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Stories to Tell: The Deaths of the Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac, Through the Eyes of the People Who Covered Them

Twenty-five years ago Wednesday, Biggie Smalls was killed in Los Angeles, marking the end of the most violent chapter in hip-hop’s history. For the writers and editors who covered his and Tupac’s lives and music, the tragedies stick with them to this day.

Portrait illustrations by Nicole Rifkin, design by The Ringer

Cultural advocacy typically demands that advocates live the work. It’s all in, all the time. By the 1990s, when hip-hop was still viewed by the outside world as both a fad and a menace, a generation of writers who grew up immersed in its culture took up the task of covering it from a place of love. This was advocacy journalism: The care they poured into their work provided much-needed context and helped shape how hip-hop was covered as it began to attract more mainstream attention. And while many of the more “established” outlets still operated at too great a cultural distance to cover hip-hop carefully or thoroughly—see: Newsweek’s Snoop Dogg cover in 1993—those doing it from the inside were accused of being “too close” to it. “Hell yes, we’re close to it,” journalist and author Danyel Smith wrote in 1999’s The Vibe History of Hip-Hop. “We love this shit.” They had to; they couldn’t have done the job effectively, otherwise. But the lift became exceptionally heavy when tragedy tore through the hip-hop community as its two biggest stars were killed six months apart.

2Pac, who had become one of the most polarizing figures in popular culture, died on September 13, 1996, six days after he was shot in Las Vegas. He was 25. On March 9, 1997, the Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac’s friend turned foe, was shot and killed in Los Angeles two weeks before the release of his highly anticipated second album, Life After Death. He was 24. Their deaths occurred amid rapid change within hip-hop. There was more money flowing through the business, resulting in more pressure to succeed. There was an intra-community culture war waging over its direction. And 2Pac and Biggie were the most high-profile names at the center of highly publicized bicoastal tension.

As the primary outlets covering hip-hop and the culture around it, The Source (which featured Biggie on the cover of its latest issue at the time of his death) and Vibe (which published 2Pac’s infamous prison interview and the controversial “East vs. West” cover at the conflict’s peak) covered both tragedies with the nuance and sensitivity they demanded. However, operating at close proximity to back-to-back tragedies took its toll on the journalists who were doing the work. These moments have stayed with the people responsible for covering hip-hop at the time, even scarring them in some instances. They had jobs to do, but this felt like more than work.

Alan Light remains frustrated by the notion that Vibe exacerbated the East-West conflict. Light, a founding editor of Vibe who became its second editor-in-chief in 1994, says that the tension was very real—particularly between Death Row Records and Bad Boy Records—and had become the biggest story in hip-hop by 1996. “Obviously you can’t help but look back and see how things unfolded, but you work with the cards in front of you and make decisions, and that was what everybody was talking about, so that was our responsibility to cover it,” he says. The cover story for Vibe’s September 1996 issue was an interview in which Biggie and Diddy (during his “Puff Daddy” era) expressed their desire to de-escalate the conflict. A 2016 Complex piece by journalist, author, and former Vibe editor Rob Kenner chronicles how members of the editorial staff, including Kenner himself, feared the eventual cover line—“East vs. West: Biggie and Puffy Break Their Silence”—could potentially do the exact opposite. “I made a point of stating that we must not use the phrase ‘East vs. West’ on the cover, adding that the situation was so tense that if anything happened to anyone in the Death Row or Bad Boy camps we would have ‘blood on our hands,’” Kenner wrote.

The cover became a near-instant point of contention and is still criticized for accelerating the conflict. At this point, nearly two years had passed since 2Pac was shot at Quad Recording Studios in New York, sparking his feud with Biggie and Diddy because he believed they had information about the attack—claims which both men denied. It had been a year since former Death Row CEO Suge Knight antagonized Diddy onstage at the 1995 Source Awards. It was nearly a year after Knight’s friend and bodyguard, Jake Robles, was shot and killed at a party in Atlanta—an incident Knight blamed Bad Boy for. It was months after Snoop, Kurupt, and Daz Dillinger stomped on the New York City skyline in Tha Dogg Pound’s “New York, New York” video (a shoot that nearly turned tragic when a drive-by shooter fired at Snoop and his entourage). And it was mere months after Death Row and Bad Boy’s confrontation following the 1996 Soul Train Music Awards, as well as the release of “Hit ’Em Up,” 2Pac’s tirade in which he taunts and threatens Bad Boy, Junior M.A.F.I.A., Lil’ Kim, Mobb Deep, and Chino XL. Still, Light is quick to point out that the cover didn’t cause 2Pac or Biggie’s killings. “If you don’t like the decisions that we made and you want to come for our coverage, so be it—it’s fine, we put ourselves out there,” he says. “But my fear with that is that it turns into: ‘It was all this coverage that caused the deaths.’ And when you look at the story, that’s just not the story.”

