The life and times of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls have been endlessly chronicled in films, series, podcasts, books and articles, a testament to their iconic, almost deiform status in hip-hop culture. For many years, it was easy to look upon the mounting literature with a cynical eye; there was something tawdry about the idea of fourth-estate profiteers raking over these men’s lives, a sense that every last nickel and dime was being extracted from fans desperate to learn something, anything, new about the artists to whom they were so fiercely devoted.
Undoubtedly, the last decade has produced better work than the one that immediately followed the rappers’ deaths. And there’s a good reason for that. The main one relates to a $400 million wrongful death lawsuit filed by Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, in the mid 00s, a suit that turned the screws on the LAPD and forced them to finally solve the 1997 murder. A federal taskforce was hastily assembled, with the subsequent investigation not only unearthing crucial information related to the hit on Biggie – but also the hit on Tupac.
The Untold Story of the Biggie & Tupac Investigations
The decorated detective who spearheaded the taskforce was Greg Kading, and his self-published memoir about the investigation appeared in September 2011 on the 15-year anniversary of Tupac’s murder. Entitled Murder Rap: The Untold Story of the Biggie Smalls & Tupac Shakur Murder Investigations, the book was, unlike many self-published ventures, well-written and captivating, a step up from literature that preceded it, such as Cathy Scott’s The Murder of Biggie Smalls (2000) and Randall Sullivan’s LAbyrinth (2003). To this day, it remains the definitive account of the protracted police investigation into the slayings.
Seven years after the publication of Murder Rap, Netflix adapted the book for an original series entitled Unsolved. Interestingly, another Biggie/Pac themed project launched the same year: City of Lies, a big-screen adaptation of LAbyrinth starring Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker, was eventually pulled from theatres amid legal entanglements, eventually receiving a limited release. Only a dubbed Italian edition is now available online.
Between Murder Rap, Unsolved and Compton Street Legend, a 2019 memoir by Southside Crip gang member Keffe D – who was involved in the Tupac drive-by – we now have a pretty clear idea about what happened on those fateful nights in Vegas and LA. Cases once shrouded in mystery are, for all intents and purposes, solved, even if – as per the Netflix show’s title – they’re yet to yield any convictions. To this trinity of sources, we should probably add VladTV, a YouTube channel that has covered both cases in forensic detail, interviewing, among others, Kading, Keffe D and even the First Responder at the scene of Tupac’s shooting, who revealed that the rapper’s last words – through bloodied lips – were “Fuck you!”
Biggie Becomes Rock Royalty; Keffe D Keeps It Real
The recent induction of Biggie Smalls into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Tupac was inducted in 2017) will probably push many down the Netflix and YouTube rabbit holes. Perhaps they’ll even find themselves on Amazon, ordering Keffe D and Kading’s books – or right here on this article, where I’ve jotted some impressions of the above.
“Compton Street Legend: Notorious Keffe D’s Street-Level Accounts of Tupac and Biggie Murders, Death Row Origins, Suge Knight, Puffy Combs, and Crooked Cops” wouldn’t look out of place on the shelf alongside street literature by Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. Although the book doesn’t benefit from the same production standards as Murder Rap, it’s an engaging yarn all the same, a 215-page volume encompassing interstate drug deals, turf rivalries, betrayals, crack houses and jail stints. As the self-professed Crip shot caller notes in the intro, “I lived most of my life as a gangster and did all the shit that real gangsters do. Not the bullshit you see in this generation where everybody faking with all this IG shit.”
Unsurprisingly, the book opens in Las Vegas on September 7, 1996, with Keffe D and his nephew Orlando swearing vengeance following Orlando’s beatdown at the hands of Tupac, Suge Knight and his Mob Piru crew in the lobby of the MGM Grand after the Tyson-Seldon fight. Context: Orlando had been part of a Crip set that robbed Death Row-affiliated Trayvon Lane of a medallion at Lakewood Mall earlier that year. Trayvon spotted Orlando in the MGM lobby and Tupac led the charge as the Death Row retinue meted out some rough justice.
Interestingly, Keffe D also attended the Vibe magazine party at the Petersen Automotive Museum six months later, making him one of just a few people in the vicinity when both Biggie and Tupac were executed.
According to Keffe, he and his boys immediately headed to Club 662, a nightclub owned by Suge Knight and the venue for a Tupac performance later that night. “I planned to confront Suge, ‘Hey Nigga, why the fuck y’all jump on my nephew’” Keffe writes. “The ironic thing is I had just seen Suge in Vegas the night before the fight. He and members of his Death Row crew were rolling in their Rolls Royces… If Suge and them niggas had a beef with something South Side had done, Suge could have said something to me.”
