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Fifth Street

August 26, 2021

In this issue: Tupac documentarian: 'There's a pretty good case to be made for who pulled the trigger' | Trio of new casinos reflects 21st-century visitor | The forbidden knowledge of dark liquor sorcery | Tested. Again.


Isaiah Salgado and Adriana Aragon from Phoenix visit the makeshift 2Pac memorial on Flamingo and KovalON THE NIGHT of September 7, 1996, rap superstar and cultural phenomenon Tupac Shakur was gunned down near the intersection of Flamingo Road and Koval Lane. He would succumb to the wounds six days later in what remains one of the most unforgettable crimes of the last century, and one that’s unsolved. It left millions weeping around the world while triggering a series of possibly related attacks that would result in the slayings of East Coast rap giant The Notorious B.I.G. six months later and one of Shakur’s suspected assailants, Orlando Anderson, in 1998. The circumstances around Shakur’s death remain murky.

“I don't know if we'll ever know the real reason. I think there's a pretty good case to be made for who pulled the trigger,” says Stephanie Frederic, a veteran TV news reporter and film producer who interviewed Shakur on multiple occasions before his untimely death, and created and produced the A&E docu-series Who Killed Tupac?

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For the upcoming 25th anniversary of Shakur’s death, Frederic joins rapper Chuck D and Shakur associate E.D.I. Mean of the Outlawz at the Mob Museum on September 1 to discuss the events leading up to the shooting and its aftermath. Frederic gave Fifth Street a taste of what’s to come in that discussion. (Above: Isaiah Salgado and Adriana Aragon from Phoenix visit the makeshift 2Pac memorial on Flamingo and Koval.)

 

What drew you to Tupac’s story?

I was a television news reporter for BET, and I was the West Coast correspondent. In the ’90s, if you worked in Los Angeles you couldn't help but cover hip-hop. I became the reporter for so much of what was happening in West Coast rap and, of course, Tupac was part of that. I alsolived in the Bay Area during the same time as Tupac. I was a news reporter (there) when Tupac was with Digital Underground. I don't know if this is just kismet, but it seems that every place Tupac was going, I was there. I ended up covering him a lot, even down to being on set for his last music video, the "I Ain't Mad At Cha" video.

 

Twenty-five years after his death, Tupac’s still one of the most celebrated figures in pop culture. Why?

He was a revolutionary, so he resonates with the revolutionary in all of us. He speaks to so many people … He was talking about all the issues that we're still talking about today. That's why he's so relevant. He was talking about racial injustice. He was talking about police brutality. He was talking about poverty, gender equality, he was talking about the war on drugs and how we're spending more money for wars and yet can't feed the poor. …

By the way, we're in possession of a (film) script that Tupac wrote. Really hoping that we can make that into a film.

 

Are there any details about the script that you could share?

I can just tell you that he wrote a script. Knowing Pac, he didn't write one, he wrote several. That's why I always go in for different angles on what people don't know about Tupac. Most people don't know that he was married at one time. Did you know that? His ex-wife is in New York City, and she's probably the complete opposite of what you would think of a woman that Tupac would marry. But those who really know Tupac say she was the perfect one for him. Keisha (Morris) was highly educated. She wasn't a groupie. She's a very accomplished woman today.

 

If Tupac were alive today, what do you think his impact would have been?

Can you imagine what the protest movement would be like? Two weeks prior to his death I attended a press conference with Tupac, Snoop, Danny Boy, the guys from Death Row. They held a press conference to tell people to get out and vote. Because Pac was starting to really understand his power. So, what would he be doing now on the frontlines? I believe he would be a leader … I know Pac would be fighting for his people. He used to say to me in interviews all the time, "I stand up for Black people because I love Black people. I stand up for them because others won't." He wasn't afraid to speak his mind. He wasn't afraid to stand up. He wasn't worried about any repercussions … Complex guy, but he loved his people. By the way, “his people” didn't just mean Black people.

He was conscious, he was aware. In today's terms, you would say he was woke, super woke, because he understood it all. I think that came from his background: growing up with a mother who was in the Black Panthers and his uncle being (Black Panther Party leader) Geronimo Pratt. Pac was pro-Black but that didn't mean he was with anti-everything else. He was trying to help out his people, but he was also trying to help people in general; the downtrodden, the oppressed …

 

Why do you think his murder has been so tough to solve?

If you talk to Las Vegas police, they told us all along that they weren't getting cooperation from those who knew. Those who knew were not talking. And those who talked didn't know. Police felt like they weren't getting any help, but the hood felt like, “We can handle this on our own.” I've actually had people say that to me.

Will we know the real truth and what triggered everything? Was it really that fight with Orlando Anderson? Is it really about an alleged chain snatch in a mall? Or was it something else? Where was Puffy? Puffy had a relationship with the Southside (Compton) Crips. East Coast-West Coast beef, hmm?

