Date: 2Pac: September 13, 1996 / Biggie: March 9, 1997
The Moment: On the night of September 13, 1996, Tupac Shakur and Suge Knight left the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon boxing match at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. On the way to their car, they got into a brawl inside the hotel. On the way to a club, a white sedan pulled up next to Suge and Tupac, not three blocks from the Las Vegas strip, and fired multiple gunshots at them, killing Shakur. Knight lived.
Less than six months later, the Notorious B.I.G. was on a trip to Los Angeles to promote his upcoming album and appear at the Soul Train Awards when a driver pulled up to the rapper’s convoy 50 yards from the awards show after-party and a gunman fired several shots, hitting Big four time. After the rapper was rushed to the hospital, doctors pronounce him dead less than an hour later.
The Impact: “Earth-shattering” would not be overstating the case. After Shakur’s death, the rap media—which had already been fanning the flames of an east coast-west coast rivalry—declared this an outright act of war, specifically between the L.A.-based Death Row Records and New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment. 2Pac was cast as a martyr by his fans, and by the rest of America, as empirical evidence of rap’s uber-violent culture caving in on itself. Bad Boy vehemently denied any involvement in Shakur’s death.
After the Notorious B.I.G.’s death, the rap world imploded in a state of mourning, with all parties decrying violence. Big’s Life After Death, released less than three weeks later, became one of the most critically and commercially successful rap albums of all time, selling 690,000 in its first week, eventually earning Diamond status certification from the RIAA.
The Upshot: On a smaller scale, Death Row Records entered a state of decline following the death of Tupac. Bad Boy flourished as the domineering force in rap for a couple of years thereafter, but eventually other rap scenes and crews (Roc-a-Fella, No Limit, So So Def) took over trendsetting for the genre. On a larger scale, everything changed.
Like John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, and so many before them, the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. are held up in music history as two of the art’s greatest and most preventable losses, and the worldwide reverberation was on a scale in the ’90s only matched by the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994.
Both artists released posthumous albums—in ‘Pac’s case, several—and absurd conspiracy theories about their murders (e.g. ‘Pac was still alive; B.I.G. was done in by Diddy) persisted. Several suspects, trials, and wrongful death claims later, and neither murder has been definitively solved by the L.A.P.D., who were accused of everything from negligence to outright cover-ups.
The shootings were an indictment of rap’s lyrical violence, manifest in its culture, as well as the media and fans who were complicit in escalating the conflict, and spoke to a larger issue about the state of and reasons for urban violence in America, and to this day, still forces the entire culture of hip-hop to consider what a reckless culture of violence could mean for all of us.
No outsized “beef” since has lead to the kind of fatal violence Big and ‘Pac faced. And on September 9, 1999, the mothers of both rappers, whose legacies and influence on contemporary music is still seen today, appeared together on stage at the 1999 MTV VMA’s, the closest and saddest thing the world would ever get to a sense of closure and resolution on the matter, holographic nonsense notwithstanding.