Ten Years Later, Rapper's Murder Remains Unsolved
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
We're back with DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
I'm Madeleine Brand.
(Soundbite of song, "Big Poppa")
Mr. BIGGIE SMALLS (Rapper): (Rapping) I love it when you call me Big Poppa. Throw your hands in the air, if you's a true player
BRAND: Flip on any hip-hop station today - not that you would ever dream of turning off NPR - and you're likely to hear some of Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, his music being played. That's because today marks the 10 year anniversary of his death. The Notorious B.I.G., as he was also known, was leaving a party here in Los Angeles when his SUV was sprayed with bullets. He was just 24.
A decade later the case is still unsolved, but theories abound as to who might have been behind the killing. NPR's Luke Burbank is here to bring us up to speed.
Luke, take us back to 1997, a decade ago. This was during the time of some east coast/west coast war.
LUKE BURBANK: Yeah, it was like the Wild West or something. I mean, there was shoot outs happening and people calling each other out all the time on different records and in concerts. The two main players were two record labels.
Out in New York you had Bad Boy Records. That was run by P. Diddy, back then known as Puff Daddy. And Biggie Smalls - being from Brooklyn this was the, you know, the record label that represented him and he was very proud of that fact. And, in fact, a lot of times during his freestyle raps most of what he'd get into was how great Brooklyn is, how great Bad Boy Records is and how bad everybody else was.
(Soundbite of rap song)
Mr. SMALLS: (Rapping) We're Brooklyn, We're Brooklyn. We're going to do it like this. That's how you run it. Check it. I got seven back 11, about eight…
BURBANK: Then out west you have the other record in question. This was Death Row Records. These were run by this guy Suge Knight who had a very colorful past. And he had Snoop Dog and he had Tupac Shakur. And Tupac and Biggie sort of used to be friends but things went south over a woman and next thing you know Tupac's out West spitting all kind of invective towards the east.
(Soundbite of song, "Hit 'Em Up")
Mr. TUPAC SHUKAR (Rapper): (Rapping) Biggie Smalls and Junior Mafia. Some mark ass freaks. We keep on coming while we gunning for your…
BURBANK: In 1996, Tupac Shakur, he's in Las Vegas and he's shot multiple times in a drive-by shooting. He ends up dying in a Las Vegas hospital. This is a huge event in the hip-hop world. He's one of the biggest stars at the time. And immediately, everyone starts wondering if Bad Boy records out in New York had anything to do with it.
And, you know, there's sort of speculation rampant. Flash forwards a little bit and Biggie Smalls is in Los Angeles driving around and he's killed. The next thing you know it's like this thing has gone from just being a war of words to being a literal war with two guys dead. Two of the biggest hip-hop stars in America.
BRAND: So there are all these suspicions that perhaps the two are related. The two deaths are related. Do the police think that?
BURBANK: Well, it's sort of hard to tell. They're actually, even 10 years later, being really mum about it, because they say it's an ongoing case. If you asked Biggie Smalls family, they would say that these two killings are very much related.
In fact, they have a theory that the killing of Biggie Smalls was committed by this rogue LAPD cop. And they actually brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the LAPD back in 2005, saying that the LAPD had all this evidence that, you know, a former LAPD cop was, you know, sort of a mercenary hired to do this hit.
That case actually ended in a mistrial, but the judge did say that there were areas of information that the LAPD did not make available.
BRAND: Ok. So where are things now legally? Is this case dead?
BURBANK: Not yet. This is the wrongful death suit that's been filed by Biggie Smalls family. That is - because it was mistrial back in 2005 that's supposed to be reopened this summer.
BRAND: Hmm. Ok, so 10 years later let's talk about the music, hip-hop. Where does Biggie Smalls sit in the pantheon, if you will?
BURBANK: He's still pretty high, actually. I mean, I talked to a couple of DJs and some program directors at various hip-hop stations around the country today, and just about everybody is planning Biggie Smalls tributes. They're going to be playing a lot of his music today. You know, he's still very fresh on the minds of people and he really had such a distinctive style.
And this is not a scientific study, Madeleine, but I tell you if you're out dancing at you're at a place where they're playing hip-hop, you're guaranteed to hear some Biggie Smalls - even now in 2007 - and people are guaranteed to be dancing.
BRAND: Ok. So what has happened to this East Coast/West Coast war?
BURBANK: It's not really Death Row and Bad Boy anymore, because Death Row has kind of become a shell of itself because they basically incarcerated everyone associated with the record label.
Bad Boy has sort of gone on and been a pretty, you know, a pretty prominent label. But there are still sort of little scraps that happen between new hip-hop artists, now. Guys like this guy named The Game. He's from Compton. And 50 Cent, who everybody knows is from New York.
But these low level things sort of play themselves out on these mixed tapes. Sometimes someone might get shot in the leg at a radio station. I mean, when doesn't that happen? I mean, even at NPR.
BRAND: Here. Exactly.
BURBANK: Yeah. Sure. All the time.
BRAND: Just happened this morning between Robert Siegel and Alex Chadwick. I know.
BURBANK: Yeah. Exactly. Well, but getting back to hip-hop, getting back to hip-hop - there are certainly beefs that still go on to this day. But there's nothing of this sort of cinematic level of like literally two of the biggest hip-hop stars being gunned down within a year of each other.
So things seem to have calmed down. But again, there's nothing like a beef to sell records. So we'll probably always have rappers sort of talking smack about each other.
BRAND: NPR's Luke Burbank. Thank you.
BURBANK: Thanks, Madeleine.
(Soundbite of song, "Juicy")
Mr. SMALLS: (Rapping) It's all my peoples in the struggle, you know what I'm saying? It's all good baby, baby.
Unidentified Man: Shake it, shake it.
Mr. SMALLS: It was all a dream. I used to read Word Up magazine. Salt'n'Pepa and Heavy D up in the…
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