*Warning, video contains explicit language*
The year was 1993. Biggie Smalls, not yet a star but rapidly generating buzz off the strength of his debut single "Party and Bullsh-t," was in Los Angeles and in need of a weed connect. Tupac Shakur had been bumping “Party and Bullshit” on the set of Poetic Justice and invited Biggie to a party at his house; there, they bonded over a "big freezer bag of the greenest vegetables I'd ever seen," according to Biggie’s label intern Dan Smalls.
This fabled house party may well have been the site of the rap battle that takes place between Tupac and Biggie in the pilot of Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. (video above). Afternoon sun peeks through shuttered shades into Tupac’s living room; Tupac (Marcc Rose) lounges on his couch and smiles broadly as he watches Biggie (Wavyy Jonez) spit over a beat which approaches the cold-blooded mafioso thump of "Kick in the Door."
Biggie dons a flat cap and Coogi sweater and stands in front of the fireplace, flanked by his boys from NYC, as he fires off dense rhymes in a sneering baritone. Tupac’s friends whoop their approval. Biggie’s boys revel in the mention of Brooklyn. Then Tupac responds in earnest, elongating syllables and exuberantly brandishing his right hand to underscore his message. It goes back and forth like this until they seal the battle with a nod of understanding and a handshake of respect.
This scene serves as a foundational stone of Unsolved because it depicts Tupac and Biggie’s relationship in its purest form -- before they became rivals, even before they tore down Madison Square Garden with “Where Brooklyn At” a few months later. The burden of the scene’s music fell primarily on the shoulders of Unsolved co-producer and music supervisor Lyah LeFlore. Her task was to produce a rap battle that evoked the natural chemistry and rivalry that existed between Tupac and Biggie as well as the sense that, in this moment, they were two titans good-naturedly sizing each other up, sparring for sport.
LeFlore has been a fixture of the music and entertainment industry for the past 25 years. (She was present at the Vibe party at the Petersen Museum that Biggie attended immediately prior to his murder.) Her industry roots allowed her to assemble a bicoastal braintrust of Tupac and Biggie’s contemporaries:
- Easy Mo Bee, producer of Biggie’s “Gimme the Loot,” “Machine Gun Funk,” and “Warning” as well as two tracks on Tupac’s Me Against the World.
- Battlecat, producer and DJ
- Ervin E.P. Pope, producer
- Mopreme Shakur, rapper and brother of Tupac
- Harvey Mason, Jr., R&B superproducer
- Dub-C, member of the ‘90s supergroup Westside Connection alongside Ice Cube and Mack 10.
- J.E. Cooper, rapper
“I really went after a handful of producers that I knew could deliver that sound,” LeFlore told USA during a recent phone interview.
The rap battle scene music she coordinated is representative of how much of the original music for the show came together. Upon reading the script, she constructed a vision for how the battle should sound, then assigned the beat to Easy Mo Bee. After they perfected the beat via the iteration process, she turned to Dub-C and J.E. Cooper, who would pen lyrics for Tupac and Biggie, respectively.
“I would give the writers direction on the context and the feel,” she explained. “I would say, I'd like to remember Biggie from ‘Things Done Changed.’ Remember the feeling -- do you know the spirit of ‘Hypnotize?’ I would speak to them in that way, and really lay out what we had to achieve.”
Once satisfied, she hit Harvey Mason’s studio with Rose and Jonez to lay down the track that would become the rap battle between Pac and Big. While acknowledging the collaborative nature of the song, LeFlore heaped extra praise upon J.E. Cooper, a New York rapper who was on the verge of stardom in the mid-’90s and ultimately rebranded himself as a gospel rapper. “[He] had insight tonally,” she said of Cooper. “His cadence, how the lyrics come together and flow, is very much like how Biggie wrote.”
There is a generational thread that runs through Unsolved -- not only between the two investigations taking place a decade apart, but in the way the show asks the viewer to conceive of and relate to the music of the ‘90s. LeFlore included essential hip hop artists of that era, like Ice Cube, A Tribe Called Quest, and Masta Ace, as well as the music that those artists frequently sampled: music by artists like Bobby Womack, Roger and Zapp, and War. She licensed Mtume's "Juicy Fruit," which The Trackmasters sampled on Biggie’s Horatio Alger novel of a smash hit "Juicy," and she selected New Birth’s “Wildflower" and Aretha Franklin's "Bridge over Troubled Water" to underscore Tupac’s childhood flashbacks.
“For those of us that really lived and experienced hip hop as it was being made during that time, this is going to feel like a reunion,” LeFlore says. “I wanted people to really feel the energy of that era. When we saw Biggie and Tupac together, it solidified... the humanity of these two young African-American men, who had dreams and were out there doing it. It takes it away from the painful part of the demise of both of these legends. That sound is connecting and solidifying the bond and the friendship that they had… [My job] was to pay homage to that period, but also to honor Biggie and Tupac's legacy, and their music, and the relationship that I witnessed.”
Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. continues next Tuesday. Watch a sneak peek of the next episode below: