REVIEW | LAST MAN STANDING: SUGE KNIGHT AND THE MURDERS OF BIGGIE & TUPAC

Grow­ing up in the late 90s Dre 2001 era, Big­gie and Tupac were spec­tral fig­ures whose pres­ence haunted the music­al land­scape.  Changes and I’ll Be Miss­ing You were still being played on MTV and older kids would draw Big­gie and Tupac in their high school art­work. Broth­ers and cous­ins would talk about Hyp­not­ize and Hit Em Up. Hear­ing stor­ies of the murders was a rite of pas­sage and at that young age, listen­ing to Big­gie and Tupac were signs that you were a Hip Hop con­nois­seur.

This was also the era of the inter­net and file shar­ing, (Remem­ber when mp3 down­loads could take 30mins plus!), Ques­tions such as was it spelt 2pac or Tupac? And What was the best search term for find­ing music by Big­gie?, Occu­pied my young mind.

Geo­cit­ies art­icles, FAQs and inter­net for­ums spread many con­spir­acy the­or­ies as to who was respons­ible for the murders. Was it the rel­at­ively mys­ter­i­ous Death Row label boss Suge Knight? There were also rumours of Tupac’s sur­viv­al. The­or­ies such as Black Haze being Tupac could be read about and assessed in minutes. Oth­er ideas such as Tupac hid­ing in Cuba with his aunt Assata were much harder to veri­fy and only added to their plaus­ib­il­ity

‘The Sev­en Year the­ory’ was the big one. Watch­ing Tupac’s music videos, attent­ively, study­ing lyr­ics and even revers­ing parts of tracks would reveal clues point­ing towards a the­ory that Tupac, fed up of the lime­light and the com­mer­cial­isa­tion of music, faked his death and would return sev­en years later to save music.

TV shows at the time would occa­sion­ally cov­er the murders in light hearted con­spir­acy the­ory seg­ments. Arm­chair experts would come in with ques­tions as to how the dan­cer appear­ing behind Tupac in a posthum­ously released music video could wear train­ers that were released after Tupac’s death?  Said dis­cus­sions would also provide some nug­gets of wis­dom such as Tupac being influ­enced by Itali­an philo­soph­er Machiavelli who fam­ously said The best way to get rid of your enemies is to con­vince them that you have died”, appar­ently.

It’s 2002 and aside from await­ing the release of the fol­low up to Dre 2001, hope of Tupac’s return is in the air, being the talk of school play­grounds the world over. Chan­nel 4 is about to screen a doc­u­ment­ary by Brit­ish Film maker Nick Broom­field, titled “Big­gie and Tupac” The Nation news­pa­per ran a head­line “The doc­u­ment­ary that may have finally solved both murders”. Was it the tit for tat Big­gie killed Tupac so Tupac’s men killed Big­gie? Who did it? Will they be charged? Will it be revealed the Tupac secretly sur­vived?

The film caused mass fan­fare and fol­lowed the “Rus­sell Poole The­ory” (Also out­lined in the 2003 book LAbyrinth co-writ­ten with Ran­dall Sul­li­van). Accord­ing to the the­ory, Suge Knight had Tupac killed for his music roy­al­ties (Tupac was appar­ently plan­ning to leave the label) and that Knight also had Big­gie killed to make it look like both murders were the res­ult of gang viol­ence. Both murders were, accord­ing to the the­ory, car­ried out by cor­rupt LAPD officers who often moon­lighted as secur­ity for Death Row.

The doc­u­ment­ary fea­tured a fam­ous inter­view with Knight from pris­on and his Mes­sage to the kids. adding to his gang­ster myth­os.

Broomfield’s film was cri­ti­cised for its lack of real evid­ence, only testi­mon­ies from less than cred­ible sources, such as The Book­keep­er, him­self a felon who was sen­tenced for imper­son­at­ing a law­yer.

