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.