The show that almost never happened
It’s been 25 years since the show that changed Rap. A lot of life has happened since then. A lot of death too. It was a moment that defined a genre, that catapulted a genre into a new space. And for some insane reason I was a part of it.
Many stories have come out about that day. This is my story. It’s a story of the day and of my interactions with Tupac. It’s a story of the politics of the time and the build-up to the show. It’s a story of how the show almost never happened. I mean, really, the biggest show in Rap history almost never happened.
Let me explain.
The days leading up to the show
We had been in talks for what must have been months but every time it looked like we were making headway we were shut down again. We wanted it, Suge wanted it. Tupac, Snoop, and all the other artists wanted it. But the politics and fear around this concert were unreal.
Back and forth we went. It was my boss, Andre Farr, CEO of the House of Blues Sports Division, and I who were really pushing for this event. But we could not get approval. No matter which way we turned we got shut down. It didn’t help that Tupac was out on bail and all these different magazines were coming out with stories of the East Coast/West Coast deadly rap beef. The threat of violence was real and many of the higher ups were justifiably scared.
You see, Marion “Suge” Knight and Death Row Records had a reputation. Suge’s giant-like and imposing presence struck a fear at all levels. He and Death Row were part-bully, -thug, -gangster, and -goon, especially when it came to business. A few years before the event I had witnessed a group wearing the Death Row Diamond Chains beat the shit out of someone outside the Comedy Store after a Phat Tuesday’s Show. Chris Tucker was performing. He was getting heckled by someone in the audience. The guys that identified themselves as Death Row beat someone they thought was the heckler. There was an attack on another innocent bystander too. As far as I could tell it was unprovoked. They left, returning shortly after and shooting at the guy as he lay unconscious. Luckily his friend pulled him away just prior to the gun shots. The stories of Death Row’s ruthlessness were no secret; and nobody wanted to find out if they were myth or truth.
The thing was, while the threat of violence was real, so was the use of that threat as a scare tactic. Rap was being stifled because of that fear. Great music was being stifled. Tupac was being stifled. We were being straight hated on.
I should probably clarify. When I say rap, I mean West Coast Gangsta Rap. The kind of rap Tupac was performing. Rap and Hip Hop were nothing new – we were just coming out of the golden age of Hip Hop. But the kind of rap Tupac and others were doing? No way. West Coast Gangsta Rap was Black. It represented the voice and narrative of the inner-city, it told real stories and was a counter to the bubble-gum pop music culture. It was well on its way to becoming the dominate cultural influencer.
It was real and raw. And it was often seen as violent, plagued with irrational behavior, resigned to ratchet clubs and small venues where shit went down almost every night. Aggressive, volatile, charged with energy, many thought this genre of Rap had no place in the House of Blues. The House of Blues was the pinnacle of LA music at the time. You play here and you’re accepted, you’re in.
And this stuff was not in.
I remember a board meeting. I was 22 but looked 16, fairly new to the LA scene and juggling a million and one responsibilities alongside people who didn’t think I should be there. Just a kid from the Bay who loved all kinds of rap music, the kind of kid whose knowledge of Bay Area rap was deep. Real deep.
In this board meeting we were sitting there, arguing our case. We weren’t stupid. We knew the risk, but we also knew that so much of what kept rap in the background was fear. Rappers didn’t usually look like most of the people that sat in that board room, didn’t have the same color skin. So it didn’t matter that we had taken every precaution. It didn’t matter we were hiring something like one hundred extra security for the event.
It was in that meeting that storms collided. There was a palpable fear in the staff of the House of Blues. And to make matters worse, a few days earlier a few staff members had been involved in a fatal car crash following a beach party.
Anxiety was high and we were told that many of the front of house staff felt nervous and uncomfortable. They weren’t going to work the event. Many flat out refused to work the event.
Well that was it. The final straw. I hung my head low. It was a wrap.
Until it wasn’t.
