If Don McLean had a hip-hop son there'd be an eight-minute rap equivalent to "American Pie" by now. Instead of lamenting the 1959 plane crash that took Buddy Holly's life (i.e., "the day the music died"), this epic would recount the calamities of Sept. 7, 1996.
The first thing that happened on that eventful night in Las Vegas was rap mogul Suge Knight was caught on videotape violating his parole. (He'd spend the rest of the '90s in prison paying for that crime.) Then hours later West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur was gunned down gangland style on the Vegas Strip. By most accounts, that night's violence also set the stage for another traumatic rap slaying: the assassination of Brooklyn's Biggie Smalls (aka Notorious B.I.G., whose legal name was Christopher Wallace). He was murdered six months later at a Los Angeles party.
Rap music didn't die that September night, but it was never the same either, especially gangsta hotbed Death Row Records. Death Row was founded by Knight, an L.A. Mob Piru Blood gang member, who envisioned his label as an updated Motown -- a family rap affair. But whereas Berry Gordy's middle-class pop dream came with a strong sense of self-empowerment mixed with assimilation (Motown singers took etiquette classes), Death Row's ethos was marked by wanton self-destruction (office beat-downs, gunplay and attack dogs), and a fuck-off to White America, a gesture devoured by many white youths.
But like Motown, Death Row, and its all-star lineup of Shakur, Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre, managed to do what so few other record companies have done over the decades: perfectly capture, or even define, the sound of its time.
Shakur's murder and Knight's incarceration marked the effective end of Death Row's wild, wild West show, while the killing of Smalls, who recorded for Puffy Combs' East Coast label, simply added to the sense of hip-hop despair.
Six years later, both killings, witnessed by dozens, remain unsolved.
The whodunit has become something of an obsession for the media, as various theories of gang rivalries, bicoastal rap battles, monies owed and promises broken get trotted out. Publication after publication, as well as TV outlets and Web sites, have taken their best shot at cracking the case.
Recently, journalists have found a new ally in their never-ending quest, the talkative Russell Poole. He's the former Los Angeles detective who quit the force over the Smalls investigation, claiming top brass wouldn't let him follow leads that pointed toward "gangsta cops" who, as part of the city's larger 1998 Rampart Division police corruption scandal, were mixed up with Death Row Records.
Poole suggests Knight was behind the murder of both rappers, snuffing out Shakur, who was about to bolt from Death Row, and then setting up the Smalls killing through rogue LAPD officer David Mack.
Since going public with his claim, which came in the form of a lawsuit filed against the LAPD, Poole has become a favorite of the press, an authoritative figure willing to tell an intriguing tale on the record.
He argues that in an effort to curb negative publicity and to protect black officers targeted by Poole for their involvement with Death Row, LAPD's black chief Bernard Parks refused to let him pursue his leads. "Criminal cops get protected because the department wants to avoid scandal and publicity," he tells author Randall Sullivan in the crusading new book "Labyrinth: A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G: The Implication of Death Row Records' Suge Knight and the Origins of the Los Angeles Police Scandal."
Poole could be right, but logic often runs counter to his claims. After all, Los Angeles' recent Rampart scandal caused an avalanche of negative publicity with lurid revelations about dozens of allegedly crooked cops committing perjury and planting evidence. If the LAPD is protecting its criminal cops, it's not doing a very thorough job of it. And against that backdrop, even if a deeper Death Row/LAPD connection had been unearthed, would it have really further tainted the already disgraced department?
Plus, Mack, Knight's apparent point man inside the LAPD, is already serving 14 years for robbing a bank. Wouldn't detectives jump at the chance of nailing down its most notorious unsolved murder if it could pin the crime on a convicted felon?
Nonetheless, Poole's enticing narrative has become a media favorite, retold in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, on PBS and VH1 specials, and even in Salon. More recently, Nick Broomfield's latest documentary, "Biggie and Tupac," embraces Poole as a truth teller. And just last month, Smalls' family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the LAPD, charging it acted recklessly by refusing to investigate whether its officers were involved in Smalls' murder. Poole, according to Sullivan, is the first witness lawyers want to depose.
