Chuck Philips: All Eyez On Me

posted March 17, 2008 12:00:00 AM CDT | 35 comments

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chuck Philips is either a severely under appreciated asset to the Hip Hop community or a vulture feasting on what remains of the stories surrounding the murders of Tupac and Biggie. The L.A. Times writer may be single-handedly responsible for keeping both legends stories alive in the mainstream media via his consistent investigative reporting into their deaths. He may also be responsible for maliciously distorting information for those reports to conveniently craft impressive pieces boasting new insight into the circumstances of two murders that have remained unsolved for nearly a dozen years.

Chuck Philips may be a liar. Or he may not be. And it was with the latter possibility in mind that this writer requested to speak with Mr. Philips [click here to read] following his controversial investigative report in 2002 that claimed Biggie was involved in the murder of Tupac.

Once again the justifiably skeptical eyes of the Hip Hop community are focused on Mr. Philips reporting [click here for more details], and so once again this writer reached out to allow Mr. Philips an opportunity to take his case for the worthiness of his work to the readers of HipHopDX.

Is Chuck Philips an unflinching truth teller unfairly dismissed by biased Hip Hop media outlets who refuse to fathom the possibility that P. Diddy and/or Biggie might have been involved in the assault and/or murder of Tupac? Or is he just a desperate journalist attempting to cover up flawed reporting with even more distorted half-truths.You decide.

HipHopDX: Im sure the readers of this piece wont know this, but back in 2003 I was maybe the only Hip Hop scribe that provided you a platform to elaborate on your then controversial piece in the Times that suggested Biggie provided the weapon and a bounty for the murder of Tupac [click here to read], one of the few in the Hip Hop media that didnt immediately condemn the piece. So are you feeling a little bit of dj vu all over again following the immediate condemnation of your latest report on the Shakur case?
Chuck Philips: Yeah, its kinda I got ready for it again. I mean, some people arent gonna back you and thats the way it is.

DX: And I just have to ask this on behalf of the entire Hip Hop community, are your intentions in your reporting of the Shakur and Smalls cases pure? Is your current report slanted towards a narrative that you need to keep alive to make credible previous reports, or are you genuinely just going where your research takes you?
: I hadnt even tried to find this one. Im working on a story about who murdered Biggie. I've been working on it for quite some time. I was out in New York last year a lot [working on it]. And while I was out there I stumbled onto the names of the alleged assailants in this case, two of the names of the three guys. I wrote them all down and then wrote down some other information this individual who knew some things about Biggie had told me. And then when I got back [to Los Angeles] I started looking at it and thinking, If I could find these guys it wouldnt be that hard of a story to solve. So I started looking I didnt have their real names, so I called around. I was out in New York a few times, and every time I was working on the Biggie thing Id spend a couple days out there working on this. I eventually tracked down the three assailants, and then through them got to one of the people who helped orchestrate the thing. And then kinda got most of the story through them and some other people I visited at the Quad [Studios] there was somebody who was there that night. And I visited some other people that were familiar with the incident. And then after that I found the documents, which kind of substantiated most of what I had been told already by other people. Thats how I got [this story]. So I wasnt trying to extend anything. I was actually working on something else when this came along.

DX: Now the last time we spoke you told me you believed Southside Crips were behind the murder of Tupac. Considering your latest report, are you in any way suggesting that Jimmy Henchmen and/or James Sabatino contracted Southside Crips in Compton to kill Shakur?
: No, not at all. I dont think they had anything to do with Tupacs killing.

DX: Sabatino later allegedly had ties to Suge Knight, do you believe he may have murdered Tupac on Suges request?
: No, I dont think he had anything to do with it. And I dont think Suge had anything to do with murdering Tupac.

DX: Now I presume youre aware of Jimmy Henchmens connections to the Black Mafia Family. BMF has reportedly been affiliated with other organized crime syndicates in Mexico and possibly the Russian mob [click here for more details]. Are you in any way suggesting in your piece that the Black Mafia Family also had ties to the Colombo Crime Family via James Sabatino?
: No, not at all. You have to [remember], this is a long time ago. I dont even think at that time the Black Mafia Family existed in 1993, but I could be wrong about that. The ones that got busted up recently, I dont think they were around then.

DX: Your report was the first time Id seen the name James Sabatino connected with this case. If he was intimately involved in a plot that left Tupac shot multiple times why is his name just now surfacing publicly in relation to this crime over 13 years after the shooting?
: Well, I dont know the answer to that. I never looked at this case ever until I stumbled on these names, and they happened to be names that [led me to] him. I had never heard of him either. But he definitely knew these guys. I mean, there was things I left out of this story that He had dealings with Bad Boy. He was around at that time. And he was actually at the studio that night.

DX: To the best of your knowledge, was James Sabatino ever interviewed by any law enforcement agency regarding his knowledge of this case?
: I think he was subpoenaed to go to the grand jury, a lot of people were. But I dont know if he spoke to them.

DX: Youre talking about the recent probe by federal prosecutors into this case?
: Yeah, out in the Eastern District of New York.