Dealing with fallout from editorial decisions is part of the job. But soon after, Light was forced to make another difficult—but necessary—choice when he had to stop the presses on Vibe’s November 1996 issue after learning about 2Pac’s death. “Literally the one time in my life where I had to say, ‘Stop the presses!,’” he recalls. From there, the staff spent 48 hours reworking the issue to address 2Pac’s killing, including wrapping a special cover around the original, which featured New Edition in the middle of their comeback. Understandably, Light says the experience was unforgettable: “That’s the stuff that stays with you for the rest of your life.”

During a 2016 Complex roundtable discussion, former Source editor-in-chief Selwyn Seyfu Hinds shared a similarly draining experience. During the six days between 2Pac’s shooting and eventual death, Hinds edited two different packages for The Source’s November 1996 issue: one in the event that he survived and another in the event he died. “All along you’re like, ‘Well, it’s 2Pac. Maybe he’ll pull through again,’” Hinds said, alluding to the Quad Recording Studios shooting. “Just the psychic dissonance of being like, ‘OK, here’s the package if 2Pac dies. Here’s the one if he lives.’ I edited both versions because we had to turn them over fast. And then finally getting that news … I remember [Source founder] Dave Mays called me … it was just like a sledgehammer.”

Light explained that the weight of covering 2Pac and Biggie’s killings played a significant role in his decision to leave Vibe in 1997. “It was so difficult and exhausting, and that feeling that I didn’t get into writing about music to have to spend all of our time writing about crime and murder investigations,” Light says. “A lot of it was just feeling like, ‘Man, I just don’t know how long I can sustain this as the focus of what our work is.’”

Reflecting on these moments is still difficult for Danyel Smith, who became Light’s successor (and who today hosts Black Girl Songbook on the Ringer Podcast Network). She remembers 1996 and 1997 as a very intense time for everyone covering hip-hop, particularly herself. She knew 2Pac; they bonded over their Bay Area ties. “Tupac was more than just an artist to me: He was a friend,” says Smith, who also wrote Biggie’s obituary for The Village Voice. In the essay she wrote in Vibe’s November 1996 issue, she remembered visiting his Oakland apartment back in 1991.

However, Smith acknowledges that the hip-hop journalists of that era—those whose infatuation with the culture began in their youth and who, in turn, channeled that feeling into their work—did not have to know 2Pac or Biggie personally to feel the pain of their deaths. Two artists who embodied what they loved about hip-hop and had the tools to help take it to the next level were gone. The hip-hop community had experienced loss before—Boogie Down Productions cofounder Scott La Rock’s 1987 killing, for example—but these felt even more intense because of the timing and circumstances. “There’s no end to that year for me and for a lot of people—it’s still going on for a lot of us,” Smith says. “It was literally a year of pain. And, to be honest, it’s not anything that I speak about lightly or often, at all.”

Smith describes the period leading up to 2Pac’s and Biggie’s deaths as an everlasting sorrow that she and many of her peers can, at best, try to push to the most distant corners of their memories. But those memories are nearly impossible to suppress for the journalists who covered both incidents.

Rob Marriott is one of the few journalists to interview both 2Pac and Biggie for print, writing about the latter for Spin in 1994 and the former for Vibe in 1996. Marriott wanted to be “Alex Haley to 2Pac’s Malcolm X” and after securing the assignment from Vibe, interviewed 2Pac in his trailer on the set of 1997’s Gang Related, the action thriller where the rapper and actor played a corrupt vice cop opposite James Belushi. One day after 2Pac was shot, Vibe sent Marriott to Las Vegas to report on what ended up being the last days of 2Pac’s life for a piece that eventually ran in the magazine’s November 1996 issue. Almost immediately after that, Marriott spent several months in Los Angeles investigating the demise of Pac’s label, Death Row Records, which had gone from hip-hop’s apex at the start of 1996 to the brink of extinction after Dr. Dre’s departure, 2Pac’s killing, and Knight’s February 1997 conviction for violating the terms of his parole. “I think I had been in L.A. for maybe four months and I was going to crack houses, talking to gangsters, and moving with a kind of uncertainty, and I was just really tired,” Marriott says. “I was supposed to go to that Vibe party.”

“That Vibe party” was the afterparty for the 1997 Soul Train Music Awards and the event Biggie was leaving when he was shot at a stoplight in Los Angeles’s Mid-Wilshire district. Marriott had given his tickets to his girlfriend at the time and boarded a flight back to New York, where he learned of Biggie’s death the following day. He says he was supposed to interview Biggie for Ego Trip, the brazen niche hip-hop magazine founded by Elliott Wilson and Sacha Jenkins, but turned the assignment down because he was exhausted following his experiences in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. “It was my exhaustion that kept me from that party,” he says.

