Who Shot Ya? : Code Switch The shootings of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur in the late 1990s are widely thought to be connected, but have never been officially solved. On the latest season of the Slow Burn podcast, Joel Anderson has been examining the rappers' meteoric rises, untimely deaths, and what they illustrate about race, violence, and policing in the United States, then and now.

Who Shot Ya?

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Hello. Shereen here with Gene. Hey, Gene.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

What's good?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: I was wondering if I could speak for you for a second, if you don't mind.

DEMBY: Are you asking for my permission for once...

MERAJI: (Laughter) This never really happens.

DEMBY: ...This time? (Laughter).

MERAJI: Anyway, I just wanted to say that both of us are incredibly grateful for our CODE SWITCH listeners.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

MERAJI: We love you - the dedicated ones, the new ones. Hey, new listeners. Thank you so much for joining us. We are thankful that you tune into stories and discussions we're having about race in the U.S.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

MERAJI: These can be challenging for some people. And we know that some of our listeners are, like, it's about time that we're talking about this. To all of you equally, thank you. All right, Gene. Passing the baton to you.

DEMBY: Oh, thank you. Seriously, y'all, thank y'all so much for rocking with us. And if coverage of race in public media is important to you and you find yourself thinking differently about conversations because of the stories that we do on CODE SWITCH, please consider donating to your public radio station. It's easy. Just hit up donate.npr.org/codeswitch.

MERAJI: That's donate.npr.org/codeswitch. And one more time for good measure, thank you.

DEMBY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: There will be some foul language in this episode. You have been warned.

DEMBY: Some cussing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. Shereen, you know, we both came up in the 1990s.

MERAJI: Yes, we did, and all that the '90s entailed - overalls, in my case (laughter).

DEMBY: (Laughter) Me too.

MERAJI: Oh, did you do overalls?

DEMBY: Did you wear the overalls without the - one of the straps undone?

MERAJI: No, I never did that.

DEMBY: Oh, yeah. Well...

MERAJI: No, I wasn't that cool.

DEMBY: Oh. Get on my level, Shereen.

MERAJI: I kept both straps buckled.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: (Laughter) Pogo Balls.

DEMBY: Yes.

MERAJI: I was so good with the Pogo Ball.

DEMBY: I wasn't. That was hard. Bring back the Pogo Ball.

MERAJI: And then a little bit later in the '90s, pagers.

DEMBY: Yes.

MERAJI: One, four, three.

DEMBY: One, four, three.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WARNING LYRICS")

NOTORIOUS BIG: (Rapping) Who the hell is this paging me at 5:46 in the morning? Crack of dawn, and now I'm yawning.

MERAJI: And not to bring down the vibe here, but we can't talk about the '90s without mentioning that it was also a very, very violent time. There was so much death.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHED SO MANY TEARS")

TUPAC SHAKUR: (Rapping) Is there heaven for a G? Remember me - so many homies in the cemetery. Shed so many tears. I suffered through the years and shed so many tears.

DEMBY: So much violence. We talk a lot about gun violence these days, but homicide was so much more prevalent in the 1990s. It's hard to remember just how bloody life in and near big cities was 25, 30 years ago.

MERAJI: Here's an example. Today, we think of Palo Alto and California's Bay Area as being synonymous with big tech, million-dollar homes...

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

MERAJI: ...Really pricey rents. But in 1992, East Palo Alto...

DEMBY: Mmm hmm.

MERAJI: ...Had the highest murder rate in the nation...

DEMBY: Wow.

MERAJI: ...Highest murder rate, 1992. And one of my most vivid childhood memories from the early '90s involves being pushed under a table at a wedding reception because someone came in and shot it up.

DEMBY: Wow.

MERAJI: Yeah. Two people right behind where I was sitting were shot and killed. And this was in Sacramento, Calif., and I was in junior high school.

DEMBY: Wow. So in 1990, New York City saw 2,000 reported homicides. It was just 289 homicides last year in 2018. In 1992, 2,600 people in Los Angeles were killed by someone else. Last year, in 2018, it was just 260. So it was, like, ten times less deadly.

MERAJI: But what hasn't changed is that this violence was not evenly distributed then, and it isn't now.

DEMBY: Nope.

MERAJI: Black people - and to a lesser extent, Latinos - were and are much, much more likely to be victims of homicide. And in most large cities, their murders are much less likely to be solved by the police.

