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Outlaw Vern Reports On BIGGIE & TUPAC From SIFF!!

SPOILER ALERT !!

Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here with some Rumblings From The Lab.

Vern is one of my very favorite Internet writers about anything, much less movies. A reformed outlaw who channelled his energy into writing about films after his last stint inside, he’s been a constant presence on the web for the last few years, and he’s got a voice all his own. Here he is with a look at the new documentary from the always controversial Nick Broomfield:

Dearest Harry and Moriarty,

It has been a while since I’ve had my works printed on your page there (ain’t it cool news) but this time I got somethin that I think will move your heart. I know how much Tupac and Biggie Smalls mean to you young people today so I’m sure both of you are very anxious to see BIGGIE AND TUPAC, the new documentary about them from Nick Broomfield (who directed the Heidi Fleiss picture and maybe more in this vein, KURT AND COURTNEY). Because Tupac means to a young man like Harry or Moriarty the same thing Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash meant to their dads, only with more tattoos and brighter colored suits.

This is the story of Tupac and Biggie, who started as friends, then had a rivalry, then both were murdered in what was seen as the culmination of an “east coast, west coast” rap feud. It is told through photos, blurry archival video, but mostly Broomfield’s usual style of interviews, which often come as a surprise to the interviewees. He talks to many friends of the rappers, bodyguards, police, witnesses. The obvious reason why this is an important story: these are two of the biggest stars in music, they were murdered less than a year apart, and neither of their murders have been solved.

How is this possible? If Carmen Electra and some dude from ER got murdered, do you think they’d just let the case sit there and collect dust? I think the shooters would have their death certificates on Access Hollywood by the end of the week. But America doesn’t treat rap stars that way. David Letterman made fun of Tupac in his monologue for the days he sat in a hospital dying. And there’s a reason why they don’t want this case solved. More on that in five paragraphs.

Biggie and TupacAnyway, the movie. It starts by establishing a little background on Tupac and Biggie which might surprise you. You might know Tupac went to a fancypants high school for the performing arts – wait till you see the school, and the goofy white dude who became a father figure to him. Biggie went to a private school too. They say he was protected from the street violence he rhymed about, and his mom says that the guy who grew up in a “one room shack” in his lyrics musta been somebody else. His mom, Voletta Wallace, is the strongest presence in the movie – a smart lady with what sounds like a slight African accent of some kind, who talks lovingly about her son’s poetry and is able to round up some of his friends to talk to Broomfield. They seem like they would do anything for her, even talk about Biggie’s death.

Without her help, though, most people don’t want to talk. One of Biggie’s childhood friends talks to Broomfield in a grocery store, and claims that the stories about him selling crack aren’t true. I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth or not. Either way, the movie argues that these two weren’t exactly the thugs they portrayed themselves as in their lyrics, but were definitely gifted men with magnetic charisma that drew people to them. But then there was that Suge Knight dude.

See, Suge Knight is the gangster turned football player turned CEO of Death Row Records, the label that signed up Tupac after he got out of prison. Suge is a gigantic guy with a gentle voice, known for smoking cigars, for decorating himself and his office red, the color of the Mob Piru Bloods he grew up with, and for maybe or maybe not hanging Vanilla Ice off a balcony to convince him to sign back the rights to “Ice Ice Baby” to the dude that actually wrote the lyrics. He made the brutal competition of the record industry literal, taking part in many beatings, extortions, threatening people, pissing into a champagne flute and making people drink it. So it’s not all that far-fetched when the movie argues that he may have orchestrated the murders of both Tupac (who he owed millions of dollars, and who was planning to leave the label) and Biggie (whose murder looked like a retaliation for Tupac’s, to draw the blame away from Death Row).

Believe it or not I know a thing or two about all this crap. For example the MC is the guy who raps, the DJ is the guy with the record player.

