Who Was Tupac Shakur?
Tupac Shakur was a sensitive, precociously talented yet troubled soul who came to embrace the 1990s gangsta-rap aesthetic and paid the ultimate price — he was gunned down in Las Vegas on September 7, 1996 and died six days later. His murder has never been solved. He began his music career as a rebel with a cause — to articulate the travails and injustices endured by many African-Americans, often from a male point of view. His skill in doing so made him a spokesperson not just for his own generation, but for subsequent ones who continue to face the same struggle for equality. In death he became an icon symbolizing noble struggle, though in life his biggest battle was sometimes with himself. As fate drove him towards the nihilism of gangsta rap, and into the arms of the controversial Death Row Records impresario Suge Knight, the boundaries between Shakur’s art and his life became increasingly blurred — with tragic consequences.
Child of Black Panther Parents
Tupac began life as Lesane Parish Crooks in Harlem, New York, on June 16, 1971. His mother, Alice Faye Williams, was the daugher of a North Carolina maid and a high-school dropout who changed her name to Afeni Shakur after becoming actively involved with the Black Panther Party; she also renamed young Lesane Parish as Tupac Amaru, after an 18th-century Peruvian revolutionary who was killed by the Spanish. She had become pregnant with her son in 1970 while on bail after being charged with conspiring to set off a race war — Afeni was acquitted the following year after successfully defending herself in court, displaying a gift for oration that her son would inherit. Tupac’s father, Billy Garland, was also a Panther but lost contact with Afeni when Tupac was five — the rapper would not see his father again until he was 23. “I thought my father was dead all my life,” he told the writer Kevin Powell during an interview with Vibe magazine in 1996. “I felt I needed a daddy to show me the ropes and I didn’t have one.”
From Drug Dealer to Promising Hip Hop Artist
Afeni gave birth to a daughter, Sekiya, two years after Tupac. It was from Sekiya’s father, another Panther called Mutulu Shakur, that the rapper took his surname — though Mutulu did not stick around either. A single mother of two children, Afeni struggled for money and they moved homes often, sometimes staying in shelters. They moved to Baltimore, and Tupac enrolled at the prestigious Baltimore School for the Arts, at which he felt “the freest I ever felt.” But their neighborhood was riven by crime, so the family moved again, this time to Marin City in California, which turned out to be a “mean little ghetto” according to Robert Sam Anison’s comprehensive posthumous feature on Tupac for Vanity Fair in 1997. It was in Marin City that Afeni succumbed to crack addiction — a drug her son, Tupac, would sell on the same streets as his mother bought her supply.
But Tupac’s love for hip hop would steer him away from a life of crime (for a while at least). At 17, in the spring of 1989, he met an older white woman, Leila Steinberg, in a park, and they struck up a conversation about Winnie Mandela. Steinberg would later recall “a young man with fan-like eyelashes, overflowing charisma, and the most infectious laugh.” By the time they met, Tupac was obsessively writing poetry (“The world moves fast and it would rather pass u by / than 2 stop and c what makes you cry,” is one verse from around that time and would eventually be published in the 2000 book The Rose that Grew from Concrete). He convinced Steinberg, who had no music-industry experience, to become his manager.
From Tupac to 2Pac
Steinberg was eventually able to get Tupac in front of music manager Atron Gregory, who secured a gig for him in 1990 as a roadie and dancer for the hip hop group Digital Underground. He soon stepped up to the mic, making his recording debut in 1991 on Same Song, which soundtracked the Dan Aykroyd comedy Nothing but Trouble. He also appeared on Digital Underground’s album Sons of the P in October that year. The band’s manager, Gregory, took over from Steinberg and landed Tupac a deal with Interscope Records — and a month after Sons of the P hit the stores came 2Pacalypse Now, Tupac’s debut album as a solo artist (for which he spelt his name 2Pac).
Although his first album did not yield any hits, it sold a respectable 500,000 copies and established Tupac as an uncompromising social commentator on songs such as “Brenda’s Got a Baby” — which narrates an underaged mother’s fall into destitution — and “Soulja’s Story,” which controversially spoke of “blasting” a police officer and “droppin’ the cop.” The song was cited as a motivation for a real-life cop killing by a teenage car thief called Ronald Ray Howard, and was condemned by the then-U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle. “There is absolutely no reason for a record like this to be published,” Quayle said. “It has no place in our society.” With those words, Shakur’s notoriety was guaranteed.
Tupac would often complain that he was misunderstood. “Everything in life is not all beautiful,” he told the investigative journalist Chuck Phillips. “There is lots of killing and drugs. To me a perfect album talks about the hard stuff and the fun and caring stuff . . . The thing that bothers me is that it seems like a lot of the sensitive stuff I write just goes unnoticed.”
Legal Drama and Serving Jail Time
There would soon be more controversy in August 1992 when Tupac was attacked by jealous youths in Marin City and drew his pistol but dropped it in the melee. Someone picked it up, the gun fired, and a six-year-old bystander, Qa’id Walker-Teal, fell down dead. Tupac was not charged for Walker-Teal’s death, though was reportedly inconsolable. (In 1995, Walker-Teal’s family brought a civil case against Shakur, but settled out of court after an unnamed record company — thought to have been Death Row — offered compensation of between $300,000-$500,000.) Tupac did go to jail for 15 days in 1994 for assaulting the director Allen Hughes, who had fired him from the set of the movie Menace II Societyfor being disruptive.