Isaac Tigrett stood up. Founder of the House of Blues and lover of music, Isaac didn’t buy the scare tactic. He took a stand.
If people didn’t want to work, they didn’t have to. We would find other people. We would make it work. I remember he reminded his employees of their motto: help ever, hurt never. We would make it work. This show was happening. It needed to happen.
And just like that we were back on and everything got real.
Enter Roy Tesfay. Roy was quarterbacking the plays for Death Row. His official title was probably something like Suge’s Executive Assistant but he did everything. He was the direct line to the label and couldn’t have been much older than me. There was a comradery between us, even though we were working for different camps. We both performed similar functions within our camps. We both had bosses that expected to get what they wanted, how they wanted, when they wanted.
Roy was smart. I mean whip smart. At Death Row there were gains and rewards for getting it right but there were consequences for getting it wrong, getting anything wrong. I remember in conversations listening to him as he thought out loud. It was as if he needed to stay two or three steps ahead, always ready, always aware.
“All I remember was you saying is we have to get this done,” said Roy in a conversation 25 years in the making. I hadn’t spoken with him since the show. Over the years I often thought about him and was surprised whenever I didn’t see him in one of the many documentaries and articles around Death Row. By now I’d have assumed he’d be one of the top music executives in the industry. He was never one for the limelight. Like me, he didn’t seek notoriety. Instead choosing to fade away and as far as I’m aware only appeared in a recent FX docuseries Hip Hop Uncovered.
But during that time Roy and I felt like co-conspirators. We both worked 24 hours a day in an industry that never slept. We were constantly picking up what people were throwing at us. We were in a head on collision at the intersections of the Streets and the Suites. And we both knew we couldn’t fuck up. Consequences were dire if we fucked up.
This meant coordinating with Queenie at the label’s studio, fielding numerous requests from Poppa George, the head of the label’s PR, and working out production logistics with Kevin Swain who would film and later release the famed Tupac Live from the House of Blues video.
Everything that was once on hold or being juggled had now been activated. Deal memo’s, radio promotions coordinated with 92.3 The Beat, artist riders, contracts that needed to be drafted and reviewed–redlined and negotiated. Every phoneline lite up. My ass glued to a desk, two phones are my ears. Snickers and BBQ chips for lunch.
I don’t remember the exact sequence of events after that board meeting but I remember my boss ended up going on holiday. And that was when I got the call.
It was Roy telling me Death Row Records wanted to do the show now.
I called my boss immediately. This was 1996 and fax was still a very real part of daily life. We couldn’t Zoom or WhatsApp.
He couldn’t return, at least not until shortly before the show, after all the details had been sorted.
So my boss was away. This one was on me. Guess who just got promoted to Producer?
It’s difficult to sum up just how important this show was. This was a turning point for West Coast Gangsta Rap, it was a hand reaching down and dragging it up to a world stage, lifting it high and announcing to the world that it was here. It wasn’t garbage. It wasn’t ratchet. And goddammit if it didn’t deserve your attention.
Because of all the delays we didn’t have much time to get everything ready. It was crazy and frantic and to be honest, kind of a blur. The decision was made to omit Tupac’s name from the promotion all together. The announcement would read Tha Dogg Pound performing and Snoop as the host. This was just one of many ways to mitigate any potential problems. The official word was that neither Pac nor Snoop would be performing. It was classic bait-and-switch. Everybody knew they would both be there in the building and would probably hit the stage, and if they did it would amount to one of the dopest shows almost unseen. But officially, they weren’t performing.
Then the day came. Sunset Boulevard was shut down from La Cienega to Kings Road. The West Hollywood Sheriffs were staging nearby. The Fire Marshall had his tally counter clicking every soul that entered, ready to find any excuse to cancel the show. We had agreed to start the show at 3pm to ensure we were finished by the sunset curfew. Part of the many negotiations and compromises included ending the show before dark. Guests leaving while it was still daylight added a layer of perceived safety.
Let’s just say the tension was high.