Actually, I do know a little bit – I saw WELCOME TO DEATH ROW, a documentary about the history of Death Row Records that pretty well proves it was funded by drug money. And I’m sure Harry and Mori have read LAbyrinth, the much more detailed book about these same murders, and how they tie into the LA Rampart scandal. It’s like a modern LA CONFIDENTIAL starting with a fatal road rage incident between two dudes who turn out to both be cops, and leading into the biggest scandal in LAPD history. The book centers on Russell Poole, head detective in the Biggie murder case, who is prevented from investigating ties between LA cops and Death Row Records, gets removed from the case, retires in disgust and joins Voletta Wallace in a lawsuit against the police (still pending). The book is being developed into a movie, and it could be a great one, but they’d need Billy Jack to help them or something because whoever made it would be harassed by the police and Suge Knight every step of the way.

BIGGIE AND TUPAC interviews Poole who (without the benefit of all the evidence in the book) argues his convincing theory – that both rappers were killed by police working for Death Row. This is his answer to the question I asked before, of how two high profile cases like this could stay unsolved for so long. But don’t think this is another KURT AND COURTNEY, which had a Kurt-Cobain-was-murdered theory that made you wonder, but didn’t really convince you. This one is well documented. There were plenty of cops working for Death Row. Two of them were convicted of a bank robbery (this fact apparently isn’t as widely known as it ought to be – it made much of the SIFF audience gasp). Another one, busted on smaller charges, is interviewed in the movie, and he reluctantly admits that cops working for Death Row had to overlook “certain things.” Later he even says, after alot of backpeddling and beating around the bush, that he believes Suge Knight arranged both murders.

It’s all very interesting, but this isn’t the shocking part of the movie. It goes deeper than that. What made my jaw drop was when they showed FBI surveillance photos of Biggie and the owner of his record label, the dude from MONSTER’S BALLS. It turns out the FBI was following them, spying on them, taking pictures of them. And remember, this was before 9-11 proved that it was our patriotic duty for us to give up all of our civil liberties in the name of freedom and democracy. This is when the movie gets real creepy. Broomfield tries calling the FBI agent who took the photos, who admits he was spying on the two, and won’t say what it was for, claiming it’s an ongoing investigation. Broomfield casually drops some astounding information that I hope someone will investigate further. He says there was a Senate subcomittee to come up with ways to stop hip hop. Most people don’t take it seriously when rappers compare themselves to the Black Panthers or Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, but apparently our government does. Because here they are spying on rappers, and creating a Cointelpro type program to create hostility among them. In fact – and I really wish there was more on this – the movie drops a complete shocker that, if true, means that the entire coastal feud, the reason why rap is considered dangerous, was actually caused by the FBI, because they thought rap was dangerous. You see, Tupac was shot and robbed in a recording studio one time. He said in interviews that strangers in prison told him didn’t you know? It was Biggie’s homey that shot you. This is what made Tupac hate Biggie and Puffy, claim he slept with Biggie’s wife, etc. It is the whole reason why east coast and west coast rappers started to hate each other and threaten each other’s lives.

But, according to Broomfield, those strangers in prison who gave that information to Tupac were working for the FBI, trying to create dissent among rappers.

(More gasps in SIFF audience.)

I really thought this was a great documentary. Some of the poor quality video footage is hard on the eyes, but if it’s all you got it’s all you got. I saw another documentary about Tupac and I saw WELCOME TO DEATH ROW but this one is way better. Less talking head interviews, more interesting people, more new information. This kind of gives something away, but Broomfield even managed to interview Suge Knight in prison (a hilarious scene). Not surprisingly he won’t talk about Tupac, or give the rights to his music. But Biggie’s mom gave the rights to his music, so it’s halfway better than KURT AND COURTNEY. (Maybe Suge could give the rights for Tupac’s music on KURT AND COURTNEY, and Courtney could give the rights to Cobain’s music on BIGGIE AND TUPAC, and then we could… well, I guess that wouldn’t work.)

Now even if you don’t like rap music as much as me, Harry or Moriarty, this is a movie to see. It’s more of a true crime story anyway. Like all good documentaries, it has fascinating characters and settings, alot of laughs, and of course the emotion that comes from a movie about two people who died too young. (There was at least one guy in the theater crying, and even while you’re laughing you have a strong feeling of tragedy.) Broomfield isn’t like the Maysles brothers, or other documentationists who stay out of the picture. He’s more the Michael Moore type, the guy right there in the shot, wearing his headphones, trying not to look out of place as a scrawny british guy in the middle of the yard, looking for Suge Knight. This works for comic effect but it also helps him get interesting statements out of his subjects, when he tries to act naive.