DEMBY: On this episode, we're talking about two of the most famous black men in America who were both gunned down in the late 1990s within just months of each other. We're talking about, of course, The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Because of this very complicated and very petty beef between them and East Coast and West Coast rappers, their killings have always been thought to be related. But, you know, we're two decades out, and their murders - the murders of these two groundbreaking celebrities - are still officially unsolved.

MERAJI: Which I have to say is still shocking to me considering how famous these men were.

DEMBY: Yep.

MERAJI: But over at Slate, Joel Anderson has been hosting the latest season of the "Slow Burn" podcast, which revisits big stories from the past that we thought we knew. And this season, Joel and his crew are focusing in on what happened to Tupac and Biggie. And, Gene, you talked to Joel about what those two men's meteoric rises and untimely deaths reveal about race, violence and policing in the U.S.

DEMBY: Yep. But first, before we get into all that, I asked Joel, who is from Houston - so, you know, he's not from the West Coast like you or the East Coast like me - bro, which side of the Biggie-Pac feud did you find yourself on?

JOEL ANDERSON: I would say, if I have to think back to that time, that most of us tended to lean towards the West Coast because it's like - you know how LA is a driving culture, a riding culture, and the music is, like, really good for just cruising, right? Well, that's Houston. Houston is the same sort of way, and so a lot of bass, a lot of funk - just, like, riding music, you know? It wasn't - it's not a place where you stand - my image of New York at that time when I was, like, 16 years old was people, like, holding ciphers over burning garbage cans.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

ANDERSON: You know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C.R.E.A.M.")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) Cash rules everything around me - C.R.E.A.M. Get the money - dollar, dollar bill, y'all.

ANDERSON: I mean, I felt like that was every Wu-Tang and Mobb Deep video in the mid-'90s.

DEMBY: They're all in, like, black Timbs (ph), and they're standing there like...

ANDERSON: Yeah, outside of, like, Queensbridge or something like that or (unintelligible) Homes. So yeah, no. LA's music kind of fit with Houston's culture a little bit, and Tupac actually has some connections to Houston in that the thug life tattoo is from a Houston tattoo artist.

DEMBY: Are you serious?

ANDERSON: Yeah, for real. And so it just seemed like there was a little bit more kinship there between Tupac - but I personally, growing up, was more of a Biggie fan, more of a East Coast - you know, I'm really into real hip-hop, you know, backpack rap...

DEMBY: Yeah.

ANDERSON: You know?

DEMBY: Backpack, et cetera.

ANDERSON: Yeah. I want lyrics, son, you know? What do you got? Hit me a hot 16 - that kind of stuff.

DEMBY: One of things that you do in these episodes is you sort of zoom out to this larger social context, and you tell the story of a black man who shot a police officer, which sort of became this flashpoint in this moral panic around hip-hop music and gangsta rap. Can you tell us a little bit about that incident and what happened as a result of it?

ANDERSON: Yeah, sure. So a teenager from Houston, Texas - my hometown - out of an area called South Park is on the highway, driving to south Texas. He's, you know, some small-time drug dealer. And a cop pulls him over, and he pulls out his gun and shoots the cop. And part of his defense was that he was listening to Tupac's album "2Pacalypse Now," and that's what motivated him to kill that cop. And if you listen to that album, Tupac does bring up the idea of taking revenge on cops and, you know, shooting them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOULJA'S STORY")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) Cops on my tail, so I bail till I dodge them. They finally pull me over, and I laugh. Remember Rodney King? And I blast on his punk ass. Now I got a murder case.

ANDERSON: But, you know, you have to give him some artistic license there and also understand that, at that point in the country, there had been no reckoning or very little reckoning with the idea that black and brown communities were being overpoliced, that - you know, that there was a problem with police brutality. And Tupac was really expressing that through his music in, like, really profane, really scary, violent ways if you were not familiar with two of these communities.

And so it ultimately wasn't an effective defense. Ronald Ray Howard ultimately got found guilty and sentenced to death and was executed, you know, some years later. But you could understand why that defense held some sway with people that were concerned with the influence and growing popularity of gangsta rap. They're like, hey; maybe this music could really compel people to act out and, you know, to become violent. I mean, all the language that we hear around super-predator and everything - like, you can find it right there in these arguments against the music that Tupac was making at that point in his career.

DEMBY: It's - well, you have to think about, like, in the '90s, that wanting more police presence in the black community was not some, like, outlier position at all. Like, that was a very normal, mainstream position among lots of black folks.

