Tupac Shakur 1971-1996
Born: June 16, 1971 in New York, New York, United States
Died: September 13, 1996 in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States
Ethnicity: African American
Occupation: Rap Musician, Musician, Actor
“Don’t shed a tear for me … / I ain’t happy here / I hope they bury me and send me to my rest / Headlines readin’ murdered to death.”–from “If I Die Tonight” on Me against the World (1995)
With his tattoo-splattered physique, piercing deep-set eyes, and shaved head, Tupac Amaru Shakur came across as middle America’s worst nightmare, the darkest strain of hip-hop. To fans, Shakur was only “thuggin’ against society, thuggin’ against the system that made me,” as he once rapped. Like some other rappers, Shakur was criticized for his sexist lyrics He celebrated his mother, Afeni, but was equally capable of debasing women in his music. The contradictions hardly ended there. In his last video, “I Ain’t Mad at Cha,” Shakur–newly arrived in Heaven–saluted an old friend for quitting the “thug life.” In “Only God Can Judge Me,” Shakur foresaw death bearing down on him, yet seemed unable to tolerate his rival, The Notorious B.I.G. and B.I.G.’s mentor, Sean “Puffy” Combs. Shakur’s “Hit ‘Em Up,” the last single issued during his twenty-five-year lifetime, set new highs of profane rage against B.I.G., who was later gunned down after Shakur’s own untimely death.
Yet millions of fans found something meaningful in Shakur’s troubled life and lyrics, like a thirty-two-year-old Detroit accountant buying her first Shakur album. “I’ve never supported that kind of music,” she told the Detroit News, “but there was something so tragic about the way he died … It’s almost like I’m looking for answers.” Politician Jesse Jackson also tried to explain Shakur’s downfall and apparent appeal, telling the Los Angeles Times: “Sometimes the lure of violent culture is so magnetic that even when one overcomes it with material success, it continues to call.”
Acting bug bit early
From his June 16, 1971, birth in New York City, Shakur’s life read much like an epic melodrama. His mother, Afeni, and father, Billy Garland, belonged to the Black Panthers, a militant group dedicated to achieving racial equality. Just two years earlier, in 1969, Afeni and then-husband Lumumba Adbul Shakur were among twenty New York Panthers arrested for multiple felonies. While out on bail, she dated Garland–a Panther from Jersey City, New Jersey–and a low-level gangster known only as “Legs.”
Although Afeni lost bail in 1971, she and thirteen codefendants beat the charges in May; in June, Tupac was born. His first and middle name (Tupac Amaru) come from an Inca prince, while his surname (Shakur) means “thankful to God” in Arabic. By then, Garland was no longer seeing Afeni, and he didn’t see Tupac until his son filmed Juice in 1992.
Tupac always cited his family background as a source of underlying conflict –along with the gap between his mother’s revolutionary ideals and living with relatives or in homeless shelters. “Here we was,” he told Rolling Stone, “kickin’ all this talk about the revolution–and we starvin’. That didn’t make no sense to me.” He held greater admiration for Legs, an associate of reputed Harlem druglord Nicky Barnes, until Tupac discovered that it was Legs who had introduced Afeni to crack cocaine. (Legs later died of a crack-induced heart attack.)
But Tupac showed a flair for performing; at fifteen, he won enrollment to the Baltimore School for the Arts, taking roles in several productions there. “I was writing poetry,” he told Rolling Stone, “and I became known as MC New York, because I was rapping, and then I was doing the acting thing…. It was the freest I ever felt in my life.” That ended at seventeen, when his family moved to Marin City, California–a ghetto called “The Jungle”–and Tupac’s relationship with Afeni broke down completely. He survived by hustling on the streets and selling drugs.
“Everybody’s gonna know me”
In 1989, life began looking up when Shakur met Shock G, leader of West Coast hip-hop group Digital Underground, whose “Humpty Dance” and “Sex Packets” singles were about to hit. Hired as a dancer/roadie, Shakur appeared on their This Is an EP and Sons of the P (Tommy Boy, 1991) releases. As a result, Shakur established his own distinct voice long before his peers did. “Everybody knew me even though my album wasn’t out yet,” he told Vibe. “I never went to bed. I was working it recording like a job. Everybody’s gonna know me.”
