Two Sides of Tupac

Sell-out or soldier?

Damon Hodge

1. Tupac Shakur Was a Sell-Out

In which I blast the deceased rapper for misleading a generation

I know who killed Tupac Amaru Shakur: Tupac Amaru Shakur. I say this not to be a revisionist historian but to blame him as much whoever shot him on September 7, 1996, as he and Death Row Records chief Marion "Suge" Knight turned onto Koval from Flamingo. Tupac died six days later. But his legacy continues. And it's a mixed legacy, at best.

I don't buy the story that he was assassinated. It's like Chris Rock says: Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy were assassinated. The term applies to them because they were people of import. Tupac was a contradictory rapper who didn't live up his immense potential. He was not assassinated. As Rock says, he "was shot." No matter if you call his death a murder or an assassination, you must also call it karmic comeuppance.

The man rapped about violence and lived violently—he challenged officers; shot two off-duty Atlanta cops; assaulted two movie directors; served time for rape; ignited the East-vs.-West rap beef; ran with Knight; participated in an assault on alleged Compton Crip Orlando Anderson at the MGM Grand, etc., etc. He basically signed his own death warrant. And by dying at age 25, he ruined any chance of participating in his own second act.

Much of his second act—played out in posthumous releases of poems, records and even a 2003 movie, Tupac: Resurrection—has been sanitized, scrubbed of the impurities and inconsistencies that marked this tragic existence.

Because several universities have taught classes on him, and because authors have written about him, because he penned an inspirational song or three, he's supposed to be some hip-hop Malcolm X? Please. Malcolm X's labor bore positive fruit. When he was a black separatist, in addition to inspiring hate—saying that John F. Kennedy's assassination was a case of "chickens coming home to roost—he inspired racial pride. When he embraced orthodox Islam, he repaired the breach with King, thus strengthening the civil rights movement. Other than having a mouth that got him killed and birthing a legion of emcees who are trying to out-thug him—yes, you, 50 Cent—what's Tupac's legacy?

He squandered his opportunity to be a revoluntionary by pissing on his heritage. Any dissection of his life should analyze how this art-loving, backup-dancing politically astute son of a Black Panther, who penned songs about black pride, self-help, community healing, protecting women and attacking racial oppression became a voluble, violent, sex-crazed and unpredictable Billy Badass.

That latter Tupac is only present in parts on his first three releases, 2Pacalypse Now, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. and Me Against the World. Then, most of his vitriol was reserved for perceived oppressors (crooked cops) and cowards (people with malice on their minds). On these albums, Tupac sounds like a child of the '60s black-power movement, his lyrics resonating with the type of militancy only previously espoused by Public Enemy. "Panther Power" is an ode to his upbringing:

As real as it seems the American Dream/Ain't nothing but another calculated scheme/

To get us locked up, shot up back in chains/To deny us of the future, rob our names/

Kept my history of mystery but now I see/The American Dream wasn't meant for me/

'Cause lady liberty is a hypocrite, she lied to me/Promised me freedom, education, equality

Never gave me nothing but slavery/And now look at how dangerous you made me.

No album captures his revolutionist bent like 1993's Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., of which one reviewer wrote: "This is possibly 2Pac at his most focused. He put blood, sweat and tears literally into trying to make a difference in the world ... he remains consistently on a mission to change the world and make it a better place for the oppressed."

Now square this image with the man who threatened to kill his enemies' offspring. Who, after being shot and robbed in 1994 as he left a New York recording studio, waged an on-wax war against Bad Boy Records chief Sean "Diddy" Combs and his star rapper, Notorious B.I.G., claiming they set him up. Who, after being bailed out of Rikers in October 1995, where he served eight months for sodomizing a 19-year-old woman, was all about the three Ps—paper, power and pussy. Who influenced scores of young men into believing that thuggin' was an honorable profession.