ANDERSON: Oh, absolutely. I mean, yeah, it probably was the majority.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: So we're more than two decades out from, you know, these homicides of two of, basically, the most famous black men in America at the time. And they were homicides that were almost certainly linked together in some way, and yet nobody has ever been charged in either case. So, I mean, since you've been digging into this, do you have any sense of why these murders have gone unsolved for so long?

ANDERSON: I think there's a couple of reasons. So one is - we've already sort of talked about - is this - basically, this intractable division between cops and black communities, right? This sort of natural distrust - not natural - it was earned, taught distrust that black communities have for cops, right? And there's already this tension and conflict between not just black communities and cops but also cops and, like, the hip-hop community. The cops expended a lot of energy and a lot of political manpower trying to shut down rappers, particularly gangsta rappers. And so there's already - you know, you've got that around this right now. So those are the people - these are the people whose cases they're in charge of investigating, people that they're already sort of naturally inclined to think are criminal, you know?

And so I'm thinking back to somebody that I spoke to who - she was a beat reporter for The Las Vegas Sun. She covered Tupac's shooting from that first night, and she talks about how, when she gets to the scene, the cops have, like, pulled all these people who are theoretically victims - they've been fired upon, you know? They're in the caravan with Tupac. And they - she's - they've pulled them out of the car, had them sitting on the stoop, pointing guns at them, telling them not to talk to each other and treating them like suspects as opposed to victims. And then they're like, well, hey, man. Nobody wants to talk to us. Well, duh, right? I mean, look how you've already antagonized people. You haven't - so there's that.

And I also think that, you know, among certain people who follow this case really closely, it's fairly academic as to who's responsible for what in terms of both murders, too.

DEMBY: Is that right?

ANDERSON: Yeah. Now, with Biggie, it's a little bit more complicated as to who actually pulled the trigger. But in terms of who is responsible for it, most people seem to be in agreement. Even if they have different ways of getting there, they still seem to agree that it's - OK. Hold up real quickly. When is this going to air?

DEMBY: (Laughter) The 18th is...

ANDERSON: Oh, so it's airing on same day as ours.

DEMBY: Yeah.

ANDERSON: Oh, it'll be out by then. OK, well, I'll go ahead and say it, then. In the case of Tupac, it's Orlando Anderson. In the case of Biggie, the person who's believed to be the mastermind is Suge, OK? And it all sort of lines up, like, if you follow these cases really closely. But because the people that are believed to have been the gunmen - they're dead now. And a lot of the other people who were witnesses, maybe they're in prison already. Maybe they're dead themselves. Maybe they're worried it's compromised in some sort of way because there have been unreliable jailhouse snitches or, you know, they've lied to the police before - whatever. You're not going to get any closure on that case because of those two factors.

So yeah, man. I mean, that's - I guess it kind of depends on what, you know, justice looks like to you. One of the detectives that worked on this case said, you know, I pretty much have a pretty good idea of who did it. But if you think that justice involves somebody, you know, going to court, you know, facing down charges, getting convicted and going to prison, then, you know, you'll never be satisfied with the answer on it.

But that also doesn't put the police off the hook. There are ways in which they could have handled it better at the start that may have led to that sort of justice. But at this point, like, it's probably just never going to happen, man. These cases are - you know, as long as we live, they'll most likely be considered unsolved.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: OK, so the parts of this episode you've heard so far - those were produced by Jess Kung of the CODE SWITCH team, and they were edited by Leah Donnella and Steve Drummond. And, of course, I need to shout out the rest of my CODE SWITCH kinfolk, but after the break, you're going to hear the story of that shooting that turned a little-known rapper named Tupac Shakur into the face of a bitter political battle over urban crime and police violence. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all. Before we play this episode of "Slow Burn" - it's called Cops On My Tail, by the way - a heads-up. There's going to be some cussing. There's going to be some salty language. So don't be sending us no emails like we ain't warn y'all, and y'all know who y'all are. All right, y'all. Here's "Slow Burn" with Joel Anderson.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SLOW BURN")

ANDERSON: Ronald Ray Howard grew up in South Park, a tough neighborhood in Houston. He described it as a war zone. Like Tupac Shakur, he moved around a lot as a child. Howard attended nine different elementary schools and was held back three times. When he was 16, he dropped out of high school. Howard ended up selling drugs in the town of Port Lavaca two hours down the Gulf Coast from Houston. That's where he was headed the night of April 11, 1992, when a Texas highway patrolman pulled him over. Howard wasn't a fan of law enforcement. This is Alan Tanner, a criminal defense lawyer.