If you’re at all interested in the Tupac story – and particularly the events preceding his demise in a hail of bullets at the intersection of Koval and East Flamingo Road – Keffe’s machinations will be manna to your imagination, and I don’t want to spoiler you. Suffice to say, the author provides a perspective that no-one else can provide, being that he rode shotgun in the white Cadillac that pulled up alongside Suge’s BMW 750iL at approx 11:15pm on that balmy night, when gunfire erupted. Tl;dr – “Tupac chose the wrong game to play and the wrong nigga to play with.”
Interestingly, Keffe D also attended the Vibe magazine party at the Petersen Automotive Museum six months later, making him one of just a few people in the vicinity when both Biggie and Tupac were executed. Keffe and his homies provided much-needed security for Bad Boy Entertainment when they ventured to the west coast, their Crip posse a counterpoint to Death Row’s Blood clique. Actually, it sounded like Biggie was swimming in shark-infested waters that night, the overcrowded party teeming with a murderers’ row of Blood and Crip gangstas. Taking the temperature of the room, Keffe D tells Puffy “Y’all be careful, them Blood niggas are in here.” Shortly afterwards, Biggie is gunned down by a lone shooter in a dark Impala.
“Biggie was a cool brother, and he liked smoking that California Orange weed,” remembers Keffe D, who seems irritated about the fact that his name has been linked with the rapper’s downfall. “That was some bullshit. Why would South Side kill Biggie? We used to hang, smoke, and break bread with the nigga.”
Biggie/Tupac aside, Compton Street Legend is highly entertaining, with a number of fascinating anecdotes peppered throughout its pages. One minute, Keffe D is bemoaning the modern family unit (“Gang members back then had to be undercover. You might be big and bad on the streets, but when you got home, you changed up because mom and dad were in the house and they didn’t play. These new street dudes are growing up in homes without both parents, that’s why they’re all fucked up and don’t have any respect.”) and the next, bragging that “cooking PCP is one of those ancient hood secrets that only niggas from Compton and Watts know how to do.”
A word on Unsolved, the ten-part Netflix series based on Kading’s book: it’s… decent. Which is to say, it’s a fairly accurate adaptation of the source material, with Josh Duhamel credibly stepping into the lead detective’s boots and doppelgängers of Biggie and Pac playing the larger-than-life rappers. Neither actor quite captures the charisma of his character but that was always going to be a tall order. One thing the show does well is flip between the original late 90s murder investigation led by Russell Poole, who convinced himself the LAPD were complicit in the Biggie hit, and the taskforce led by Kading a decade later. Personally, I feel that the series would’ve benefited immensely if Netflix had licensed Tupac and Biggie’s music. The actor playing Suge Knight is also laughably wooden. But overall, I enjoyed it. Unsolved is a solid companion piece to Kading’s book, and Jimmi Simpson steals the show as the overwrought Detective Poole.
Even hardcore Biggie/Pac fans might balk at the idea, but don’t be surprised if Keffe D’s memoir is adapted in the near future, another screen project to augment Biggie & Tupac, Notorious, All Eyez on Me and all the rest. Are these films cashing in on the legacies of Tupac and Biggie? Undoubtedly many of them are. As long as demand exists, the cycle will never end.
Ultimately, the most timeless artefacts of the men’s lives will be their music – some will say the songs are the only artefacts worth memorialising. You can agree or disagree, but money talks. If you’re keen to learn more about their stories, Murder Rap, Unsolved and Compton Street Legend are worthy of attention.
Postscript: I decided to read another book in the Biggie/Tupac canon – Randall Sullivan’s follow-up to LAbyrinth, entitled Dead Wrong: The Continuing Story of City of Lies, Corruption and Cover-Up in the Notorious B.I.G. Murder Investigation. Published in 2019, it largely focuses on the lawsuit brought by the Christopher Wallace estate and the infighting that consumed the LAPD/FBI during the investigation itself. With clarity and perspicacity, Sullivan exposes the cold apathy at the heart of law enforcement efforts to solve the murder, and details the possible involvement of crooked cops in the hit. Without giving too much away, it’s a very compelling book that takes an alternate track to Murder Rap. Incidentally, Sullivan and Kading got into a heated argument when both appeared on the Slow Burn podcast in 2020. You can watch it here.