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Tupac Shakur was and remains one of the most iconic artists in the history of hip hop – and his untimely death has only added to his legendary status. On September 13, 1996, he died of his wounds, having been hit in a drive-by shooting. A police officer arriving at the scene bore witness to the rapper’s shocking last words before losing consciousness – but they would only contribute to the enduring mystery surrounding his killer’s identity.

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Tupac was born in New York City – and his life was engaged with struggle and conflict from the start. His mother was Afeni Shakur, an activist and member of the Black Panther Party. She became pregnant with Tupac while on bail for terrorism charges, having been accused of planning a New York bombing campaign. Despite having no formal legal training, she would successfully defend herself at trial – and she was acquitted along with the rest of the so-called “Panther 21,” a month before giving birth.

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Afeni had originally given Tupac the name Lesane Parish Crooks. When he was less than a year old, though, his mother renamed him after the Peruvian revolutionary Túpac Amaru. Afeni reportedly explained, “I wanted him to have the name of revolutionary, indigenous people in the world. I wanted him to know he was part of a world culture and not just from a neighborhood.”

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Tupac’s father, Billy Garland, wouldn’t remain an active figure in his life, though. Communication with the family fell off when Tupac was around five years old, and the man didn’t see his son for almost twenty years. Speaking to an interviewer for Vibe magazine, Tupac confessed, “I felt I needed a daddy to show me the ropes, and I didn’t have one.”

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When hewas 13 years old, Tupac’s family moved from New York to Baltimore, and then, in 1988, to Marin City, California. It was here that Afeni began to struggle with drug addiction. Tupac later wrote the song “Dear Mama,” exploring the challenges of his youth and his mother’s addiction.

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As a teenager, Tupac socialized easily and his sense of humor allowed him to mingle with a range of groups. While still on the east coast, he attended the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he performed in Shakespeare plays and in ballet. At the same time, within his circle, he was making his first forays into rap music.

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Indeed, the true beginnings of his music career were seeded in 1989, when he started recording under the name MC New York. Then he was signed by hip-hop group Digital Underground, initially as a dancer. His first appearance on a record then came with the single “Same Song,” released in 1991.

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By this point, Tupac had adopted the stage name 2Pac, and he would release his first album soon after, with 2Pacalypse Now coming out in late 1991. The record marked a significant new direction for rap music and particularly so on the west coast. Tupac’s lyrics came from the heart and dealt with the issues that he was seeing in his life.

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The album becme the subject of controversy, though, after it was blamed for having encouraged a teenager to kill a state trooper in Texas. Vice President Dan Quayle spoke out against the album directly and media criticism followed. In a later LA Times interview, Tupac explained that he’d simply set out to write about issues affecting young black men. He said, “When I said that, I didn’t know that I was gonna tie myself down to just take all the blunts and hits for all the young black males, to be the media’s kicking post for young black males.”

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2Pacalypse Now was followed by Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z… in 1993. As with the earlier record, Tupac didn’t shy away from sharing his views. This second outing was even more successful than his first release. Meanwhile, Tupac had formed the group Thug Life in 1992, which had its first release with Thug Life: Volume 1 in 1994.

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And Tupac didn’t slow down, releasing his third solo album, Me Against the World, in 1995. “Dear Mama” was the album’s first single, and it was enormously popular, climbing to the top of the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles chart and making it into the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100. He had set out to write an album that dug a little deeper, with more personal lyrics than his previous work, and the result is considered by many to be the best release of his career.

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In between writing and recording, Tupac also began to take on film roles. His first starring performance was as a gangster in Juice, released in 1992. A Vanity Fair article covering the highs and lows of Tupac’s acting career summed him up as being “one of the most charismatic and important artists of the past century [and] one hell of an actor, as well.”

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While he was busy with film and music work, Tupac also became involved in a number of criminal cases. A gun registered to him was connected to the fatal shooting of a six-year-old boy in 1992 – but no witnesses came forward and no charges were ultimately filed.

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Tupac was connected to another shooting the following year – this time of two off-duty police officers who had apparently gotten into a drunken altercation with him. The police officers were discovered to have possessed a stolen gun, and one was found to have lied to investigators. All charges would later be dropped, and a civil case ended with a settlement.

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The rapper was later sentenced to jail time and community service in 1994 after assaulting artist Chauncey Wynn of the group M.A.D. Tupac had also apparently been due to star in the film Menace II Society, but was dropped after attacking its director, Allen Hughes – which again saw him serving prison time. His case wasn’t helped by the fact that he had bragged about the assault on the show Yo! MTV Raps.