So, is the former detective a dogged crusader with the keys to solving two famous crimes or a conspiracy crank with an ax to grind?
Clearly, Sullivan thinks Poole -- who lands 450 mentions in the book and even gets face time on "Labyrinth's" cover alongside Smalls, Knight and Tupac -- is a hero. (Excerpts from Poole's laudable performance reviews -- "He is a dependable, hard-working and loyal employee" -- even preface various chapters.) As a forceful author, Sullivan does a masterly job of juggling the dense thicket of facts and navigating the crowded chronology of the case. But he's also busy revving the engine, encouraging Poole to connect any dots left untouched.
Together they set out to prove why hip-hop's most famous murders haven't been cracked. "The police," says Poole, "don't want to solve them." It's an extraordinary charge, and those familiar with the minutiae of the investigations may hear a ring of truth in "Labyrinth," but also have trouble accepting the entire what-if story line.
Poole's wide-ranging account suffers from the fact that it springs from just one man. A chorus of accusers (even a small chorus) would have been more convincing. (Outside voices do chime in from time to time to bolster Poole's claim, but none from beginning to end.) Poole's fallback position is that he doesn't actually know the truth, he just wanted a chance to investigate further, but the fiery "Labyrinth" reads like it has all the information it needs to point fingers.
Midway through, Poole insists that the official police report, or the so-called murder book, of the Smalls killing had been seriously compromised. "So much was purged or added to change the appearance of the book on the Smalls case that to me it bordered on fraud," he tells Sullivan.
Serious stuff. But exactly what material was "purged or added"? Readers don't get any substantive examples. Nor do they hear from any other LAPD detectives who support Poole's claims about information being "purged."
Overall, in order to accept Poole's hunch about the Shakur and Smalls killings, readers have to buy into the detective's central theory that there existed a "cadre of black officers whose involvement with Death Row Records superseded their loyalty to the [police] department," as Sullivan writes.
Poole is even more direct: "I had become convinced that LAPD officers affiliated with Death Row Records had been involved in the conspiracy to kill Biggie Smalls."
While a few crooked cops clearly had documented ties with Death Row, Sullivan and Poole fail to unearth enough new information to back up the impression they create that the cadre bordered on an underground, renegade force -- or to present a rationale for why the cops would kill on Knight's command.
Yet the LAPD/Death Row relationship is the linchpin to Poole's theory: "[Knight was] very shrewd and he knew police departments wouldn't let their officers work for him or his organization. So the ones who crossed the line and worked for them anyway -- he had them by the balls. And when you have policemen in your pocket, you are one powerful gangster."
In other words, once cops accepted Knight's money -- even for doing legitimate security work -- they were somehow committed to a world of crime and had to answer to Knight because they could never come clean to their bosses.
The problem is, Sullivan reports that one cop who did Death Row security work "without proper authorization" later acknowledged it and received a 24-day suspension, proving any Death Row-affiliated cops clearly had an out; simply take a three-week suspension. Poole seems to suggests that the price was too high, so the cops were trapped in Death Row's world of crime.
Meanwhile, Sullivan paints other theories in similarly broad strokes, especially when targeting p.c. villains who supposedly protected black criminals. Sullivan writes that Knight "was adept at pandering to the fatuous platitudes of white liberals like Warren Beatty who wanted to believe that Knight's 'act' was some useful form of performance art." Did Beatty ever serve as an apologist for Knight's criminal behavior? If so, Sullivan doesn't document it for readers.
The author also resorts to the occasional cheap shot, such as ridiculing the mothers of Shakur and Smalls for trying to create lasting, peaceful images around their sons' legacies. "One had to wonder if either mother had ever listened to her son's records," he writes.
