This piece originally ran in the December 1996 issue of SPIN, and was published on the website in 2006, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Tupac Shakur’s death.
It was early in the morning of Friday the 13th, and in a Las Vegas intensive care unit the world’s most famous rapper was drifting along in a “medicinally induced coma.” Across town, a lounge singer grabs the mike. Between Jimmy Buffett and Bell Biv DeVoe covers, he stares hard through the smoke to the back of the small room. The singer points a rhinestone-festooned finger at a powerfully built young black man with a shaved head, standing before a row of video poker machines.
“Oh my God,” he says with a shocked voice. “Ladies and gentlemen, a miracle has taken place. Tupac Shakur is with us tonight!”
Rimshot, please. The crowd hoots, the kid obliges an obscure smile, and the show band glides into “California Love.” 2-3-4…
Hours later, the 25-year-old Shakur was pronounced dead of respiratory failure and cardiopulmonary arrest. He had come to Vegas for the September 7 Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon fight. Afterward, he and Death Row Records CEO Marion “Suge” Knight were driving to Knight’s Club 662 (named for the numbers you punch when spelling M-O-B on a Touch-Tone phone). Shakur was standing in a black BMW driven by Knight, his head poking through the sunroof. A white Cadillac pulled alongside him, about 13 rounds were fired, and Shakur went down.
You could drive a flotilla of limousines through the gap separating the white lounge singer’s mockery from the grief of the black fans who gathered outside the University Medical Center. That’s how it was for Tupac Shakur—there may never have been a pop star who signified so differently for so many different people. The more his fame grew, the more the split widened.
Whites who knew little else about Shakur learned about that tattoo on his torso, the one that spelled THUG LIFE until the surgeons played their Scrabble. Less known was what it said on his back: EXODUS 18:11. The biblical passage goes like this: “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them.” Somewhere in those words is a knowledge his black fans grasped better than anybody else. Here was a man giving his life over to a power greater than himself. A man caught up “in the thing,” and unable to break free. He knew it, too, and he did not care.
For 28-year-old rapper E-40, a Bay Area native who has recorded with Shakur, Tupac’s death is an unreadable act of God. “This was fate. It was time,” he says. “Anybody could get shot. You could be sitting there watching TV, and a stray bullet could go through your sheetrock wall and hit you in the head.
“You know what I think? Tupac is looking down on us, saying ‘Y’all don’t know what you’re missing up here.’ We the ones in hell.”
For many whites who listen to hip-hop, Shakur’s death is not so much an occasion for sorting out one’s feelings as finding them. But in the days after his death I heard more than one African-American with little use for Shakur as a rapper say they were surprised by their remorse.
“He’s a person you recognize,” says 33-year-old poet and novelist Paul Beatty. “He’s the kind of person a lot of us know; talented, but in so much pain, and having problems dealing with it…”
“You see all that cognitive dissonance in his life—a lot of black people know that from personal experience… Life, race relations, music, all of that stuff is very hypocritical all the time, and he was the embodiment of all that.”
Swamp Dogg, the 54-year-old singer, songwriter, and producer, ran into Shakur at an L.A. supermarket just days before he went to Vegas. “I feel a hell of a loss, and I can’t understand why,” says Swamp Dogg. “Other rappers have died or gone to prison and I didn’t feel anything. I’ll never know, but I thought I heard a person who wasn’t really bad, who was doing bad things to hang with the bad guys. There was a softness about this guy.”
That softness was the secret of Shakur’s charisma. An interior dialogue away from the kind of stardom few taste, he was a fine actor, razor eyes complicating a matinee-idol face. His rapping technique was leaden, and hadn’t grown much over four records, but there was a plainspeak in his lyrics that could singe. Shakur didn’t care about such gifts. His life was bigger than his career, and everywhere he went his celebrity seemed like the last thing on his mind, as he hurled taunts and made promises which were easier for others to keep.
Especially when he was standing up in Knight’s BMW, not wearing his bulletproof vest. In the wake of his killing, innuendo and superstition have rushed to fill the air. The rumors won’t stop: It was a Bloods vs. Crips thing (Knight has ties to the Bloods); it was an East Coast vs. West Coast thing, inspired by the blood feud between Knight and Bad Boy’s Sean “Puffy” Combs (an ancillary rumor had Combs holed up in a Hollywood hotel, sweating out Shakur’s final days); it was an inside job (how many carsful of how many bodyguards failed in their mission?); Shakur was actually dead for days before it was announced; Shakur isn’t dead at all.
The last one goes like this: Just days after Shakur’s death, Death Row records head Suge Knight announced he’ll be releasing a posthumous Tupac record. (Don’t mutter 2Pac Unplugged so Knight can hear you.) The rumor currently sweeping the East Coast is that this next record will feature a cover photo of Tupac’s bullet-riddled body handing from a cross. Here’s the kicker: The record will be titled Makaveli, after Machiavelli, the Florentine politician who advocated faking one’s own death in order to sneak up on his enemies and kill them by surprise.
Hey, even the unconvinced white kids would go for that.
Even if that rumor doesn’t pan out, the lounge singer’s right: Shakur is with us, now and forever. He changed the direction of hip-hop—hijacked it, some would say—and ceremonialized its status as the art politicians love to hate. Dan Quayle bashed him, and so have Bob Dole, C. DeLores Tucker, and Bill Bennett. He helped turn hip-hop into circle-the-wagons music. Now that he’s gone, will the circle be unbroken?