ALLEN TANNER: You know, here was a young kid from Houston who had had problems with police in this neighborhood, where a lot of the kids were brought up there to hate cops to begin with.

ANDERSON: Howard had another reason to be wary. He was a drug dealer driving a stolen car. The patrolman who pulled Howard over was named Bill Davidson. He'd been on the force for about 20 years. He and his wife Linda had raised two children in the town of Edna, population 5,500, where he was a city council member and the president of the Little League.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANDERSON: As Davidson approached Ronald Ray Howard's car, Howard shot him in the neck with a 9 millimeter pistol. Davidson died three days later. Howard was arrested not long after he fled the scene. He confessed to the crime soon after.

In most cases, the murder of a highway patrolman would have remained a local tragedy. But the killing of Bill Davidson became a national story, one that would change the shape of the music industry. That's because of the cassette tape that was playing in Ronald Ray Howard's car, a dubbed copy of "2Pacalypse Now."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANDERSON: How did gangsta rap push America to confront police brutality? How was fear of gangsta rappers used to prevent a reckoning with police violence? And would a jury believe that rap music could turn black listeners into cop killers?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANDERSON: This is "Slow Burn." I'm Joel Anderson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ICE-T: The cops in America actually kill kids.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The rap music promotes violence against authority and consequently violence against law enforcement.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The way this LAPD was operating, they needed to get killed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm about to bust some shots off. I'm about to dust some cops off.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANDERSON: Episode 2 - Cops on my Tail.

In the summer of 1989, a spokesman for the FBI sent a one-page letter to the Los Angeles office of Priority Records. The New York Times said the letter was historic. Until then, the bureau had never taken an official position on a work of art. The work of art in question was the song, "F*** Tha Police" by the rap group N.W.A., short for N***** wit Attitudes.

Milt Ahlerich, assistant director of the FBI's office of Public Affairs, accused N.W.A. and Priority Records of encouraging violence and disrespect for law enforcement. He noted that 78 officers had been killed in the line of duty in 1988, and he said, I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community. No doubt, "F*** Tha Police" was provocative. In their lyrics, the members of N.W.A. fantasize about retaliation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "F*** THA POLICE")

ICE CUBE: (Rapping) ...White cop. Ice Cube will swarm on any mother****** in a blue uniform. Just 'cause I'm from the CPT, punk police are afraid of me. Huh, a young n**** on the warpath. And when I finish, it's going to be a bloodbath of cops dying in LA. Yo, Dre. I got something to say.

ANDERSON: N.W.A. was a loose fraternity of rappers and DJs from Southern California. The group's leader was Eazy-E, and its stars were Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. Together, they created raw and profane music from the things they saw in their neighborhood - gangs, guns and drugs.

"F*** Tha Police" was a response to decades of racist abuse, particularly the gang sweeps that had become common in Southern California. Police said they were trying to stop the drug trade and gang violence, but many residents, especially the black and brown ones, called it racial profiling.

When N.W.A.'s debut album, "Straight Outta Compton," came out in August 1988, it didn't get much radio play. MTV wouldn't air their video. Rolling Stone didn't publish a review. Most of the group's early buzz came from local shows, autograph sessions and small, black-owned record stores. But not long after the album caught on with black hip-hop fans, it crossed over to white audiences. A Priority Records salesman called "Straight Outta Compton" illicit, forbidden fruit for junior high students.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Obviously, somebody is listening. In just six weeks, "Straight Outta Compton" has gone gold, selling more than a half a million copies.

ANDERSON: Rebellious teenagers and hip-hop heads weren't the only people paying attention. Local police departments faxed the lyrics of "F*** Tha Police" from city to city. Many officers refused to work security at N.W.A. concerts, which made it difficult for promoters to book the group. At a concert in Detroit in 1989, the members of N.W.A. were chased off stage by police after performing a few lines of the song. The controversy got N.W.A. a lot of news coverage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Many in law enforcement fear that N.W.A.'s rap entices youngsters into crime by glamorizing street gangs and making police out to be the bad guys.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We was just letting everybody know that black people was fed up with getting harassed by the police and getting beat by them.

ANDERSON: All that attention, positive and negative, helped make N.W.A. a national sensation. Dr. Dre thanked Ahlerich for writing the FBI letter. You made us a lot of money, he said.