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That said, Tupac was no stranger to being on the receiving end of violence, either. In late 1994, having been offered a gig by James Rosemond aka Jimmy Henchman, he was robbed at gunpoint in the lobby of Quad Studios. When Tupac resisted, he was shot five times. A photo taken at the scene shows Tupac flipping off onlookers as he was taken out on a stretcher. Years later, a man would say that Rosemond had paid him to rob Tupac, though there was significant speculation at the time that the rapper Biggie Smalls had been involved.

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The following day, Tupac appeared in court in a wheelchair to receive the verdict against him in an ongoing criminal trial. In 1993, Tupac had been involved in the alleged sexual assault of a woman in his hotel room, along with two other men. Having been found guilty of sexual abuse, he was sentenced for a stint of up to four and a half years in prison. He served a little under a year when Death Row Records agreed to pay his bail, pending his appeal, on the condition that he sign with them.

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The rapper was also concerned for the people who were financially dependent on him – including his mother and sister, his sister’s child and several other family members. According to The New Yorker, he told one of his attorneys one day, “If I don’t work, these kids don’t eat.” The offer from Death Row Records was a lifeline, not just for the rapper but for everyone who depended on him.

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After his release from prison, Tupac released his fourth album, which would be his final release before his death. All Eyez on Me came out in 1996, and the double album covered two of the three albums that he had been contracted to produce for Death Row Records in exchange for his bail money. Explaining the album’s title to MTV, Tupac said, “That’s how I feel it is. I got the police watching me, the Feds… I got the jealous homeboys and I got the homies that roll with me. Everybody’s looking to see what I’mma do now so All Eyez on Me.”

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Tupac is said to have approached all of his music with a sense of urgency – and particularly so after his longest stint in prison. He pushed himself and his collaborators to get songs done quickly, rather than perfectly. “We don’t have time… we don’t have the luxury to spend all of this time doing one song,” he is quoted as saying to his crew by Australia’s ABC Radio National. And while he didn’t know it, time was indeed running short for him.

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Late one September night in 1996, Tupac was driving to a club in Las Vegas with Suge Knight, the CEO of Death Row Records. The two were stopped by police at close to 11 p.m. for playing music too loudly, and due to the fact that they were driving without displaying license plates – however, the pair were let go without incident. Just minutes later, they stopped to talk to two women in another vehicle, with Tupac standing through the sunroof.

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It was then that a white Cadillac pulled up next to them. Gunshots were fired from the Cadillac. As Tupac ducked back into the vehicle, he was hit multiple times, with one bullet passing through his lung. Suge Knight, meanwhile, was seemingly hit in the head. Suge later told police, “Everything happened so fast.”

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Despite his injuries, Tupac apparently first expressed concern for his companion. As Suge tried to shelter him, Tupac reportedly said, “You the one they shot in the head.” Suge then swung the car round, with both of them inside. Seeking help, he flagged down emergency responders – and was placed face down on the street by the cops, before they established that he had been a victim of the shooting.

 

 

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It was at this point that police officer Chris Caroll attended the scene. He was the first officer to reach the vehicle after the shooting occurred. After he opened the car’s passenger door, Tupac fell, and the officer held him. He then repeatedly asked the rapper who was to blame for the shooting.

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In an interview published by Vegas Seven, Carroll described the moment. Tupac was attempting to call to Suge, while ignoring the police officer’s questions. Then the artist seemed to reach a moment of peace. Carroll recalled, “He looked at me and he took a breath to get the words out, and he opened his mouth, and I thought I was actually going to get some cooperation. And then the words came out. ‘Fuck you.’”

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This would prove to be Tupac’s last moment of consciousness at the scene. He was rushed to hospital and only had brief moments of awareness after this point. Six days later he died as a result of his injuries on September 13.

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In an interview with the LA Times, Tupac had laid out his position. “I am not a gangster and never have been,” he said. “I’m not the thief who grabs your purse. I’m not the guy who jacks your car. I’m not down with people who steal and hurt others. I’m just a brother who fights back.”

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And that fight meant fighting the police and the system. A friend of Tupac’s, Man Man, told The New Yorker, “People would test him and Pac felt, ‘I have to prove that I’m hard.’ I would say to him, ‘Most gangsters are people who wish they didn’t have to be hard.’”

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The police seemingly struggled to make headway in their investigations into the shooting, with a lack of cooperation from possible witnesses apparently playing a part. Police documents filed at the time reportedly stated, “It took three days to get Suge Knight in for an interview. He arrived with three attorneys in tow. Knight provided no information to aid our investigation.”