So you get a great story about two really interesting people and the bizarre circumstances that followed them in life and death. Don’t worry friends you won’t be disappointed. Good job Nick Broomfield, and thanks for prying into this place where some people don’t want to look.

your friend,

Vern

Originally posted at Ain’t-It-Cool-News: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/12406

View the archived Ain't-It-Cool-News Talkback
This entry was posted on Monday, June 3rd, 2002 at 5:58 am and is filed under AICN, Documentary, Reviews, SIFF. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “Outlaw Vern Reports On BIGGIE & TUPAC From SIFF!!”

  1. This is an incredible documentary; I didn’t like Kurt and Courtney, which came off like the director trying to manufacture mystery about a subject that isn’t nearly as dire. Maybe I’m bias, but the gravity of the scenario in Biggie and ‘Pac seems far greater by comparison.

    Beyond that, it’s a treasure trove of footage of the two rappers. The scene where Tupac is in the studio explaining how to make a hip hop record under time constraint made me so giddy I had to pause the film and pace around the room for a bit.

  2. Podcast recommendation – Slow Burn Season 3 is all about 2pac and Biggie (though mostly about 2pac which is OK with me). It is very good.

    Vern – I tried to google the David Letterman jokes because that is really fucked up, but I couldn’t find anything. You remember anything specific?

  3. No, I don’t remember anything specific. As I remember it, he didn’t realize he was going to die and thought it was okay to joke about the way they would also joke about Amy Winehouse or somebody being a drunk. I’m sure he would regret it now.

  4. I think that was a common perception at the time. Pac has been through so much crazy shit by that point that people thought he was invincible. Biggie did an interview after Pac’s death where he said his reaction was “Again?” Nobody thought he was actually going to die this time.

  5. What’s nuts is that the time from ME AGAINST THE WORLD being released to his death was like 1-2 years, tops. I now remember him most for his Death Row days, and that was like a year in his short life. Dude was a recording fool, plus he was making a splash with those team-up videos (speak of MAD MAX!) and crazy diss records, taking on all comers, including a then-still-relatively-marginal Jay-Z. In the end, his shit-talking and impulsivity cost a number of people their lives. A real shame.

  6. It seemed like soooo much longer though. He really became a different artist after he went to jail. After his first three albums, he was in my top five (no MC before or since has been as good at injecting emotion and drama into hip-hip), but at the time I thought ALL EYEZ ON ME was so terrible (and still mostly do—it’s four or five classics surrounded by more than an hour of secondhand G-Funk filler) that I pretty much stopped listening to him for a decade. I was sad when he died but he was already pretty much dead to me by that point. Crazy how fast that transition happened. Then again, I was a teenager at the time. Emotions move fast at that age.

  7. Oh, man…them’s fightin words. Even though it’s his morally compromised / caught up in the Suge-verse phase, I’m Death Row 2pac all the way. ALL EYEZ and MAKAVELI are easily my favorite albums, even though they are equal parts Cali baller excess, delusions of grandeur, undirected scattergun mean-spiritedness. Call them guilty pleasures. His time on Death Row was kind of a FREDDY VS JASON moment, because Death Row was on an incredible run, and 2pac was on an incredible run. It was like Prince and Michael Jackson forming a supergroup or some shit.

  8. Jeez, you guys must be old. I was like 16 when 2pac died, so his later stuff was all I knew for a while (and it’s still his best).

    I’m amazed that he was only 25 and was that prolific between music and movies (and jail time).

    Has Jay-Z ever not been relatively marginal? Or do you just mean that he’s usually relatively garbage?