You have to give Tupac Shakur credit for going out like a champ. Months ago he filmed the video for “I Ain’t Mad at Cha”; just days after he died, a completed version was rushed to MTV.
The song, from his most recent album, the quintuple-platinum All Eyez on Me, is about a gangster forgiving an old pal who’s left the life. The tune has its cake and eats it, too—Shakur makes such a magnanimous show of his forgiveness you’d think he was buying his friend a new car or something. But when he chuckles he ain’t mad at the striver, he protests too much—there’s a patronizing smile on his face, and his kindness is meant as a withering dismissal. You wonder why it could possibly be a sin to want to make something of your life.
The video, depicting Shakur’s death in a flurry of bullets, followed by his return to earth as an angel, pushes beyond whatever extremes are found on the record. I don’t know what’s more shocking: that Shakur wears his halo so well, or that his hip-hop heaven features Redd Foxx, Miles Davis, and Sammy Davis Jr. (paradise has gone nondenominational). It may steal its idea from a better Bone Thugs-N-Harmony video, but “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” steals its soul from Vegas. The homeboy he should be chilling with up there is Liberace. Leave it to Shakur to turn his wake into a floor show.
“Mad at Cha” is sentimental kitsch, a lavish display of phony feelings. But this should come as no surprise. Shakur’s most famous song, the 1995 Grammy-nominated “Dear Mama,” celebrated motherhood with the pathos of a convict’s hand pressed up against the glass. His songs of violence were always followed by songs of regret. Lurking just behind the gangsta was a sentimentalist who knew no bounds.
Then again, when did Shakur ever respect limits? When had he ever learned them? As likely as it is that he’d have been better off—i.e. alive—if he’d stayed in jail (he’d been bailed out by Knight last October, pending the appeal of a sexual-assault conviction), Shakur might have been better off actually having been raised in a gang. As it was, he matriculated in a milieu of scientific socialism, a pan-African nationalism more glamorous from afar than up close. His mom was a member of the Black Panther group the New York 21, charged—and then acquitted—of conspiring to blow up department stores and police stations. His stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, was a nationalist, and his godfather, Geronimo Pratt, is currently serving out a life sentence.
“He didn’t look at those people in a romantic way,” says 26-year-old hip-hop writer dream hampton. “There was nothing romantic about his stepdad being in lockdown 23 hours a day, nothing romantic about his mother going underground. There was nothing stable about it.”
Tupac Shakur was born June 16, 1971. A move in 1988 from the East Coast to Marin City, California, and his mother’s crack addiction, stunted whatever sense of structure he had nurtured. “Tupac was never part of a gang,” says hampton. “In Oakland he was dissed. Drug dealers were selling his mom crack, so they would kind of dog him. Look at him in early Digital Underground footage. He was always this skinny guy.”
A humiliated agnostic, a gangster without the discipline a home team provides, Shakur always seemed ready to jump out of his skin. His willingness to fight Knight’s battles with the East Coast powers—here’s a man who couldn’t see the ridiculousness of throwing West Side up at the Grammys while standing beside Kiss—just underlined his own rootlessness. Shakur was raised on the East Coast, began rapping in California as MC New York, went to jail back East, and came out a Cali shogun. He wasn’t just a man of many parts. Parts is all he was.
“Me and Tupac was joined at the hip,” Suge Knight told reporters a few days after Shakur’s death. Which is how they were the one time I saw Shakur up close, the rapper almost comically concealed in the shadow of Knight.
It was Thanksgiving, and the gangstas were giving out turkeys in the ghetto. A line snaked down the steps, round the side, and along the block of a South Central Los Angeles community center. The free food, paid for by Death Row, was supposed to be doled out at 11 in the morning. The annual event gave Knight a chance to show off Shakur as his latest signing—Knight had just posted Shakur’s $1.4 million bail—but the pair had yet to show. So the old folks and the moms with babies in their arms waited patiently, staring through the windows at the stacks of frozen turkeys locked inside.
Everyone was unbearably polite. “Free Tupac!” people began chanting. Only slowly did another replace it: “Fuck Tupac! Free the turkeys!”
A couple of hours later the Death Row car arrived, and whatever anxiety had been rising in the hundreds of poor folks was dispelled by the appearance of Shakur. Wiped out by the Smile. He turned on the beacon, slowly ascended the center’s steps, and charmed his way to heaven. Of all his skills, the Smile was perhaps his finest.
But quick as a shot, the trademark disappeared. The other thing I most remember about that day is how, having soothed the hungry, Shakur disappeared into the shadow. He might have been the star, but Knight controlled the vibe, and Shakur did nothing to undermine it. He kept changing by the moment—first snarling at a Dutch TV crew, then mildly looking over to listen to Knight, then donning the posture of a visiting dignitary. He was all reaction, a charged particle orbiting his boss.
Knight put the money out for his freedom, but if Shakur did the dance, it was because he wanted to. When he was in the slammer, Shakur told reporters he was a changed man. But then he got out and realized contrition was out of the question. He played the thug ranker than ever. He pretended that this was fate; maybe he believed it. His best performance was as a man who made a deal he couldn’t undo.