This early start ignited controversy when a Texas inmate claimed “Soulja’s Story,” off Shakur’s 2Pacalypse Now solo debut (Interscope Records, 1991) incited a state trooper’s murder. The lyrics depict a fugitive who decides to shoot a police officer.
While federal courts dismissed the inmate’s lawsuit, a number of politicians, including Vice President Dan Quayle, wanted the track removed from the CD. Back in his adopted hometown of Oakland, California, Shakur sued local police, alleging brutality over a jaywalking arrest. His “posse” also made unwelcome news in Marin City, when a six-year-old boy died there after a gunfight. His label, Interscope, allegedly paid $300-500,000 to settle out of court.
These distractions didn’t stop Shakur from pursuing his acting career, though. He won raves in Ernest Dickerson’s Juice (1992), playing the role of Bishop, a youth addicted to the “highs” of violence. He also reaped praise in John Singleton’s Poetic Justice (1993) as pop singer Janet Jackson’s boyfriend, Lucky. Reviewers felt the film weak, but hailed its supporting star’s work.
Rap acts became rap sheets
As 1993 rolled on, Shakur’s life and art were growing dangerously blurry. He beat allegations of punching out a limo driver and shooting at two off-duty policemen in Atlanta, but he served a ten-day jail sentence for allegedly hitting a competing hip-hopper with a baseball bat. Shakur’s troubles continued into 1994, when he served another fifteen-day sentence for hitting filmmaker Allen Hughes. But the most serious charge came from a Brooklyn woman claiming that Shakur and three friends sexually abused her.
Still, Shakur found time to turn in another acclaimed role in Above the Rim. Entertainment Weekly led the praise by saluting Shakur as “the most dynamic young actor since Sean Penn.” The soundtrack, featuring Shakur’s new band, Thug Life, sold two million copies.
Thus encouraged, Shakur formed a spinoff label (Out Da Gutta) for Thug Life, Vol. One, a “ten-song meditation about life under the gun,” as Entertainment Weekly described it. The phrase suited Shakur’s next misfortune, when unknown rivals shot him with .22-caliber bullets as he got ready to rap on another album. Shakur survived multiple injuries from the shooting, but he was robbed of $40,000 in cash and jewelry. From then on, he claimed B.I.G. and Combs were responsible, or at least had set him up. It was a charge Shakur would air on his 1996 CD, All Eyez on Me. For his sentencing on the sexual abuse charges, Shakur appeared in a wheelchair, but he still drew eighteen months to four-and-a-half years in prison.
On ice, but defiant
To some, Shakur’s eight-month stay in jail had made a lasting impression. “It really shook him up,” one associate recalled to Newsweek. “He seemed to understand how sacred life was.” But others disagreed, especially looking back after the artist’s death: “He said he wanted to get away from the violence and live a calmer life. But those were only words.”
Bankrupted by legal fees, Shakur emerged from prison with his newest patron, Death Row Records boss Marion “Suge” Knight, who wooed him to the label. Knight reportedly paid Shakur’s $1 million bail, something disputed in future accounts, and helped his newest artist buy his mother, Afeni, a house.
Making up for lost time with a vengeance, Shakur wrapped up another role in the film Bullet, with Mickey Rourke, and released his third solo CD, Me against the World, which took his popularity to another level. It sold 500,000 copies on release and yielded “Dear Mama,” a heartfelt tribute to Afeni, now off crack and working for her son’s production company. The single went Top Ten.
