The party is so crowded that fire marshals show up at 12:30 a.m. and shut it down. Two thousand revelers file out of the Petersen Automotive Museum, here in the mid-Wilshire district, where Vibe magazine is celebrating the Soul Train Music Awards. Biggie Smalls climbs into the front passenger seat of his GMC Suburban, ready to take the festivities somewhere else. His driver makes a right turn out of the parking lot and stops at a red light.
Biggie is upbeat about his life and career. He has been in the recording studio for the better part of two years, and in a matter of weeks his second album, "Life After Death," will hit the bins. Eventually it will cement Smalls's nearly mythical place in the canon of rap, selling 4.7 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But he won't be around to count the money. Before the light turns green, a vehicle pulls up on the right side and someone opens fire. Within minutes Christopher Wallace, as he was christened at birth, is pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
That was March 9, 1997. Eight years later, little more is certain about this infamous crime. There were dozens of potential witnesses that night, and the Los Angeles Police Department would later say it completed more than 200 interviews in the case. But no criminal charges were ever filed.
Instead the murder produced a bewildering volley of allegations and denials from a cast of characters you wouldn't believe in an episode of "Law & Order." A host of conspiracy theories sprang up, along with a cottage industry of books, magazine articles and documentaries. Smalls, who recorded under the name Notorious B.I.G., became part of urban folklore, a pop-culture martyr. He also became the second high-profile casualty in the so-called East Coast-West Coast rap wars.
Remember the rap wars? For all but the hard-core devotees, it isn't easy -- like trying to remember the Clinton impeachment, or the dumbest thing you did on a college spring break. You know it happened but you can't summon the particulars beyond a vague sense that the whole thing was preposterous and very sad. Six months before Biggie was hit, Tupac Shakur was shot dead in a car just off the Las Vegas strip after attending a Mike Tyson fight. No one has ever conclusively linked the murders of Tupac and Biggie, but the second killing is fixed in the public imagination as revenge for the first.
At the time, two of the biggest labels in rap were locked in a noisy and highly public brawl. On one side was L.A.'s Death Row Records, which was run by a former football player and resident of Mule Creek State Prison named Marion "Suge" Knight. Shakur was the label's marquee talent. On the other side stood Bad Boy Records, based in New York and operated by an up-and-coming impresario named Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs. His principal asset was the 300-pound Notorious B.I.G.
As the two labels vied for preeminence, their two stars battled, in verses and in real life. The two had started out friends -- Biggie had opened some of Tupac's early shows -- but their relationship soured for reasons that had something to do with ego and misunderstandings. When Tupac was wounded in a 1994 mugging, he accused Biggie of the crime. As part of his retaliation, Tupac claimed in a song that he slept with Biggie's wife. It got ugly fast.
Whether and how this might have led to two murders has been a matter of endless speculation. Like the Smalls case, the murder of Shakur remains a mystery, yielding intrigue and tribute songs but no suspects. "The government must hate rappers," huffed Chris Rock during his last stand-up comedy tour. "More people saw Tupac get shot than watched the last episode of 'Seinfeld.' "
Until recently, neither death had led to even a single day in court. Last month, Voletta Wallace changed that. The mother of Biggie Smalls sued the Los Angeles Police Department in a wrongful-death case. The theory: A cop named David Mack had close professional ties to Death Row Records, and Smalls was killed by Mack at the behest of Suge Knight. The city, the Wallace family says, is culpable because Mack operated under the "color of the law."
"That means he committed a crime and used police tools to do it," says Perry Sanders, attorney for the Wallace family. "Things like radios, badges, the esprit de corps of the police force." The suit seeks unspecified damages for lost future earnings.
The notion that Los Angeles's finest had a hand in the death of Biggie started, surprisingly enough, within the force. The former lead detective in the case, Russell Poole, resigned from the department in 1999, claiming that higher-ups had blocked his aggressive pursuit of allegations of widespread corruption in the department. That, he said, prevented him from chasing down leads that pointed to the involvement of L.A. cops in the Biggie drive-by. One of the main suspects, Poole said, was David Mack.
Mack, who is serving time for bank robbery, was initially named as a defendant in the suit filed by the Wallace family, but just before opening arguments last month, Sanders dropped him from the case for reasons that were never explained. (Weirder still, Mack claimed in a July 1 story in the Los Angeles Times that Sanders had offered "financial inducements" to appear as a witness in the trial and take the Fifth Amendment in order to make him appear guilty. Sanders says that isn't true.) With the city as the sole defendant, the Wallace family must prove both that an L.A. cop (or cops) is culpable for the murder and that the department acted negligently by training and equipping that cop (or cops) and failing to prevent him from orchestrating, if not actually committing, the crime.
Those are high legal hurdles. The police in Los Angeles and Las Vegas have long asserted that there is a less insidious explanation for the lack of progress in the Biggie and Tupac murders -- that people who know the truth are too scared to discuss what they know. In any case, for the Wallace family, winning may not be the point.
