Word that imprisoned Death Row Records boss Marion "Suge" Knight was being investigated for the still-unsolved 1997 murder of rapper Notorious B.I.G. was met with a mix of skepticism, indifference and silence by the hip-hop community Wednesday (Apr. 21).
"I don't trust it," said Oakland, Calif., hip-hop DJ Davey D. "It's been, what? Two years since this happened and people have been speculating on it and the LAPD is just now coming around to this kind of conclusion?"
Davey D., who has a hip-hop show on San Francisco Bay Area radio station KMEL-FM and was the last radio personality to interview Notorious B.I.G. before his death, said he thought the police would have investigated a possible link between Knight and Notorious B.I.G.'s murder a long time ago, given the well-reported feud between Knight's West Coast gangsta rap label and the Notorious B.I.G.'s affiliation with the East Coast label Bad Boy Records.
While a number of hip-hop professionals declined to comment on the fingering of Knight by police -- including one longtime publicist who would only anonymously second Davey D.'s assertion that the timing was odd: "It's hogwash," he said -- the former editor-in-chief of hip-hop magazine Vibe said the latest plot twist in the story was both confusing and disturbing.
"It is a strange wrinkle, without knowing what the full story is," said former Vibe editor Alan Light, now editor of Vibe's sister publication, Spin. Light, whose three year tenure at Vibe overlapped at times with the stratospheric rise and fall of both Notorious B.I.G.'s career and Death Row Records, said what disturbed him about the revelation was that it played into the myth of a major organized East Coast-West Coast feud.
Wednesday morning police named Knight as a suspect in Notorious B.I.G.'s drive-by-shooting murder. Los Angeles Police Department spokesperson Lt. Anthony Alba said police are investigating a possible "murder-for-hire" plot involving Knight, who was jailed at the time of the killing.
Neither Knight's lawyer, David Kenner, nor representatives of Death Row Records could be reached for comment at press time.
Police Tuesday searched three different locations linked to Knight, including the offices of Death Row Records in the Wilshire area of Los Angeles. A metallic-purple Chevrolet Impala matching witnesses' descriptions of the vehicle used in the shooting was seized from the Death Row location along with business records, according to Lt. Al Michelena, who is heading the team investigating the case.
"We are going to be going through the evidence we recovered at Death Row Records," Michelena said. "It's just one step in the investigation; it's not the beginning, end or middle. We don't anticipate any arrests in the near future." Michelena confirmed that one of the theories being investigated is that the murder was gang-related.
Notorious B.I.G. (born Christopher Wallace) was shot several times at the corner of La Brea Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard while riding in his GMC Suburban on March 9, 1997. The gunman was described as an African-American man in his early 20s, wearing a bow tie.
"The detectives are releasing few details, except that they have an interest in Suge Knight and are checking into his possible involvement in the murder," Alba said. "Whether he actually hired [a hit man] or performed any other part, we don't know."
Alba did not offer details about what evidence police have linking Knight to the killing. No charges have been filed against Knight in the case. "They will continue to investigate and hopefully additional witnesses will come forward," Alba said.
As for suggestions that the murder was related to a feud between rappers on the two coasts, Light said he did not see it that way at all.
"I always contended that it was an isolated fight between individuals and individual labels," Light said. "But if it's true that Suge really had a hand in this, I think it just confirms that there wasn't some mass organized feud. I've always taken the line that these killings were not about music or the music business, but that it was gang territory."
Contrary to DJ Davey D.'s assertion, an individual in the gang division of the Los Angeles District Attorney's office, who asked not to be named and had no affiliation with the Notorious B.I.G. investigation, said that the timing is not particularly unusual.
"If there are some gang overtones, which it sounds like there are, it is not unusual in gang cases that witnesses don't want to talk for fear of retaliation," said the source. "Sometimes it takes two years, sometimes longer, sometimes less. ... If detectives hit those kinds of roadblocks, it would be very difficult to get any kind of statement that they could use against Mr. Knight or whoever."
Knight is serving a nine-year prison term for violating his probation in connection with an unrelated 1992 attack on two aspiring rappers in a Hollywood studio. He was jailed in February 1997 after a judge determined that his role in beating a Los Angeles man -- an assault caught on videotape by a Las Vegas hotel's surveillance system -- violated the terms of his probation.
Six months earlier, one of Knight's most successful artists, Tupac Shakur, had been killed when unknown assailants fired a barrage of bullets into a car in Las Vegas. Knight, who was also in the car, was wounded. That case is unsolved.
The two murders provoked debate in the music industry. Some linked them to a so-called war between East Coast rappers such as Notorious B.I.G. and West Coast rappers such as Shakur; they suggested Notorious B.I.G. was murdered in retaliation for Shakur's killing.
Notorious B.I.G., whose name matched his 380-pound frame, spoke openly about his previous occupation as a Brooklyn, N.Y., drug dealer and was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed gangsta rappers at the time of his murder.
Like Shakur, who recorded several songs in which he predicted his own death, Notorious B.I.G. was known for such morbidly prescient tunes as "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)" (RealAudio excerpt) and
"Somebody's Gotta Die" (RealAudio excerpt), both from his final studio album, Life After Death, released three weeks after his murder.
In 1994 Shakur accused Notorious B.I.G., Bad Boy chief Sean "Puffy" Combs and others affiliated with Bad Boy of being involved in an attack on Shakur in New York. Shakur was shot several times and robbed of $40,000 in jewelry. Combs has repeatedly denied the allegations. Shakur later taunted Notorious B.I.G. in the song "Hit 'Em Up," calling the overweight rapper a "fat motherf-----" and claiming to have had sex with Notorious B.I.G.'s wife, Faith Evans.
"What's mystifying about this," Light said, "is that through all the Tupac/Biggie stuff, Puffy stayed above it all and didn't respond. It would have made sense ... if Puffy went after Biggie's killer, but what's the rationale for [Knight]? Death Row was the aggressor through the whole situation ... but it seems kind of weird to have this piled on from the side that [instigated] the feud to begin with."
Juanita Stephens, a spokesperson for Bad Boy, said Wednesday the label had no comment.