Over the next three years, few other rap artists succeeded in drawing attention to police brutality in such an intense way. Then, in March 1991, police abuse reached millions of American living rooms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The three police officers facing felony criminal charges were among a group of 15 who stopped a 25-year-old black man last Saturday night, then beat him, kicked him and clubbed him, unaware that an amateur photographer was recording the incident on videotape. Los Angeles police chief...

ANDERSON: The beating of Rodney King was recorded by an LA resident who sent the tape to a local TV station. It was one of the first widely seen videos of police brutality, and it went whatever it is we called viral in the 1990s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Prior to his release from jail last night, 25-year-old Rodney King showed his injury to reporters - the bruises, broken leg and the scars from the stun gun which jolted him with 50,000 volt shocks.

RODNEY KING: I could say after the first three good licks with - well, you know, one with that - with the shocker and the next with the billy club across the face, I was scared. I was scared. I was scared for my...

ANDERSON: For decades, members of minority communities had argued that police brutality was underreported. The Rodney King video was evidence that they were right. After the tape came out, rappers joined civil rights activists in leading a national conversation about police brutality. Their music also took on a new urgency. While America reckoned with the Rodney King video, Tupac was putting together his solo debut, "2Pacalypse Now." Tupac rapped about police harassment and brutality throughout the album. In a 1991 interview with Davey D, a Bay Area hip-hop journalist, he explained his relentless focus on police violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAKUR: In some situations, I show us having the power, and in other situations I show it as it's more apt to happen with the police or with the power structure having the ultimate power. But I show it both ways. I show ways how it really happens and ways that I wish it could be.

ANDERSON: The first single from "2Pacalypse Now" was called "Trapped." In the lyrics, Tupac fantasized about getting revenge on the officers who harassed him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAPPED")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) They got me trapped. Can barely walk the city streets without a cop harassing me, searching me, then asking my identity. Hands up, throw me up against the wall, didn't do a thing at all. I'm telling you, one days these suckers gotta fall. Cuffed up, throw me on the...

ANDERSON: A few weeks after the song was released, the story from "Trapped" became very real for Tupac. On October 17, 1991, Tupac was crossing the street in downtown Oakland when two policemen stopped him. They accused him of jaywalking and asked to see his ID. In the police report, officers refer to Tupac by his middle name, Amaru, and call him angry and hostile. They said Tupac told them, this is just two white cops who want to stop a n*****.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BURRIS: Good morning. I am here today with my client Tupac Amaru Shakur as well as...

ANDERSON: In a press conference about a month later, Tupac told his side of the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAKUR: Next thing I know, my face was being buried into the concrete, and I was laying face-down in the gutter, waking up and being unconscious in cuffs with blood on my face, and I'm going to jail for resisting arrest. That's harassment to me that I had to be stopped in the middle of the street and checked like we're in South Africa and asked for my ID. Officer Boyovich...

ANDERSON: Tupac sued the Oakland Police Department for $10 million, alleging false arrest and imprisonment. The case eventually settled for a reported $42,000. On the same day Tupac filed his complaint against Oakland police, - November 12, 1991 - "2Pacalypse Now" appeared in record stores. It was the first major rap release for Interscope Records, which was partly owned by Warner Music Group. "2Pacalypse Now" was no bestseller. It peaked at No. 64 on the Billboard Hot 200. But what it lacked in commercial success, it made up for social resonance. Tupac rapped about the plagues of poverty and violence, and his righteous anger at the police carried echoes of his Black Panther lineage. Tupac told Billboard Magazine the album was like a battle cry.

The police didn't pay much attention to "2Pacalypse Now." The record that set off the next battle between hip-hop and the cops wasn't rap at all. It was a heavy metal album put out by Ice-T. Ice-T was one of the first gangsta rappers. His landmark song, "6 'N The Mornin'" - named for the LAPD's early a.m. battering ram raids - helped to define the genre in the mid-1980s. But Ice-T was also a fan of thrash metal, and in 1990 he formed a metal band with his high school friend Ernie C. Ice sang and wrote the lyrics, which covered the same street-level subjects he rapped about. They called the band Body Count. Their first album, released in March 1992, featured the songs, "KKK B****," "Evil Dick" and "Momma's Gotta Die Tonight." But the one that caused all the fuss was the last song on the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COP KILLER")

BODY COUNT: (Singing) I'm a cop killer. Better you than me. Cop killer - f*** police brutality. Cop killer - I know your family's grieving. F*** them. Cop killer - but tonight we get even. Ha-ha.