All the staff were briefed about the threats to that night. They needed to be smart. If there was going to be shit, it better not be us that start it.
Ok, maybe the tension was a little higher than high.
And finally, the entire balcony was secured and reserved for VIP’s and Death Row invited guests. If there was to be a problem, Suge would probably be the target. He was perched high up, looking down and partying, enjoying what he had created.
Tupac and me
It was the third and last time I would work with Tupac. The first was the summer of 92, in Richmond. Pac was 21 and I was producing and promoting a concert featuring 2nd to None, Gold Money, and Tupac. He did an in-store meet & greet to promote his album 2Pacalypse Now.
To be honest, I didn’t think much of him at the time. He was cool, professional, centred in the moment. It was confusing in a special kind of way. To me, he was another rapper on the line up, he was work that needed to be done in order to get paid. The cadence in his speak and his frequent usage of ‘Yo’ made me think of real life YO MTV Raps. He had a different type of swag about him, a different flare. I was clueless about his roadie and dancing role with Digital Underground. I knew nothing about the rapper who called himself ‘Mc New York’ or his Bronx by way of Baltimore upbringing or him attending a performing arts high school. And it was long before the celebrated ‘THUG LIFE’ tatted across his chest would be deciphered as The Hate You Give.
Our paths would cross again four years later outside the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset and everything was different. He was in full Death Row persona. Out on bail, fresh out of jail-California dreamin’. The entourage around him was rough and thugged out, ready to deal with any shit.
I was almost that shit. I wanted to holla at him but was hesitant. It didn’t feel like a good time for even a fan to approach him and his crew. But I was young and I knew him so I approached anyway. We made eye contact and as if a switch flicked on he went full Bay Area Tupac.
‘My folk from the Bay. Richmond. What up, Lil Farr? You’re Pee Wee and Roniece family, right? Farr Entertainment. Y’all did the show at the Richmond Auditorium.’
He wasn’t whispering. He made sure everyone knew I was cool. It was as though a memory of his former life came screaming into his mind. A time before LA. Before the fame.
‘Y’all got the House of Blues, right? Heard y’all sign a partnership deal with them.’
There it is, Pac the artist, Tupac the businessman. He was complete and genuine Bay Luv, with part Hollywood thrown in. Tupac was good.
The show PT2
The last time I saw him was that night. The 4th of July 1996. I remember him levitating, almost bouncing as he exited the car and approached the backstage entrance. He was focused. He knew what was at stake, what this concert meant. If this show went well it would lead to more shows, to tours. Rappers didn’t do tours like we see today, at least not rappers like Tupac.
And it’s not like Tupac didn’t want to tour. Because of all the shit associated with rap music they just couldn’t book him. Snoop wasn’t on TV with Martha Stewart back then. The issue was venues and promoters not being able to obtain insurance.
Anyway, we nodded to each other and he disappeared into the venue. When I checked in on him later in his dressing room, squeezing past the bulked-up bouncer at his door, the room was Hennessy, dank, and video models in full excess. His life was one long music video. It was like a scene, but in real life from It’s all about you.
Then Snoop and Tha Dogg Pound rolled up in a deep pack. I don’t remember who all was there. Snoop. Daz. Kurupt. Definitely. I remember being surrounded. At 22 I still had a few lessons to learn. Mainly, don’t let them know you have the backstage passes on you.
The Doggs smelled weakness.
‘Cuz, I’m so and so.’
‘Yo homie, I need a pass.’
Shit. I was completely surrounded. The smell of weed choked my throat. My blood was electric. Fear and panic began to rise. My mind replayed that moment outside the Comedy Store.
Then Snoop pushed through. ‘Naw Cuz, you got them passes out like dog food.’ He looked at Tha Dogg Pound. ‘Fall back,’ he said. ‘cause this Lil N***a don’t know what he’s doing. Cuz, go find someone from the label.’
I don’t know what was stronger. My hurt pride, or my relief. What I do know is I had to charge it to the game and move forward.
