Twenty two years after his death, we pay homage to the most influential rapper of all-time. The man who inspired millions and changed hip-hop forever.
This is the story of Tupac Shakur.
“I'm not saying I'm going to change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.” - Tupac ShakurClick To Tweet
Today marks the 22nd anniversary of the untimely death of Tupac Shakur (born Lesane Parish Crooks) and, more than two decades after his passing, Tupac’s passion and influence endure through the hearts and lives he touched. He was a rapper and a poet. Vulgar but articulate. A thug and an activist. Vulnerable but arrogant. A misogynist and a momma’s boy. But above all, he was hip-hop. Tupac Shakur represented everything about our culture that people both embraced and demonized, and while he was often vilified throughout his career, he was a hero to the rest of us.
The Roots of Lesane Parish Crooks
In 1971, 21 members of the Black Panther Party, including Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, were indicted on 156 counts in the most expensive trial in the history of New York at the time. The “Panther 21” were accused of planning to carry out bombings and shootings on two police precincts and an education office. Despite facing a sentence of more than 300 years with no experience in law, Afeni chose to represent herself — she and her associates were acquitted on all charges after an eight-month trial that spanned the length of her first pregnancy. She gave birth a month later in East Harlem to Lesane Parish Crooks, who would be renamed Tupac Amaru Shakur the following year.
Tupac’s stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, was an infamous revolutionary on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, and is currently incarcerated for being involved in a $1.6 million robbery of a Brinks armored truck that resulted in the death of a guard and two police officers.
Tupac’s godmother, Assata Shakur, escaped from prison (with the help of Mutulu) after being served a life sentence for the murder of a state trooper, and she was granted political asylum after fleeing to Cuba. They are both known affiliates of the Black Liberation Army.
Tupac’s godfather, Geromino Pratt, was a high-ranking official in the Black Panthers on the West Coast and was convicted for the murder of a schoolteacher. The verdict was overturned after it was discovered that the prosecution concealed crucial evidence, but he had already spent 27 years in jail.
His family tree was rife with high-profile black nationalist radicals, and the militancy that came to be a defining characteristic of Tupac Shakur was deep-rooted from his birth. Given that we know how this plays out in the end, it’s as if his path was already carved in stone.
Tupac’s Early Years: The Making of an Icon
Young Tupac was quiet and withdrawn, spending most of his free time reading books and writing poetry. Fascinated by the endless microcosms on TV, he would often try to emulate actors in his living room, making an early debut at 13 years old in a play at the renowned Apollo Theatre.
Tupac later moved to Baltimore after Afeni lost her job, and this next chapter of his life featured his most formative years. Tupac was exposed to theater, jazz, and ballet after auditioning for the Baltimore School of the Arts, and although poverty was a recurring issue throughout his adolescence, he found solace in an artistic hub that nurtured his creative side. It was a striking contrast to go back and forth between the two: no lights and broken windows on one side, and field trips to Broadway plays on the other. While most tend to be dismissive of the absence of a father figure in their life, naively allowing bravado to undermine vulnerability, Tupac was always vocal about how it affected him. His only male role models were drug dealers and pimps because they were the ones that showed him love.
Tupac dropped out of school at 17 years old and moved to Northern California, but with a crack-addicted mother, he had to find his own means to support his passion for music. He was introduced by a mutual friend to rapper Shock G from Digital Underground, a popular rap group from Oakland. The first time they met, he walked in the studio, rapped for him on the spot and walked out with a job as a roadie and backup dancer.
The Rise of Pac
Shock G chose to feature Tupac on Digital Underground’s “Same Song” in 1991 and the resulting exposure earned Tupac a deal with Interscope Records that same year, where he would soon after release his debut album, 2pacalypse Now. The album single “Brenda’s Got a Baby” was a poignant and visceral tale about teenage pregnancy, and it was a powerful introduction to an album filled with vivid inner-city anthems that rang through the ears of troubled and misguided youth everywhere. He was a hood ambassador and a dreamer who felt an undying obligation to speak on the rampant injustices that plagued his community. It was deeper than just rap — it was his duty.
The following years were the beginning of 2Pac’s tumultuous relationship with the law, and he began to feel like a target and a victim of his fame.
- In 1991, he filed a $10-million lawsuit against the Oakland Police Department after being brutally beaten for jaywalking.
- In 1992, he got into a confrontation involving guns after a performance where a 6-year old boy was killed in the crossfire. It was settled out of court.
- In 1993, he shot two off-duty police officers after an altercation, but all charges were dropped as they were drunk and in possession of stolen guns.
- In early 1994, he was found guilty of assault on the Allen Hughes, the director of Menace II Society.
- In late 1994, he was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for an alleged sexual assault.