DX: Going back to the origins of Sabatino, did Busta Rhymes, Heavy D, Lords Of The Underground, etc all really seek Sabatinos management services because of his membership in La Cosa Nostra and that membership in organized crime is glamourized in the Hip Hop world, as the confidential source interviewed by the F.B.I. suggested?
CP: Well, I dont know whether thats why they did it or not. But I know that there are people that do I mean, you know Scarface is one of the biggest movies in Hip Hop. And [Biggies alias] Frank White came out of a gangster movie, right? Scarface the rapper took his name from the movie. [Artists] I know liked all of those Italian mafia movies. I believe Tupac used to watch Scarface all of the time. In fact, the scene [that opens the uncensored video to] 2 Of Amerikaz Most Wanted was based on Scarface. When he has Puffy and Biggie lookalikes and he comes in wounded, thats right out of Scarface. So that is kind of glamourized in the Hip Hop world I think.

DX: I guess my question is really just Sabatino was so young at the time and so Im just wondering what the magnet would be for these established artists to want a 19-year-old to be their manager?
CP: I dont know the answer to that. It seems to me that would be I dont think he had any connections in the music business. I never heard of him. I mean, at the time when I was writing about all those people back then that name [never surfaced]. Id never heard James Sabatinos name until last year.

DX: But he was supposedly with Jimmy Henchmen almost continuously during that time?
: Yep, he helped co-promote How Can I Be Down?, that convention. So he was around, I just never heard of him. There was a lot of people around [at that time]. And frequently what people forget is people around lets say Suge Knight or around Tupac back then when you talk to them now they may be more willing to talk about things they saw then. And there were a lot of people around Puffy back then. And a lot of them were criminals. Many of them went to jail, but that doesnt mean they stopped talking. So just cause I never heard of a name doesnt mean he wasnt there. This guy clearly was around.

DX: Lets flesh this out a little more though, if Sabatino knew Tupac and was allegedly in cahoots with Henchmen in the 94 shooting, why then was Sabatino not named by Pac as part of the plot in Against All Odds?
CP: I dont know. Pac got a couple things wrong. Like, he named [King] Tut, and Tut had nothing to do with this. If you look at the sidebar, I put it in the timeline Tut had nothing to do with it. Pac called him out. He blamed Tut It was kind of hard to get it into the story, and it may come into another story, but if you remember there was a New York Daily News story The only way Tut was ever mentioned in the media was a Daily News story where an informant told a law enforcement officer he was quoted anonymously in the Daily News that the reason Tupac got beat up and shot was because he needed to be disciplined. It was a little teeny story in the Daily News. And the police tried to get Tut to inform on Puffy. They were trying to get information about the shooting of Tupac in Las Vegas and Combs alleged involvement in that and alleged involvement in the Quad [shooting]. And Tut didnt know anything about it and told em so. The people I talked to who did have some involvement in this have assured me that Tut had nothing to do with it. He wasnt there. So Tupac was wrong about that. Im just saying that may be why he didnt mention Sabatino [in Against All Odds]. He didnt get everything right [in the song], but he got a lot of it right.

DX: In the F.B.I.s summary of their interviews with the informant he says that he heard Randy Stretch Walker was murdered not by Sabatino and Henchmen to silence him about his involvement in the Quad shooting, but that he was killed 1 year to the day of that shooting as a favor for Suge Knight arranged by Sabatino. Im now thoroughly confused, Sabatino wants Pac roughed up essentially on behalf of Puffy and his crew, but then a year later he has one of his co-conspirators, Stretch, killed for that very act on behalf of Puffs nemesis Suge Knight?
: Well, I dont know if thats true. Do you know thats true?

DX: No, I dont, its just [that outlandish of a statement] goes to the informants credibility I would think.
: I dont know about the second part [of his statement]. I mean, I know that [Stretch] died that day. And I didnt write that it was a retaliation because I dont know if it was. In fact, several people told me it was a coincidence [that he was shot a year to the day of Tupac]. I dont believe it was a coincidence, but I dont know if it was or not. And I dont know if Sabatino had anything to do with that. There are several people that told me what it was about, why [Stretch] got killed, but I dont know if thats true. I really dont know about him.

DX: Because in Against All Odds Tupac says, Switched sides, guess his new friends wanted him dead. That statement wouldnt suggest it was Suge Knight and Sabatino [that conspired to murder Stretch]. That would suggest that plot was on the Bad Boy side of the equation.
: Yeah, honestly I dont know the answer [to who killed Stretch]. I know [Tupac] did feel he was betrayed by [Stretch]. But I just dont know the answer [to who killed him]. I just havent looked into it.

DX: If Sabatino was in fact behind the Quad shooting reason suggests Suge would have learned this and not associated with Sabatino. You dont have any proof that Suge and Sabatino ever associated, do you?
: I dont have any proof. People have told me [they have], but I have no idea if thats true. I mean, Ive asked Suge Knight about that and he said he didnt deal with Sabatino. Ive talked to other people around Sabatino and they said he did deal with Suge. So I dont really know. Its nothing Ive really pursued.