This new Tupac spit on cameras, challenged East Coast thugs and dissed anyone within earshot. Unlike his previous incarnation, this Tupac had a tectonic influence on the industry. He single-handedly birthed the deadly East vs. West beef. (Knight's bodyguard was killed after Death Row and Bad Boy clashed in Atlanta in September 1995. In December of that year, Death Row cronies tortured a man affiliated with Bad Boy.) He could've ended the feud. He didn't. For years after his death, the coastal beef was tense.

He knew what he was doing by selling out. When he was a revolutionary, he got grief from the cops and Vice President Dan Quayle. As a badass, he got fame (Me Against the World, which came out while he was in prison, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard chart), sold millions of records, garnered praise (the album also earned him a Grammy nomination) and advanced his fledgling movie career (he appeared in 1997's Gridlock'd, which he filmed before his death; he'd had already been in 1993's Poetic Justice and 1992's Juice.) He was selling out—to fame and fortune.

Only he wasn't getting rich. Knight controlled him, on paper if not in thought and deed. Pac had always been a big mouth. Under Knight, he had brass balls. Which makes me wonder whether he was as bad as his mouth. So what if his boss is making a mint off trafficking in negativity, you're big bad Tupac, if you want to make politically aware music, then do it. Man up. Let him know your stance. If he doesn't like it, make the kind of music you want to make anyway. Isn't that what thugs do, buck the system? Who cares if he retaliated, you're a thug, right?

Of course we all know how that turned out. Tupac ran with Knight all the way to his grave. Which was unfortunate because there hasn't been a rapper, before or since, with his potential for cultural influence. Thugs could relate to his disaffection with ghetto life, poverty and crooked cops. In him, they could see themselves: powerful but scared, wanting to usurp their conditions but unsure how: Do I risk prison by selling drugs to pay bills and put food on the table? Do I retaliate against the guys who shot my homeboy, knowing that their boys will come after me?

He had a captive audience and chose to preach destruction. He talked that Black Panther shit but didn't live it. Though mostly known for carrying guns—and copies of state guns laws in their pockets—the Panthers also ran food, education and seniors-related programs. Drugs and jealousy eventually ruined their mission. Tupac had knowledge of this, and yet he repeated the mistakes of his forebearers. Coming out of prison, he wasted an opportunity to mimic Malcolm X's transformation from a crook to an activist.

Perhaps most telling is that the activist Tupac never died. We've learned this via his posthumous releases. Makaveli—The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory is full of his classic contradictions. Trigger-happy Tupac ("Me and My Girlfriend" is about his gun) and community-minded Tupac ("Apologies to my true sisters; far from bitches/Help me raise my black nation, reparations are due, it's true/Caught up in this world I took advantage of you," he raps on "White Man's World").

Talented as he was, Tupac didn't keep it real. He traded his life for loot and, in the end, prematurely lost both.

• • •

2. Tupac Shakur Was a Soldier

In which I contradict myself and credit his thug commentary with inspiring a generation

Damon, you're a sell-out for even calling Tupac a sell-out. Dude kept it real, realer than real. So what if he was conflicted. Who isn't? Who among us doesn't have good and bad sides? Who doesn't struggle with reconciling our lofty ideals with our craven desires? The Catholic Church has been rocked by a child sex scandal. Our last two presidents admitted to dalliances with drugs. Morals czar William Bennett was exposed as a gambling addict. Jesse Jackson fathered an out-of-wedlock child. Need I go on?

Another thing: You're making too much of Pac's contradictions. Why can't he love his mom (the poignant, compassionate "Dear Mama") and wish death on abusive cops (the defiantly revolutionist "Soulja's Story")? Why can't he adore women ("Keep Ya Head Up") and also want to bone them ("I Get Around")? Why can't he gun down murderous enemies ("Hit 'Em Up") and urge all thugs to smile ("Smile")? He can, he did, and he shouldn't be vilified for it.

The problem with people like you, Damon, is that you anointed him as the voice of a generation, you put unreasonable expectations on him. Because he was the son of a Black Panther and studied drama at Baltimore's School for the Arts. And because he encouraged black pride and stressed giving back to the neighborhood. You gave him power that he didn't ask for, more power than he deserved. The man was a rapper, but you made him a leader.

