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.