Great political non-fiction books (No4) Labyrinth: The truth behind the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls by Randall Sullivan

Labyrinth is subtitled Corruption and Vice in the LAPD: The Truth behind the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. Whether it actually lives up to this billing is debatable. While the author Randall Sullivan does examine the murders in great detail, I’m not sure he can lay claim to solving them. He does however offer a panoramic portrait of racial politics in one of America’s biggest cities.

Over the course of 300 odd pages the book looks at the reasons behind the growth of gang culture, the LA riots, police corruption and the murky world of rap and politics. What truly fascinates is how all of these are so closely interlinked in a city where wearing the wrong shirt in a particular neighbourhood can get you killed.

I have to hold my hands up at this point and admit that what I know about rap music could be written on the back of a postage stamp. However Sullivan is very good at explaining this world in a way that makes sense to the lay-person and afterwards I was actually convinced to go out and buy a few rap albums by Tupac, Biggie, Public Enemy and NWA.

Of more interest to me though is the way Sullivan talks about the institutional racism and corruption in the LAPD. LA has had problems with its policing and race relations since the 1940s, and occasionally this has led to city-wide riots like in 1992. Attempts to increase the number of minorities in the police force have had mixed success at best, and as the US inner city manufacturing base slowly collapses in on itself this has led to a new underclass of people trapped in poverty. As a result of this it comes as no surprise that a whole generation of young people has turned to crime and drugs, a lifestyle far too often celebrated and glamorized in music by certain artists. 

To his credit Tupac was smarter than most and his music reflects this. Like most talented young people who die young, Tupac has been mythologized to a worrying extent. Sullivan portrays him as a man fully aware that the persona he had created for the world wasn’t fully accurate (he essentially came from a middle class background) and that living up to it was going to prove increasingly difficult. Sullivan makes the argument that  in the modern music business authenticity is just as important a commodity as talent, and a criminal record was a way of proving that you were the genuine article.

In the background of all of this is Suge Knight, the spider at the centre of the web of corruption. He was the head of Death Row Records and Tupac’s employer. The way in which he seems to have used a mixture of persuasion, bribery, charm and frightening levels of violence to get to the top of the LA rap pile has certain echos of Scarface and the Godfather about it. Sullivan makes a convincing argument that the murders of Tupac and Biggie were both linked to him and his business dealings. Unlike some other works on this subject that I’ve looked at Sullivan keeps to the facts and never tips over into conspiracy theory paranoia. He seems to have interviewed a huge number of people across the whole spectrum of LA society and the rest is based on newspaper reports of the time.

After their deaths Death Row Records went into terminal decline while the Rampart scandal in the LAPD led to mass firings as the sheer depth of police corruption began to be uncovered. I’d highly recommend Labyrinth for anyone seeking a greater understanding of crime and modern politics in urban America. It’s also a great book for explaining the politics of the music industry.

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About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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2 Responses to Great political non-fiction books (No4) Labyrinth: The truth behind the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls by Randall Sullivan

  1. This one looks great. I am surprised you put this one on the list, but reading the review it makes a good deal of sense.

    By the way…Have you read EJ Dionne’s Why Americans Hate Politics? I’m in the middle of it right now and it’s fantastic. Historically, it’s a wonderful survey of the liberal/conservative dynamic in America going back to WWII. I can’t say I agree with everything he’s written in it, but some stuff is remarkable. His analysis of Jimmy Carter’s Presidency is the best thing I’ve read on the subject.

    • I’d not even heard of it before now, but I’ve just ordered a second-hand copy from Amazon (0.01p plus postage and packing so its a bargain).

      I mainly read Labyrinth because I’d really enjoyed Homicide and the Corner by David Simon and wanted something similar that looked at LA. A friend recommened this to me and despite the fact that I know nothing about rap I thought I’d give it a go. I was more interested in the political elements than the musical but there are some great bits. The opening section detailing how an off duty police officer shot another cop while undercover is an interesting examination of police failures since the LA riots.

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