I don't know if we'll ever know the real reason. I think there's a pretty good case to be made for who pulled the trigger.

 

Based on your years of research, what seems to be the most plausible theory?

If we look at an FBI interview with a gentleman named Keith Davis, (aka) "Keefe D" — Keefe D put it out on tape, but he thought it was going to be confidential. I don't know how many people would admit to being in a car where the shots were fired from. Keefe D has done that. … I think the question really lies with Las Vegas police: Is this a closed case? Because with that information from Keefe D, I would think they would be willing to close the case if that was legitimate. But why wouldn't they close the case, and what else is involved?

 

You spoke to Orlando Anderson, who was believed by many to be the suspect. Keefe D said that he handed Orlando the gun, right?

Keefe D said he handed a gun to someone in the backseat, and two people were in the backseat. Orlando Anderson, his nephew, was one of them.

 

What did your interview with Anderson reveal?

I asked Orlando point blank: Did you kill Tupac Shakur? And he stutters. He says, "No, no no no no. I didn't, I-I didn't kill Tupac." He says he was a fan just like everyone else. Now if you listen to the streets, they'll say (Anderson) was bragging about it when he got back to Compton. In the interview, when I asked him where he was, he stutters there too. When you have someone analyze his body language, it doesn't look good for him. But he was killed a few months later, so a lot of people believe the streets took care of it. There's a lot more to the interview. I've only released bits and pieces. I'm going to talk about it at the event (at the Mob Museum).

 

Are you working on anything else Tupac-related?

Every time I try to walk away, something pulls me back in. So, I am working on a few things. They're not to where I can talk about any, but I'm just excited about Tupac getting his due, people remembering him in such a way that really honors his talent and the legacy he left. He left us a lot to think about. He left us with a lot of work to do. I think that his message is in the music, so you've got to listen to the music, and you'll get exactly what he was trying to tell us.

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THE PAST YEAR should have been a disaster for Las Vegas casinos — heck, back in March of 2020, some were predicting the town would disappear altogether. Yet within eight months of each other, three new resort-casinos opened in Sin City: Circa, Virgin Hotels, and Resorts World, a burst of debuts the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Dunes, Riviera and Moulin Rouge all flung their doors open in the summer of 1955. Much as those three properties said something about the globetrotting aspirations of midcentury tourists, the 21st-century trio tells us how people’s expectations of a Vegas resort have changed — and how they’ve stayed the same.

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Circa Resort & Casino is the first to be built downtown in over four decades and its impact is visible — perhaps most visible — from a distance. While the rest of the casino-hotels in the neighborhood look like office buildings with bits of sparkly adornment tacked on, Circa’s shimmering marquee rises above the skyline like the tailfin on a vintage Cadillac. Inside, it’s basically a Vegas-themed Vegas casino: “Building upon our location and history was at the forefront during the design process,” says Alice O’Keefe, Circa’s director of design and architecture. 

She explains how the local flavor flows throughout the property, starting with “Las Vegas casino history in framed shadow boxes in our elevator lobbies. Each elevator has a different photo that captures one of the eras throughout our history.” She adds that the artwork on each floor is a unique collage with layered vintage photos. The throwback style continues right through to rooms’ mid-mod Murphy beds and gilt wallpaper featuring casino chips and pinup girls.

The apex of all this memorabilia is Vegas Vickie, the 20-foot high-neon cowgirl who spent decades perched outside the Glitter Gulch strip club on Fremont — now she’s the city's biggest lounge act, kicking her white boots toward a gold-draped bar. The other dominant feature is the two-story wall of video screens that comprise the enormous sports book. There’s not a lot of architectural flair to the interior, but uniquely Vegas artwork and memorabilia give the spaces presence.

One of the three new properties already had a history — albeit one whose wrecking-ball remnants were dispatched to the Neon Museum. Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, once the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, with its vast pool complex and huge collection of memorabilia, is now a desert-themed resort, with a flair for sepia tones, wood finishes, and lots and lots of geodes. Hotel owner Richard “Boz” Bosworth considers it a variation on local flavor: “We wanted to reflect the journey through the desert, because you are traveling through the desert to this hospitality mecca,” he says. The pool complex has been redesigned to favor corporate events over twenty-something bacchanals; the “lazy river” has been filled in to expand the restaurants’ outdoor space.