I'm interested to know just how the early "conscientious" Pac was any different from the early conscientious Ice Cube? Both were on that black empowerment tip, remember? Remember when Cube told everyone in the 'hood to stop wearing Raiders gear and making Al Davis rich? Remember when he castigated drug dealers for spending money on "gold and Cadillacs" and not building a supermarket in the 'hood? Come to think of it, Cube was more Black Panther than Pac. Talked as much shit, too—about bedding women and shooting anyone who violated him, cops included.

Cube called himself "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted," threatened to jack crackers (i.e. white people) driving through South Central, said that Allah was going to rid the world of devils (i.e. white people) in a 1995 race war and warned Asian store owners against following black patrons ("We'll burn your store right down to a crisp/And then we'll see ya, because you can't turn the ghetto into black Korea.") And Pac was the threat to society?

Cube started gangsta rap with N.W.A., but Pac is vilified for thuggin' on wax? Cube reverted to ass-shaking music to stay relevant, but Pac kept it street and you still call him a sell-out? Get real.

You talk about how "he could have taken a different path when he got out of prison." Take your blinders off: His release from Rikers Island was a business move. Suge Knight looked at Pac and saw millions, saw Death Row becoming the dominant rap label in the game. Once Pac went platinum, Knight would get a hell of a return on his bail-money investment. Looked at that way, Pac compromising his music with songs for the club and incessant death threats to his enemies was as much a contractual obligation as a deliberate career move. He admitted later that the Biggie beef helped his record sales; give him credit for keeping it real.

And also give him credit for maturing. On the posthumously released Makaveli—The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, Pac deftly mixed his activist roots (touching on racism, classism, religion, subversive governments) with his thug persona to create one of the more complete hip-hop albums ever. By this time, he was already an icon. He could've hewed to the party-and-bullshit vibe coursing through rap, but he chose to buck the system. That's a soldier.

This much I'll give you, Damon: As the arsonist who stoked the fire of the East-West rap beef, he should've been the one to douse it. He didn't, and an unnecessary amount of lives were lost. Maybe he feared losing the streets, maybe he worried about angering Knight. Who knows? It's sad either way.

But don't you think it's a testament to him that, in spite of his numerous failings, in spite of his unfortunate role in further thuggifying rap, he was still a cultural force? How else to explain all the media interest in his sexual assault trial? Media entities jockeyed for pre- and post-prison interviews. Upon his release, rappers wanted to work with him, Hollywood cast him in movies and fans bought millions of his records. Rappers have been going to prison for years, but unlike, say, Beanie Sigel or C-Murder's iron vacations, Pac's stint in the system was like a shot across rap's bow. The culture's biggest mouth had been silenced. What would happen to rap?

If people were saddened by his incarceration, then they were heartbroken over his murder. Close friends of mine, tough guys them, cried. Some wanted to get revenge on the assailants, whoever they were. News of his death was announced on CNN. Only in his death have we realized what his life meant.

A year after his death, the University of California at Berkeley offered a course titled "History 98: Poetry and History of Tupac Shakur." In 2001, black culture motormouth and University of Pennsylvania humanities professor Michael Eric Dyson penned Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur, one of a handful of books exploring his legacy and the circumstances surrounding his death. Paramount released Tupac: Resurrection in 2003. Knight made millions off of his posthumous releases. His mom, Afeni, used proceeds from his records to create self-help programs. People continue to mark every anniversary of his passing. For the 10th anniversary, Gobi, a photographer who snapped some of the last pictures of Pac, exhibited at the Arts Factory. No slain rapper, not even legendary Run-DMC deejay Jam Master Jay—gunned down in Queens in October 2002—has received this star treatment. Ask yourself why, Damon?

And I don't know about you, but I'm convinced that if he were alive today, Pac would've untangled himself from Suge Knight and returned to his activist roots. He would've balanced regret for past misdeeds—on "Changes," he acknowledges that a lot of folks were looking for payback—with calls for thugs to clean up their acts and police their communities. He would've been a martyr to the cause of uplift, as willing to die to help mankind as he was once to die over bullshit.

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