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In he police interview, Suge apparently shared his frustration at the failing of Tupac’s security team, however. The star’s bodyguards had been in the car behind but appeared to do nothing to defend the rapper. The music mogul also talked about the success of his record label and said that his competitors were jealous. He maintained, though, that he hadn’t seen the shooter or their vehicle, and he told the police that he had no reason to think that he or Tupac had been a target prior to the attack.

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In the years since, many theories have circulated about Tupac’s death – some of which are more implausible than others. And even now, decades after the shooting, there has been no official answer. The case remains unsolved and technically open – and therefore ripe for speculation.

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According to Chris Carroll, the killer’s identity has been known all along, though. In an interview with KSNV News, he said, “We’ve all known, law enforcement, people out on the streets, the gang community, everybody knows that Orlando Anderson was the shooter in this case. We’ve known that for years.” And it was a theory that certainly seemed plausible.

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Earlier in the evening, Tupac and Suge had attended a Mike Tyson fight at the MGM Grand. On their way out of the venue, the pair and their entourage came across Anderson – a reputed member of the Southside Crips who had apparently robbed a Death Row associate the month before. An altercation ensued, with the venue’s security intervening to break up the fight.

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However, police didn’t appear in any rush to convict Anderson in the aftermath of the shooting. An investigation by the LA Times claimed that the police had only interviewed Anderson once, suggesting that they had lost interest in him as a suspect. Anderson himself was later killed in a gang-related shooting.

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Duane “Keefe D” Davis, Orlando Anderson’s uncle, came forward with a confession in 2018 that implicated his deceased nephew. He claimed that the younger man had gone after Tupac seeking revenge for having been beaten up by the rapper and his team. He was only speaking out at this point, he said, as he had cancer and wanted the truth to be known.

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Although this would appear to largely settle the question, other less credible theories have persisted. One rumor has it that the shooting was orchestrated, if not carried out, by Suge Knight himself. Tupac had expressed an interest in leaving Death Row Records, and many of those close to him felt that this could have been reason enough for the CEO to take action.

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An anonymous source from the music business told a New Yorker reporter, “If Tupac had left Death Row… it would have been worse than devastating. It’s an insult. It’s a public slap in the face. It is not tolerable.” And it can’t be denied that Suge and Death Row made a lot of money from Tupac’s music after he died.

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Suge has said on the record, though, that he had nothing to do with the shooting – and there’s no evidence of any kind that would implicate him. Furthermore, Chris Carroll has been firm in his own belief that the CEO was not involved. Indeed, the police officer recalled that Suge had shown real concern for the rapper when he was on the scene. “It wasn’t acting,” Billboard quoted him saying. “You could see it was the heat of the moment. This is not the guy who had him killed. It’s ridiculous.”

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The rapper Biggie Smalls – aka Christopher Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G. – has also been linked to the murder, and it would seem much more credibly. He and Tupac had been friends in better times, but the relationship had soured by the middle years of the 1990s. Tupac firmly believed that the other artist had prior knowledge of his 1994 shooting, despite there being a lack of evidence proving this.

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As the feud escalated, the two musicians had traded insults which grew steadily more personal over time. Shortly after the 1994 shooting, Biggie released a single called “Who Shot Ya?” Tupac followed this with a song of his own, “Hit ‘Em Up,” in which he said he had slept with Wallace’s estranged wife, Faith Evans, and threatened to kill him.

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The LA Times investigation, meanwhile, claimed that Biggie was indeed involved in the shooting that ultimately killed Tupac. The paper reported that he not only encouraged Crips members to kill Tupac, but that he offered to pay them $1 million to do so and even supplied the gun for the attack. Just six months later, though, Biggie would also be fatally shot.

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Perhaps the strangest idea of all, though, is that Tupac didn’t actually die. There have been a handful of reports of sightings, and there are people who claim to have been involved in smuggling Tupac out of the country so that he could start a new life in Cuba or New Zealand – though these don’t bear much scrutiny.

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Tupac was an undeniably complicated and conflicted figure. An enormously popular artist, he drew attention to issues that society still struggles with today. Despite the sense of social responsibility on show in his work, however, and the way that he stepped up to support his extended family, he also wholeheartedly embraced many aspects of the gangster lifestyle.

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He made several attempts to reconcile these sides of himself – for example getting the phrase “Thug Life” tattooed across his midriff; he also sought to reclaim the phrase, however, with the backronym, “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone.” And although we may never know exactly why Tupac died, his influence and legacy will undoubtedly live on.