Slate's wildly popular investigative podcast, Slow Burn, is back for its third season, which dives into the murders of two of the biggest hip-hop stars of the 1990s — Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G.
Although the subject might seem like a left turn (Slow Burn's first two seasons focused on the Watergate scandal and Bill Clinton's impeachment, respectively), it fits into the show's commitment to carefully covering the biggest stories of the past 50 years.
In their heyday, Tupac and "Biggie" were at the center of a feud between East Coast and West Coast rappers. Tupac was killed in September 1996 in a Las Vegas drive-by shooting, and although there have been multiple police and journalistic investigations, no one was ever convicted for the crime. Six months later, The Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in Los Angeles, and his murder also went unsolved. Naturally, rumors have swirled about a potential connection between each rapper's death and their legendary feud.
Slow Burn has set a strong precedent of diving past surface level on its subjects, and season three is no exception. "We had a sense of what generally animated the beef, but we didn't know the stories underneath that," season three host Joel Anderson says. "So that's what we're trying to do with this podcast — talking to people that were there at the time, figuring out all these lovely little relationships and incidents that led up to their deaths."
The first episode shifts the mainstream narrative: Pac and Biggie were initially friends, Anderson says. They met at a party in LA and Pac took Biggie under his wing, but that friendship shattered when Pac was shot five times upon entering a studio in New York. Pac, who survived, noticed that members of Biggie's crew, Junior M.A.F.I.A., were on-site and believed it was a setup.
Joel Anderson says there's no evidence to suggest that Biggie was involved in this shooting, but Pac thought otherwise. He and other West Coast rappers released a string of songs dissing Biggie and his label, Bad Boy Records. In turn, Biggie released songs such as "Who Shot Ya" that many interpreted as replies.
Anderson says that the loss of these two artists speaks volumes about the state of black people in America, even today.
"You have two guys, two of the brightest stars to emerge out of the hip-hop era in that time, and they're gone, just like that," Anderson says. "And if those two guys can get killed and nothing can happen, then what does that say for the rest of us? As you see, it's not like we've been able to solve that problem."
The first two episodes of Slow Burn season three from Slate are out now.
Digital intern Mano Sundaresan and digital editor Cyrena Touros contributed to this story.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're going to hear now about a popular new podcast. In its first two seasons, Slate's "Slow Burn" took a detailed look at two major Washington stories. First - Watergate, and then it was Bill Clinton's impeachment. Well, now "Slow Burn" is back with what might seem like a bit of a curveball. Its third season is about the murders of two of hip-hop's biggest rappers - California's Tupac Shakur...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALIFORNIA LOVE")
2PAC: (Rapping) Out on bail, fresh out of jail, California dreamin'. Soon as I step on the scene, I'm hearin' hoochies (ph) screamin'.
GREENE: ...And New York's Notorious B.I.G.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HYPNOTIZE")
THE NOTORIOUS BIG: (Rapping) Escargot, my car go 160 swiftly. Wreck it, buy a new one. Your crew run, run, run. Your crew run, run.
GREENE: In the '90s, Tupac and Biggie were at the center of an infamous rap feud that involved gangs and pitted the East Coast against the West Coast. In 1996 and '97, these two stars were violently killed within six months of each other. To learn more about that story and why it really continues to resonate, we called "Slow Burn's" host, Joel Anderson. He told me it's interesting to note that these two rivals started out as friends. They met in LA in 1993.
JOEL ANDERSON: Tupac was at that point a pretty ascendant rap star. He'd had a couple of albums, but he'd also been in a couple of movies. I mean, he kept company with actors like Mickey Rourke. He'd dated Madonna. Meanwhile, Biggie was just sort of a very up-and-coming rapper. Like, he had not had a hit or anything at that point. But he sort of took up under Tupac, and Tupac took him under his wing. They were really drawn to each other.
GREENE: That friendship, though, took this turn in November of '94. Tupac was standing trial for sexual assault, among other charges, and he needed money for his legal expenses. And so he agreed to record this verse on a song by another rapper. He was doing it at a studio where it turns out The Notorious B.I.G. was also working that night.
ANDERSON: So yeah, so he's on his way to this studio to make some money - you know, not a lot of money, just $7,000. But he needed $7,000. And so he goes to the studio in Times Square in New York, sees that some of his friends are there - would have been, you know, Biggie's friends, members of this rap group called Junior M.A.F.I.A. They see him walking up to the studio, and they call him out.