A day before the final verdict for his sexual assault case was announced, 2Pac was robbed and shot five times at Quad Recording Studios in Brooklyn — twice in the back of his head. According to Lil Cease, Biggie’s right-hand man, he was smoking weed on the terrace with Nino Brown, a fellow Junior M.A.F.I.A. associate, and he happened to look down to see 2Pac walking up the block. They exchanged greetings, and he told him to come kick it since Biggie was recording at the studio around the corner. Lil Cease went down the elevator to grab him, but when the doors opened at the lobby, he saw a few of 2Pac’s homies laying on the floor. One of the robbers pointed a gun at Cease and told him to get back on the elevator.
After his recovery, 2Pac accused Biggie and Puffy of being involved in the shooting and launched a vicious crusade against Bad Boy Records. This fateful night was the coup de grace in the culmination of his Thug Life mantra.
2Pac had a God-given talent and a larger-than-life personality that transcended music, but behind his charisma and intelligence, he seemed to be fueled by a feverish anger that festered deep inside of his psyche. His passion gradually gave way to rage, and it was further instilled by his increasingly militant mindset following this first shooting — he spiraled downward a lethal trajectory riddled with paranoia and madness, inevitably leading to his violent demise.
Tupac in the Studio
When it comes to music, pain often goes hand in hand with inspiration, so some of 2Pac’s best work was born out of these turbulent years.
He worked as if he knew his time here was limited, and his music was a reflection of that fatalistic urgency; themes of death, deception, and murder proved to be eerily prophetic, especially when coupled with his manic delivery. But his work wasn’t confined to these sentiments — when it comes to versatility, 2Pac was unrivaled in that regard. He had an uncanny ability to map out the infinite nuances of the human condition through his rhymes, and he did so with wisdom, humility, and conviction. We did also get the spiteful, arrogant, and violent side, but that was the beauty of it. Although sometimes to a fault, 2Pac embraced the duality of life that a lot of us are afraid to confront about ourselves, and he did it with a fearlessness that was contagious.
2Pac’s third studio album, Me Against the World (1995), reached number 1 on the Billboard charts while he was still behind bars. His first single, “Dear Mama”, was a moving tribute to Afeni Shakur, and to this day, remains the quintessential rap anthem for the celebration of motherhood. It was added to the National Recording Registry of Congress in 2010.
His follow-up single, “So Many Tears”, was a vivid depiction of the desperation and paranoia that was slowly consuming him, and Me Against the World is widely regarded as 2Pac’s most introspective body of work: the somber production, the minimal features, the soul-baring lyrics, and even the title — all act as a powerful backdrop to a sonic confessional by a man who felt like the world was against him. And unfortunately, there was some truth to that sentiment.
“So Many Tears” (1995)
“My every move is a calculated step
To bring me closer to embrace an early death
Now there’s nothin’ left, there was no mercy on the streets
I couldn’t rest, I’m barely standin’ about to go to pieces, screamin’ peace
Although my soul was deleted, I couldn’t see it
I had my mind full of demons tryna break free
They planted seeds and they hatched, sparkin’ the flame
Inside my brain like a match, such a dirty game
No memories, just the misery
Paintin’ a picture of my enemies killin’ me in my sleep
Will I survive ’til the morning to see the sun?
Please Lord, forgive me for my sins, cause here I come…”
After spending 11 months in prison for his sexual assault case, 2Pac was released on $1.4 million bail in October 1995. Suge Knight provided the money under the condition that he signed to Death Row Records for three albums, and this was a decision that would mark the beginning of the end. Unbeknownst to 2Pac, he had signed in his blood.
All Eyez On Me – Tupac’s Magnum Opus
Suge had already garnered a formidable reputation as an industry bully with strong street ties to the Compton MOB Pirus, always seen surrounded by a sea of red, and 2Pac would soon wholeheartedly commit to his thug side under Knight’s tutelage. He was unable to write while locked up because the oppressive environment had killed his spirit, so he came home eager to work and fulfill his contract. 2Pac went straight to the studio and recorded “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” and “Ambitionz of a Ridah” the same day he got out. The latter became the opening track on the final album before his death, All Eyez On Me, and it begins by 2Pac taunting his enemies in almost a whisper as some ominous keys reel in.
Even the album’s cover indicated how different this project was going to be from its revered predecessor. Tupac is draped in jewelry with bloodshot eyes, throwing up a ‘W’ to declare his newfound allegiance with Death Row, and All Eyez On Me was largely an unapologetic and braggadocios celebration of Thug Life, a far cry from the solemn and introspective Me Against The World. But 2Pac was a complicated and conflicted man whose multi-faceted personality spilled through his records, and this project gave us the entire spectrum of his musical repetoire.
All Eyez On Me would prove to be the magnum opus of Pac’s storied career. The 27-track album was completed in less than two weeks, and was the first original double-disc release in hip-hop history. Tupac’s work ethic was relentless, and he recorded like a man possessed. In a documentary released in 2003 called “Tupac: Resurrection,” 2Pac said he tried to complete at least three songs a day so that he would have an album ready if he was ever killed, and it was a deeply troubling look into his state of mind at the time. His logic was that music lives forever, even if he didn’t. After his death, enough previously unheard material was available for seven posthumous albums.
