Rappers Who Died Tragically

Developed as danceable house party music in 1970s New York, rap and hip-hop evolved into a vital, visceral, and expressive form of musical storytelling. The beats may be inspired by disco, soul, and funk, but the lyrical content to rap is more akin to balladry or folk — the best rappers are usually the ones who tell deeply personal stories about what it feels like to be a young American in the 20th or 21st century, with an emphasis on struggles, setbacks, and triumphs. Groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A. made hip-hop a place where real social issues were discussed and one that highlighted how just getting by was often a matter of life and death. 

The world of rap has been particularly struck by tragedy, seemingly disproportionately more so than other forms of entertainment. Too many rappers have died too early, at the peak of their fame and influence, before they ever got a chance to get old. Here are some major pioneers and luminaries of hip-hop who died too soon, via especially tragic circumstances.

The Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in Los Angeles

The Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. Christopher Wallace, was by far the dominant figure of the 1990s East Coast rap world. His two (sadly prophetically titled) studio albums, 1994's Ready to Die and 1997's Life After Death, sold many millions of copies and rank among the most acclaimed hip-hop albums of all time. Biggie had a hypnotic, eloquent, inimitable flow which brought to life many canonical, catchy, and catchphrase-generating smashes like "Juicy," "Big Poppa," "Hypnotize," and "Mo Money Mo Problems," which is to say nothing of his work with Junior M.A.F.I.A. and star-making affiliation with close friend and producer Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs.

After leaving a music industry event in the early hours of March 9, 1997, according to CNN, Wallace rode in the passenger seat of a Chevrolet Suburban when another vehicle drove up and opened fire. While no one was ever arrested or held accountable for the death, the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office released an autopsy 15 years later. According to the document, Wallace was shot four times, with bullets entering his left thigh, back, and left arm. The bullet that killed him entered through his right hip and punctured his heart, liver, and lung. When Wallace arrived at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, he was suffering a cardiac arrest event related to the shooting trauma and was soon pronounced dead. The Notorious B.I.G. was just 24 years old.

Tupac Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas

In the '90s, the East Coast had Biggie Smalls, while the West Coast's biggest star was Tupac Shakur, who performed under the name 2Pac. After cutting his teeth with Digital Underground, 2Pac went solo, releasing the albums 2Pacalypse Now and Strictly 4 My N.***A.Z., which showcased not only his guttural voice and tough point of view (masking an undeniable vulnerability) but his versatility. 2Pac could rap sensitively on "Keep Ya Head Up," lasciviously on "I Get Around," or socially consciously on "Brenda's Got a Baby." Shakur released tons of music but expressed himself with acting, too, appearing in movies like Juice, Above the Rim, and Poetic Justice.

According to Biography, on September 7, 1996, Shakur went to Las Vegas to see boxer Mike Tyson fight Bruce Seldon at the MGM Grand. After a scuffle with a gang member in the casino, he got into a BMW with Death Row Records boss Suge Knight. On the way to a club where 2Pac was to perform, a white Cadillac pulled up alongside the BMW, and a still-unknown assailant fired 13 rounds into the car — four hit Shakur. At a local hospital, the rapper endured several lifesaving surgeries, including the removal of a badly damaged lung, and was placed on a ventilator and respirator. After a brief resuscitation, Shakur succumbed to his injuries and died six days later. He was 25.

Nipsey Hussle was targeted in a shooting

After hip-hop ventured into psychological, introspective territory in the 2000s thanks to Eminem, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar, Nipsey Hussle brought back a lot of what made gangsta rap so captivating in the '90s. A former member of the Rolling Sixty Crips gang in Los Angeles, he documented and worked through those experiences on a slew of mixtapes (such as the particularly well-received The Marathon), a couple dozen singles, and just one studio album: Victory Lap, a platinum-seller and Grammy nominee for Best Rap album.

Hussle was just as devoted to ending L.A.'s violent street culture as he was to documenting it. According to Forbesthe rapper owned a strip mall located in the somewhat rough Crenshaw Boulevard area where he'd grown up, and he had plans to build homes and stores to reinvigorate and change the area. The area was home to Marathon, Hussle's clothing store, and while he was standing outside the store one day in March 2019, a man walked up and shot him to death. The rapper and anti-violence advocate was 33.

Eazy-E died from complications of AIDS

Just when rap was earning mainstream appeal and acceptance via talented but widely palatable '80s acts like Run-DMC and D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, along came N.W.A. The group virtually invented gangsta rap, a subgenre that detailed the shocking and often violent world of inner-city Los Angeles, in which the group's members were born and raised. N.W.A. brought a new kind of storytelling and point of view to popular music with albums like Straight Outta Compton and also launched its members to stardom, particularly Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E. Otherwise known as Eric Wright, the gang member-turned-musician possessed N.W.A.'s most distinctive voice, spiritually and literally, contributing to rap milestones like "F*ck tha Police," "Gangsta Gangsta," and "Boyz-n-the-Hood." After an ugly feud split up N.W.A., Eazy-E embarked on a very successful solo career.