Ulti­mately noth­ing came of the doc­u­ment­ary. A wrong­ful death law­suit that fol­lowed the film’s release, from Biggie’s moth­er Voletta Wal­lace against the City of LA failed and for a new gen­er­a­tion of fans the second com­ing of Tupac in 2002 became 2009 (Anoth­er 7 years because 2002 wasn’t safe for the return appar­ently) everything seemed to fade away.

Poole’s the­ory had also evolved, Knight was him­self now the vic­tim of a con­spir­acy the­ory to have him killed and/or imprisoned and then to gut Death Row records (Val­ued at 25million dol­lars in 90s money). This went some­way to explain­ing a prob­lem with Poole’s ori­gin­al ver­sion, why would any­one order a hit by gun­fire on the per­son sit­ting next to them in a car? This didn’t help Poole’s alleg­a­tions of LAPD involve­ment and he would be regarded as a fringe con­spir­acy the­or­ist, obsessed with uncov­er­ing some­thing that didn’t exist.

Murder Rap was released in 2011 and was the work of Retired police detect­ive Gregg Kad­ing who was part of the task force set up to find evid­ence to defend the City of LA in the Wrong­ful Death suit. Murder Rap des­troyed the Poole the­ory with testi­mony from South­side Crips gang mem­ber Keefe D and some rev­el­a­tions about some key wit­nesses that Poole had relied on. Accord­ing to Kad­ing, Tupac was killed by Crips due to the Orlando Ander­son alter­ca­tion earli­er that even­ing (And an alleged bounty which was hanging in the air) and Biggie’s murder was then ordered by Knight in revenge.

Whilst Murder Rap seemed to have swung the pen­du­lum away from the Poole the­ory and police cor­rup­tion, it had some issues. The testi­mon­ies it relied on could have equally been false and Kading’s status as a Retired police officer was a major prob­lem, with his the­ory regarded by many as cooked up in order to exon­er­ate the police.

2012 would fea­ture some­what of a Tupac return in holo­gram form. Per­form­ing dur­ing Dr Dre’s set at Coachella with some fringes of the inter­net ask­ing why the hologram’s stage talk and “Big up Coachella!” soun­ded so real­ist­ic?

Poole passed away in 2015 his repu­ta­tion in tat­ters. Earli­er this year Vlad TV through its Deep­dyve series on the murders, claimed to put the final nail in the coffin of Poole’s the­ory.  Releas­ing the audio of the 1997 inter­view with the inform­ant Michael Robin­son that first brought for­ward the name Amir Muhammad (A friend of sus­pec­ted dirty cop Dav­id Mack) and star­ted off Poole’s the­ory. The Deep­dyve video showed that Robinson’s testi­mony was unre­li­able and Poole had clutched at straws whilst dis­miss­ing oth­er straws.

It is here that we come to this year’s doc­u­ment­ary Last Man Stand­ing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Big­gie & Tupac. With Suge Knight’s 2018 incar­cer­a­tion for 28 years, more people are now talk­ing and Broom­field is rein­vest­ig­at­ing the murders, hop­ing to clear Poole’s the­ory and repu­ta­tion.

The new faces include former Death Row employ­ees and oth­er fig­ures of the scene who have appar­ently kept secrets for nearly 25 years.

Open­ing with shots of 2002 show­ing a SWAT Team raid on the Death Row offices. We learn that Death Row by then was bank­rupt and a shad­ow of its former self, we are then treated to some testi­mony from Death Row pho­to­graph­er Simone Green dis­cuss­ing the early days of the label.

A brief bio­graphy of Suge Knight makes up the next seg­ment. This fea­tures some anec­dotes of Knight’s child­hood and foot­age of Knight as an Amer­ic­an foot­baller rap­ping with his friends and foot­age of Knight as com­munity act­iv­ist, host­ing the annu­al Death Row Single Mother’s Day. We are also told of Knight’s hir­ing of indi­vidu­als who were newly released from pris­on. This is shown in par­al­lel with testi­mony of former employ­ees refer­ring to the cow­boy nature of Death Row, with Knight’s men being Blood gang mem­bers ready to beat any­one up and Knight hav­ing a piranha tank in his office, which he would occa­sion­ally glance at if the per­son he was speak­ing to was in trouble. The trans­form­a­tion from child to gang­ster is a motif that the film will return to in its descrip­tion of Tupac.