ANDERSON: Cop Killer mentioned Rodney King by name and also name-checked LAPD chief Daryl Gates. Ice-T called it a protest song. Body Count's album, released by Warner Bros. Records, didn't top the charts. Here's Dan Charnas, who wrote about rap for The Source and signed hip-hop acts for record labels.

DAN CHARNAS: What happens is this album comes out, and it's really not that successful commercially. It's a media event, you know, in terms of - oh, Ice-T's doing a heavy metal thing, and that's cool. But it's not really getting airplay.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANDERSON: Then the verdict came in. A month after the release of "Body Count," the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted of almost all charges. The jury's decision ignited one of the biggest race riots in American history.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Since darkness fell last night, the City of Angels has been a perfect vision of hell.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You can see that as the numbers swell...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: No peace. No justice. No peace...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: ...They suddenly about a half an hour ago just got more militant and started burning things and started...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Nearby, dozens of thieves strip an auto parts store. Some sick Christmas has exposed the worst in all of them.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: April 1992, and Los Angeles is ignited by the fires of riots, sparking the war of words over justice in America.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I feel that the jury in Simi Valley gave the OK to continue to abuse and oppress and suppress black people in this country. I feel that...

ANDERSON: In the midst of the riots, news media turned to Ice-T to explain what was happening in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Well, young rap musicians have some ideas of their own about what caused the deadly violence.

ICE-T: We definitely knew there was a lot of tension down here. And we tried to explain it to people, but nobody wanted to listen. We were like the voices from down here in the hood yelling out to people on the rap records.

ANDERSON: During one interview, a TV news anchor in LA asked Ice-T to do something to stop the riots, but he refused to play that role. I can't honestly say that if I didn't have this money in my pocket and I wasn't who I was that I wouldn't be there, too, Ice-T said. When the fires died down, 63 people were dead, and nearly 2,400 were injured. Police had made 12,000 arrests. Estimates of the damage ran as high as a billion dollars, and thanks to "Cop Killer," Ice-T was one of the public faces of the violence and destruction.

In the weeks after the riots, a Dallas police officer came across the "Body Count" album. One of his teenage daughter's friends had brought it over. The officer got the lyrics from "Cop Killer" printed in his police union's newsletter next to a call for a boycott of Time Warner products. If we want this pulled from the record stores, it read, we're going to have to make it happen ourselves. Soon the campaign expanded to police unions nationwide. Here's Dan Charnas.

CHARNAS: This jeopardizes all of Time Warner's upcoming business in getting cable franchises all over the country. And then nationwide, police unions begin to join with Texas because all of them are sort of, like, on the defense after the LA riots and the Rodney King thing. So they're basically trying to paint themselves as the victim. See? You know, people don't have respect for police. But it's the same thing as saying blue lives matter today.

ANDERSON: The protests from law enforcement got the attention of elected officials, including those on Time Warner's home turf. The LA City Council and county board adopted motions condemning Ice-T and the label. California Attorney General Dan Lungren sent letters to record stores urging them to stop selling the record. The National Rifle Association promised to give legal assistance to the family of any police officer shot or killed if it could be shown that the violence was incited by "Cop Killer." Sixty members of Congress signed a letter to Time Warner, calling "Cop Killer" vile and despicable. And then Vice President Dan Quayle got involved.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN QUAYLE: Take, for example, the work of the rapper Ice-T.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Boo.

ANDERSON: Quayle was speaking at a convention of police officers who were involved in an antidrug program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QUAYLE: I am sure you're all familiar by now...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Boo.

QUAYLE: ...With Ice-T's record distributed by Time Warner which says that it's OK to kill cops. Time Warner's defense is that this is free speech, and it is constitutional. Well, of course we all believe in free speech. And it may be constitutional, but that doesn't make it right. It is wrong for Time Warner Corporation to do what it's doing.

(APPLAUSE)

ANDERSON: These were calls for censorship of a single record from local, state and federal officials. Their implication - that rap music might cause listeners to murder police officers. Ice-T and his defenders tried to keep the focus on the reality of police abuse rather than hypothetical violence against cops. Here he is being interviewed on Australian TV in 1992.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ICE-T: American people are really up in arms about this song, which doesn't kill. It's just a song. But the cops are - in America actually kill kids. This is a very angry song. It's a song about rage.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: OK. But I understand that you said this in one of your U.S. interviews, I've got no trouble with killing brutal cops. True?

ICE-T: They have no trouble with killing what they consider brutal kids. See, my attitude is that just by - because you have a badge doesn't give you the right to murder me.

