“That’s how I see it, my word is bond.”
Hip-hop enthusiasts cherish the “realness” of their idols as much as the extravagant personas they craft through their lyrics. But as a rapper, there’s a fine line between authenticity and self-expression, one that Tupac Amaru Shakur toed dangerously over the course of his short-lived career.
Rapper Tupac Shakur was at the vanguard of the gangsta-rap era as it swept over radio waves in the mid 90’s with its fantastical tales of living out some spin-off of the American dream. Filled with promises of unconditional women, drugs, booze, and violence, everything that was cool in the inner city was embodied in gangsta-rap, and personified in Tupac. With his pants slung low and his signature bandana wrapped around his head, Tupac was something of a modern Western outlaw, a bastion of anti-authority that youth from the streets could rally around in the racially-charged times.
With an effortless charisma and rebellious swagger, Tupac quickly swept over the music industry in the mid 90’s, making millions in record sales; six movies and hundreds of thought-provoking lyrics and poems, his moniker recorded in the history books as one of hip-hop’s most venerable legends. 18 years after his death, the footprint he left on the industry is much larger than those of his contemporaries, with countless articles, books, and movies chronicling his life, lyrics and legacy.
Tupac’s songs were as much about despair and anguish as they were about gun-toting bravado. He was a master storyteller, spinning tales of chaos and discord into compelling rhymes, complete with head-snapping beats and catchy hooks that captured the attention of hip-hop listeners throughout the globe.
Tupac stood alone as a “confounding mixture of ladies’ man, thug, revolutionary, and poet”, as described by BET, who “forever altered our perception of what a rapper should look like, sound like and act like.” But even with his place cemented in the pantheon of rappers that matter, Tupac’s life and music was never devoid of controversy.
His verses were polarizing, sometimes spelling out fantasies about how his foes would meet their fate at the end of his pistol, other times preaching about change and social justice. He picked a fight with his contemporary, gangsta rapper Notorious B.I.G. in a dis track entitled “Hit Em’ Up”, threatening him with, “F*ck with me and get your caps peeled”, and “We keep on coming while we running for your jewels/ Steady gunning, keep on busting at them fools.”
As Tupac’s fame grew exponentially, so did his infamy. He struck a sour note with politicians, critics, and parent groups alike, who accused Tupac infesting the minds of youth with his mafioso motifs. His notoriety spread when he was denounced by Vice President Dan Quayle after a lawyer suggested that his debut studio album “2Pacalpyse Now” had incited two teenagers to shoot and kill a policeman.
Tupac himself had no shortage of run-ins with the law. After a 1992 performance in Marin City, a brawl broke out and he pulled out his Colt Mustang pistol. After he allegedly dropped it, a member of his entourage picked it up and it discharged, killing 6-year-old Qa’id Walker-Teal. Tupac and his stepbrother were arrested, but charges were later dropped, after he agreed to pay a $300,000-$500,000 settlement to the parents. In April 5, 1993, Tupac spent 10 days in prison for beating another rapper with a baseball bat.
Also known to flip from sweet and sensitive to explosive and volatile in the blink of an eye, he socked director Allen Hughes on the set of “Menace II Society” in a fit of rage, consequently serving 15 days in jail. His most prolonged prison sentence was eight months for sexual abuse in the first degree, for touching a 19-year old girl without her consent. Although he denied the claims, he bemoaned the fact he did nothing to stop it, “But I know I feel ashamed because I wanted to be accepted and because I didn’t want no harm done to me, I didn’t say nothing,” he explained in an interview with Kevin Powell after his release.
After serving his eight month prison term in 1995, he was bailed out for $1.4 million by Death Row Records exec Marion “Suge” Knight, on the condition he sign with Death Row upon his release. Suge had a substantial list of felonies of his own to rival Tupac’s, with charges ranging from domestic violence for assaulting his girlfriend and cutting her ponytail off in the street, to allegedly dangling rapper Vanilla Ice by the ankles over his balcony.
On September 7th, 1996, Suge, Tupac, and their entourage viciously beat Crip gang member Orlando Anderson. The act was caught on surveillance camera outside the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Later that night, Tupac died gangsta-style, in a hailstorm of bullets fired from a Cadillac. His assailants remain at large, with a slew of conspiracy theories and whodunits swirling in the air.
Even after he was bailed out of prison in 1995, Tupac ferociously denied being a gangster. In an interview with the L.A. Times, he spoke candidly about his public persona and perception in the media, “Let me say for the record, I am not a gangster and never have been. I’m not the thief who grabs your purse. I’m not the guy who jacks your car. I’m not down with people who steal and hurt others. I’m just a brother who fights back. I’m not some violent closet psycho. I’ve got a job. I’m an artist.”
Asked about the prevalent focus of gangbanging and violence across all of his records, he explained, “Everything in life is not all beautiful, not all fun. There is lots of killing and drugs. To me, a perfect album talks about the hard stuff and the fun and caring stuff.”
His prose was sometimes overly offensive and vulgar, but Tupac also took time to speak from the heart. In one of his most popular tracks of all time, “Keep Ya Head Up”, he delivers a rousing tribute to all single mothers, “Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice / I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots / I give a holler to my sisters on welfare / Tupac cares, if don’t nobody else care.”
His tune “Unconditional Love” is an emotionally-urgent, tender piece for all those Tupac held dear. “Come listen to my truest thoughts, my truest feelings / All my peers doing years beyond drug dealing / How many caskets can we witness / before we see it’s hard to live this life without God / so we must ask forgiveness.”
Actors, rappers, and poets also remembered Tupac to be intensely different than his portrayal in the media. Marlon Wayans, Tupac’s fellow actor in the film “Above the Rim” reminisced about his relationship with the rapper and part-time actor, “You know what was great about Pac? Everybody thinks he was this thug, this gangster… Pac was very smart and he was very silly. He was a clown. He wasn’t real gangster but he acted gangster,” Wayans stated in a 2013 interview with ESPN.
Real gangster or not is most definitely the question. Tupac’s legacy grows stronger each passing day, with his mystique fueling misconceptions and queries about who he really was. All the peace and love he brought to the world was always accompanied with a proportionate slice of evil. He said he wasn’t a gangsta but was that really for him to decide?