Then Suge arrived. A blood red Chevy Impala puffing on what must have been a 10inch Cuban. Security stronger than a presidential motorcade. They jogged next to the Pirus red baron of the west coast rap empire as he disappeared into the venue.
To tell you the truth, I think Suge is the reason no shit went down that day. Nobody fucks with Suge Knight. It was clear that a directive had come down from him that there were to be no problems with the show.
So there they all were and suddenly it was all ready. Sound checks were done. The audience was in. The stage was literally smoking. Absent and certainly not welcome was Dr. Dre. The haze from the Chronic had already made an imprint on that night.
The summer of 1996
That was a weird summer. LA was lit and Sunset Boulevard was my playground. I had just produced a European tour with R&B girls group Jade. I had worked in record promotions with radio stations across the country. I was planning events for House of Blues Olympic Summer Games. They had purchased an old church in Centennial park to host events during the 1996 summer games. I booked an up-and-coming rapper from Brooklyn named Jay-Z to perform. I worked with the team that coordinated the USA Men’s Basketball Dream Team-led Return to the Park event. The House of Blues was launching a touring division and the first tour was the Smokin’ Grooves Tour.
I was all over the states and the world. This was just another LA show. Don’t get me wrong, it was a big show.
(A really big show. Tupac, Suge, Snoop, Daz, Kurupt, Tha Dogg Pound, DJ Pooh, Nate Dogg, Chris Tucker, KC & JoJo, Dru Down, LT Hutton, Tyron Turner, The Outlawz, Jewell, Danny Boy, Da Eastsidaz, Celebrity photographer Jay Lash)
The biggest of my career at the time. But I was looking onward to bigger and greater things. This was just the start.
So I sat back and watched as Tupac brought down the house in what was to be his last live concert. Those first few bars of Ambitionz az a Ridah with the sample of famed ring announcer Michael Buffers’s ‘let’s get ready to rumble.’ I began to relax.
Little did I know just what that night would mean. Sometimes in life you set big goals. Then later they become small victories. I feel humbled. In some small way, this was my contribution to the culture. Most of the 1000 or so people there didn’t know me and never would. For all intents and purposes I was invisible. One of the many behind the scenes who ensured that this concert went off without a hitch… more or less.
Two months later
Saturday, September 7, 1996. It’s my birthday. I’m now 23 and have just finished up a meeting in Oakland, heading to the airport where I’m booked on a Southwest flight to Las Vegas. Mike Tyson is fighting. I’m about to have full access to the fight, about to hear the original ‘let’s get ready to rumble’.
Missed the flight and going missed the fight. Waiting. That’s when we heard the news. Tupac shot in a drive-by. I didn’t know what to think, how to process. My mind went back to the show. I was with him only two months ago. I heard So many tears play in my mind. I saw Pac walking across the stage.
So much death and violence.
Six days later Tupac Shakur died from multiple gunshots in a Las Vegas hospital. He never got to see the fruits of his labor, never got to see what his last show did for Rap history.
Never got to headline a tour.
I’m struggling with the words to end this story. I want to show my gratitude for what happened, for getting to be a part of that show. It was more than iconic. It was a gateway to West Coast Gangsta Rap as an acceptable and quality form of music.
But more than all that, there was an eery prophetic nature to it all. Before Pac released Ambitionz he released So many tears (even though Tears was the second song he performed that night). The reality of an early death was on his mind from the start. It was on all our minds.
Most of us who worked on that show were under 30 years old. We were told we wouldn’t live past 25. I was told I wouldn’t live past 25. That’s what made Tupac’s music so impactful. You hear it in the lyrics. So many tears still plays through my head and I still feel it in my heart. Damn.
That was 25 years ago. I’m 47 now. Double my age that day. But telling this story, I’m 22 again. In that room, electricity filling the air, the crowd buzzing and excited. Sound checks done. Everything is set.
Then Tupac enters the room.