Slow Burn: The podcast exploring the murders of Biggie and Tupac

A new series of Slow Burn re-examines the deaths of two of music’s biggest stars. ‘We still haven’t had closure,’ says its host

On the night of 29 November 1994, Tupac Shakur arrived at a recording studio in New York. Having risen to stardom via his debut album 2Pacalypse Now and 1993 commercial breakthrough Strictly 4 My NIGGAZ, the Californian rapper was now on trial for possession of illegal weapons and sexual assault after a woman accused him and his entourage of raping her in a New York hotel room 12 months earlier. The jury was almost ready to deliver its verdict, and the planned recording session – with Brooklyn MC Little Shawn – promised a brief respite from these legal woes, and to net the rapper a much-needed $7,000.

But as Tupac entered the lobby at Quad Studios, three waiting gunmen opened fire. He survived, and accused New York gangsta rap figurehead Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace of setting up the hit. This ignited a conflict between hip-hop’s east and west coast factions that would outlive its key protagonists; Tupac was shot dead in September 1996 and Biggie was killed in a drive-by the following March. Both murders remain unsolved.

“They were two of the biggest celebrities of the 90s,” says Joel Anderson, culture journalist and host of the latest season of Slate’s acclaimed podcast Slow Burn, which investigates the lives and deaths of Tupac and Biggie, AKA Notorious BIG. “They were black. They died so young. And we still don’t have any resolution about what both their careers and their deaths meant.”

Anderson is a reporter in search of that closure. Where the first two series of Slow Burn, presented by Leon Neyfakh, explored the respective impeachment trials of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, season three exits the White House to examine what Anderson describes on the show as “a friendship gone bad that turned into a nationwide turf war”. Anderson heard the news of Tupac’s death while driving home from college. “All the people on the radio were crying,” he says. “It was just this huge outpouring of grief. And I remember this paucity of information, not being able to get the information on it that I wanted. That’s the way things happened back then. There wasn’t the proliferation of media. I didn’t even have a cellphone.”

A scene from Biggie and Tupac, Nick Broomfield’s 2002 documentary.
A scene from Biggie and Tupac, Nick Broomfield’s 2002 documentary. Photograph: Allstar/Lions Gate

Slow Burn does not play the story as some whodunnit. “If people think we’re gonna solve it, they’ll be disappointed,” he says. “I didn’t want the show to be some kind of autopsy. A lot of documentaries and books have focused on that aspect, and have all ended up at the same place. We have a rough idea of what happened, but it’s doubtful these murders will ever be solved. The police couldn’t do it. But we won’t run away from discussing what happened there – and why it wasn’t solved. And we’re gonna talk about how some don’t even believe Tupac is dead in the first place,” he adds, referencing conspiracy theories that the rapper had faked his death (a scenario that inspired one of comic Dave Chappelle’s best sketches).

Instead of re-raking the over-familiar “Tupac v Biggie” narrative, Anderson approaches his subject from new angles. Just as Slow Burn’s first two series brought to life the fevered eras of Watergate and the Lewinsky scandal, Anderson says the third aims to “examine and unearth strange subplots and the hidden characters of the story”, focusing on unexplored details and bringing the background to the foreground. At the podcast’s centre is a US still reeling from the 1992 LA riots, and in the grip of moral hysteria over gangsta rap. We meet lawyers who tried to keep defendants accused of killing police officers away from death row by citing the influence of rap, and hear the actor and National Rifle Association (NRA) spokesperson Charlton Heston reciting the lyrics to Ice-T’s Cop Killer in his campaign to get the rapper’s band Body Count kicked off their record label.

“It’s crazy to think there were Capitol Hill hearings about the music of the Geto Boys and Tupac,” Anderson says, of the era’s febrile mood. “But gangsta rap was much more explicit about what was going on in the artists’ communities, talking about real violence, real sexism, real police brutality – things that people did not talk about in that way before. It was jarring. But it’s incredible to listen to the audio of those hearings; they really thought Tupac was gonna encourage a whole generation of cop killers.”

The podcast also investigates the issues that gave rise to gangsta rap and the shockwaves it sent. “We’re exploring the over-policing of minority communities, the discourse over what is or isn’t acceptable for the ‘public square’, and issues of sexism and misogyny,” he says. “Tupac is a guy who went to prison after being convicted of sexual abuse, who raised the stakes of the beef by boasting that he slept with Biggie’s wife Faith Evans [on the 1996 track Hit ’Em Up]. The violent sexism in this story is something people really didn’t grapple with at the time; nobody sat down and said: ‘He’s using a woman as a pawn in a revenge scheme against his enemy. There’s a problem with that.’”

Joel Anderson, presenter of Slow Burn, Podcast.
Joel Anderson, presenter of the podcast Slow Burn. Photograph: No credit

Anderson’s wide-ranging and restless deep dive turns up vivid details and powerful vignettes. Tupac is cavity-searched by prison guards in front of his attorney, purely to humiliate him. Lest his ears be sullied, a judge wears earplugs as Tupac’s Soulja’s Story is played as evidence during a trial involving the murder of a policeman. Veteran civil-rights activists demand gangsta rappers be censored, and stage the ceremonial destruction of their tapes and CDs.

But Slow Burn’s focus on the wider picture never loses sight of its central characters. Anderson describes Tupac as “fearless, to the point of recklessness”, depicting him as mercurial, brilliant and troubled. “He’s endlessly fascinating. The emotion and pain he put into his music spoke to people. To my interviewees, he was like a whirlwind that changed their lives, no matter how long or brief their relationship,” says Anderson. “Meanwhile, with Biggie, the stories people told about him were about hanging out with him, smoking weed and eating pizza in the neighbourhood where he was born, lived and died. People were awed by Tupac, but they felt so much warmth for Biggie; he touched them deeply.”

It is a story that Anderson believes contains lessons for the US and that still resonates two decades on. “I keep thinking of the Black Lives Matter movement,” he says. “We still don’t appreciate or protect black lives the way we do others. We’re still grappling with what it means to be black in America, and what’s going on in our communities, and if we’re going to get treated in the same way as everybody else.

“Law enforcement doesn’t necessarily take crime in poor black and brown communities seriously. You can see that in how these murders have gone unsolved. These two famous, talented people that emerged from really poor communities, they were like the best of us,” Anderson adds. “And they were gone, just like that [snaps fingers]. We didn’t appreciate them while they were here and now we don’t have any closure.”

While Slow Burn never reveals a culprit for the murders, the stories that it tells – the doomed heroes it portrays, the injustices it illuminates, and how they endure to this day – bring us closer to understanding this bloody chapter in hip-hop history.

New episodes of Slow Burn: Biggie and Tupac are available Wednesdays


Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

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