The casino, a collaboration with Mohegan Sun, is now an unbroken field of slots and tables, as the Center Bar, the first stop on many a night’s debauchery tour, has been entirely removed. “We were able to pick up another 10,000 square feet of gaming,” explains Bosworth, although he notes that removing the plumbing was quite a hassle. The new bar setup is to the side, and beyond that is the Shag Lounge, a dimly lit spot adorned with Indian draperies and Oriental rugs — the sort of upscale hippie den where Jimmy Page would frolic with Miss Pamela, a distinctly different vibe from the Center Bar’s see-and-be-seen scene. The Virgin is a place where one has to discover the bar beyond a jeweled screen, the restaurants behind frosted-glassed doors — even jumbo artworks like a neon dinosaur sign and Justin Favela pinata lowrider are stumbled upon. 

Resorts World Las Vegas is by far the largest of the new properties, holding three hotels and a cavalcade of amenities within its five-acre footprint. The property was originally intended to have a more traditionally Asian design (panda habitat!) but when Kara Siffermann joined the team as vice president of interior design, she sought “more of a modern look and feel — something that could cross over and be an elegant, upscaleResorts World Las Vegas Crockfords Lounge property but still appeal to many different demographics.” The Crockfords Casino & Lounge feels a bit Dynasty with chrome, brass, and a white baby grand piano, while the Genting Lounge is one of the spaces that embraces an Asian theme but with a Shanghai Lily flair of Art Deco jewel tones. One wishes the multi-cuisine dining court had embraced its Blade Runner possibilities, though.

The gaming floor is vast, topped with a coffered ceiling and circled by silver-and-white pillars — which match nicely with the mirrored Rolls-Royce on loan from the Liberace Foundation — but the floor itself has been left fairly simple. “I think in the early 90s it was all about canopies and softness,” says Siffermann, but she wanted something sleek and more flexible. “One of the unique things about our casino floor is it is a casino floor. You know where to go when you’re ready to gamble.” At one end of the gaming floor are the hotel lobbies, at the other is a glossy white shopping mall where winners can buy Judith Lieber handbags and losers can buy ice cream.

Once upon a time, every hotel-casino in Las Vegas had to have a show lounge and a steakhouse. Today, every property must have its Day of the Virgin Hotels Las Vegas Casa CalaveraDead-themed Mexican restaurant, vaguely Gatsby cocktail lounge, hangover bridesmaids dayclub … but the changes run deeper than just new fashions in nightlife. Theme used to be one of the main drivers of casino design — Caesars Palace, New York New York, Paris — each prides itself on a whole-property vibe. The arrival of the twenty-first century has seen the single, high-impact identity dropped in favor of shiny towers with LED screens and sleek, generic interiors.  When a sign needs to advertise a dozen restaurants and a half-dozen residencies, it’s more important to have flexibility than branding. With food trends shifting faster than you can flip a burger, it’s logical to have food and beverage spaces that can have their own identity and that can be swapped out without ruining a whole style. The gaming floor used to use high design to distract from the rather utilitarian one-armed bandits lined up in rows. But today’s slot machines are already relentlessly themed, whether it’s a Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory machine topped with the glowing, larger-than-life visage of Gene Wilder or a cluster of 12-foot-high Buffalo Link games with a rampaging buffalo overhead and doublewide seats all round.

You’d think today’s tourists, many of whom seem to take trips as much for the social media posts as the actual experience, would embrace aesthetic excess, but it only takes a few square feet in front of a neon cowgirl, paisley tent, or sequin-glittered Elvis mural to make an Instagram post. Why build a whole Arabian Nights city or Roman Coliseum when it’s easier to throw up a minaret and pillar for guests to take a quick snap on the way to the Dean Martin’s Wild Party slots? After all, despite the plethora of celebrity chefs, designer boutiques, decadent nightclubs, and pop-star residencies, Las Vegas casinos are still casinos: All you really need is a place to flip over the cards and roll the dice.

 

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BRYAN DAVIS SITS in the dark, laughing.

We’re seated in a cramped room at Lost Spirits Distillery designed to resemble a kind of luxury Victorian submarine. Spinning red lights slice through the locked-closet gloom. Klaxons blare. “I guess you have to have a certain sense of humor,” he says, giggling.

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When the fake submarine finishes its faux dive, Davis leads the way to the grand set piece of Lost Spirits, which recently opened at Area 15: a Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea-inspired lounge with twin sets of club chairs lining the room, leading up to a woodcut octopus at one end. It feels like Ernst Stavro Blofeld will come waltzing in at any moment to upbraid SPECTRE’s leadership committee.

Davis brings out a glass of American-made whiskey tuned to taste like an Islay Scotch. Neither as aggressive as Ardbeg nor as evocative of ships breaking against a rocky shore as Laphroig, it nonetheless has a deep smokiness and smooth finish. You’d be comfortable sipping it next to fellow Scotchophiles as the lounge’s chandeliers synchronously sway and flicker with a Frankenstein electric hum that drowns out Leonard Cohen moaning “Everybody Knows.”