  9. I remember his death being more of a footnote in Germany. There were no big news reports and I only heard about it from a quick blurb on the Hip Hop corner of a teen magazine I was reading then. Of course I can’t speak for the real Hip Hop fans in my country at this time, but mainstreamwise he was to this point pretty unknown. CALIFORNIA LOVE was a huge hit, but that was it. It wasn’t really until said teen magazine wrote one or two months later about his death and showed pictures of his fans mourning and painting murals, that I learned abouthow big he was.

  10. Skani: You have to understand what an obnoxious hip-hop snob I was and largely still am. I’d been over Death Row for two years by the time Pac solid his soul to Suge for bail money, so that entire sound was already extremely tired to me by that point. The state of the art had long moved on. The first Wu Tang has been out for two years by then, for god‘s sake, and they’re still doing this phony baloney George Clinton shit? In hip-hop years, Death Row was like the Beach Boys in the era of the Sex Pistols. Soft bullshit for poseurs. Just pitiful. Every other song had some wack R&B chorus, and the disgusting misogyny was impossible to accept from the man who wrote “Brenda’s Got A Baby” and “Keep Ya Head Up.” He became the thing that the racist, alarmist press accused him of being the whole time, and I could no longer defend him.

    Obviously this is all subjective. It’s music. There’s no good or bad. Either it moves you or it doesn’t. I’ll admit that there’s an impressive EP hidden somewhere in that bloated monstrosity of a double album, which only existed in that form to get Pac out of his contract faster. It’s the METAL MACHINE MUSIC of rap, but slightly more listenable than that implies.

  11. And of course all this sounds like IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK compared to the mushmouth swill they got nowadays. That shit sounds like PM Dawn waking up out of a codeine coma to my old-ass ears. Time has a way of making old atrocities look quaint.

  12. There’s nothing I can really disagree with in your post, Majestyk. The high-minded superego wants to say BRENDA’S GOT A BABY is peak 2pac, but my heart and loins tell me that that HAIL MARY is infinitely more bumpable. What can I say, I’m a hoe, and you can’t turn a hoe into a housewife.

    HALLSY, Jay-Z is definitely viewed as a goat contender, and there are a handful of his songs that I really enjoy (particularly a couple of his more recent ones, DOA and BAM), but in general, I never really got what was so great about him.

    Speaking of Public Enemy, I love them, but I find their new single to be virtually unlistenable due to the chorus.

  13. No, I feel you. I love a lot of straight-up ignorant rap too. I’m just less willing to accept that from Pac.

    For me, Jay has stagnated as an MC. He writes from the heart, which is cool, but his heart is that of a middle-aged billionaire nowadays so that’s not so exciting. I could get down with some of the production on his last album but he sounded so fuckin’ bored the whole time that I couldn’t get into it at all.

    For me, he’ll never be in the top ten but he’s got a distinctive flow and often good taste in beats. I prefer him when he’s in storytelling mode, like that one verse on “99 Problems.” Friend Or Foe” is one of the finest examples in hip-hop history. The details, the brevity, the deadpan wit. It’s positively Elmore-esque.

  14. Jay-Z is the HARD TARGET of rappers. Was always terrible and just ages worse every year.

    I listened to the bonus episode of that podcast and learned that “Who Shot Ya” was originally produced for Keith Murray (haven’t heard that name in years!). But he was not available to record it for some reason (they refused to elaborate on why) so Biggie stepped in last minute and did a quick verse which ended with something along the lines of “Leave you leakin’ like Jordan’s pops”. The producer insisted that part wouldn’t make the record but Biggie insisted. It obviously didn’t make it when they re-did the whole song.

  15. Oh come on, man. The Blueprint, Reasonable Doubt, The Black Album? There are plenty of rappers I’m more into, but “terrible” is just preposterous on its face. Even his less consistent albums have classic songs on them – “Say Hello,” “Roc Boys,” “Death of Autotune,” “Story of O.J.” Of course he’s one of the greats.

    (I will take that bait, but not the HARD TARGET one.)

