There are still a lot of questions regarding the death of Tupac and Biggy, but the situation is complicated regardless of what angle you look at it from. It can be easy to frame the double murders as simply two dead soldiers in a war between rival street gangs, but things are rarely that easy. And while Tupac may have repped red and found himself shot down by members of the Crips, this isn’t a simple case of gang rivalry. It’s instead a reflection on the nature of Los Angeles’ street scene and the struggles for survival that so many black men face in America.
Tupac’s Relationship With Street Life
In October of 1995, less than a year before his death, Tupac was released from prison. He was being held for allegedly being an accomplice in a 1993 rape. A year prior, Shakur had been shot five times in an apparent robbery gone wrong, and he had four other charges pending when Death Row shelled out $1.4 million to release him from Rikers Island on bail. Despite this – and despite the presence of the famous “Thug Life” tattoo on his chest – Shakur adamantly argued he wasn’t a gangster.Said Shakur, “I am not a gangster and never have been … I’m just a brother who fights back. I’m not some violent closet psycho. I’ve got a job. I’m an artist”. He argued that the music he wrote was meant to reflect the good and bad of the world he’d been raised in and pointed to songs like “Dear Mama”, which was a touching ode to his own mother. He would recount his diverse artistic influences and compare the Bloods and Crips to Romeo and Juliet Montagues and Capulets that would in retrospect, appear prophetic.
Working for Blood
Understanding the relationship that Tupac had with the Bloods and Crips means understanding the history of the gangs. What would eventually become the Crips and Bloods started out in the 1950s as youth social groups in the 1950s. They threw parties and arranged events, but rivalries began to form over the years. When the Crips formed as one of the more dangerous and prominent gangs in 1968, the rest of these groups banded together to protect themselves in what became known as the Blood gangs.By the mid-1990s, the rivalry had come to define the streets of South Central, but affiliation was tied up in the business of the area too. If a musician wanted to succeed in the rap game in Los Angeles, they’d have to either take sides or carefully navigate the politics of the rival gangs. Tupac made the former choice, at least at first. As a transplant from the East Coast, his affiliation wasn’t tied up in family rivalries or long-term grudges. When he signed with Death Row Records, Shakur signed with Suge Knight – a notorious gangster and businessman known for his vicious tactics and his affiliation with Mob Piru, a faction of Bloods from Compton. So when Tupac Shakur got “MOB” tattooed on his bicep, it certainly left a statement. While Shakur claimed it represented “Money, Organization, and Business”, others clearly saw it as a signal of Tupac affiliating himself with the Bloods. Some read it as shorthand for “Member of the Bloods”.
Money, Organization, Business
But there’s plenty of reason to believe that Tupac’s involvement in South Central squabbles was a passing thing. By 1996, the Death Row label was a prominent name, and staying clearly within the parameters of a street civil war wasn’t in their best financial interest. Snoop Dogg was signed to the label at the time and had close affiliations to the Crips. As a result, both Bloods and Crips were often sitting aside one another in Death Row’s headquarters.It seemed like it may have been the beginning of the end for the label. Snoop survived a murder trial and took the opportunity to distance himself from the gangster lifestyle that was Death Row’s bread and butter. And shortly thereafter, Dr. Dre cut ties with the label. As a businessman interested in growing his brand, he saw the increasingly violent and irrational behavior of Suge Knight as a liability.Tupac expressed his displeasure with Dr. Dre, who he saw as not doing enough to help Snoop Dogg during his trial. But he had ambitions of his own. His post-jail interview with the LA Times seemed intended to position him for a more mainstream celebrity, and he’d already started floating ideas for Hollywood roles that would allow him to stretch beyond the gangster stereotypes – including an epic about slave rebel leader Nat Turner. He’d also formed his own production company by the name of Euthanasia. While the mystique of the gangster lifestyle may have brought this current wave of rappers into the limelight, many saw it as an impediment to their continued growth, and Tupac apparently numbered among them.But publicly, Shakur was still tied to Death Row – and to Suge Knight. With court cases pending and Shakur bailed out of jail by the record label, continued affiliation was a necessity of staying in the business. And while he repped the gangster swagger on behalf of Suge Knight, his earnings were going elsewhere: to supporting small sports clubs in South Central, to creating a helpline for at-risk youth, and to financing a youth center. Whether it was calculated or altruistic, signs pointed to Shakur’s interests moving past gang violence.
A Death Shrouded in Mystery
Regardless of where Tupac’s ambitions were placed, he was still tied to a contract with Death Row – and that meant affiliation with Suge Knight, who still had tight associations with the Bloods. And it’s not one that Tupac neglected. By many accounts, Tupac had assisted Knight and his associates in the beating of a Crip named Orlando Anderson at the MGM Grand just a few hours before Shakur was murdered. Some investigators have also named him as Tupac’s assassin.But that wasn’t the only rivalry spinning around Tupac’s life. His beef with fellow rapper Biggie Smalls had been one of the most fierce in hip-hop for years, and it allegedly was the reason for an attempted robbery of Shakur. Biggie was known to employ Crips as part of his security detail, and a 2002 report by the L.A. Times suggests that Biggie paid members of the Crips one million dollars to kill Shakur.Then there’s the theory, presented by the original lead investigator. He theorizes that Shakur’s killing was a hit sanctioned by Suge Knight and orchestrated by his Mob Piru crew. Considering the signs that Tupac had ambitions beyond Death Row and the substantial amount of money he owed Knight, that course of events would be plausible.