And things looked even worse for the rapper after an incident in Atlanta in October 1993 when he shot and wounded two white off-duty cops — one in the abdomen and one in the buttocks — after an altercation. But the charges were dropped after it emerged in court that the policemen had been drinking, had initiated the incident, and that one of the officers had threatened Tupac with a stolen gun. The case perfectly illustrated the misrepresentation of African-American males, and the attitude of some police towards them, which Tupac had been talking about in his music — what was portrayed as gun-toting “gangster” behavior by a lawless individual turned out to be an act of self-defense by a young man in fear of his life.
All the while, Tupac’s star continued to rise. His second album, Strictly 4 My Niggaz, dropped in February 1993 — and continued in the same socially conscious vein as his debut. On the gold-certified single “Keep Ya Head Up,” he empathized with “my sisters on the welfare,” encouraging them to “please don’t cry, dry your eyes, never let up.” The video featured a cameo from his good friend, actress Jada Pinkett-Smith. The album also featured contributions from Tupac’s stepbrother, Mopreme, who became a member of the hip hop group Thug Life, which Tupac started and which released the album Thug Life: Volume 1 in 1994. Despite the incident with director Allen Hughes, Tupac continued his acting career — starring alongside Janet Jackson in 1993’s Poetic Justice and Mickey Rourkein 1996’s Bullet.
Tupac vs. Biggie Smalls (aka The Notorious B.I.G.)
Before Tupac could release his third album, there was more trouble. In November 1994, he was shot multiple times in the lobby of a Manhattan recording studio, Quad, by two young black men. Tupac believed his rap rival Biggie Smalls was behind the shooting, for which nobody has ever been charged (Smalls always denied he knew anything; in 2011 Dexter Isaac, a New York prisoner serving a life sentence for an unrelated crime, claimed he was paid to steal from Shakur by the artist manager and mogul James “Henchman” Rosemond, and had shot the rapper during the robbery).
Months later, in February 1995, Tupac was sentenced to between one and half and four and a half years of jail time for sexually abusing a female fan. The case related to an incident that had taken place in Tupac’s suite in the Parker Meridien hotel in New York, in November 1993. In spite of the sentence, Tupac maintained that he had not raped the girl, but confessed to the Vibe magazine journalist Kevin Powell that he could have prevented others who were present in the suite at the time from doing so. “I had a job [to protect her],” he said, expressing his sorrow, “and I never showed up.”
Tupac’s ‘Me Against the World,’ Signing on with Death Row
When Tupac’s third album came out on March 14, 1995, he was still in jail. Its title, Me Against the World, could not have been more apt. It reached No. 1 in the Billboard 200 chart and is considered by many to be his magnum opus — “by and large a work of pain, anger and burning desperation” wrote Cheo H. Coker at Rolling Stone. But there was vulnerability, too — lead single, “Dear Mama,” was a tear-jerking tribute to his mother, Afeni.
While Tupac was in prison he was visited by Suge Knight, the notorious label boss of Death Row records. Knight offered to post the $1.3 million dollar bail Tupac needed to be released pending his appeal. The condition was that Tupac sign on to Death Row. Tupac duly signed and was released from the high-security Dannemora facility in New York in October 1995.
Tupac’s debut for Death Row — the double-length album All Eyez on Me — came out just months later, in February 1996. With his new hip hop group Outlawz debuting on the album, All Eyes on Me was an unapologetic celebration of the thug lifestyle, eschewing socially conscious lyrics in favour of gangsta-funk hedonism and menace. Dr Dre, who had pioneered g-funk with NWA, produced the album’s first single, “California Love” — which went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and remains Tupac’s best-known song. The third single from the album, “How Do You Want It,” also reached No. 1. Within two months of its release, All Eyez on Me had been certified five-times double-platinum. It would eventually become diamond certified.
At the same time as he was glorifying an outlaw lifestyle for Death Row, Tupac was financing an at-risk youth center, bankrolling South Central sports teams, setting up a telephone help line for young people with problems — all noted in Robert Sam Anson’s Vanity Fair article, published after Tupac’s death. But when he was still alive, the wider world seemed most enthralled with Tupac in the role of the bad man. And Tupac kept playing to the gallery. In June 1996 he released a diss track, “Hit ‘Em Up,” aimed at Biggie Smalls and his label boss at Bad Boy Records, Sean “Puffy” Combs — ratcheting up the tension between East and West Coast rap, in what was fast becoming hip hop’s most famous — and ugliest — beef.
Violent Death in Vegas
Things came to a head on September 7, 1996 when Tupac was shot again. This time he would not survive. He was in Vegas with Knight to watch a Mike Tyson fight at the MGM Grand hotel. There was a scuffle after the bout between a member of the Crips gang and Tupac. Knight, who was involved with the rival Bloods gang, and members of his entourage also piled in. Later, as a car that Tupac was sharing with Knight stopped at a red light, a man emerged from another car and fired 13 shots, hitting Tupac in the hand, pelvis and chest. He died at the hospital six days later. His girlfriend Kidada — daughter of Quincy Jones — and his mother Afeni were both with him in his final days. He left no children.
Tupac’s body was cremated and members of his old band Outlawz made the controversial claim that they had smoked some of his ashes in honor of him. As for the rest of the rapper’s remains, his mother announced she would scatter her son’s ashes in Soweto, South Africa — the “birthplace of his ancestors” — on the 10th anniversary of his murder. However, she later changed the date to June 16, 1997 (Tupac’s 26th birthday as well as the anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising), citing personal reasons.
Tupac’s murder has never been solved; conspiracy theories have raged ever since. (And so has the ugly profiteering — the BMW in which Tupac was riding when he was fatally shot went on sale in February 2017 on the memorabilia site Moments in Time, priced at $1.5 million.) On March 9, 1997, six months after Tupac died, Biggie Smalls was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. His murder has never been solved, either.