In February 1995, UPI reported that Wright, who'd long suffered from asthma, had checked into the intensive care unit of Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Hospital, assuming he was suffering from that medical condition. His problems weren't asthma-related, however — doctors diagnosed the formerly sturdy but noticeably slight rapper with AIDS. Ten days later, complications from the horrific disease took his life. Eazy-E was 30.

Mac Miller died of a drug overdose

In 2010, Mac Miller made an auspicious debut with the non-ironically titled mixtape K.I.D.S. – he was just 18 at the time. That spawned the hit "Knock Knock," and in the following year, his first studio album proper, Blue Slide Park, topped the Billboard album chart. For the rest of the decade, Miller was among the most popular and prolific voices in hip-hop, producing for other rappers, starring on the TV series Mac Miller and the Most Dope Family, and releasing four more albums and many memorable singles such as "Self Care," "Donald Trump," "Loud," "S.D.S.," and "The Way," a smash-hit collaboration with his romantic partner at the time, Ariana Grande.

On September 7, 2018, according to TMZ, a friend found Miller in his home in California's San Fernando Valley. Paramedics arrived to address what was believed to be a cardiac arrest and pronounced the rapper dead at the scene. A toxicology report from the Los Angeles County Coroner ruled that Miller, who had also endured blunt force trauma to his head and injuries to his nose, died from an accidental overdose of cocaine, alcohol, and the powerful painkiller fentanyl. The rapper had struggled with addictions in the past, which sadly led to his death at age 26.

Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes was involved in a fatal car accident

There were a lot of pop-savvy R&B trios in the '90s, but TLC stood out from the rest because each of its members had a distinct, memorable, and charismatic personality. The "L" in TLC was Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, the rapping complement to her singing cohorts T-Boz and Chili, so named because her left eye was slightly larger than the right, over which she fashionably wore condoms to promote safer sex practices. Left Eye performed memorable, acrobatic raps on almost all of TLC's many hits, including on "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," "Waterfalls," and "No Scrubs." Outspoken and assertive when not performing, Lopes once got angry with a boyfriend and burned down his house, and on a Behind the Music episode, she explained the shady and exploitative music industry math that led TLC to bankruptcy, despite selling millions of albums.

According to The New York TimesLopes maintained a home in rural Honduras and was driving an SUV while visiting the Central American country one day in April 2002. She lost control of the vehicle, and it ran off the road and turned over multiple times, according to local police. There were seven other people in the SUV, including Lopes' two siblings, the R&B trio Egypt, and two producers working on a Lopes documentary. All were treated at a hospital and released, but the accident killed the TLC rapper. Lopes was 30.

The Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch had cancer

Back in the early '80s, the Beastie Boys were, as a song would later explain, "three MCs and one DJ" — friends from New York so taken with the city's latest contribution to music that they abandoned their punk rock sound to become a hip-hop group with a hard rock backbone. King Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz), Mike D (Mike Diamond), and Adam Yauch exposed suburban audiences to rap and, in doing so, became one of the genre's earliest and most successful acts, thanks to meta, humor-laden tracks like "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)," "Brass Monkey," "Intergalactic," and "Hey Ladies."

After bringing so much fun to rap, Yauch faced something not at all fun in 2009. According to Rolling Stone, he noticed swelling in his throat, which tests revealed to be a cancerous tumor in a salivary gland. The band canceled a slate of concert dates and delayed the release of the album Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 1. "I just need to take a little time to get this in check, and then we'll release the record and play some shows," Yauch said in a YouTube video of what is often a very treatable condition. But he didn't recover and was left unable to ever perform live again, appear in any music videos, or attend the Beastie Boys' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April 2012. Just weeks later, Yauch passed away from complications of cancer at age 47.

Heavy D had a pulmonary embolism

Born in Jamaica and raised in New York, Dwight Myers took on the stage name Heavy D and, with his group the Boyz, became the first act signed to influential R&B and hip-hop label Uptown Records. With and without the collective, Heavy D scored a slew of top-selling albums and pop radio-friendly rap hits like "Now That We Found Love," "Nuttin' By Love," and "Got Me Waiting" and guested on standout tracks by Janet Jackson ("Alright"), Michael Jackson ("Jam"), and Soul for Real ("Candy Rain"). The rapper did a fair bit of acting, too, making appearances on '90s sitcoms like A Different World, Living Single, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and scoring a recurring role as the operator of a restaurant frequented by the main characters of Bones.

