Music’s biggest mysteries are coming to television on Tuesday with the premiere of USA Networks’s Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., a 10-episode scripted true crime miniseries based on the iconic rappers’ deaths less in 1996 and 1997. The show tells the story in three parallel narratives set years apart, examining the events that transpired leading up to and following the artists’ fatal drive-by shootings and the police investigations that followed. In it, viewers are brought down the rabbit hole of this almost Shakespearean tragedy along with the obsessive detectives that sought justice.
By his own admission, series creator and executive producer Kyle Long (Suits) said he’s been “obsessed” with Tupac Shakur and Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace‘s deaths since his move to Los Angeles about 20 years ago and had a job working next to the Petersen Automotive Museum, in front of which Wallace was killed. Speaking with Billboard, Long explained he has read all the books on the murders and seen all the documentaries, but what clicked for him in conceiving an adaptation for TV was when he learned of the Los Angles police department task force run by detective Greg Kading in 2006 that reopened the initial investigation.
Long said after meeting Kading and reading his self-published the book, Murder Rap: The Untold Story of the Biggie Smalls & Tupac Shakur Murder, he began to understand how to best tell this story as he started seeing similarities between Kading and LAPD detective Russell Poole, who led the department’s initial investigation of Wallace’s murder. “They were very different people, but the case really kind of got ahold of them and there’s a very similar journey,” he said.
In the course of creating the show, the case has likewise gotten ahold of Long and the rest of the creative cast and crew. “I think I know as much about this thing as anybody,” said Long. “I’m constantly thinking about it, constantly meeting new people that have some interesting story. It definitely has kept me up at night.”
Josh Duhamel, who plays Kading and was able to rely on the former detective for advise during the filming, became similarly absorbed in the investigation. He called it a “labyrinth,” a “matrix of information” and “a giant, confusing puzzle at times,” noting the intricacies of the many characters involved and their affiliations.
“You have to understand who these people are, where they’re from,” he said. “It’s not just a Crip, it’s a Southside Crip or it’s Piru Mob. Like, what is Piru Mob? I didn’t know what that was and it’s part of the Bloods, it’s this sub-gang of a gang, and then there’s sub-gangs of sub-gangs. And sometimes it’s like why is he talking to him? I thought he was a Blood, how is he connected to him? It’s truly fascinating how they were able to sort of unravel this thing and look at it for what it really was.”
Added Bokeem Woodbine, who plays officer Daryn Dupree, an investigator on the 2006 task force with Kading: “There’s been so much rumor and Innuendo, conjecture about what happened to Tupac and Biggie that actually getting down to brass tacks and dealing with the minutiae of info that goes along with solving a murder is fascinating and one of the most fascinating elements of it is the sheer volume of coincidence and bizarre simpatico and sometimes in a nefarious fashion, like the fact that one person might be here at the same time that this person is here and this leads to that.
“I mean, you could write some of this stuff and people wouldn’t believe it’s true because the coincidences are bizarre and there’s a multitude of them. There’s a lot of things that happened that they just define the defy logic in a way because they’re integral parts of the investigation, but it’s almost like if one thing was one degree this direction or that direction, this would have happened. But if things fell in line and in such a perfect awful way that it almost seems as though it was orchestrated universally somehow.”
Through Unsolved‘s three timelines, viewers gain a unique insight into Shakur and Wallace’s relationship from friends to foes with the knowledge it ultimately ends in each of their deaths. Through this means, Long and executive producer and director Anthony Hemingway (The People v. O.J. Simpson) approach the rappers less as icons and more as young men. Shakur was just 25 when he died, Wallace was 24, both enjoying and overwhelmed by their newfound fame and the pressures surrounding them. In the first episode, we see Shakur (played by Marcc Rose) and Wallace (played by Wavyy Jonez) meet for the first time in 1993 before they go on to live it up drinking, smoking, freestyling, praising each others’ talents and even running around treating glocks as if they were toy guns.
“It’s so stupid — that all that happened for real,” says Long “We found that it’s a real event. They met each other and then, like little boys, they ran around with real guns having fun. I wouldn’t have put that in the show if we’d made it up because it’s ridiculous, but the fact that happened for real is fascinating. And there’s a lot of stuff like that in the show people are gonna be like, ‘What?’ but that really happened.”
As we’ve seen in recent hip-hop biopics like All Eyez on Me and Straight Outta Compton, intense public scrutiny comes with reviving such beloved artists as Shakur and Wallace. That pressure was magnified with Unsolved‘s examination of the LAPD’s often maligned investigations that failed to provide any resolution and is something the entire production has been well aware of since the start.
“I think everybody on this show from top to bottom really just wants this to feel authentic and do right by Tupac, Biggie, their families and, by the way, the police department,” said Duhamel. “You know, they’re not as bad as they were made out to be and these detectives gave everything they had to bring justice to the families of Tupac and Biggie. And that’s really what I think the objective of the show is.”
Actors Rose and Jonez were studious in their approaches to embody these legends, watching endless hours of interviews and appearances online, eating the foods they ate, reading the books they read and wearing the cologne they wore. Rose, 25 — who came to the project after playing Shakur in a small role in Straight Outta Compton — got onset advise from Shakur’s brother, Mopreme Shakur, and picked up smoking cigarettes to better imitate Shakur’s raspy voice. Jonez would go back to his apartment and just live in his Biggie role.
“I feel there’s always pressure,” said Jonez, 23, who is made his acting debut with Unsolved after someone recommended he submit for the role based on a video he had posted to Facebook. “Fans in their mind… they take Pac and they hold Pac up there, they hold Big up there, so there’s a certain certain greatness that you must touch in order to play this character.”
Jonez continued, calling his and Rose’s experience of portraying the rappers “eerie” explaining the importance of treating these roles with a responsibility to confront the issues they faced as young men that still persist in America. “A lot of stuff that Pac spoke about and fought for and just the street’s perspective that Biggie spoke about, it’s still going on today even though the words may be different and the tunes may be different,” he said. “So it’s like we’re still in those shoes, we’re still young black men in America and we still dealing with the issues that they dealt with then. It’s still on us — that pressure of the things they spoke about is still on us today.”
Aside from the mystery surrounding Tupac and Wallace’s deaths — on which Long said she show seeks to offer as much closure as it can legally — Rose and Jonez have another hope for what the audience will takeaway from the series and the parable of the rapper’s ultimately doomed relationship. “When I think about the fact that Big was 24, Pac was 25 … it’s surreal in a sense because we’re still kids and they were still kids when they passed,” said Rose. “It’s just so unfortunate that they didn’t get a chance to make up and get over it.”
“Something I want people to take from this show is never leave anything unsaid,” added Jonez. “Biggie and Pac had many opportunities to call each other, they had many opportunities to meet each other in different states or whatever and just speak about it. If you love somebody and they’re your friend, don’t leave anything unsaid. Come together and all the beef and all that, it’s uncalled for. Come together and speak about it and just go from there.”
The weight of telling this story is something Long said has not been taken lightly, with the knowledge that in the process of creating this series they will shape the public’s perception around the events it depicts. In a sense, this will become the new truth.
“My thing is trying to treat everyone with respect and not judging anybody,” said Long. “Like, [often maligned Death Row Records CEO] Suge Knight‘s not a super villain, he’s a human being and it’s an impressive story that this guy took over the record industry as a young man from Compton. The same with Puffy, all these guys. So everyone is human and everyone has layers. So I think we’ve done a really good job of showing like people are complicated, cops are complicated, gang members are complicated.”
“We don’t want to depict people in a way that isn’t fair,” he added. “But we also want to tell the truth.”