They're like, hey, Tupac, how you doing? Tupac sees them - hey, what's up, guys? I'll see you when I get upstairs. And he walks into the lobby, and he's immediately set upon by a couple of gunmen and ultimately gets shot five times.
And, you know, as we say in the podcast, if you were Tupac, you might've thought it was a setup too. So as a result, Tupac blamed Biggie and his cohorts for this setup. And from there, I mean, it starts this really deadly beef.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIT 'EM UP")
2PAC: (Rapping) West Side. Bad Boy [expletive] - you know who the realist is.
GREENE: Joel Anderson told me that there is really no evidence to suggest that Biggie had anything to do with this attack on Tupac. But he says there is this famous photo suggesting that Tupac felt very different. It's a picture of Tupac. He's being taken out of the studio on a gurney, and he's sticking up his middle finger. Anderson says some of the people who were there that night believe that finger was aimed right at Biggie.
ANDERSON: And it's sort of - in some ways, sort of symbolic of the beef itself because Biggie was really never angry at Tupac. From what we understand, he was confused. He was like, why would Tupac believe that I had something to do with this? I am his friend. I have nothing to gain by setting Tupac up to get shot. But Tupac believed it wholeheartedly and, you know, kept up after it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIT 'EM UP")
2PAC: (Rapping) Who shot me? But you punks didn't finish. Now you 'bout to feel the wrath of a menace, [expletive] hit 'em up.
GREENE: In the months that followed, Tupac and other West Coast rappers released this string of songs dissing Biggie and the East Coast rap scene. And then Biggie released songs that many interpreted as replies, though Biggie denied those claims.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO SHOT YA")
THE NOTORIOUS BIG: (Rapping) Who shot you? Separate the weak from the obsolete. Hard to creep them Brooklyn streets. It's on [expletive], [expletive] all that bickering beef.
GREENE: So for people who weren't kind of in this, how aware was the mainstream American public?
ANDERSON: Not very. There weren't a lot of outlets that covered hip-hop at this point. A lot of this was just sort of happening in the background, and people were like, what is going on? Why is he releasing these songs, you know, defaming, you know, Biggie in this way and trying to embarrass him?
We had a sense of what was - what generally animated the beef, but we didn't know sort of the stories underneath that. And so that's what we're trying to do with this podcast - talking to people that were there at that time, figuring out like all of these little relationships and incidents that sort of led up to their deaths.
GREENE: Tupac Shakur was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas in September of 1996. And then six months later, The Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in LA. Both murders have gone unsolved.
So if we step back, I mean, how is it that we have two of the biggest stars in music at the time gunned down within six months of each other, and there have been police investigations, journalists looking into this, and we still can't figure out definitively who's responsible?
ANDERSON: Man, it's just - I mean, that is - that's sort of the rub, right? I mean, first of all, the police investigations were compromised in so many different ways. I mean, you know, there was allegations that some police officers were members of Death Row Records and that that frustrated some of the investigation.
There were also, like, a lot of lingering structural issues within the LAPD at that time because this comes not long after the Rodney King incident and the LA uprising that followed. And so there was a lot of, like, turmoil within those departments. So you had that. And then when you think about Vegas, you had a lot of people that didn't want to talk.
And, I mean, this is sort of also an outgrowth of the distrust that black communities had with police. They didn't believe that these people were going to take this seriously or that they were going to be able to actually get to the bottom of this. And so there's all these different elements that, like, made it really difficult to get these cases solved. That doesn't mean that anybody should be off the hook for that, but it just really made it difficult.
GREENE: What do you think the loss of these two artists tells us about, you know, hip-hop music in general, even, you know, our country at that time in the '90s?
ANDERSON: For me, at least, the way I think about it is that so much of what we talk about with Black Lives Matter is the value of black life. It's not about, like, anti-policing or whatever. It's about, like, making sure that people in their communities feel safe and that everybody has access to the same sorts of things all over the place - right? - that everybody just has a chance to succeed.
You had these two guys, these are two of the brightest stars in that time, and they're gone just like that. If Biggie and Tupac, two guys that had a chance to be, you know, the voices of their generation and they're struck down and nothing can happen, nobody goes to prison for it, then what does that mean for the rest of us?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.")
2PAC: (Rapping) No doubt, to live and die in LA - California, what you say about Los Angeles...
GREENE: Joel Anderson. He hosts "Slow Burn." It's a podcast from Slate. And their new season is about the murders of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.