Why you should care
Because while there may be no second acts in American lives, there are plenty of deaths.
“Everyone remembers where they were the night Tupac got shot,” L.T. Hutton says before filming the drive-by shooting that ended up taking Tupac Shakur’s life for All Eyez on Me, the recently released biopic of the late rapper. It’s a warm Las Vegas night in April 2016, and I’m on set watching my childhood happen all over again.
It was September 7, 1996, and Mike Tyson had just annihilated Bruce Seldon. My crew of teenage friends made our way to the MGM Grand to catch the fallout of the fight. Upon our arrival, we noticed a commotion on the casino floor.
“That ain’t no damn Tupac!” I yelled. MGM security tried to break up a melee. I paid little attention to the man strolling through the hotel lobby with his entourage in tow.
But it was Tupac. He had just punched 21-year-old Orlando Anderson and left as his bodyguards finished the job. It was the beginning of the end and I didn’t even know it. Hell, nobody did.
We assumed it was just another incident that nobody would remember. But everyone who cared to remember remembers, because it was the night Tupac was shot.
If you lived during the Mike Tyson era, the MGM Grand Las Vegas Hotel & Casino was the place to be on fight night. Even though we couldn’t fully indulge in the festivities as teenagers, just being a part of the atmosphere was a cultural rite of passage. Celebrities in abundance, scantily clad women and a swell of people who you knew good and damn well couldn’t afford tickets to a Tyson fight filled up the casino.
“Whenever Mike Tyson would have a fight, it would be like the Super Bowl of the pimp/whore/gangster crowd,” Chris Carroll, a 23-year veteran of the Las Vegas Police Department, said during a 2014 interview in Cuepoint. “There would be gangsters all up and down the Strip, in the hotel, everywhere.”
Shortly after the dustup, we hit Club 662, where Tupac and numerous celebrities would end up partying. We were too young to get in but knew that it was going to be a lively party outside the club.
We walked up the Las Vegas Strip to get our car from a close-by casino. Sirens blared and police vehicles struggled through jam-packed streets. We assumed it was just another incident that nobody would remember. But everyone who cared to remember remembers, because it was the night Tupac was shot.
And now, nearly two decades later, I’m on the set for the film about it. But when Demetrius Shipp Jr. — who never acted a day before in his life and was working at Dish Network when he got the call that he was cast as the lead in a film helmed by music video director Benny Boom — hits the Las Vegas Strip dressed in the same outfit that Tupac was last photographed in, the crowd, gathering to watch, gasps.
“It’s very surreal because it’s not just a script where somebody gets shot,” Boom says as he tinkers with the positioning of everything in an effort to emulate the scene of the crime. “This is a death that basically changed hip-hop and changed music. We have to get it as factually correct as possible.”
Producer L.T. Hutton and Malcolm “E.D.I Mean” Greenridge are there, helping with the details. Greenridge, in particular, considering he was a member of Tupac’s Outlawz crew and rode in the car behind Tupac when the shooting happened.
“It’s surreal,” Greenridge says of Shipp’s uncanny likeness to his late friend. “Some people have a predetermined destiny. He probably didn’t know it, and I’m sure that nobody that knew him knew it. He was definitely handpicked by some higher power to play this role.”
For the next couple of hours, the harrowing scene is played out multiple times, where Suge Knight hooks his BMW 750iL into a nearby parking lot as he checks on Tupac, who was shot four times by an assailant who, to this day, has yet to be identified. E.D.I. Mean, who is 20 years older now, reprises his role as he calls for help while Tupac is bleeding out.
“It’s taking me right back to that moment, to that time, to the emotions, to everything,” he tells me between takes. He pauses and looks around at the surrounding casinos with a hint of disgust on his face. “I never liked Las Vegas, even before this happened. It’s just not my kind of town.”
It’s now 3 a.m. and in between takes, I meet Demetrius Shipp Sr., the father of the young actor. As we talk about his son landing the role, he reveals that he produced Tupac and Jodeci’s collaboration “Toss It Up” and used to bring his son to the studio sessions where Tupac and the rest of the Death Row Records artists would record. Oddly enough, Shipp never saw the resemblance between his then-7-year-old son and the legendary artist he was working with.
“I didn’t see it at a young age,” Shipp Sr. says. I didn’t start paying attention until everybody else started noticing as he got older.”
And now he’s watching his son re-create his friend’s death.
“For me, it’s a celebration and healing process, because I lost a friend and somebody I worked with,” Shipp Sr. says while watching his son lie motionless in the street just like Tupac did in 1996. “But now it becomes a celebration, because I get to celebrate with my son and see him going to a new area in a new part of his life.”
Shipp Jr., too young to really remember Tupac speak, comes over during a break and speaks in the same cadence, moves with the same mannerisms that Tupac did.
“I have a unique connection with Tupac and studied him day and night,” he says. When I mention that he could accomplish what Denzel Washington did with Malcolm X, where the new generation will think of his Tupac when they talk about Tupac before they think about Tupac, he just laughs. Just like Tupac. “I just want people to leave the theater like, ‘Damn!’ and understand who Tupac was before he died.”
We’re interrupted as he’s called back to the set.
“Will I get to talk to him again?” I ask one of his handlers.
“You have to wait,” says the handler, “for Tupac to finish dying.”