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Hip-Hop Fridays: BIGGIE, TUPAC & ANGRY WHITE MALES: A Review Of Randall Sullivan’s “LAbyrinth” by Jeff Chang

It's been 5 years since Biggie Smalls was murdered, nearly 6 since Tupac was killed, and months since Suge Knight returned to the record industry from his prison bid. A cottage industry of memorial books and movies has met the interest for tales from the infamous mid-nineties bicoastal beef between Suge's Death Row Records and P-Diddy's Bad Boy Entertainment. But in the past year, especially, the myth machine has been on overload, cranking out a flurry of magazine covers, books, and movies.

XXL's Biggie cover this month is an example of the best of hip-hop journalism, featuring Kris Ex's brilliant cover essay and Raquiyah Mays' moving interview with Biggie's mother, Voletta Wallace. Black boomer intellectual Michael Eric Dyson followed his book on Martin Luther King, Jr. with last fall's Holler If You Hear Me, searching for meaning of Tupac's life.

"Welcome To Death Row", a "Behind The Music" kind of documentary co-produced by Lydia Harris, the wife of imprisoned drug kingpin and early Death Row financier Michael "Harry-O" Harris, hit DVD shelves recently. The same company released a Tupac doc by Quincy Jones' son, rap producer QD III. Even muckracking "Kurt and Courtney" director Nick Bloomfield has released a quickie doc called "Biggie and Tupac".

Then there's Randall Sullivan's new book, LAbyrinth (spelled funny just like that), an attempt to outline a vast police-and-rappers conspiracy.

When Suge walked last year, a sensational Rolling Stone article by Randall Sullivan appeared (dissected right here on which tried to link Suge both to the murder of Notorious B.I.G. and the Rampart scandal, the largest Los Angeles Police Department corruption controversy ever. That article has now been expanded into "LAbyrinth". (You can even pass this up and wait for the movie if you like; "LAbyrinth's" film rights have already been optioned.) It's mainly the story of a rank-and-file detective named Russell Poole, whose assignment to a cop-shoots-cop incident becomes a far-reaching investigation involving the highest levels of Los Angeles government, the drug game, and the music industry.

Sullivan paints an sympathetic portrait of Poole as an "intense" white cop trying to do right in a tainted system. Sullivan argues that the LAPD suppressed evidence of Suge's tendency to keep black cops on the payroll. Some of these cops were corrupt, and may have had their hands in everything from the murders of Tupac and Biggie to the Rampart corruption scandal, LAPD's largest investigation ever, in which special anti-gang units were found to have dealt drugs, and framed, paralyzed or murdered gangbangers and innocent youths of color.

This is enough of an intriguing premise to fill a book, and the questions are legion: did Suge Knight take advantage of LAPD's vast corruption and lack of accountability? How did he do so? Were the murders of Tupac and Biggie carried out by crooked cops? Was Suge's reign of terror related to the Rampart corruption scandal?

That is not Sullivan's agenda. Poole opens his files to Sullivan, so the book sometimes seems a catalog of sensational leads that are never followed. The reader is left with hundreds of clues and multiple theories that don't add up. Poole's excuse, of course, is that he never had a chance to explore many of these leads. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing. Their disclosure may lead to more revealing on-the-ground investigations, especially since the FBI has apparently now closed the book on Death Row.

But Sullivan's agenda is to use these unexamined leads to make a larger, unsupportable point about race in LA. The city, he argues, is so obsessed with African-American demands for justice that it has created a maze for itself, in which justice can never be found. To prove this thesis, he veers wildly from the murder cases at hand to irrelevant screeds against black LAPD officials, jurors of color, liberals, supporters of affirmative action, and detractors of his Rolling Stone article. (It's not surprising that his hip-hop history is riddled with inaccuracies.) The whole thing begins sounding like a vast anti-white conspiracy.

Here, for instance, is Sullivan's bizarre critique of the LA media: "A large part of the problem was that the media's coverage from the first had been driven more by ideology than by information. The Times, the LA Weekly and the New Times all persisted in describing Perez as 'Hispanic', even though he was half-black." Here Sullivan is trying to link the rogue, lying cop to the rogue, lying Suge Knight by way of racial background. "Remember the one-drop rule" seems to be his point. It's all wasted words - Poole has already done the research to link Perez to David Mack, another corrupt cop on Suge's payroll, possibly Biggie's killer. But those two sentences reveal where Sullivan is really coming from. Ideology over information, indeed.

Gang peace activists like Homies Unidos have been fighting against police brutality and corruption and against senseless violence in the Rampart Division for years. Many African Americans have been just as disgusted as whites with Chiefs Willie Williams and Bernard Parks. But Sullivan misses these kinds of nuances, because they don't fit into his apparent nostalgia for a white-bread, white-led LA.

Perhaps Sullivan is right to portray Poole as the unredeemed hero of the LAPD corruption scandal. Reportedly, Poole is now working with Voletta Wallace on getting to the bottom of her son's murder. But the mystery of Tupac's and Biggie's murders are left no closer to getting solved, and Sullivan simply seems to shovel a lot more dirt onto their coffins.

Jeff Chang is the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A Cultural and
Political History of the Hip-Hop Generation
, out in 2003 on St. Martin's
Mr. Chang can be reached at

Jeff Chang

Friday, March 29, 2002

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