loss. I feel for his family, you know what I’m saying. But at the same time, I can’t be the one to sit there and really just stress over somebody else, you know what I’m saying. At that time, I was going through my own problems, you know what I’m saying, with my kids and my wife and my business.

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March 7th was supposed to be Biggie’s last day in Los Angeles. That afternoon, he and Puffy went to the Soul Train Awards at the Shrine Auditorium, near the USC campus. As they stepped up to present the nominees for Best R&B/Soul Single, they heard boos from the cheap seats. Some people in the audience even threw up the hand sign for “Westside.” Biggie smiled as he leaned into the mic and said “What up, Cali?”

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That night, Biggie watched the tape-delayed broadcast of the awards from his suite at the Westwood Marquis. He invited journalist Cheo Hodari Coker to join him.

CHEO HODARI COKER: Big has this room service um, pizza. Like, he had a big paunch. And he had the pizza like, leaned back, it was balanced on his stomach. And so he’s kind of eating the pizza at the same time that we’re talking.

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Coker found Biggie in an unusually reflective mood. Biggie said he was looking forward to raising his toddler daughter T’yanna and his newborn son C.J. out of the media spotlight.

CHEO HODARI COKER: He was talking about how he wanted to essentially um buy a house in Atlanta. And he was talking about how he wanted to give T’yanna away at her wedding, and he wanted to see C.J. graduate from high school. And, you know, all these different things that he said wasn’t going to happen if he was out there wilin’. And what he was basically describing was that he realized that he could have a rap persona, but that he could also live a different life that had nothing to do with that rap persona.

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Coker also noticed a new tattoo on Biggie’s right forearm. It was a quotation from Psalm 27.

The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the truth of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked, even my enemies and foes, came upon me to bite my flesh, they stumbled and fell.

Was Biggie getting more religious? Was he trying to clean up his image? Or was he feeling triumphant?

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It’s hard to know. But Coker left that night feeling as if Biggie, a lovable street hustler at heart, was moving toward another phase of his life.

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CHEO HODARI COKER: He basically wanted to be the um, suburban soccer dad that occasionally made hip hop records.

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The day after the Soul Train Awards, Biggie was scheduled to get on a plane to London to start the international press tour for Life After Death. But he didn’t want to go.

CHEO HODARI COKER: Big’s whole thing was like, look: “The weed is positive, and the women is positive, and the sunshine is positive. Like, I don’t need to be going anywhere right now.” He just wanted to go from party to party, you know what I’m saying? He wasn’t even thinking about, or I don’t think fully understood just how much danger he was in.

He canceled the London flight, and decided to go to the Soul Train after-party instead.

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NASHIEM MYRICK: I told Big, um, “Be careful out there.” Cause, I would be like, “When the hell they coming back, man? Why they out there so long? They’re not supposed to be that long.”

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The after-party was at the Petersen Automotive Museum. For Biggie, it was a testament to everything he loved about California. There was great music, quality liquor, and plenty of rich and beautiful people. Whitney Houston was there. So was Wesley Snipes, and Aaliyah.

At one point the DJ played “Hypnotize” over and over again.

Biggie took in the scene from a table in a dark corner. He was wearing a black suede shirt, a gold chain with a Jesus pendant, and clear-framed wraparound shades. Close by Biggie’s side was a black cane; he needed it to get around after the car crash.

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In pictures from that night, Biggie looks happy. Jubilant, even.

Here he was in L.A., and everyone was loving him and his music.

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A little after 12:30 a.m., fire marshals shut down the party because of overcrowding. That wasn’t a problem for Biggie. He had another party to go to, this one at a house in the Hollywood Hills.

He and his team loaded into a green Suburban. His friend G-Money was behind the steering wheel. Biggie rode shotgun. Lil’ Cease was in the backseat. Puffy was one car ahead.

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They cranked up “Going Back to Cali” and pulled into the street. Right in front of the museum, they stopped at a traffic light.

A dark-colored Chevrolet SS Impala pulled up on the right side of the Suburban. From the backseat, Lil’ Cease saw a man behind the steering wheel of the Impala, with a gun in his right hand.

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Parked across the street from the museum, six rap fans from Houston were watching for celebrities. One of them was holding a video camera.

In the video, you can see the car Puffy is riding in begin to make a turn. Then you hear gunshots.

[SOUND OF GUNSHOTS]

UNIDENTIFIED BYSTANDER: That’s Big and them, that’s Big and them.

The camera spins around to try to capture the scene.

UNIDENTIFIED BYSTANDER 1: Biggie got shot.

UNIDENTIFIED BYSTANDER 2: Ooh lord, ooh fuck.

REPORTER: The rapper known as Biggie Smalls was shot several times as he sat in his Chevy Suburban early this morning outside the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. After the shooting, Smalls was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

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Christopher Wallace was 24.

Nashiem Myrick remembers waking up in a hotel room and getting the news.

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NASHIEM MYRICK: We had pagers back then. And my pager was on overflow. So I was like, “What the fuck is…what…why?” Then I’m thinking, “Ohhh my God, my grandmother.” You know what I’m saying, I’m thinking like that. So I’m scared to call home, I’m even scared to call home. I worked up the courage, I called home. My moms picks up the phone and is, like, “Nas, Nas, where you at?” Like, “What happened?” She’s like, “They killed Big!” I’m like, “What? They killed Big!” Then, I’m looking at the news reports and I’m like, “What? This nigga is dead. How does this happen? Who else died with him? Somebody moth—somebody motherfucking better had died with him. Who died with him? Nobody died with him? How the fuck this happen?”

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The gunman in the Impala sped away from the scene. No one was ever charged in the killing. No one had been charged in Tupac Shakur’s murder either. Or in the assault at Quad Recording Studios that had started the hostilities between the two men two years and three months earlier.

Two famous black men, shot down in public. Why has no one been brought to justice?

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Next week: Life After Death

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 more from my conversation with Cheo Hodari Coker, who conducted Biggie’s final interview.

To hear it, sign up for Slate Plus at slate.com/slowburn.

Slow Burn is produced by me and Christopher Johnson, with editorial direction from 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, 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.

Peace.

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