One cri­ti­cism of the film is that it seems to be unsure of what it wants to be. A bio of Knight?, a bio of Tupac?, a sequel to the 2002 doc­u­ment­ary, a gen­er­al com­ment­ary on the vic­tims of LA gang war­fare. There is much repeated foot­age and gen­er­al inform­a­tion that we have already seen before. Is the film’s con­flic­ted nature due to the lack of new evid­ence?

Key rev­el­a­tions how­ever include the FBI invest­ig­at­ing the LAPD fol­low­ing the alleg­a­tions in the 2002 film and some testi­mony point­ing to the involve­ment of LAPD chief Bern­ard Parks. Going into the spe­cif­ics here would spoil key ele­ments of the film. Essen­tially it is the return of the Poole The­ory with some old sus­pects and key fig­ures replaced with new ones.

We are then intro­duced to Pam Brookes, Broomfield’s con­nec­tion to the Death Row entour­age and Compton gang­sters. Broomfield’s request to speak to DJ Quik was shut down by Brookes as he was “Still in the life”.

Next we hear from Mob James a former Death Row employ­ee and Bloods gang mem­ber who recruited oth­er gang mem­bers for Knight. He reflects on the viol­ence and his regrets and in a poignant moment really opens up about his murdered broth­er Boun­try, Knight’s body­guard who had chased and exchanged fire with the Tupac shoot­ers on the night Tupac was killed .

Rev­el­a­tions about the treat­ment of women at Death Row mark anoth­er dark turn for this world. The rev­el­a­tion of Suge hav­ing Simone Green beaten up and the reg­u­lar occur­rence of set­ting up “girl fights” in the Death Row offices, and women being used for “…amuse­ment , enter­tain­ment and enjoy­ment.”, casts anoth­er shad­ow on the glam­our­ous world of West Coast Hip Hop.

It is around the half hour mark that the film becomes a bio of Tupac. The drama stu­dent, son of a Black Pan­ther who embraced the gang­ster life­style when he was released from pris­on. A sombre note in the film is when Broomfield’s voice over reminds us that Tupac will be dead in 11 months. Foot­age of a 17 year old Tupac from a 1988 High School inter­view dis­cuss­ing social issues “More kids are being handed crack than dip­lo­mas.”, is con­tras­ted by testi­mony of Tupac being ini­ti­ated into the Mob Piru Bloods and pho­tos depict­ing Death Row excesses and the treat­ment of women, adding to the film’s cau­tion­ary tale. Oth­er early foot­age of Tupac per­form­ing Pan­ther Power is also hark back to the fun Elec­tro days before Hip Hop went gang­ster and points to an altern­ate gang­ster free uni­verse where both rap­pers could have sur­vived and flour­ished. This is hin­ted at by Tupac’s pro­du­cer Tracy Robin­son, “If only Inter­scope (Death Row’s par­ent label) had got him out of jail.” and by oth­er inter­view sub­jects.

The Hol­ly­wood dream gone wrong is clearly the theme here and one that Broom­field has vis­ited in his pre­vi­ous films. Tupac’s trans­form­a­tion is part of the wider encroach­ment of gangs in the Hol­ly­wood world and the music industry which is also touched upon by some of the sub­jects. The men­tion­ing of the for­got­ten vic­tims of the gang war­fare that spilled out in the wake of Tupac’s murder also points to the wider prob­lem of gangs in soci­ety and the fail­ure of the sys­tem.

Stein­berg also coin­cid­ently man­aged Dav­id Mack, the LAPD Officer at the heart of Poole’s the­ory, dur­ing Mack’s days as an ath­lete. Stein­berg states that the mag­nitude of Death Row’s crim­in­al deal­ings could only have occurred with police involve­ment and that the mass amount of drugs com­ing into the area at the time could only have come from The police allow­ing stuff to come in.”

