Tupac Shakur is one of those figures who was bigger than music, larger than life, and a textbook example of a true revolutionary.
27 years ago this week (September 13), the Manhattan-born, West Coast-raised emcee, activist, and social commentator was killed in Las Vegas during a drive-by shooting at the age of 25. To say his passing was too soon would be an obvious understatement, but what’s not is his contributions to the world during the quarter century that he was present on this earth.
Tupac is, in many ways, an example of what America is at its potential – cocky, yet curious; passionate, yet reverent; and ahead of its time while also being caught in the moment. Pac’s flaws and the grace through which he lived his life gravitated so many toward him, along with the music that changed so many people’s lives.
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It’s almost as if Tupac was in a different league from his contemporaries. Part of the reason so many connected with him was through stories – both experienced in real life in his presence or the ones he told. Seeing him live was one of the most vivid experiences a hip-hop fan could experience during the ‘90s, whether in his early days performing with Digital Underground or later as a solo artist.
As a music journalist too young to be able to witness Tupac at a concert, I only have stories to go off of about his greatness. One of them was the One Nation album he planned to release before his death that would unite the East and West Coasts – a feat many at that time believed was impossible or too far gone at that point.
That may seem ridiculous nowadays, considering hip-hop is a global tradition, but in 1996, it was very real. And it wasn’t so much necessarily between Pac and the Notorious B.I.G., but perhaps the growing pains of a culture fully expanding beyond its beginnings in New York City into what eventually would become the music we love so dearly now.
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During the spring of 1996, the East/West beef was in full swing, but Pac had a plan. Of the artists in New York and Jersey who hadn’t taken a public stance in the beef were Duckdown Records and a few select others. This prompted the rap legend to call Buckshot of Black Moon/Boot Camp Clik and set them up on a trip out west.
“We was in the studio and my boy called me. He said that ‘Pac was on the phone and I was like, ‘Get out of here.’ I didn’t believe him,” Buckshot recalled during a 2015 interview for a piece I did on the attempted LP. “I was like, ‘Seriously?’ He said, ‘No b***s*****n’.’ I went to the phone and sure enough it was ‘Pac. He said, ‘Yo, B, I want y’all to come out to California and work on this project with me [called] One Nation.’”
While out in L.A., the group of Duckdown artists – consisting of Tek and General Steele of Smif-N-Wessun, O.G.C. (also known as Originoo Gunn Clappaz), and the then-newly-formed duo Heltah Skeltah, along with Greg Nice of Nice & Smooth joined Pac and his group The Outlawz for a weekslong stay to both record and stay at his residence.
Studio sessions took place all week and were just some of the first Tupac had planned for the album. According to a handwritten letter the rapper wrote that surfaced since his passing, Nas, Scarface, E-40, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and OutKast were other names slated to feature on the LP.
“He was going to have volumes of One Nation,” Duckdown President Dru Ha stated. “The first one was going to be on Makaveli, which was his imprint. He was like, ‘Yo, I’m going to have my label, Makaveli, do volume one,’ and then he said, ‘We’re going to put volume two on Duckdown.’”
One Nation is just one of the many works we could’ve been blessed with had Tupac not been killed. Imagine if he had lived to see the times we live in now and what a voice he could’ve been in guiding us. It’s hard not to think of that, especially since it was through albums that Pac gave us the best of his being.
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2Pacalypse Now was our main introduction and gave us “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” The social commentary surrounding teenage pregnancy, police brutality, gang violence, crime, and racism established Pac’s voice as prolific and one unafraid to aim at who and what didn’t sit right with him.
Strictly 4 My N****Z… combined the revolutionary elements of the 1960s and their recurrence 30 years later in ‘90s reality. Remember, Pac was the child of Afeni Shakur, who herself combatted against the divide-and-conquer strategies of COINTELPRO, a program used by the FBI to survey, infiltrate, and stifle the Black Panther Party, among other leftist groups, during its rise around the late ’60s and early ’70s. Songs like “Keep Ya Head Up” juxtaposed the ominous “Something 2 Die 4.”
1995’s Me Against the World came when it started becoming Tupac versus much of the hip-hop landscape, particularly the establishment out east. The project was a masterclass in writing and further cemented Pac’s legacy as a lyrical rapper, in addition to being the poignant storyteller that hip-hop fans began to fall in love with. "Dear Mama" and "Old School" fit together perfectly with songs like "It Ain't Easy" and "If I Die 2Nite."
And then there was All Eyez on Me, his magnum opus. “California Love” was the one that caught everyone’s attention, but "How Do U Want It" and "I Ain't Mad at Cha" proved extremely formidable among the heavy-hitting tracklist. It combined all of Tupac’s prowess as an emcee and social commentator. The lessons he learned in prison were married to the powerful production provided to him after signing with Death Row Records.
Tupac Shakur’s ability to connect with people through music may never be duplicated. Luckily, we all got to experience his presence for the short time we did – and that’s what I think about every so often, especially on September 13.
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