While Marriott was preparing to leave Los Angeles, Cheo Hodari Coker was working on a profile of Biggie for an upcoming issue of Vibe. Coker, who was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times at the time, couldn’t sell his editor, Robert Hilburn, on doing a larger piece about Biggie pinned to Life After Death’s release. Unable to freelance but ultimately deciding “Fuck it,” he says, he took the assignment from Vibe, interviewing Biggie at the “Hypnotize” music video set and the Four Seasons hotel he was staying at on March 7. Coker said he didn’t sleep for two straight days after being awakened early on March 9. “I get a phone call at 5:30 in the morning,” says Coker, who wrote 2004’s Unbelievable: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G. and cowrote the screenplay for the 2009 Biggie biopic, Notorious. “It’s Mimi Valdés screaming at the top of her lungs, crying, like, ‘Is it true?’ And I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ She said: ‘Big got shot. Is it true?’” After Valdés received confirmation from New York radio station Hot 97, Coker got a phone call from Hilburn and editor Oscar Garza telling him the same. At that point, he informed Hilburn that although he probably had one of the final interviews with Biggie, it was for Vibe instead of the Los Angeles Times. Instead of firing Coker, Hilburn and Garza told him to ask Vibe whether he could use the quotes for a news article about Biggie’s murder, which he cowrote in addition to a separate Times profile of Biggie on top of the Vibe piece which he was on deadline for. “So [Vibe editor] Carter Harris comes over to my crib in North Hollywood and is basically waking me up between two-hour naps as I’m trying to finish what became ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold,’” Coker says.

Coker’s piece was the cover story for the May 1997 issue of Vibe, which also included Marriott’s piece about the fall of Death Row. Both have vivid memories of being caught up in these tragedies and both describe them as sobering moments. “I just felt profound sadness for both,” Coker says. “2Pac kept talking about his inevitable death. So when it happened, you were hurt, but you weren’t surprised. You never, ever got a fatalistic sense from Biggie at all. Biggie was like an anvil just came out of the sky. Bam. What the fuck? That’s why that one, I think, was so emotional. Because he was just getting ready to blow up on another level. And that’s what I’m haunted by.”

Marriott, who was at University Medical Center when 2Pac died and attended Biggie’s funeral procession in Brooklyn, remembers this as a jolt: This was how real it could get. “It was the end of this idea that we were floating on top of reality. Lives were lost. Blood was spilled,” he says. “Whatever your commitment to this music and culture was, somebody had sacrificed their life for it. And there was some sense of that with KRS-One and Scott La Rock, but this was so spectacular and big, and all the lights were on these murders, so for them to happen back-to-back it was kind of a wake-up call where you had to assess what your relationship was with the music and what part you played in the loss of life.”

“It was just extremely sad,” says Jeff “Chairman” Mao, who was part of the Ego Trip crew and wrote The Source’s April 1997 cover story about Biggie. “I think that in the aftermath, I wrote something for the next issue of The Source and the cover line was: ‘Now What?’ Which was a legitimate feeling and tone of the time.”

In the quarter century since 2Pac and Biggie’s killings, subsequent generations of writers have similarly been forced to ponder what comes next after tragedy. Mac Miller died of a drug overdose in 2018, about a year after Lil Peep and a year before Juice WRLD. Nipsey Hussle was shot and killed in 2019 in front of a South L.A. space he had revitalized. Like Hussle, Memphis rapper Young Dolph was shot and killed in his hometown last November. A month later, Los Angeles’s Drakeo the Ruler was fatally stabbed backstage at a festival just miles from where he grew up. The list of lives lost to violence throughout the years is long: Big L. Freaky Tah. Jam Master Jay. Mac Dre. Proof. XXXTentacion. Pop Smoke. King Von. And on and on. Although 2Pac, Biggie, and hip-hop in general, existed on different levels of popularity during the ’90s, those two are the points of reference for everyone old enough to remember what it felt like receiving the news of their deaths. Smith empathizes with the generations that have followed: “I try to let that put it in perspective, what those years were like for us. Everybody has their people or heroes. Those were ours and they were taken from us.”

Whether they occur in an era with a news cycle that’s been accelerated by the internet or happened in the days when print reigned supreme, there’s no easy way to process tragedies of this scale. There’s little time to think about the fact that you’re living through history when the task of properly documenting it is staring back at you. Many of the journalists covering hip-hop during the ’90s were unable to step outside of themselves and assess how they were covering 2Pac and Biggie’s deaths at the time. “We wanted the magazine to remain successful so that we could have a magazine—for ourselves, having jobs in the culture that he wanted to work in, and for the fans and the readership that we had,” Smith says. “So I don’t know how self-aware we were in the moment.”

Marriott also remembers being head-down in the work. “The historic element of it was way in the periphery. There was a sense that, ‘OK, this is a moment,’ but trying to live up to that moment as a journalist or writer took up all of your time and energy. There was no stepping back like, ‘Oh, let’s assess this.’ It was more like, ‘OK, how can I accurately write what the feeling is right now.’ That was a big challenge and I feel like I failed in so many ways, because when you try to bring those emotions to the words, there’s so much lost in translation.”

It can take time for reality to set in. The years pass, but the wounds don’t always heal quickly. Sometimes, they don’t at all.

Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.

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