We are then re-told the story of the Big­gie and Tupac feud and its back­drop of East vs West Coast. The story of Biggie’s wife Faith Evans work­ing with Tupac (Part of a plot by Tupac accord­ing to an ex-girl­friend). And the infam­ous 1995 Source awards foot­age of Knight diss­ing Puffy on stage, again this seems like ground already covered but is vital for those who have not seen any of the pre­vi­ous doc­u­ment­ar­ies.

The film’s pace picks up with the casino foot­age from the night of the Tupac shoot­ing and testi­mony from Frank Alex­an­der, Tupac’s body­guard who was rid­ing in the car behind.

Every­one now claims to have known from the very begin­ning that it was Orlando Ander­son who fired.

The 1 hour mark fea­tures Murder Rap’s Greg Kad­ing and his ver­sion of events. I was actu­ally sur­prised to see Kad­ing giv­en the anim­os­ity between Kad­ing and Poole’s co-writer Ran­dall Sul­li­van regard­ing the mer­its of each the­ory.

Both the­or­ies agree that Knight ordered the hit on Big­gie from pris­on. They dif­fer in that for Kad­ing, no police were involved and it was just gang­sters where­as for Poole it was dirty cops. Kad­ing claims that Dav­id Mack and his alleged accom­plice, fel­low officer Rafel Perez didn’t work at Death Row where­as Broom­field claims that they did.

Judge Xavi­er Her­mosillo also provides insight about wit­nesses being intim­id­ated and threatened by the LAPD.  A new wit­ness is brought up who again men­tions the 5 officers at the heart of Poole’s the­ory. Her­mosillo also speaks of an incid­ent where he iden­ti­fied a woman in a photo of Mack and Perez which cir­cum­stan­tially points to deep­er police cor­rup­tion. We are also told about how the wit­ness intim­id­a­tion lead to LAPD being fined by a dis­trict judge for $1.1 mil­lion for con­ceal­ing evid­ence relat­ing to the case.

The final 20 minutes returns to foot­age of Suge Knight being released from pris­on in 2001 and the prob­lems he faced in sub­sequent years. We then get more testi­mon­ies about the night of Biggie’s murder fea­tur­ing new inform­a­tion claim­ing that cer­tain indi­vidu­als were seen there.

Fol­low­ing the premi­er of Last Man Stand­ing, a spe­cial event at Rich Mix with a Q+A from Broom­field, the offi­cial Murder Rap Face­book page blas­ted the film stat­ing that Amir Muhammed’s name (which Poole’s the­ory and Broomfield’s first film so heav­ily relied upon) was not men­tioned once and the ridicu­lous­ness of Broomfield’s pre-recor­ded Q+A with vet­ted ques­tions. Things which in them­selves do not actu­ally counter any of the points raised in the film. I anti­cip­ate the next pos­sible swing of the pen­du­lum in Kading’s response.

Last Man Stand­ing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Big­gie & Tupac, Dir­ec­ted by Nick Broom­field is released on July 2nd

By DJ Isuru

DJ Isuru is a music journ­al­ist and broad­caster on SOAS Radio. He also runs the Mishti Dance event series fea­tur­ing the best in Asi­an Under­ground, the next party will be on Octo­ber 2nd at Pop­lar Uni­on.

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DJ ISURU

DJ ISURU

DJ Isuru is a music journ­al­ist and broad­caster on SOAS Radio. He also runs the Mishti Dance event series fea­tur­ing the best in Asi­an Under­ground, the next party will be on Octo­ber 2nd at Pop­lar Uni­on. Tick­ets — https://poplarunion.com/event/mishti-dance‑7/

About DJ ISURU

DJ ISURU
DJ Isuru is a music journalist and broadcaster on SOAS Radio. He also runs the Mishti Dance event series featuring the best in Asian Underground, the next party will be on October 2nd at Poplar Union. Tickets - https://poplarunion.com/event/mishti-dance-7/