From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
NO ONE CAN SAY THAT TUPAC Shakur hasn't experienced firsthand the gangsta life he raps about. Two years ago, while awaiting the verdict and his eventual imprisonment on rape charges, he was beaten, robbed and shot five times outside a Manhattan recording studio. Shakur, now 25, survived the attack—and even bragged about it on his latest album, this year's All Eyez on Me ("five shots and they still couldn't kill me"). Last week in Las Vegas, after he attended a Mike Tyson fight, danger came calling again. At 11:15 p.m. on Sept. 7, Shakur and Marion "Suge" (pronounced Shoog) Knight, the head of Shakur's Death Row Records label, stopped for a light near the Strip while riding in Knight's black BMW 750. A late-model white Cadillac pulled up alongside them, and someone unleashed a hail of bullets into the passenger side of Knight's car before speeding away.

The 31-year-old record executive suffered only minor injuries, but Shakur was severely wounded in his chest, pelvis and hands. He was taken to Las Vegas's University Medical Center, where doctors performed three emergency surgeries to repair internal injuries and to remove his right lung. Four days later, Shakur was still bleeding internally as doctors searched frantically for the source.

At midweek he remained in critical condition, and his prognosis was guarded. But there was no doubt about the support the singer, whose All Eyez has sold more than 5 million copies, was receiving from other black celebrities, his family and friends. In addition to his mother, Afeni Shakur, a founding member of the Black Panthers, the unconscious Shakur was visited by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, rapper Hammer and actress Jasmine Guy, who would say only that "Tupac's family is grateful for the public's support." No one else close to Shakur would comment on the shooting, but one friend, artist manager Joan Hyler, stresses that the singer was not to blame for the shooting. "Just because he's had problems in the past, is it fair to condemn him?" Hyler asks. "He's extremely talented and bright. I just hope he can distance himself from his past." Shakur's ex-wife Keisha Morris, with whom he remains on good terms, says, "He's an entertainer, not a gangster. As a person, Tupac is very misunderstood."

In fact the shooting itself seems equally difficult to fathom. Las Vegas police, who say they have no leads, complained that they were receiving little cooperation from anyone in Shakur's camp, even though there were about 10 cars full of bodyguards and friends with Knight. "They're telling us they didn't see anything and don't know anything," says Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Sgt. Kevin Manning. He adds that police have concluded the shootings are not related to a shouting match Shakur got into with an unidentified man during the Tyson fight. The flashy-dressing, 315-lb. Knight, who reportedly boasted that rivals had contracts out on his life, was still dodging police days after the incident. Although his company has amassed a fortune estimated at over $100 million, the Compton, Calif., native is reputed to have ties to the Bloods street gang.

For Shakur, who once studied theater at the Baltimore School for the Arts and drew praise for his sensitivity and social consciousness, the shooting comes at a time when he is free on $1.4 million bail (posted by Knight), while appealing his rape conviction and making a concerted, effort to keep two careers on track. Shakur, who starred in 1992's Juice and with Janet Jackson in 1993's Poetic Justice, recently returned to making movies. His latest, Gridlock, a dark comedy costarring Pulp Fiction's Tim Roth, is due out in February. And just the week before he was shot, Shakur wrapped Gang Related, in which he plays a corrupt cop. "He was a great spirit on the set, positive and uplifting," says Gang producer Brad Krevoy. "Considering what you heard about him, that was all in his past."

What effect the shooting might have on Shakur's future as a performer remains to be seen. The question last week was, Would he survive? While he continues to battle for his life, those close to the rapper remain hopeful as they keep up their vigil. "My prayers are with him," says ex-wife Morris. "He's a survivor, and I know he will pull through."

CALVIN BAKER
KAREN BRAILSFORD in Las Vegas, TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles and BROOKE STACHYRA in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Karen Brailsford,
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Brooke Stachyra.