Sex, murder, conspiracy, police corruption, bi-coastal gang warfare, Diddy – this scandal has it all. The rivalry between the east and west coast rap scenes may have begun with minor east coast rapper Tim Dog‘s amusing 1991 hit “Fuck Compton,” but thanks to big money and short fuses, the battle soon grew as epic and violent as the gangster movies rappers referenced, climaxing with the unsolved shooting deaths of Tupac “2Pac” Shakur and Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace in 1996 and 1997. Their murders turned the rap superstars into tragic icons, and a battle of words into The Greatest Celebrity Scandal Of All Time.
Shakur was already a successful recording artist (Dan Quayle had even blamed his music for the death of a cop) when he met and befriended Wallace before the release of the aspiring NY rapper’s debut album, Ready To Die. Their mutual admiration soon turned sour after Shakur accused Wallace and his producer, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, of instigating a 1994 robbery and assault that left him with five bullet wounds. Wallace and Combs swore they were coincidentally recording in the studio where Shakur was attacked outside, but for whatever reason, Shakur refused to believe the pair was not involved.
While Shakur recuperated and went to prison for sex crimes, Wallace’s career thrived as Combs’ label Bad Boy drew attention away from the LA gangsta rap scene, led by Dr. Dre and Death Row Records co-founder Suge Knight. Nine months into Shakur’s sentence, Knight, a former football player previously accused of threatening NWA’s Eazy-E with a baseball bat and holding Vanilla Ice out of a window, signed the embattled rapper to Death Row in exchange for paying his $1.2 million bail while he awaited appeal. Soon after, Knight mocked Combs from the stage of the 1995 Source Awards, with the NY audience responding by booing several Death Row artists, inspiring Snoop Dogg to yell “the east coast ain’t got no love for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg?”
Tensions continued to escalate. Knight was accused of making a friend of Combs’ drink urine from a cup when he wouldn’t give the address of the east coast mogul’s mother. Knight also blamed Combs’ for the shooting of a Death Row employee during a fight in Atlanta. Shakur publicly claimed to have slept with Wallace’s wife, and the label’s entourages had an armed standoff following the MTV Music Awards in March 1996. Combs repeatedly attempted to make peace with Knight, even inviting Louis Farrakhan’s son to mediate. Knight declined, claiming he would deal with the drama “his way.”
Before Knight could clarify, Shakur was mortally wounded in Las Vegas on September 7, following the public beating of gang member Orlando Anderson by Death Row employees after a boxing match. Despite multiple suspects, including Anderson and Knight himself (he owed back royalties to Shakur, who allegedly considered leaving Death Row), charges were never filed either due to a lack of evidence or police indifference. Shakur’s mother Afeni sued Knight for the unpaid royalties soon after, inspiring the label’s other artists to leave, claiming similar financial issues (as well as fears of violence).
Bad Boy, which had made a point never to respond to Death Row’s insults on record, released a public statement mourning the loss of Shakur. But when Wallace was shot and killed following a Soul Train Awards after-party in LA on March 9, 1997 (15 days before the release of his second album, Life After Death), many assumed it was a retaliatory gesture. No criminal charges have been filed, but recent civil suits from Wallace’s family argue that crooked police officers on Knight’s payroll were responsible for orchestrating his death, and that the LAPD, suffering from widespread corruption in their anti-gang units, refused to investigate the possibility.
More than a decade later, all the major figures are still in the news. After countless lawsuits, arrests and failed restarts Suge Knight was finally forced to sell Death Row and declare bankruptcy. In March, LA Times writer Chuck Phillips claimed to have proof that Combs (best known as Diddy today) was involved in the 1994 assault on Shakur, but retracted the story when his source was revealed to be a con artist. Notorious, a biopic based on Wallace’s life, is scheduled for a 2009 release, and Tupac’s eighth posthumous album is planned for release by the end of the year. With both murders re-opened and the Wallace family’s civil suit still in motion, it would seem this scandal is far from over.