And in one instance there's been a curious case of air brushing. Sullivan's book was born out of a lengthy article he first published in the June 7, 2001, issue of Rolling Stone. In it, he wrote about prison inmate Mark Hylland, who insists he was present when Suge Knight put the hit out on Smalls. Hylland, according to Sullivan, says he met Knight in a Denny's parking lot where Knight opened his car trunk and passed out cash to a crooked LAPD cop who then gave it to Hylland to pass to the man who would buy the gun used to kill Smalls.
As the L.A. Weekly has pointed out, Sullivan wrote that the Denny's encounter took place in early 1997, but Knight was incarcerated from late 1996 until last August. So he couldn't have met with Hylland, or anybody else, in a restaurant parking lot in early 1997.
Sullivan still retells Hylland's tale in "Labyrinth," but suddenly there is no date attached to the Denny's rendezvous.
As the book opens, Poole plausibly suggests that his beef is with the LAPD, which refused to let him follow the clues. Eventually, though, it becomes clear Poole thinks anyone who's not reading from his script is in on the cover-up, whether it's reporters, editors and even the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, or cops from nearby Compton, Calif., and Las Vegas. "The Vegas guys told us that the main reason they would never solve this case was that the politicians didn't want them to," Poole insists. Unfortunately, nobody from the Las Vegas police department is offered a chance to rebut Poole's extremely serious, albeit vague, accusation.
This approach is common throughout the book, as Poole is given the first and last word on virtually every subject. For instance, Sullivan recounts the work of another LAPD detective, Kenneth Knox, who was suspicious about cops working for Death Row. According to Poole, Knox was sure he had discovered "a giant scandal in the making," but Knox's attempt to unravel the alliance was blocked by department brass. Or so Poole assures us. Unfortunately, readers never hear from Knox himself.
(At least I don't think Knox is quoted directly anywhere in the book's 300 pages; it's almost impossible to tell without rereading the whole thing. Despite a roster of 130 characters, "Labyrinth" doesn't come with an index. There are no footnotes either.)
Also, Poole's skeptical colleagues are never heard from. Readers, though, might be curious to know that last year at least one LAPD colleague, Dan Schatz, who headed the muckraking Rampart Task Force, dismissed Poole's theory as a "joke," telling the Los Angeles Daily News that Poole had become "obsessed" with the Smalls case, had greatly exaggerated his own role in it and had drawn conclusions that weren't supported by the facts. Schatz also said he warned journalists against basing too much of their work on Poole's untested theories.
That's not to say Schatz is right, or that cops haven't botched the Shakur and Smalls investigations -- it's impossible to read "Labyrinth" and think that they haven't, or that the LAPD isn't highly dysfunctional. But Schatz's perspective offers a fuller picture of the dynamics at work.
What's so curious about "Labyrinth" is that it speeds right past the most obvious reason why the killings remain unsolved: a lack of cooperation from witnesses.
According to Sullivan, "at least a hundred witnesses watched" as a white Cadillac pulled up alongside the BMW Shakur was riding in on Sept. 7, and opened fire as the rapper frantically tried to find safety in the back seat. So why didn't 70 or 80 of those witnesses rush forward to tell the Las Vegas police what they saw?
Months later, Los Angeles detectives faced the same problem: "The biggest obstacle the police faced in investigating the murder of Biggie Smalls was that almost no one who had been present at the scene wanted to talk to the cops," Sullivan writes, but he shows little interest in asking why that is.
Poole himself stresses, "Murders don't go unsolved when the victim is a celebrity who gets shot dead in the street in front of dozens of witnesses who can identify the killers." If Poole and Sullivan had found a dozen-plus witnesses to say they went to the police but authorities weren't interested in solving the crimes, the duo would have a much stronger case.
But talk to detectives who've investigated the rappers' killings and they'll tell you the cases could be solved if witnesses would tell everything they know. Instead, as often happens with gang-related shootings, a code of silence has surrounded the cases from Day 1.
And that may be the saddest footnote of all to the murders of Shakur and Smalls, that in death the larger-than-life stars were reduced to just another pair of gang bangers.