Today marks the 15th anniversary of one of hip-hop culture’s darkest hours. You’ve heard what happened 15 years ago, and the particulars have been explored a multitude of times, so instead of getting into that again, the TRU Brain Trust assembles to share some personal memories about the career of the late, great Tupac Shakur.
Aaron J. McKrell
Ever since picking up XXL’s tribute issue to 2Pac last month, I’ve been waiting for the 15th anniversary of his death so I could have something powerful and meaningful to say. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of anything that didn’t feel forced or hadn’t been said a gazillion times before.
However, sometimes material presents itself. When listening to 2Pac’s Greatest Hits album recently, all I could picture was Pac in his orange-and-white striped t-shirt in the “Keep Ya Head Up” video. He was surrounded by people bopping and stepping behind him, grown men and women and little kids popping in and out of the shots throughout the video. I didn’t know why that image was so powerful in my head. Then it hit me; 2Pac looked normal in his backwards cap and striped shirt. He looked like a human being; one with feelings, emotions, and views no different than your next door neighbor or postman.
I then thought about American culture, and how we tend to make heroes out of our dead. Is that the reason why 2Pac is so big now? That may be part of it, but let’s be real: people don’t celebrate or talk about Biggie (no diss) like they do 2Pac. I believe that’s because 2Pac was, as one of the Outlawz recently told XXL, the people’s champ. He was said to be the kind of guy who had love for all mankind. The guy who would hand out $100 bills to homeless people. And for those who may say Tupac only had love for black people, remember that his manager Leila Steinberg was half-white, and his good friend and the inspiration for one of his poems was a kid named John whom he went to school with in Baltimore. Pac loved, period.
In today’s culture of conformity, fly clothes+”swag”=cool. But 2Pac didn’t conform. He didn’t think he was better, at least not in the sense that he had a superiority complex in every day life. No diss to Shawn Carter, but if Jay is the Mike Jordan of recording, 2Pac is the Ali of hip-hop. He wasn’t a saint; we all know that. But 2Pac loved. He laughed. He expressed himself to the fullest. Greatest of all time? Nah. In my opinion, that title goes to Nasir. But Tupac was the coolest of all time, because he cared.
My most vivid memory of Pac was when he was fatally shot. I was 14 and I just remember those grueling 2 or 3 days when everyone waited anxiously to see if he was going to survive or not. I remember every news outlet updating us with every detail, as the gloomy prognosis loomed over Pac like the Sword of Damocles. It was painful. Sorry Drake, I just can’t relate to this song. I don’t know why, but I felt like I had lost a family member when 2Pac died.
Khal (Rock The Dub)
I never ranked Pac as much when it comes to being an artist. I’m a grumpy old nigga, and while I can surely understand his impact on the culture, and how far his reach was, I never personally dug him as an artist. I knew all of his songs – hell, I grew up on MTV and BET, and knew his singles by hear by sheer repetition. But when it came to the albums? Meh. I have my favorites, but my favorite Pac track (“Got My Mind Made Up”) wasn’t because of Pac, but because of the features on the track. What I did like were his abilities as an actor. Juice? That might be one of my favorite movies. It told a story I could truly relate to (you know, up until they started robbing people and shooting their friends), but Pac as Bishop? That whole bit where he talked about all he and the crew doing was ‘fucking run’, and that fight with Q? One of my favorite scenes, ever. I wasn’t the biggest Poetic Justice fan, but I don’t think anyone could’ve pulled of the duality of Lucky quite like Pac. Even his smaller turns in films like Above The Rim or his cameo on Different World brought a flavor that was Pac, but spoke to the character. I always wished he hadn’t passed, mainly because he would’ve had a serious catalog of films under his belt at this point. Now we have Soul Plane. Heaven help us.
The first time I ever saw the video to ‘Holla If Ya Hear Me‘ it made a huge impression. The sepia-toned, grimy visuals, Pac leading his posse through the streets, intercut with the story of the lil’ thug plotting his revenge. It’s a near perfect visualization of the militant, rough song railing against the police. The reveal at the end when the kid takes the cap off is the icing on the cake that makes you reconsider preconceived notions you might’ve had. When it dropped back in ’93 not a lot of rap reached my 11-year old ears, and PE hadn’t reached me yet. I was familiar with the G-Funk blazing the charts (and loved that too) but this was something different. It had the anti-establishment attitude of those joints but its raw aggression was more targeted, aimed at an actual social ill, and Pac sounded so incredibly angry about it. The passion that Pac layed into his verses and even more so in his performance was genuine, the concern for his people and the injustices brought upon them had him fuming, and me nodding my head like a wobbly toy. People sometimes mistake Pac’s aggression for ‘just don’t give a f*ck’ attitude but it’s the exact opposite. He lashed out because he gave a f*ck, and he wanted others to notice what he saw. He wasn’t the most technically impressive rapper to grab the mic, but he turns up in every discussion about the best rappers ever because people believed him. For better or worse, Pac had a lot of heart.
Ivan Rott (HHIR)
“I hope we see the light before it’s ruined…”
I was too young to appreciate Tupac Shakur when he was alive. And with his tragic passing, ‘Pac was conversely too young to actualize the dreams and future he had envisioned for himself and for his people. Tupac was the artistic Renaissance Man of our era. To this day, he remains in the upper echelon of emcees I not only admire for their contributions to hip hop, but that I want to learn more about. Growing up, I often thought of rappers as akin to superheroes straight off the pages of comic books, not in the sense that I idolized them necessarily – though I often did, and still do – but in terms of gaining (and I suppose rewriting) a glorified, fantastical back-story of the emcee. Well, some superheroes (and villains) are just more exciting than others, aren’t they? They’ve often got very unusual and gripping origin stories; some might have very unique technical skills and/or super powers. ‘Pac had it all.
From the womb to the tomb, 2Pac’s story is rich with history, culture and innovation. He was raised as a political instigator by his firebrand mother and extended family. He grew to become the quintessential (and now horridly copied) “thug poet”, a wordsmith who could be deemed “conscious” just as quickly as the “gangsta” label could be thrown at him. As his first name suggests, 2Pac led 2 lives. Many of us live double lives. Those that do often keep one locked away, hidden. 2Pac lived both of his lives publically. One second he was licking shots at off-duty police officers, the next he was referencing English poet William Congreve in his raps. He drowned himself in Hennessey and weed smoke as if they were essential to his body; as if they were water and oxygen. All the while he was outlining a verbal manifesto of the oft-misunderstood grassroots T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. movement – an effort to convert negative energy into something positive by mobilizing drug dealers and ex-cons towards an ethnocentric path of cultural awareness and pro-black socioeconomic practices. He was a rebel… but he had a cause. He was more than just the James Dean of hip hop, taken too soon.
Or maybe I’m just glorifying him again.
‘Pac is the only hip hop figure who truly allows me to do this. I’m not a spiritual person, but I consciously tap into a vibrant energy that I can’t quite define when I delve into 2Pac’s catalog of music (and even film). There’s something about his voice, his passion, his “realness” that manages to remain ever-present, even fifteen years later. Makaveli lives on.