Afeni also appeared in the video, watching her son’s work on TV. Rolling Stone found the album a compelling display of pain, whether in “If I Die Tonight” (“Addicted to drama so even mama couldn’t raise me”) or “Lord Knows” (“…and if I wasn’t high, I’d probably blow my brains out”). Like him or not, Shakur “remains one of the most compelling characters in black popular culture,” the magazine concluded. Others counted the approaching storm clouds. On September 24, 1995, Knight’s friend Jake Robles died after being shot in an Atlanta, Georgia, nightclub. Next, record promoter Mark Bell claimed to have been beaten with champagne bottles, while Knight demanded to know where Combs, and Combs’s mother, lived.
End of a thug life
Further ugliness erupted at the 1996 Soul Train Music Awards, when a gun appeared after a confrontation between Combs’s (Bad Boy Records) and Knight’s (Death Row Records) employees. By then, Shakur’s “Hit ‘Em Up” had already appeared. It taunted B.I.G. and Combs with the lyric, “Who shot me? / But ya punks didn’t finish / Now you’re about to feel the wrath of a menace.”
The 1996 double-CD All Eyez on Me, on which “Hit ‘Em Up” appeared, showed no letup of Shakur’s trademark anger. Rolling Stone’s Mikal Gilmore called it “one of the most melodically and texturally inventive albums that rap has ever produced–and one of the most furious.” In tracks like “2 Of Amerikaz Most Wanted,” Shakur seemed to predict his own doom. “He was his own most attentive audience,”observed Newsweek.
Death arrived as Shakur sat beside Knight, stuck in Las Vegas, Nevada, traffic after the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon bout. Two men walked up to Knight’s vehicle and blasted away with semiautomatic pistols, hitting Shakur four times while only grazing Knight’s scalp. In his fight to escape, Shakur lost two fingers and a testicle. Doctors cut out one lung, but this failed to stop Shakur from sinking into a coma. He died six days later, on Friday, September 13, 1996.
Questions remain unanswered
Shakur’s slaying remained officially unsolved, though police and record industry sources checked several angles–including the East Cost/West Coast feud. Informants told police in Compton and Los Angeles, California, that a gang rivalry seemed more likely. They claimed Death Row had ties to Los Angeles’s Bloods, while Combs’s Bad Boy Entertainment had employed rival gang Crips for concert security.
Knight’s refusal to talk about the slaying, or post a reward, also attracted attention. By October 1996, Knight was back in prison, after police saw a videotape of him kicking a man in a casino shortly before Shakur’s murder. This, in turn, earned him a nine-year prison sentence for parole violations.
When not accusing police of lacking any desire to arrest her son’s murderers, Afeni Shakur was suing Death Row Records, claiming Shakur’s estate had been swindled out of millions in royalties. By then, producer Dr. Dre had left the fold, telling Newsweek: “The negative element there was just too strong.”
When B.I.G. himself died in a March 9, 1997, shooting incident, which some regarded as “payback” for Shakur, a shaken Combs vowed to change. Fans struggle to make sense of what read like the script of hip-hop’s own demise. In the end, Esquire’s Ivan Solotaroff found no “gangsta” glamor on visiting Knight’s Club 662 shortly after Shakur’s murder, “just a sad, ugly feeling, very creepy, very hollow,” he said. “No art, no life, just ashes.”
Vibe chief executive Kevin Clinkscales, however, advised fans against anymore “rumor-mongering,” which he found disrespectful to Shakur’s family. “These are not comic-book heroes,” he told USA Today. “These are real people.”
That said, however, most agree that Tupac Shakur has won the larger-than-life immortality he craved so much. The sightings and resurrection theories place him in a select club that includes the late Kurt Cobain, Doors singer-poet Jim Morrison, and Elvis Presley.
On that score, fans need not fear, as poet Nikki Giovanni acknowledged in her own tribute, “All Eyez on You”: “don’t tell me he got what he deserved he deserved a chariot and / the accolades of a grateful people / he deserved his life.” Nor did Giovanni stop there, getting her own “Thug Life” tattoo to honor Shakur’s memory, telling the Chicago Tribune: “Young black men are in a holocaustic situation.” So long as that persists, fans insist, Tupac Shakur’s musical legacy will be hard to deny.
Tupac Shakur 1971-1996