In November 2011, according to The New York Timesthe self-described "overweight lover" collapsed at his Los Angeles home, and paramedics rushed him to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The hitmaker died in the hospital hours later at age 44. A month later, a Los Angeles County Coroner investigation (via The Guardian) revealed the cause of Heavy D's sudden and mysterious death: a pulmonary embolism brought on by deep vein thrombosis. A blood clot had likely formed in his leg during a long-haul flight from London to Los Angeles, and it migrated to a lung, which held back blood flow and put pressure on his heart.

Big Punisher suffered from respiratory failure and a heart attack

The raspy and authoritatively voiced Big Punisher was only getting started. After his first verse in 1995 on a couple of Fat Joe tracks, Big Pun released his debut studio LP Capital Punishment in 1998, and a year later, he was all over collective Terror Squad's The Album. Big Punisher had a series of solo smashes like "I'm Not a Player," "It's So Hard," and "How We Roll" and crossed over to pop radio with guest spots on Jennifer Lopez's "Feelin' So Good" and Joe's "Still Not a Player."

Big Punisher, born Christopher Rios, was a large man, his size reflected in his stage name, and that led to what proved to be fatal health problems. According to MTV, the rapper started to rapidly put on weight in his late teens, and press materials claimed he was about 400 pounds. In the summer of 1999, he lost 100 pounds via a Duke University program but left early and returned to old habits, and the weight soon returned. In February 2000, authorities were summoned to his hotel room in White Plains, New York, when the rapper couldn't breathe. He was transferred to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Per Westchester County deputy medical examiner Dr. Louis Roh (via MTV), Rios weighed 698 pounds at the time of his death, and his heart had expanded to three times that of a normal, healthy, size. Big Punisher was 28.

ODB had a heart attack

Staten Island's own Wu-Tang Clan is the arguably the greatest collective in rap history, boasting nine full-fledged members who brought their own unique contributions to the enterprise, and is responsible for all-time classics like Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Wu-Tang Forever. Even more so than cohorts Method Man and RZA, Russell Jones, or rather Ol' Dirty B*stard, is likely the most famous Wu-Tang rapper, what with his distinctive vocal range, wild style, and flairs for both the dramatic and comical. Also known by the stage names Dirt McGirt, Osirus, and Big Baby Jesus, ODB shined — and got absolutely filthy and weird — on Wu-Tang standards like "Protect Ya Neck," along with his solo singles like "Got Your Money."

A few days before his 36th birthday in November 2004, according to The GuardianODB was at a New York recording studio, working on his fourth solo album Osirus, when he collapsed outside without warning. By the time medical authorities arrived, the rapper had already died. A few weeks later, the NYC medical examiner (via Rolling Stone) released the results of an autopsy. A toxic combination of cocaine and Tramadol, a prescription painkiller, had caused the colorful musician's heart attack.

Kris Kross' Chris Kelly overdosed on drugs

Discovered in a mall by super-producer Jermaine Dupri, Chris "Mac Daddy" Kelly and Chris "Daddy Mac" Smith, a.k.a. Kris Kross, were all of 13 when they topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1992 with "Jump," a song built on a killer hook and the rapid-fire flow of the very young rappers. Kris Kross scored again with hits like "Warm It Up" and "Alright" before splitting up in 1996, but not before inspiring millions to imitate the duo by wearing their clothes backwards.

On May 1, 2013, per CNN, Kelly was discovered unresponsive at his Atlanta home. Despite a transfer to a local hospital, Kelly passed away later that same day. In July 2013, the Fulton County medical examiner released the results of an autopsy. The rapper had a number of controlled substances in his body, including heroin, cocaine, alcohol, prescription painkillers, and Valium, several of which a friend told police he'd consumed the night before his death. All those things made for a fatal combination, and Kelly died at age 34.

Prodigy of Mobb Deep choked during a hospitalization

Mobb Deep came onto the scene strong in the '90s with The Infamous and Hell on Earth, landmarks of both the very fruitful decade for hardcore rap and for the East Coast, New York-based scene in particular. Mobb Deep was a duo, consisting of Havoc (Kejuan Muchita) and Prodigy (Albert Johnson). Affiliated with the influential 50 Cent and his G-Unit collective, Mobb Deep experienced a resurgence in popularity in the mid-2000s, although it was interrupted when Prodigy had to serve a three-year prison sentence for weapons charges. Forever turning his darker experiences into art, Prodigy later published commissary kitchen: my infamous prison cookbook, a collection of jailhouse recipes, on his own imprint.

According to The IndependentProdigy was diagnosed as an infant with sickle cell anemia, a painful, chronic disorder where red blood cells take on a crescent shape, which slows down and obstructs blood flow. That can lead to extensive and frequent medical treatment, and Prodigy sought relief during a Las Vegas tour stop in 2017. While under a doctor's care for his sickle cell anemia, Prodigy choked on an egg and died. The Mobb Deep star was 42.