Day One, Saturday, September 7: Mike Tyson is a thug’s champion. Mighty but vulnerable, streetwise but naive, standing in a precarious place despite his wealth. The place is special in the hearts of hustlers. A Tyson fight is an unofficial gangsta party. It’s where the ghetto elite meet: rich niggas with nothing to lose, indulging their contradictions.
The anticipation builds as colorfully dressed folks file into the MGM Grand on this hot Las Vegas evening. Inside, playas like Stacey Augmon, New Edition, Gary Payton, Too Short, and Run-DMC settle in. Among the ‚bangers, ballers, dealers, and denizens in the VIP section are two of America’s most infamous: Marion „Suge“ Knight, the Death Row Records CEO who’s made no secret of his affiliation with the Bloods, and his quintuple-platinum superstar, Tupac Shakur.
The bell dings, and Mike Tyson makes quick work of a hapless Bruce Seldon. Too quick for the crowd’s taste. The mood after the 109-second fight is ugly, but Tupac is gleeful, jumping about like a little boy. „Did you see Tyson do it to ‚im? Tyson did it to ‚im! Did y’all see that?“ says ‚Pac, baiting a camera crew in the MGM lobby. He becomes more and more animated talking about Mike. „Did y’all see that? Fifty punches! I counted, 50 punches! I knew he was gon‘ take him out. We bad like that. Come out of prison and now we running shit.“ Suge, smiling at ‚Pac’s antics, grabs his arm and coaxes him away from the camera.
Tupac returns to his room at the nearby Luxor, a massive black pyramid with a brightly illuminated top. According to a close friend, he’s slightly upset because he couldn’t find his road dawgs, the Outlaws, who were supposed to be at the fight with him. „He complained of getting into a scrap with some Crips.“
Back outside the MGM, an amateur videographer catches ‚Pac and Suge waiting for their car, surrounded by a bevy of women. Tupac has changed from the brushed silk shirt he wore to the fight to a black basketball jersey that better exposes his tattooed biceps and the diamond-and-ruby-encrusted medallion hanging from his neck. On it is an angel in waiting, wings outspread, gun in hand.
Well it’s time to ride / I’m ready to die right here tonight / And motherfuck they life / That’s what they screamin‘ as they drill me / But I’m hard to kill, so open fire.
-2Pac, „Ambitionz az a Ridah„
Eleven-fifteen p.m. finds Suge and ‚Pac turning off Las Vegas Boulevard onto Flamingo, heading east toward Suge’s Club 662 in a black BMW 750, presumably to get their party on. Several women in an Oldsmobile flash ‚Pac and Suge. Suge’s at the wheel and ‚Pac’s next to him, his window down. He’s all smiles, yelling to his fans, inviting them to join the party. Leading a convoy estimated at anywhere between six and 15 cars, the BMW stops at a red light in front of the Maxim Hotel-just beyond the Strip, where the neon and hubbub end and the darkness of a desert town begins.
A late-model white Cadillac with California plates pulls up to the right of the BMW. One of its four passengers takes out a high-caliber firearm. „I heard these sounds and thought it was someone shooting in the air,“ says an eyewitness who was idling three cars back, „but then I see sparks fly from the gun.“ Between 10 and 15 shots ring out. Lead pierces metal, glass, flesh. Two bullets tear through Tupac’s chest, one through a hand, one in a leg. Bullet fragments graze the top of Suge’s head. The Cadillac peels off to the right, heading south down Koval Street. With two tires blown out and the windshield shot through, Suge floors his Beemer, screeching into a wild U-turn against oncoming traffic as vehicles scatter.
Two policemen at the Maxim on an unrelated call hear the shots and see the commotion. They immediately give chase. According to a friend of Suge’s, who was told the details later, Tupac is now bleeding through his jersey. „Gotta keep your eyes open,“ ‚Pac says to himself. Suge stops the car and the police arrive. Tupac is stretched out in the back of the BMW bleeding profusely. Ambulance lights flash. „There was blood everywhere,“ says one witness.
„Get down!“ yells a policeman, pointing a shotgun at Suge.
„I gotta get my boy to the hospital,“ Suge says.
„Shut up. Get down!“ Suge bends his knees to the ground.
Across town, a white Cadillac slips quietly away into the night. „I’m dying, I’m dying,“ says Tupac as he’s being brought into University Medical Center’s intensive care unit. He’s lost a lot of blood. He undergoes the first of two complicated operations. Afterwards, Tupac’s mother, aunt, and friends-including Mike Tyson, Jasmine Guy, and Jesse Jackson-rush to his side.