DX: I guess Im just genuinely a little suspicious of this informants statements regarding Sabatino.
: The main thing Im trying to say is I didnt base my story on that informant. I based this story on my own reporting. We came up on those documents later after I was pretty much sure of what happened. The newspaper always likes [to have] a document [to substantiate claims in a story]. I dont particularly believe in F.B.I. papers or L.A.P.D. reports. Theyre often lies. Ive got a guy that Im working a story on thats been in prison for 13 years for something he didnt do, but if you were to read the reports you would believe he did everything. So I mean, legally something like that is very good to have. And it confirms a lot of the stuff thats in my story, that document. But I had reported my own story based on the people I believe were in involved.

DX: But you believe that part of the informants statement, that Sabatino was in assocation with Suge Knight, may be tainted?
: Honestly I dont know. I havent pursued it so I dont really know if its true or not. I was told he has [been in association with Suge], but Suge himself said he wasnt [ever associating with Sabatino]. But Suge could be lying. [Laughs]. That [part of the informants statement] wasnt really that important to me. The main thing I was looking at was what [he said about what] happened in the Quad.

DX: And um [Laughs]. Im just gonna put this question to you the way I got it written down. Mr. Philips, Jimmy Henchmen and P. Diddy issued statements today that basically said youre full of shit [click here to read]. What is your response to their statements?
: Well, Im not full of shit. And they had ample opportunity to discuss things in my story. Neither one of em wanted to talk for the story. And what Puffy says I dont accuse Puffy of being involved [in the plot to assault Tupac], and hes saying hes not involved in any way. I never said he was involved, I said he was told about it. Other people are writing that he was involved. I didnt even suggest it. And in terms of what Henchmen says, he says Im full of shit with my Vegas story because Biggie had got in a car accident [and couldnt have been in Vegas because he was home recuperating]. Biggie didnt get in that accident until after Tupac [was murdered]. So that part of [his statement] is wrong. Hes basing his attack on me on [information] thats false.

DX: And I remember in 2003 you told me that one of the errors in the interpretation of your piece back then was that it wasnt that Biggie went out and actively sought assassins for Tupac, but that he was basically extorted into financing it.
CP: Absolutely. And that story was completely misrepresented everywhere it was re-reported, but I cant do anything about that. And its the same thing here. Henchmens doing the same thing here.

DX: Well, how do you convince the Hip Hop community that this new story is valid, how would you suggest that they interpret the report of the informants statements, just that the first half is accurate but the second half may not be?
: Well, I dont really know whether it is or isnt. I didnt investigate that. All Im saying is I reported my information not based on what this informant said. That [report of his statements to the F.B.I.] came to me after I got this information. But a lot of the things that were said in that document conformed to what I had learned on my own. And so I used it for that purpose. Its completely a source that I hadnt any contact with when I did my reporting, and he was saying almost the same things that I had found out.

DX: And can you tell me how many sources you interviewed in the process of your reporting?
: Im not gonna give you a number but several.

DX: And the assailants of Shakur, did you speak to them just the one time or have you had an opportunity to do follow-up interviews?
: One of em just denied everything. The other one I had two contacts with, and the other one I had three. And there was another person involved in this thing that I spoke repeatedly with.

DX: Will you or the Times pay to have the medallion stolen from Tupac during the assault produced as offered by one of the assailants to prove the validity of the claims made in your piece?
CP: [Laughs]. Were not gonna pay for it. People want money from me all the time for information, and we cant do that. You might be able to pay him [for the medallion] if you want.

DX: Now you say in your report though that these other sources, the perpetrators of the assault, discussed the Quad shooting with you on condition that their names not be published. Thats understandable considering they may fear retribution if named, but why werent any direct quotes from these additional sources placed into your piece? Why not include direct quotes attributed to these unnamed sources to reinforce the validity of the claims made in the piece?
: Well one problem with that is people will still know who they are. The people who were in on this particular thing with them know who they are, and so I dont wanna in any way [jeopardize their safety]. In fact we had that discussion here [at the L.A. Times] about things that I have in writing by people. But I didnt wanna put them in the story because they have a certain way of speaking that somebody might [recognize] who it is. I dont really want anybody to know who Im talking to. If youre giving me a bunch of information about some kind of assault you dont want anybody to know [it was you who told me]. You try to disguise it as best you can.

DX: Do you think theres a possibility based on conversations you had of any follow-up pieces where maybe more will come out from these sources?
: I think theres gonna be more that comes out, but not about this particular incident, about some other stuff.

DX: Speaking of, you said youre working on a piece regarding the Biggie murder case?
: Yeah. And these sources have led me in directions I didnt Like, this particular story came along and I didnt even know it was gonna happen. And the people who were involved in this thing led me to things I didnt know about that are kind of interesting in the Hip Hop world. And Ill probably report those things if I can verify them.

DX: Can you give us any kind of preview?
: Not right now, until I find out even if its true I have no idea [if Im even going to report on those things].

DX: My final question I have is just regarding the possible aftermath of your current piece. Jimmy Henchmen is now essentially threatening you and/or the Times with a lawsuit. Are you prepared to possibly defend the contents of your report in a court of law?
: Oh yeah. I mean, hes already sent two letters threatening to sue us before the story ran. I got no problem, we can go into court anytime me and Jimmy Henchmen.

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