ANDERSON: For a while, Time Warner defended the rapper and the song. In a June 1992 Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal, CEO Gerald Levin called "Cop Killer" a shout of pain and protest and asked why critics couldn't hear what rap is trying to tell us. Everything changed after the company's annual shareholders meeting. That meeting was held in July at a hotel in Beverly Hills. Outside, shareholders were met by nearly 100 police officers with picket signs. Ice-T cruised by in a Rolls Royce and gave the protesting cops the finger. Inside the hotel, boycott supporters brought in the big guns. The actor Charlton Heston, who'd become a right-wing activist and prominent member of the NRA, was there to speak. Here's Heston recounting his performance years later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLTON HESTON: I asked for the floor. And to a hushed room with 1,000 average American stockholders, I simply read the full lyrics of "Cop Killer" - every vicious, vulgar, dirty word they were selling. I got my 12 gauge sawed off. I got my headlights turned off. I'm about to bust some shots off. I'm about to dust some cops off.

ANDERSON: Following Heston, Time Warner board members heard from two officers who'd been shot in the face and disfigured. After the meeting, the Burbank headquarters of Warner Brothers Records was under siege. Executives were bombarded with hate mail and received threatening phone calls. Bomb threats forced police to clear the building.

Eventually, Ice-T caved. In his memoir, he wrote that Time Warner never pressured him to make a decision. He said he felt awful for the corporation, and he realized the controversy wasn't going away. I'd been dissing rappers for years. They didn't do s***, he wrote. Then, I dissed the cops, and they came after me like no gang I've ever encountered. Ice-T decided to rerelease the album without "Cop Killer," and police groups called off the boycott.

In January of 1993, Warner Brothers let Ice-T out of his contract. He signed with Priority Records, which had distributed N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton."

CHARNAS: The upshot for music artists and hip-hop of "Cop Killer" is that Warner Brothers is going to start to tamp down all kinds of things that can cause problems in the future. We're going to have to look at every lyric that you guys are doing. And if you don't like it, then we'll let you go. You don't have to be with us. But we have too many irons and too many fires corporately speaking to risk everything because somebody is going to get upset at your lyrics.

ANDERSON: Throughout the battle over "Cop Killer," no one could point to a single incident in which rappers had directly incited violent behavior. That changed when Ronald Ray Howard killed Texas state trooper Bill Davidson. Here's Howard's defense attorney Allen Tanner.

TANNER: The prosecutor in the case, whose name was Bobby Bell, called me one day when I was in Houston and said, we found some recordings that were in the vehicle that Ronald Howard was in. And I think you'd be really interested in hearing them. And so I said, OK. And he said, drive on down here to Jackson County, and I'll - we'll listen to them.

ANDERSON: So Tanner heard the tape, including the song "Soulja's Story." That song describes a traffic stop that ends with a gunshot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOULJA'S STORY")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) ...Got problems. Cops on my tail, so I bail until I dodge them. They finally pull me over, and I laugh. Remember Rodney King? And I blast on his punk a**. Now I got a murder case.

ANDERSON: As Tanner listened, he realized he could argue that Tupac's words had gotten inside of Ronald Ray Howard's head.

TANNER: I didn't know what gangsta rap music was at the time. But, you know, here was a young kid from Houston who had had problems with police in his neighborhood. And I was kind of fascinated by this music that he was listening to. And that's where I got the idea to, you know, use that as a potential defense as to why all of this happened.

ANDERSON: As soon as the press reported that Ronald Ray Howard had been listening to "2Pacalypse Now," Tupac replaced Ice-T as America's most dangerous rapper. Dan Quayle jumped back into the fray, demanding that Time Warner pull "2Pacalypse Now" from stores.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QUAYLE: Once again, we're faced with an irresponsible corporate act. There is absolutely no reason for a record like this to be published by a responsible corporation.

ANDERSON: "2Pacalypse Now" didn't end up getting pulled, but Tupac was now part of a national story. He was 21 years old. He'd appeared in one movie and released one album. Now the vice president was calling him a villain and a menace. Here's Andrea Dennis, the co-author of "Rap On Trial."

ANDREA DENNIS: I think Tupac helped solidify the perspective of police and law enforcement that gangsta rap is violent, gangsta rappers are violent.

ANDERSON: There was no dispute about Ronald Ray Howard's guilt. Allen Tanner conceded that reality in his opening statement. There's no doubt about it; Ronald Howard is going to be convicted of capital murder, he told the jury. And he was right. On June 8, 1993, jurors found Howard guilty in less than an hour.