Day Two: Within hours the shots have been heard ‚round the world. Two years after the last attempt on his life, hip hop’s Lazarus has caught bullets once again and no one knows what to think. Will he die? Will he return from this ordeal larger, more invincible? It’s difficult to imagine such a kinetic and volatile figure lying immobilized. This, after all, is the same man who got into a gun battle with cops on an Atlanta street and bopped out of the courtroom unscathed. The same man who survived five bullet wounds in a 1994 Times Square ambush. The same man who, though convicted of sexual abuse, left a New York jail richer and more popular than when he went in. “ ‚Pac will be all right,“ says a family member. „He’ll pull through.“
Predictably, the media jumps on the gangsta image, the court cases, the prison terms, and the thuggish lyrics Bob Dole denounced. But his friends recount other stories. „I’ve always known him to be gracious, humane,“ says hip hop mogul Russell Simmons. „All this gangsta stuff, I’ve never seen it. I remember him dancing with this woman in a wheelchair for four hours when everybody else was drinking and partying. That’s how I knew the man. He’s a total sophisticate: intelligent, articulate.„
„He looks like a sleeping black angel,“ says a close friend, after visiting Tupac in the hospital. „I talked to him, touched him. I told him to go to his light.„
The members of Suge’s Death Row entourage are questioned by police, but provide little information. Sergeant Kevin Manning of the Las Vegas Police Department says, „They were not quite candid,“ about the circumstances surrounding the shooting.
Day Three: Fearing gang-related violence, hospital authorities step up security. Between UMC security, LVPD, and Death Row bodyguards, the trauma unit is all badges, brawn, and walkie-talkies. Outside, a local Channel 3 news van backfires twice and everybody in earshot drops to the ground. At about 8 p.m. police and Tupac’s crew get into a shouting match that results in people getting handcuffed and detained by police. LVPD’s Gang Sergeant Cindi West calls it „a misunderstanding.„
Rumors abound. Depending on who you ask, Tupac is either on his way to the morgue or in intensive care puffing on a cigarette. In truth, he’s alive but experiencing respiratory trouble. Surgeons decide to go in a second time and remove ‚Pac’s shattered right lung. „You can live with one lung,“ says Dr. Jonathan Weissler, chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Southwestern Medical in Dallas. „And after a while you can live quite well with it.„
After hours of unconsciousness, Tupac momentarily opens his eyes. Hearts are lifted.
Day Four: The entire hip hop world is turned on its ear. Overzealous reporters suggest that the shooting is tied to the East Coast- West Coast rivalry. A few speculate that it may be gang-related. Among the names being thrown about are the Notor ious B.I.G. and Mobb Deep (who are both entangled in protracted lyric feuds with Tupac), Las Vegas Crips, Los Angeles Crips, even Death Row employees. At least one Bad Boy Entertainment staffer receives death threats, and the New York-based label cancels a scheduled appearance of some of their artists.
„That this is gang-related is still pure speculation,“ says Sergeant Manning. „We have to run by facts.“ The entire Death Row organization, according to one employee, has been put under a gag order by higher-ups. LVPD, frustrated by the lack of coopera tion from Tupac’s camp, complain to the press. „The problem is a lack of forthrightness,“ says Manning, barely concealing his disgust. „It amazes me when they have professional bodyguards who can’t even give an accurate description of the vehicle.“ Meanwh ile Suge, who was released from the hospital with minor head wounds, is nowhere to be found.
In the trauma unit there’s meditation and prayer. Tupac’s aunt, Yaasmyn Fula, a tall, regal woman, removes her glasses and wipes her puffy eyes. „I’m just really, really tired,“ she says quietly. Afeni Shakur, 50, a woman of small frame and formidable grace, looks about the same. The former Black Panther who ‚Pac calls Mama seems to carry the weight of the world upon her small shoulders. Visiting hours are almost over and she returns to the hotel for an hour or two of restless rest. ‚Pac is still in cr itical condition.
Family members silently get into a plain blue Chrysler. An older man wraps his arms around Afeni, and she leans in heavily as the car drives away.