  16. I think Jay-z is overrated in the very specific sense that he is considered top five dead or alive, and I see him as maybe top 15 at best. To wit, there are three rappers in Wu-tang alone that I put above Jay-Z. Now that, said, BLACK ALBUM has some great cuts. LUCIFER, WHAT MORE CAN I SAY, and MOMENT OF CLARITY are all classic. TAKEOVER is classic, and I have no idea why ETHER is viewed as the better diss track. ETHER is tough insults but is more like a spoken word song, whereas TAKEOVER just slaps right out of the gate and never lets up. Which reminds me, Prodigy is easily above Jay-z on my list.

  17. Skani: My man! Not a name that comes up in the conversation a lot, but Prodigy is definitely one of the greats. I don’t know if he’d be in my top ten but top 15 is not out of the question. I’d put him above Nas, even.

    And yes, TAKEOVER is the far superior diss track.

  18. It’s kind of the hip hop equivalent of “synergy,” but Prodigy is pure swag. Even when his lines barely rhyme, they’re dope. His ALBERT EINSTEIN w/ Alchemist is great. CONQUER off the last Mobb Deep album is flawless. Also, this. This is just a throwaway bonus/mixtape track, and I’ve listened to it more than TAKEOVER.

    Prodigy - My Priorities

    Album: Return Of The Mac

  19. He’s just so deadpan and so specific. I read his autobiography to prepare for an interview that never happened and was surprised how many of his classic rhymes that just sounded like some badass shit to say were depictions of foundational moments in his life. It really made me respect his lyricism more. Then his whole game got upped to a new level when he hooked up with Alchemist. I was sad as hell when he died. I felt like he was just picking up speed while 90% of his contemporaries were preparing for retirement.

  20. “V8 style, n—a, ya meat get smothered. Mobb style, me and my blood brothers kill pretty-boy rappers if they songs speak of us.”
    “From the projects, now I’m in Oslo. Rocketman, Elton John. Call me P-ah-no.”

    I mean, it’s wrap right there.

    I see him akin to a blues or jazz person or something. The heart of a journeyman. Musical integrity, self-assuredness, consistency, understatedness. I’ll always take him over Hov, which is the other kind of “swag.” There’s Puffy/Hov swag, which for me is just kind of gross wannabe billionaire swag, and then there’s P swag, which is un-swag. Meaning, he just did him always and kept exploring and building that out and let that speak for itself, and that’s really it. I love this throwaway line from WIN OR LOSE: “It’s like ahh, shit it’s on, time to go shopping For cars not fashion, my whips be the bomb My clothes, be the same shit that we had on And fuck looking cute, save that for the broads.”

    Integrity. And that’s the same thing I say to you with your writing and your Verning, Majestyk. A handful of people hit the lottery, but no one can strip your personal and artistic integrity. It’s P by a landslide. Salute.

  21. Only made more endearing by the fact that I think P must have meant “A1-style” instead of “V8-style,” given context.

  22. Just caught up on this conversation to find that I have been bushwhacked with unwarranted and humbling praise. I don’t know if I‘ve got any more integrity than the average person. I just know that I’m really bad at faking being anybody but myself, with all the good and bad that implies. I don’t have a choice in that. If I could be somebody else sometimes, believe me, I would.

    Some of you may remember last summer when I distracted from the unmitigated glory of HIGHLANDERLAND to ask you all for advice concerning an ill-advised May-December romance. (It crashed-and-burned spectacularly but had at least one positive life-altering repercussion, if anyone is interested.) The young lady in question had, among other questionable interests, a belief in astrology, which I entertained because I find that kind of thing to be like a Rorschach test: the truth is not in your stars or the tarot or the tea leaves, but in the patterns your own matrix of biases and beliefs extrapolates from their reading. She did my chart and declared me a Virgo whose sun sign and moon sign are identical, which basically means that my inner self and the self I project to the world are one in the same. Like I said, I don’t believe far away (and likely long dead) stars have much to say about the nature and nurture of human beings, but this reading flattered my own sense of self, which at least let me know that this sort of integrity is something I value, if not actually possess. It’s something to strive for, to be the man the stars think I can be. I might be full of shit but I’m always honest. So thank you for the kind words, Skani. That made my day.

  23. You bet. Your integrity always shines through, and I think you’ve become more teachable over time. More open-minded, never empty-minded. Good bullshit detector.

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