Volume 79, Number 39 | March 3 - 9, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by J.B. Nicholas

A spread of the late Tupac Shakur and one of his rings in the catalogue for the aborted auction. 

Rap feud left two stars dead and one ‘Book of Bling’

By J.B. Nicholas 

Call it the “Book of Bling.”

Last week an important artifact of hip-hop history surfaced. A slickly produced, color, glossy, magazine-like auction catalogue, it celebrates and commemorates that most personal of rap artists’ accruement, their “bling,” the often-diamond-encrusted jewelry that adorns their necks, fingers and, in some cases, teeth. 

Clocking in at 179 pages, the book catalogues jewelry of rap icons from the beginning of hip-hop history to the present day, including stars of the magnitude of Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Eminem, Missy Elliot, Alicia Keys and LL Cool J, along with 23 others. 

The catalogue was prepared by Phillips de Pury & Company, the famed international auction house founded in 1796, whose early clients included Napoleon. As part of its contemporary strategy of courting young money, in 2008, Phillips reached out to the rap world and created a collection it called “Hip-Hop’s Crown Jewels.” 

An auction date was set for Oct. 1, 2008, in New York City. Observers predicted it would net at least $3 million, and anoint the rap world with the kind of cultural cachet previously reserved for the likes of Andy Warhol and the Beatles.

But it never happened, and why it didn’t would remain shrouded in secrecy — until now.

As the auction date approached, it was rescheduled for spring 2009, supposedly so that additional pieces could be included in the historic event. Then, as the new date approached, Philips quietly unlisted the event and ordered all evidence of it to be destroyed — including the auction catalogues it had printed. Someone, however, defied the order and took home one of the catalogues. 

This person preserved the catalogue and the secret behind the auction’s cancellation for two years. Recently, the catalogue passed into new hands, along with the story of its creation and inside knowledge of the reason why the auction was cancelled. This person, a twenty-something fashion and jewelry designer, spoke at length with this writer recently in her Brooklyn studio. She insisted on anonymity, not for her own sake, but in order to preserve the anonymity of the person from whom she obtained the catalogue. 

Phillips, the auction house, she said, “was afraid.”

“They were afraid they couldn’t provide the kind of security they would need,” she said. “They were afraid of being robbed. And they were also afraid of the whole Biggie-versus-Tupac thing.”

She was referring to the East Coast- versus-West Coast rap rivalry that turned deadly in 1996, when Tupac Shakur was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, with Biggie Smalls following him to the grave a year later.

The feud between these two princes of rap was truly tragic and revolves, in high Shakespearean fashion, around a woman. 

That woman was Faith Evans, who was 21 when Smalls met her in a recording studio in New York. Nine days later they would marry. The following month, Smalls released “Ready to Die,” which reached number 13 on the Billboard chart and went platinum four times over. At the time of its release, West Coast-style rap dominated the charts. “Ready to Die,” said Rolling Stone magazine at the time, “almost singlehandedly...shifted the focus back to East Coast rap.” After collecting numerous year-end awards, The Source, the Rolling Stone of the hip-hop world, put Biggie Smalls on its cover with the headline “The King of New York Takes Over.”

Meanwhile, as Smalls was ascendant in his success, Shakur was stewing in a cell in an Upstate New York prison. In April 1995 he gave a jailhouse interview to Vibe magazine, during which he accused Smalls, among others, of having set him up in a robbery on the night of Nov. 30, 1994. During the robbery, Shakur was repeatedly shot before being relieved of several thousand dollars worth of his bling.

The accusations, though denied by Smalls and unproven, are accorded some weight in the hip-hop world, since Smalls, who was with his entourage, and Shakur were both working in the same Manhattan recording studio at the time of Shakur’s robbery — though Smalls and Shakur had been recording in separate areas of the studio.

Then, in October 1995, the year Smalls laid claim to the hip-hop crown, Shakur was released from prison. Upon his release, he immediately changed labels and signed with Death Row records, the Los Angeles-based rap juggernaut owned by Suge Knight. The following spring, Shakur released his fourth solo album, “All Eyez on Me.” 

Following the album’s release, Shakur issued a “diss single” called “Hit ’em Up,” in which he claimed, in graphic detail, to have had sex with Small’s wife Evans, at a point when Smalls and Evans were estranged but still married. 

Three months later, on the night of Sept. 7, 1996, Shakur, in Las Vegas to see a Mike Tyson fight, was mortally wounded by an unknown assailant. He would die in his hospital bed six days later.

The following March, while Smalls was in Los Angeles promoting a new album, he, too, was gunned down.

It would be easy to write off Phillips’s fear of reigniting an East Coast-versus-West Coast rap war as the product of nothing but latent racism and exaggerated fears. But the blood already shed in the rivalry has been real. 

And with the catalogue’s multiple entries from both the Shakur and Smalls estates, the dead stars practically continue their feud from beyond the grave, dueling it out vis-à-vis via their bling across the catalogue’s gorgeous, glossy pages. Indeed, one particularly provocative piece from Shakur is a gold ring encrusted with diamonds and precious purple stones, capped by a crown.

Despite the numerous theories that abound about the Shakur and Smalls murders, no one was ever charged and the cases remain open. 

Phillips de Pury, the auction house, declined to comment for this story, despite being given multiple opportunities to do so.

 

 

 

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