Day Five: The morning brings news of a murder in Los Angeles. A Compton bodyguard, who police say is connected with the Southside Crips, has been shot in his car and pronounced dead at Martin Luther King Jr. General Hospital at 9:53 a.m. The rum or is that the homicide was payback for Tupac being shot. „Someone just drove up alongside and blasted him,“ says LAPD homicide detective Mike Pariz. „This is only the beginning,“ says a Compton resident. „The gang shit is about to be on.„
Suge makes himself available to the LVPD for questioning. Investigators review a videotape from the MGM taken the night of the Tyson fight, which reportedly shows Tupac and others in a confrontation with an unknown black man dressed in jeans and a T-sh irt. „This happened at approximately 8:45 p.m.,“ says Sergeant Manning. „Kicking and punching were involved.“ Authorities won’t reveal whether Tupac or Suge personally assaulted the man. Once police officers arrived at the scene they asked if the victim w anted to file a complaint. He said „Forget it“ and walked away. Officers never got a name. „There is no reason to believe that these incidents are at all connected,“ says Manning.
Day Six: Tupac, his eyes closed and his remaining lung inflamed, („Ready to Die,“ cont.) struggles for his life. He’s connected to a respirator, his body convulsing violently at times. Doctors induce paralysis for fear of ‚Pac hurting himself. D r. John Fildes, chairman of the hospital’s trauma center, gives him a 20 percent chance of survival. „It’s a very fatal injury,“ he says. „A patient may die from lack of oxygen or may bleed to death.“ Despite newspaper headlines like WOUNDED TUPAC IS UNLIKELY TO LIVE, family members hold out hope.
Day Seven: „This is Dale Pugh, marketing and public relations director for the University Medical Center,“ says a hospital hotline answering machine. „This message is being recorded at approximately 5:15 p.m. on Friday, September 13. Tupac Shaku r has passed away at UMC at approximately 4:03 p.m. Physicians have listed the cause of death as respiratory failure and cardiopulmonary arrest.„
At the hospital there’s a stillness, a surreal calm. The contradictions of Tupac’s many worlds are converging. More than 150 people are gathered out front: dark young girls and their mothers, lanky young men with combs in their uncombed heads; others w earing do-rags, professional women, young Native-American ‚bangers and children-dozens and dozens of children. Detached reporters wait with the teary-eyed. A blond, blue-eyed cop stands next to a white boy with dollar signs tattooed on his neck.
Surrounded by family, Afeni dashes out of the trauma unit, quiet determination etched on her face. „She is an extremely spiritual person,“ says a family friend. „I think she knew. She had given her only son to God long before this day.“
A member of Tupac’s crew leaves the trauma room soon after. He stares down a hospital staffer and screams: „Why the fuck you let him die, yo?! Why the fuck you let him die?„
Behind him, Yaki, Tupac’s cousin, who’s been at ‚Pac’s side since forever, walks out, red in the face. Death Row artist Danny Boy comes in tube socks and slippers, tears falling from behind half-and-half glasses. He bends down on one knee as if in pra yer.
There’s a trace of crimson in the clouds. Suddenly three shining cars appear and Suge Knight steps out of a black Lexus in a Phoenix Suns T-shirt, the wound up top his head barely noticeable. His massive figure quiets the crowd. He enters the trauma ce nter hugging Danny Boy around the neck and talking quietly with members of Tupac’s family. Without his running mate Tupac, Suge seems more solitary. After a few minutes he turns to leave, taking pulls on a barely lit cigar and leaving whispers in his wake .
As the minutes go by, an almost festive atmosphere develops outside. Cars roll up bumping Tupac songs. Children begin running beyond their mothers‘ reach. One little boy in naps and slippers lies down between two parked cars, glancing up mischievously to check if anyone sees him.
The press packs it up. The crowd begins to disperse. A black Humvee circles the hospital, blaring „If I Die Tonight.“
„I’ll live eternal / Who shall I fear / Don’t shed a tear for me nigga / I ain’t happy here.“ The resoluteness in ‚Pac’s voice is cathartic. „I hope they bury me and send me to my rest / Headlines readin‘ murdered to death / My last breath….
Such eerily prophetic lines were not unusual for Tupac, who seemed to be rehearsing his death from early on. For him, it was valor over violence, destiny over death. But if his listeners were forewarned, they were still unprepared. „Now it’s real,“ say s Vibe writer Robert Morales. „This scene has lost its cherry. All the shit people have been talking in the past five years, all the dissing and posturing, has led to this. Hip hop has crossed a line, and it’s gonna be hard to cross back.“