The only part of the trial that was truly contested was the penalty phase. Would Howard get a life sentence or lethal injection? In a jailhouse interview, Howard said the Tupac song was so intoxicating that it had driven him to murder. He told a reporter, the music was up as loud as it could go, with gunshots and siren noises on it, and my heart was pounding hard. I was so hyped up I just snapped. Tanner asked the 12 members of the jury, only one of whom was black, to consider the possibility that Tupac had made his client snap. He then played a series of gangsta rap songs for the jury. The judge wore earplugs while the music played.

TANNER: They all had a lyric book, and they were able to follow through with the words as to each song. And we played, like, 15 songs from Tupac and from the Geto Boys and, I think, maybe N.W.A. and maybe Ganksta N-I-P, I remember. But the jurors heard all the lyrics, and they heard - I mean, we blasted the courtroom. It was loud. They heard everything.

ANDERSON: Houston Chronicle reporter Roy Bragg remembers how stressful things were at the Austin courthouse.

ROY BRAGG: You had this throbbing mass of anger in the crowd - these state troopers, and Mr. Howard's family and, you know, security everywhere. And it was just really intense the whole time.

ANDERSON: The tension grew as the jury continued to deliberate.

BRAGG: And so at that point, when the jury's out now for more than one day, we've moved beyond lunch. Now it's an even bigger story because now, why is the jury out this long? The sense was, you know, things are going - you know, we're hurling into the sun because we're not going to execute this guy.

ANDERSON: The jury twice said they were hopelessly deadlocked. The judge sent them back in.

TANNER: And then they folded after, like, six days. I don't know why they folded.

ANDERSON: On the sixth day of deliberations, July 14, 1993, the jurors sentence Ronald Ray Howard to death. He was executed 12 years later.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANDERSON: Another lawyer tried the blame rap defense in 1995, after two Milwaukee teenagers shot and killed a police officer. This time, the defense pointed to Tupac's guest verse on a song by South Central Cartel. The attorney for one of the boys said that Tupac's violent anti-police lyrics appear to have acted as command hallucinations, which influenced his behavior. The strategy didn't work that time, either. Both of the teenagers were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms. Back in Texas, Bill Davidson's widow blamed Tupac and his music for the trooper's death.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDA SUE DAVIDSON: What we've been through has been devastating; to hear how my husband was killed. And I feel like the company should be responsible for and liable for the products that they produce and sell.

ANDERSON: The day after Ronald Ray Howard was sentenced to die, Linda Sue Davidson moved forward with a lawsuit against Tupac, Time Warner and Interscope Records. By the time Tupac was deposed in that lawsuit, he was doing time for sexually abusing Ayanna Jackson, the case we talked about in our previous episode. In a meeting room in the Clinton Correctional Institution, Tupac sparred with Linda Sue Davidson's attorney about whether his songs encouraged violence against police. Tupac said the message in his music was clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Was it your intention to try to get young black people to be violent to police?

SHAKUR: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Were you trying to provoke anybody to do anything particular? Were you trying to evoke or trying to get people to do things?

SHAKUR: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Tell us what.

SHAKUR: Think. Use your head.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANDERSON: Next week on "Slow Burn," Who Shot Ya?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANDERSON: "Slow Burn" is a production of Slate Plus, Slate's membership program. You can sign up for Slate Plus to hear a bonus episode of the show this week and every week this season. In this week's bonus episode, you'll hear more about how rap lyrics have been used as criminal evidence in court. I talk with law professor Andrea Dennis about how cops and prosecutors have used Tupac songs and other hip-hop music to convict and incarcerate men of color. To hear it, sign up for Slate Plus at slate.com/slowburn. "Slow Burn" is produced by me and Christopher Johnson, with editorial direction by Josh Levin and Gabriel Roth. Sophie Summergrad is our researcher. Our mix engineer is Jared Paul. Don Will (ph) composed our theme song. The artwork for "Slow Burn" is by Lisa Larson-Walker. Special thanks to Slate's Chau Tu, Derreck Johnson, Katie Rayford, Lowen Liu, Allison Benedikt and Jared Hohlt. Thanks to 9 Australia and journalist Davey D for some of the audio you heard in this episode. And by the way, we created a playlist on Spotify to go with this season. We'll be updating it each week with new episodes and songs by Tupac, Biggie and their collaborators. Check it out every week at the link in the show notes. Thanks for listening. Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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