Before Tupac Shakur died last Friday, as he lay in a Las Vegas hospital with a lung removed, an intestinal wound and two fingers missing, a security video turned up. It was shot not long before he was; it showed the casino area of the MGM Grand Hotel, where Shakur had stayed while in town for the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon heavyweight fight. According to hotel employees, the tape recorded the superstar rapper and his entourage brutally "beating and stomping" an unidentified man. The Las Vegas police have seen the tape, but they claim that its contents are unrelated to the hail of bullets that cut Shakur down two hours later. It says much about the 25-year-old rapper's chosen life-style that police could exclude so obvious a motive for murder and still have several to spare.
The death of Shakur, who sold more than 10 million albums, constitutes a defining nightmare for a gangsta-rap world whose paranoid royalty seem increasingly compelled to live out the grotesque violence that fills its art. Many initially connected the murder to the rapper's vocal participation in an ugly feud between his California record label, Death Row, and its East Coast competitor, Bad Boy. It was Death Row president Marion ("Suge") Knight who was driving his black BMW after the Tyson fight, with Shakur standing up through the sun roof. Four men rolled up in a white Cadillac, fired about 13 rounds, and sped away, losing the police in traffic. Knight told authorities his head was turned the other way at the key moment and he saw nothing. Said police spokesman Phil Roland: "We're puzzled that [his] whole entourage had their heads turned and didn't see anything."
Shakur was born in New York City into a nobility of violence: his mother, a Black Panther, was jailed on a bombing charge while she was pregnant with him, although she was later acquitted. His father was shot and killed when Tupac was a child. Their son, meanwhile, wrote sensitive poetry while attending the High School of Performing Arts in Baltimore, Maryland. Shakur never entirely ceased extolling black womanhood or elders. Increasingly, however, such lyrics were shouldered aside by the bitches and cop-killing bullets of gangstaism. The dominant persona, says rap reporter Larry Hester, was "a villain, a joker."
Then the artist regressed into his character. Shakur carried a gun and shot at people. He escaped conviction on a series of assault charges, but a 1993 sexual-abuse complaint stuck. He arrived for sentencing in a wheelchair; days earlier, he had been shot five times in a Manhattan "robbery" he regarded as a failed hit. Out on appeal last October, he sought protection under the wing of the massive, much feared Knight, who was deeply embroiled in his feud with Bad Boy and the East. In two years the conflict had moved far beyond artistic issues to beatings and perhaps worse: Knight is thought to hold Bad Boy head Sean ("Puffy") Combs indirectly responsible for the shooting death of a friend in Atlanta in 1995. One of Shakur's last songs for Death Row implied that Easterners had tried to kill him in 1994 and that he had slept with the wife of one of the label's star rappers, the Notorious B.I.G.