When Lyah Beth LeFlore joined USA’s anthology series “Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G.” as a co-producer and music supervisor, she anticipated one big obstacle: not getting the rights to their music. The estates of both rappers are famously restrictive when it comes to licensing their songs, but LeFlore, who came up in the ‘90s hip-hop scene and knew the rappers personally, already had a plan to work around that.
“Having known and watched their relationship as friends, I didn’t expect to be able to get the music and sort of had the foresight to say, ‘OK, if we can’t get it, and out of respect for the estates, what do I do?’” LeFlore said during Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Music panel, moderated by this author (watch above). “And I knew that it had to have an authentic sound, it had to connect to their legacies, it had to connect to the moments, and it had to connect to the tragedies. And so, for me, it was an opportunity that was very rich to be able to go back and pull that hip-hop sound, that thump, that base, that rhythm, the style, but also to be able to explore other music genres of that period.”
LeFlore called on various producers and artists, some of whom worked with Tupac or Biggie, to help craft an immersive soundtrack to take viewers back to hip-hop’s Golden Age in the ‘90s. That roster included Easy Mo Bee, who gave Biggie his sound, Battlecat, Ervin “EP” Pope, Mike City and 1500 or Nothin’. Eventually, she was able to get Mopreme Shakur, Tupac’s stepbrother, to open his vault of unreleased songs he had worked on with his brother.
“That, to me, laid the foundation for the authenticity that I would build on,” LeFlore said. “[Director Anthony Hemingway and creator Kyle Long] trusted me and really gave me the freedom to be able to create a palette of sounds from the era, and that was the really exciting and fun part of doing the show. At that point, it didn’t matter whether I got the actual music or not. I wanted to pay tribute.”
The collective approach also afforded LeFlore, who was at the party Biggie attended the night he was murdered, the freedom to splurge on licensing more expensive songs when necessary. Don McLean’s “Vincent” had been earmarked as such a special case scenario. The song was one of Tupac’s favorites and it was actually playing when he died, so LeFlore, naturally, wanted it for the same scene in the show.
“It became money was no issue [for that song],” she said. “Because I had sort of built up a stable of producers … that would help me offset as I would switch to business mode when I knew that we couldn’t just go out and I couldn’t blow that episode on getting $100,000 worth of songs. I used a lot of those tracks that were in those guys’ wheelhouse so that I could save up, no matter how much ‘Vincent’ was going to cost.”
In the end, the price for “Vincent” was “reasonable,” but LeFlore also had a backup plan: She had Jimmi Simpson, who played Det. Russell Poole, record himself singing “Vincent” on his phone. Poole, who theorized that a corrupt LAPD cop and Suge Knight plotted Biggie’s murder in retaliation for Tupac’s killing, died in 2015 of a heart attack while speaking to authorities about a separate cold case.
“For him to die trying to solve this case, I try to sort of bring in those eerie moments. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if it were Jimmi that were actually singing that?’” LeFlore said. “But it was OK. We had saved up, I could blow the whole wad on [‘Vincent’] if we needed to and we actually didn’t.”
Video produced by David Janove and Andrew Merrill
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