What Did Sean 'Puffy' Combs Know?

Until his murder in 1996, Tupac Shakur maintained that Combs, also known as P-Diddy, was connected to a 1994 ambush of Shakur outside a studio in New York City. Reporter Chuck Phillips says Combs knows more about the violence than he's stated.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

An unsolved crime from the '90s resurfaced this week as the result of some reporting done in the LA Times. It's a tale that some believe has been chronicled through rap music. Let's start back with this 1995 track from Notorious B.I.G. that some believe is more than just a fictional tale of hip-hop thuggery.

(Soundbite of Notorious B.I.G.)

Mr. NOTORIOUS B.I.G: (Singing)

Who shot ya? Separate the weak from the opsa (ph). Leap hard to creep them Brooklyn streets. It's all (beep) bickering beef. I can hear sweat tricklin' down the cheek.

Your heartbeat sounds like Sasquatch (ph) feet. Thundering, shakin' the concrete (unintelligible) Neighbors call the cops, Said they heard mad shots.

Saw me in the drop, Three in the corner, (Unintelligible) Electrical tape around the daughter,

Old school, new school...

STEWART: Three attackers shooting somebody up in an ambush. Well, that's what happened to Tupac Shakur outside Quad Recording Studios in New York City back in 1994. Shakur survived that attack. Biggie goes on to rap, "Bad boys behind this." Now, whether that refers to the track itself, the attack, or something else entirely, who knows? Although Shakur thought he did know. Until he was murdered in 1996, Tupac Shakur maintained that Sean "Puffy" Combs, P. Diddy, then the head of Bad Boy Records, was connected with those '94 attacks. Here he is rapping at Puffy, saying, "You and I know what's going on."

(Soundbite of Tupac Shakur)

Mr. TUPAC SHAKUR: Let's be honest, you were pumping, you be seeing me with gloves, (unintelligible) and you can tell the people you roll with whatever you want because you and I know what's going on. Payback...

STEWART: Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times published a web exclusive. Reporter Chuck Phillips wrote a piece that may support Shakur's theory, although Combs denies it. More on that in a moment. But first, Chuck Phillips is up ridiculously early on the West Coast to tell us all about it. Hi, Chuck.

Mr. CHUCK PHILLIPS (Reporter, Los Angeles Times): Hi. How you doing?

STEWART: Doing great. Let's start with the beginning. Two of the guys who are allegedly responsible for setting up this '94 attack on Tupac Shakur, James Rosemond and James Sabatino. Now what was their relationship to Sean Combs, to P. Diddy?

Mr. PHILLIPS: They were - at the time, you have to remember Bad Boy in 1993 and '94 was just starting out. In '94, they just put out their first records by a guy named Craig Mac and Biggie. They just came out just before this happened. And these guys - "Jimmie Henchmen" was James Rosemond's name at that time. He went by that moniker. And Jimmie Sabatino, they were guys that were in that kind of - in the Brooklyn what you would call like criminal underground. And they were moving into the rap world as were a lot of people at that time.

Out here we had Suge Knight and a lot of different people from the Blood gang and the Crips gang and all those people were trying to be involved in making music. So at that time, Jimmie Sabatino was pretty much a guy from the streets who was trying to start a promotion company, and so was Jimmie Henchmen. The two of them put together at that time a show called - a convention used to be out, called "How Do I Be Down?" It was like the main rap convention. So they were kind of just trying to break into being legitimate people. They weren't employed by Bad Boy, but they hung around with those guys.

STEWART: Because the association would be good for them, in starting up.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Absolutely. It would be very good for them, and at the time, they were part of a group of kind of hip thugs that were in that area, and they all hung out together. And you've got to remember, Bad Boy really wasn't much of a company then. It was just getting out a CD.

STEWART; Now, Rosemond, Sabatino, are they the men that are believed to be allegedly involved in the attack in '94 outside of Quad studio? The one where Tupac Shakur was shot five times?

Mr. PHILLIPS: They were orchestrated. There's three different guys that actually did it. I don't name who they are because they've never been arrested. I was in contact with the individuals. Some people I know in New York when I was working on a different story kind of brought two names up, street names, and I kind of tracked them down. And through them I got to a number of the people who were in the studio that night. And then I also got to some people, I believe, helped orchestrate it. So they were not directly responsible. They didn't do the shooting or the pounding, but they hired the guys that did. And there was not supposed to be - at the time they were supposed to give a beating.

STEWART: Right, it was like a fake robbery. They were going to try to take Tupac's...

Mr. PHILLIPS: They were going to fake a robbery, and they were going to pistol whip him. And you know, really hurt him severely in a beating, but nobody was supposed to shoot any weapons. The problem was that Tupac had a gun on him. He pulled his gun out. He accidentally shot himself in the groin right away, and then gunfire erupted and they shot him, I believe, four times. At least that's what I was told. Twice in the head.

