I was lost late one night in Kansas City, totally lost on a road that seemed to get more decrepit and abandoned with each block I traveled. It was on this street that I saw a strange trinity painted on a wall: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Tupac Shakur. This was no piece of street graffiti; it was the well-manicured side of a church.
Tupac Shakur, who recorded under the name 2Pac, has reached the same quasi-religious status with inner-city blacks that Elvis had with poor Southern whites. I once owned a black-velvet painting of Elvis, a close-up of his face on which you could see the track of a single tear working its way down to his huge polyester collar. Hit any swap meet today and you'll find T-shirts with Tupac in the exact same pose. Why these men have been elevated to mythical figures is debatable, but one element is certain: a mysterious death.
As far as eerie deaths go, getting gunned down on the Vegas strip is a little more romantic than popping a gasket on the crapper. September 13 will mark the eighth anniversary of the death of 2Pac, who was shot six days earlier while cruising the Las Vegas strip with Death Row label-owner Suge Knight. The past eight years have seen 2Pac's rival, Biggie Smalls, shot down, followed by...nothing. No breaks in the case, no trial, no answers. On the long list of unsolved rapper murders (Jam Master Jay, anyone?), none invites more speculation or discussion than 2Pac's. Though none of the theories bouncing around have any hard evidence behind them, some have more weight than others. So while I can't tell you who really pulled the trigger, I'm willing to place some odds.
Theory No. 1: Suge Knight
Pros: In his book LAbyrinth, investigative reporter Randall Sullivan lays out in impressive detail the relationship between the feared Suge Knight and corrupt LAPD officers, going so far as to claim that Knight used Los Angeles cops to murder 2Pac, whom Suge owed a great deal of money. It's no stretch to envision murderous LAPD hitmen, and Knight is the closest thing hip-hop has to a bogeyman. In the documentary Welcome to Death Row, a death-row security officer offers another piece of evidence: Knight told his bodyguard not to ride in his normal place in their car, sending him to another car before the shooting.
Cons: Knight was in the car when 2Pac was shot, catching a bullet fragment in his head. The gunman was firing directly at both of the men in the car (although 2Pac was the obvious target, and the fact that he tried to dive into the backseat may have been what saved Suge's life). No matter how much of a badass you think Knight is, can you really conceive of anyone planning a murder that puts them directly into the line of fire?
Odds: 6 to 1
Theory No. 2: The Crips
Pros: A few hours before he was shot, 2Pac and his posse badly stomped a Crip by the name of Orlando Anderson in the lobby of the MGM Grand. Los Angles Times writer Chuck Phillips, in a 2002 two-part series, lays out the case against Anderson (who was murdered himself shortly after 2Pac's death) in great detail. Phillips' argument is bolstered by the beating caught on security cameras, providing a crystal-clear motive that you can download on the Internet. If most people beat down a known gang member and were shot in a drive-by a few hours later, it would be an open-and-shut case.
Cons: Phillips' piece is woefully lacking in verification, as it comes mostly from the unidentified mouths of gangbangers. You wouldn't buy a used car from an unnamed gang member, so why buy a murder rap?
Odds: 3 to 1
Theory No. 3: Biggie Smalls
Pros: After 2Pac was shot for the first time, outside a New York recording studio, the Notorious B.I.G. dropped a track called "Who Shot Ya?" that was tacky to say the least. 2Pac had claimed in interviews and in songs that he had slept with Smalls' wife. The most public feud in rap history ended with both men dead when Smalls was shot to death during a visit to LA. This suggests that at least one person with a gun thought that Biggie had fingered 2Pac.
Cons: Absolutely no proof. Chuck Phillips ends up compromising his article's credibility by including a ludicrous tale (once again, from an unnamed gangbanger) of Biggie and Orlando Anderson meeting up in Las Vegas after 2Pac beat down Anderson. In this story straight out of a bad gangster movie, Smalls promises $1 million cash (!) to Anderson for committing a murder Anderson was going to commit anyway, then hands Anderson his pistol so that 2Pac will be killed with his own bullet. Silly beyond belief.
Odds: 10 to 1
Theory No. 4: 2Pac Lives!
Pros: Eleven, count 'em, eleven 2Pac discs have been released since his death. That's seven more albums than he released while alive. Proof beyond these increasingly poor releases is on the "Paul is dead" level, involving dissecting and interpreting the smallest clues in 2Pac's lyrics.
Cons: Compare Jimi Hendrix's posthumous releases some time. Besides, all the other musicians who have "faked their own death," like Elvis and Jim Morrison, haven't popped up recently.
Need more proof? Got a strong stomach? Go to Google and type in "2Pac Autopsy color photos." Any questions?
Odds: 1,000,000,000 to 1