"We've already come a lot further than anyone said we would," said Sanders over a cup of coffee at a restaurant in Santa Monica. At the time, he was a few days into the presentation of his case and he seemed energized and indignant. He recognized the improbability of victory, but demanding some accountability from the police department and revealing the shortcomings of its investigation were the actual goals, he said. That, plus forcing the department to hand over every scrap of Biggie-related information. Judged on those terms, he said, he'd already won.
He didn't know it, but he was about to win something more tangible. A few days after that cup of coffee, U.S. District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper unexpectedly called off the proceedings. Sanders had received an eleventh-hour tip about additional information and documents, allegedly withheld by the department and stored in the filing cabinet of a detective named Steven Katz. The judge took a look at those documents and on July 6 declared a mistrial.
"The Detective, acting alone or in concert with others," she wrote in her ruling, "made a decision to conceal from the plaintiffs in this case information which could have supported their contention that David Mack was responsible for the Wallace murder."
The plaintiffs needed considerable time, she went on, to sift through the new evidence and depose new witnesses in light of what had just been learned. In a punitive stroke, the city was ordered to pay Sanders for the three years he's been working on this case. The suit, he said, will likely be refiled in a matter of months.
A spokesman for the city attorney's office said it was looking forward to the rematch. "Our position is that we believe the underlying cause of action is without merit," said Jonathan Diamond in a phone interview Tuesday. "We're anxious to try the case and believe we'll prevail."
Though the deaths of Tupac and Biggie didn't lead to convictions, their murders changed the way that rappers feud. That doesn't mean rap-related violence is over. Three years ago, Jam Master Jay, the DJ for Run-DMC, was murdered in a New York studio. (That crime, too, is unsolved. Officers say reluctant witnesses have hampered their investigation, too. That's about all that's been said on the matter, aside from one theory that JMJ was involved in a drug deal gone bad.) Much of rap is still rooted in thug culture, and the language and structure of the Mafia are still the genre's guiding metaphor. Each label is a "crew," the performers are "gangstas," nearly everyone carries a gun and there is ceaseless talk about respect. Snitching is verboten, a criminal past is an asset. It's like "The Godfather" except everyone hails from places like Compton or the Bronx instead of Italy.
But after March 9, 1997, it began to sink in. "The Godfather" is a movie. It's show business. Nobody should die for show business.
"People still talk gun talk, but there's a difference between talking gun talk and actually doing it," says Cheo Hodari Coker, author of "Unbelievable: The Life, Death and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G." "Now rappers are more likely to keep their beefs on records rather than let it escalate."
A good example is the verbal bombs that Nas and Jay-Z hurled at each other a couple of years ago. Each had claimed the title of New York's greatest rapper, a crown you apparently don't share.
"From the start, people were taking great pains to make it clear that this was a war of words, nothing more," says Jeff Chang, author of "Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation." "I was at a couple appearances by Nas during that time and fans of Jay-Z would show up, making the 'Hova' sign," an arrangement of the hands that Jay-Z turned into a personal trademark. "Even in those situations, Nas would say, 'We're going to have this battle on wax. The best man is going to win.' Even Jay-Z fans would applaud that."
There are feuds now that seem to be more about marketing than malice. In March, 50 Cent (nee Curtis Jackson) formally ended hostilities with the Game (Jayceon Taylor), a former protege whom 50 had accused of various acts of disloyalty. The battle peaked when the Game tried to interrupt an interview 50 was doing on a popular New York radio station. The Game and his entourage were rebuffed by the station's security, and a skirmish on the sidewalk ended with a bullet in the leg of one of the Game's associates. But that was as grisly as it got. The two appeared on a podium in Harlem two weeks later -- on the eighth anniversary of Biggie's death, not so coincidentally -- to announce peace.
"We're making a statement louder than the sound of two voices," said the Game. "I want to apologize on behalf of myself and 50 Cent to my fans, the record label and radio."
Reason and brotherhood might have had something to do with this outburst of fellowship. But both men had just released new albums, and not only were these guys on the same label, they had collaborated on a track, "How We Do." Despite the gunfire, the whole 50 Cent vs. the Game brawl seemed to owe more to professional wrestling than anything else.
"A lot of people didn't buy it," says Chang.
Well, they didn't buy the feud. They did buy the albums. The Game's debut, "The Documentary," has sold 2.1 million copies so far. 50 Cent's newest, "The Massacre," is at 4.1 million and counting.
Nobody believes that rap is through with violence, nor would anyone predict that another Biggie-style killing is out of the question. As Coker, Smalls's biographer, put it: "Hendrix overdosed, but does that mean that people in rock no longer take drugs?"
The culture that produces rap hasn't dramatically changed, but the business of rap has. The stakes are higher now because the grosses are higher. Guys such as 50 Cent and Jay-Z are titans. Tupac would have a sneaker deal and his own label if he were alive today. Biggie sold more than half a million albums last year, and there is talk at Bad Boy Records of releasing a posthumous "duets" album. The penalty phase of the trial may never happen, but if a jury ever has to size up the lost earnings of Biggie Smalls, it will surely be a very large number.
"He was getting ready to blow the lid off," Sanders says. "He could have made hundreds of millions of dollars."