STEWART: And that's because Tupac had been not as excited about possibly working with Bad Boy Records and Combs as perhaps Combs and his people thought Tupac should have been.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Exactly. Well, that's what the people told me. And you have to remember, at that point, even on that night, Biggie and Tupac were friends. They were not enemies at all. They were aspiring stars, and Tupac was on his way. He already released an album, and was almost done with the second album. He had been a couple movies. So he was the bigger star at that point. Only the people around Bad Boy's inner circle knew who Biggie was, and the record had just come out a couple months before, his first debut.

So they were really good buddies at that point. Tupac invited him on stage sometimes at his concerts. He let him sleep at his house. In fact, he kind of taught him a lot about the rapping. So he would never have, I don't believe at that moment, intentionally harm Tupac. And I don't believe - the other thing that I want to make clear here is that Combs did not order this thing. He was just told about it, as there is. He didn't have anything to do with it. Except that he knew it was going to happen.

STEWART: How did the information come to you that Combs and Biggie knew that this attack was planned before it happened?

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, all right, like I said, I have talked to people that I believe were involved in the orchestration of this attack, and I had contact with the assailants themselves, and I believe that Sabatino himself told Puffy, or Sean Combs, whatever you call him.

STEWART: Whatever you call him.

Mr. PHILLIPS: He changes his name every couple of weeks, so...

STEWART: It's hard to figure that one out sometimes. Hey, Chuck, we're going to ask you to hang on the line for about two minutes. We're coming up against a hard break, but I do have a couple of more questions about your story, if you wouldn't mind sticking around.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Sure thing.

STEWART: All right, we're talking to Chuck Philips of the LA Times, a reporter who has some new information into that '94 shooting of rapper Tupac Shakur. Chuck's going to stay on the line with us. We also have The Most coming up, after the break as well. As green fatigue - does all this eco-enviro-eco-green stuff, is it wearing you down? We'll explain why. Stay with us here at the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: Thanks for listening to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. We're going to continue our conversation with Chuck Phillips from the LA Times, who has written a piece that may support the theory of Tupac Shakur, that Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, knew about the attack on him outside of the Quad Studios where Shakur was shot, ultimately, four or five times. Now, Chuck, as you know, Sean Combs has remade himself into sort of a cashmere-wearing, Hamptons-party-throwing businessman, and he vehemently denies this claim.

His statement he put out to the press, that, "The story is a lie, it is beyond ridiculous and completely false. Neither the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. nor I had any knowledge of any attack before, during, or after it has happened. I'm shocked the LA Times would be so irresponsible as to publish such a baseless and completely untrue story." Your response?

Mr. PHILLIPS: I would tend to disagree with it. I think that Mr. Combs had the opportunity to talk to me twice before this story ran. I have talked to him in the past, a number of times, and I stand by my story.

STEWART: James Rosemond also says that he questions your chops on this story, basically, saying that you've gotten some facts wrong in the past. Do you care to respond to that?

Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah, I would. If you were to look at what he says in his statement, he says, I wrote a story six years ago about Tupac's shooting in Las Vegas. He claims that the reason I got that story wrong is that Biggie had gotten into an accident and couldn't have been there. Biggie didn't get into the accident until two weeks later. So the facts that he uses were wrong. He's wrong about that. But you also have to - in the story that we wrote, what Mr. Rosemond's lawyer said, which is almost identical to his statement to the press.

STEWART: So for someone who's listened to all of this and is trying to figure out what actually happened here, can you explain why this event, this shooting, was seminal in the East Coast/West Coast feud that ultimately turned very violent and lead to the death of two talented men, Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.?

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, you know, I've - I started off writing these stories because I was a music business writer, and I wrote about the business. Then gradually, little by little, when gangsta rap came in, in the early '90s - I'm a giant fan of black music. I love, you know, almost all of my record collection is black. Gospel music, rap music, jazz music, and so I was immediately entranced by gangsta rap, especially Dr. Dre at that time. The baselines were great, everything was great. So I kind of got involved. I started looking at these things almost as a fan of the music more than as a reporter.

Then little by little, it just became more interesting to me and as the years have gone on, you know, I write lots of different stories. I've written about all kinds of things. But this particular - the unsolved nature of these killings and the - that is just puzzling and troubling to me that the government hasn't figured out who killed these two very talented men and others, in the line of this. The other thing that kind of draws me to it, that I'm curious about, is this period in history. I don't think there's ever been a period in history where popular American artists competed on record and in interviews and ultimately, you know...

STEWART: Took it to the street. Yeah, took it to real life. LA Times reporter Chuck Phillips wrote about the 1994 attack on Tupac Shakur. Thanks for sharing your reporting, Chuck.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Thank you.

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