“Life Goes On” and “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” are slower, nostalgic ballads about the mixed emotions that come with losing friends, whether it was to the streets or to religion. Both have become karaoke classics.
“Skandalouz”, “Heaven Ain’t Hard 2 Find”, “How Do U Want It”, “Run Tha Streetz” and “Rather Be Ya Nigga” are the smooth tracks that reminded us Pac was still a hopeless romantic, and of the crucial distinction between hoes and women.
“Only God Can Judge Me”, “All Eyez On Me”, “Picture Me Rollin” and “Shorty Wanna Be a Thug” are the conscious tracks where he taps into his introspective side, and breaks down the moral ambiguity inherent in Thug Life. There’s always two sides to a story, and he was well-versed in both.
2Pac managed to get Method Man and Redman on “Got My Mind Made Up” during the height of the West Coast and East Coast rivalry, and Daz and Kurupt properly represented for the West Coast. One of the greatest crew cuts ever.
All Eyez On Me sold five million copies by the end of the first year it came out, and eventually sold another five million — 18 years after its initial release. The album received a Diamond Certification from the RIAA in 2014.
I didn’t create Thug Life. I diagnosed it.”
Even if you disagreed with his Thug Life mantra, there was an underlying truth in what he spoke that was undeniable, even in the acronym itself: The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. 2Pac is a generational icon who was wise beyond his years, and that level of awareness as a young man in his 20s was sometimes to his detriment. But he readily embraced that burden and created music with the kind of honesty that really struck a nerve and echoed in the depths of your soul, with words that latched onto the core of your being. If hip-hop was a religion, most of his catalog would be considered scripture.
Tupac Shakur’s Immortal Legacy
When I was feeling at my worst; (before fame, before Dre) I knew I could put that “Tupac” tape in, and suddenly, things weren’t so bad. He gave me the courage to stand up and say “F**k the world!” This is who I am! And if you don’t like it, go f**k yourself!” – Eminem in his 2008 letter to Afeni Shakur
It’s a bit ironic that Slim Shady chose to censor the profanity in his letter, but it speaks volumes about the respect that 2Pac (and his mother) garnered from his peers. Eminem is a hip-hop juggernaut and a bonafide legend who had an absolute vice grip on the rap game during his legendary run, and he felt compelled to hand-write a letter and drawing with a ballpoint pen about 2Pac’s influence on his career. This is a man who built a behemoth of a brand on not giving a fuck, and he attributed his courage to do so to Tupac Shakur. In 2004, Eminem produced 2Pac’s ninth album, Loyal to the Game, after receiving Afeni’s blessing.
Kendrick Lamar was 8 years old when he first saw 2Pac from the top of his father’s shoulders, and it was a defining moment that he kept close during his own meteoric rise to stardom. 2Pac was shooting “California Love” with Dr. Dre at the Compton Swap Meet, and this childhood memory came full circle when Kendrick shot the music video for “King Kunta” at the same location. Also, the original title of To Pimp a Butterfly was going to be Tu Pimp a Caterpillar because the abbreviation spelled out Tu.P.A.C., and the albums closing track, “Mortal Man”, features a compelling interview between Kendrick and 2Pac. Some found it odd to use the words of a dead man to create a fake conversation, but that was the extent of Kendrick’s fandom. More than two decades after he was killed, 2Pac’s influence still resonates with rap’s current undisputed heavyweight.
But that inspiration isn’t exclusive to Eminem and Kendrick. Millions of people around the world, including myself, can draw a sense of empowerment from certain 2Pac records, as an uncanny feeling slowly starts to creep in that things will be alright. This was someone who defined what it meant to bare your soul on wax in hip-hop, so listeners can follow suit and learn to embrace our own insecurities and shortcomings.
One of my hobbies is to play classic 2Pac songs at social functions and see how many strangers end up rapping together. Regardless of the demographic, there was always going to be a handful, singing along as if we’ve known each other our entire lives. And I can’t help but break into a smile whenever a random car drives by, bumping “Only God Can Judge Me” at an ungodly volume.
Tupac Shakur fought against systemic corruption and oppression until his dying breath, and even beyond his grave, he continues to be a voice for the unheard, a narrator of the pain and alienation felt by countless victims who are subject to the overwhelming sense of marginalization reaped upon them by society. His music has been immortalized as a profound exploration of manhood, vulnerability, courage, and resilience, and his prolific legacy will continue to endure.
Tupac’s track record speaks for itself: 5 studio albums. 6 movies. 7 posthumous albums. 11 platinum albums. Over 75 million records worldwide. All by the age of 25. In 2017, he became the first ever solo rapper to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
R.I.P. to the most influential rapper of all time.
Tupac Amaru Shakur
June 16, 1971 – September 13, 1996