The whole place smells like paint and fresh-cut wood. Ironic, considering the operation was built on the illusion of old, long-aged wood.

Davis, who has a degree in art and spent a year designing amusement park rides, got into the spirits business when he went in big on his passion project, decamped for Spain, and brought Obsello absinthe to market. As that Iberian adventure wound down, Davis and his girlfriend, Lost Spirits co-owner Joanne Haruta, returned to Monterey County in California, where Haruta’s mother owned part of an artichoke farm. They took a 1972 mobile home and turned it into their workshop on the property as they delved into Lost Spirits, reviving long-forgotten liquors — and dramatically reducing the aging process from decades to days.

On the first stop on the tour, Davis pours a brandy that’s rich and complex. It hits like a 12-year single malt. It aged over the course of several dozen hours. The forbidden knowledge of dark liquor sorcery made it possible. Or chemistry. Possibly both.

For the last six years, Davis has been turning out spirits using his own proprietary technique that, long story short, shines intense light on a glass cylinder full of wood and booze to mimic the aging of raw hooch in barrels. The technical explanation for why the process works is dizzying for anyone who comes in tabula rasa on the chemistry behind distillation, but it works. As soon as he had dialed in the process, Davis knew it was game on.

“It was like, oh shit, we actually did it. I think this is kind of bigger than us,” Davis says. “We were just a little tiny 2,000-case craft distillery in an artichoke field with the most important piece of technology in the last 100 years of the beverage industry.”

Davis and Haruta eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where they first opened a no-frills tasting room in 2017. The frills soon followed as Davis went back to his amusement park roots to add embellishments that turned the L.A. outpost into a hotspot for disquisitive dipsomaniacs. Lured east to Las Vegas by the people behind Area 15, Davis and Haruta are doing the L.A. model bigger, badder, and brandy-er.

The distillery tour checks off exotic locales that incorporate two of Davis’ twin loves: rum (a Havana nightclub staffed by holographic singers in full, glitchy Max Headroom glory), and Victorian literature (a dank English village, the aforementioned Jules Verne trip).

But in-between the Six Flags Over Moe’s Tavern stops, there are moments of genuine art and science. Davis’ hand-made copper still is gorgeous — and massive. The dragon head that tops it isn’t Game of Thrones-sized, but it’s not far off. Another section of the tour leads to a glassed-off R&D lab and a look at Davis’ wood-destroying reactor that runs at surface-of-the-sun levels of brightness. (Seriously, take Corey Hart’s advice before stepping into the room. Maybe get some of those eclipse glasses. Or a welding mask. The light is the equivalent of the equator at noon, times three.)

All of it is in service of the sauce. For our outpost, Davis is bottling four new tipples and Lost Spirits’ signature navy-style rum. (Coming in at a burly 122 proof, it goes down so hot it’ll get you ready to swordfight a pirate — it also comes with the story of where the term “proof” came from. It involves lighting gunpowder soaked with rum. Frankly, we’ve all been drinking wrong this whole time).

The new offerings include a rum made with Pacific Ocean brine; an English-style rum distilled from Japanese ingredients including Okinawan black sugar and Mizunara oak; a Cuban-inspired anejo blanco rum; a raspberry brandy; and soon, a passion fruit brandy.

To the latter two, brandy, woefully forgotten in the craft distillery renaissance, is a current favorite of Davis’s. He’s quick to point out that’s what Dorian Grey was quaffing in the opium dens, not any fruit of the poppy.

He says the plan is to keep building onto the distillery. The first addition will be a jungle set using leftover cooling water from the stills. He has plans to serve a $240, 12-course tasting menu starting in October in a room off the lounge. There’s a mural of an octopus with a man’s face on one end. It’s unsettling.

Michelangelo apocryphally said all he had to do to sculpt David was look at a block of marble and take away anything that wasn’t David. Davis — a sculptor himself back in his art-school days —may have subtracted years from the distilling of rum and brandy, but he’s still more about addition, addition, addition.

“(Studying distillation) just sort of drove the need to understand the artistic medium, which was no different than clay,” Davis says. “It just so happens that you can't see it. It's all theory and math. As we got better and better and better at it, it became an opportunity to do really cool stuff nobody else was doing. Now you're starting to create like avant-garde distilleries for the first time. And then we layered all this shit on it somehow.” His game-changing scientific spirits are certainly worth the deep dive.

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Photos and art: Tupac: Christopher Smith (main art), courtesy of Stephanie Frederic; Circa: Courtesy Circa (main art), Ethan Miller/Getty Images; Resorts World: courtesy of Resorts World, Megan Blair; Virgin Hotels: courtesy of Virgina Hotels; Lost Spirits: Paul Tumpson (main art), Randy Phommahaxay

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