DEATH WISH – TUPAC SHAKUR: LIFE AFTER DEATH, LIVING ON DEATH ROW & KILLING THE EAST COAST
Words by Adario Strange
Photo by Chi Modu
This article was originally published in The Source Magazine, March 1996 (Issue #78)
In the mind of the young Black man who caresses the streets of America with his languid form, moving ever between the blackening flame of his own discontent and the ice surrounding his heart made hard by an unforgiving society, resides the most fascinating balancing act known to modern man: that of delicately holding on to your sanity with the wind at your back and finding a reason to live while the audience below screams that you’re crazy not to jump into the depths of your own lunacy. Besides, they yell, it is your nature to lose your mind.
I’m livin’ that thug life baby
Stressin’, smokin’ Indo goin’ crazy
Baby come and hug me when ya rub me
Turn the lights down, lay in the dark when ya love me
Everybody talkin’ ‘bout they know me
But they ain’t down like my motherf*ckin’ homies
Tell me what ya need when you see me
And we can get it on, beeyotch take it easy
Don’t try to hold me, control me
But you can take my number baby call me when ya lonely
‘Cause it’s a man’s world ain’t no need to ask why
I’m high till I die, and strapped with my 4-5
‘Cause you could lose it in the gutter
I wonder if I’ll die by the hands of
another broke motherf*cker
They call me the alcohol I’m all in
Thug for life, n*gga ballin’
I’m gettin’ tired of these h*es tryin’ to play me
You can’t fade me and my n*ggas goin’ crazy
All day I’m straight thuggin’
Breakin’ the b*tches that be buggin’
Who do you love
Maybe it’s the thug in me.
-Tupac, from “Who Do You Luv,” 1993 unreleased
Tupac Shakur, who many wish to believe is one of America’s chief outlaws, has just been released from prison on $1 million bail, pending an appeal on a rape conviction he says he’s not guilty of. At around 5’6”, a little yet slightly muscular buck fifty pounds, Tupac’s stature remains one of defiant confidence and unpredictable mayhem. Weathered by his 11 month stint in jail, Tupac has nevertheless retained his classic features and the smooth, earth colored complexion that has drawn many a woman near despite his testosterone-laced verses often spat with errant b*tches and h*es mixed throughout. The women see what they wish to see, a brash hero ready to die. Maybe even, for love, they hope.
Surrounded by his new crew, the Outlaw Immortals— an assortment of young Black men whose foreign dictator and movie gangster monikers color their aspirations in the truest hue— Tupac moves around a small Los Angeles apartment as though it were a war room. These are his soldiers, or at least the beginnings of an army Tupac (now also known as Machiavelli— an obvious ode to the famous political philosopher) hopes to build on his quest to become that “international n*gga.” With the impending release of All Eyez On Me, a 28-cut double album featuring the vocal stylings of Snoop, Redman, Method Man, Jodeci, Faith Evans and Tha Dogg Pound, and the production signatures of Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, QD3, Daz, DJ Prob and Bobcat, Tupac’s worldly aspirations seem only hindered by his open court cases and well-known penchant for the fast life. His crew views him as they wish him to be seen, as their way out of poverty. Not as their way out of the ghetto per se. For them, Tupac may well be the blueprint for a new urban guerilla whose favorite home lies within the slums— a kind of self-induced substitute father mechanism and tactical necessity for the new world order. Ultimately, this is away deeper into the ghetto, that possibly leads to reinventing the meaning of the word.
Many different people see Tupac as many different things: hustler, actor, thug, faker, realist, lover, hater, artist, opportunist. But in reality he is all of these. And while this observation may appear to make him unique, it actually simplifies him into the universal symbol of young Black manhood that he is; American society’s most vibrant and visible symbol of contradiction, one that comes out looking terrible and beautiful all at once.
A prince should have no other aim or thoughts, nor take up any other thing for his study, but war and its organization and discipline, for that is the only art that is necessary to one who commands, and it is of such virtue that it not only maintains those who are born princes, but often enables men of private fortune to attain to that rank.
-Niccoló Machiavelli, from The Prince
Fully immersed within a thick cloud of television noise, sh*t talking and marijuana smoke, accented by a light oily mist emanating from the hot links being fried in the kitchen by 6’4”, 200 plus Syke, Tupac’s ever-present lieutenant, the 24-year-old ex-con seems hardly changed by his time in prison as he settles into the sofa and begins reflecting on the last couple of years. “Back then, I was a soldier, I was going through my stages, still earning my stripes. Now, in ‘96, I’m the Don. Not of the world, but of my crew. I live to be successful in this game, because life ain’t nothing but a game. It’s not what they told us when we was kids. You know, you be nice, people will be nice to you. No, it is a game.”
That very game once took Tupac on his famous rollercoaster ride through several gun possession cases, assault charges, sexual assault cases and numerous studio to street rap wars. Watching him in the present, not humbly converted to some new religion or claiming a brand new way of life, but cavorting with his homies just like before, forces one to wonder if he’s learned from his experiences. “Look, before, I didn’t give a f*ck. Now, I pick the fights I have. Everybody was saying I was such a bad boy, but look how bad they was. I’m locked down in jail, Donnie Simpson telling jokes, Wendy Williams (of NYC’s Hot 97 radio station) telling motherf*ckers I got raped, you got motherf*ckers running off at the mouth. They beggin’ for me to whip they ass. They beggin’ for the old Tupac. But that’s the trick, that’s why I can’t go out like that. I’m coming with an army and I’m coming back my own man, and stronger.”
Energy welling up into the veins in his neck, Tupac digs into the subject at hand. “What made me stronger was getting charged for a crime I didn’t commit, getting charged with shooting two police officers and having every cop in the country after me. It was the dude shooting the cop saying he did it ‘cause I told him to do it. All the moments I spent in cuffs, all the times I woke up broke ‘cause I had to pay the lawyers. All the times I had to pay somebody off ‘cause they was lying but I didn’t have the time to go to court. All the shows I had to cancel, all the mouths I had to feed, you know the struggle had to go on. And I feel like I never stopped when a lot of people would have stopped. I didn’t fall, and that helped move me to the next level. I always thought I had to fight my way to the next level, but you have to think your way to the next level. And that’s when it came to me, when I went to jail. That little stint got me to thinking, I watched my leg heal, I watched holes close up, and I was like, ‘that’s how it gotta be.’ Not that I can’t die, but I lost the fear now, they done blew it for me. I used to be scared of guns. That was one of the things I was scared of, getting shot, they done blew it for me. I need to see some tanks of something, some missiles, I’m not on that death wish no more. I wanna live, but I’m not fin to sacrifice my morals, my principles and what I believe in. I’m not gonna give up on my honor to live.”
A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary for a prince, who wishes to maintain himself, to learn how not to be good…
Much is made of the “bad boy” persona, especially as it relates to young Black men who appear to have elevated the art of being low down to a suave and even chic artifice of attitude, appearance and action. But far from the cool perception, as reality often resides, the sum of many so-called thugs is made up more of pain than cinematic adventures, in this, Tupac is no different. “What put me in this mentality was when the females who my momma raised me to believe were my sisters and were part of my family started suing me, charging me with rape, setting me up, going to the police, anything for the money. That’s why I live this way. For the n*ggas who woof, ‘F*ck you, you little skinny n*gga. F*ck you, you a punk,’ and then I go over and punch them in the mouth, and then they be in court talking about I assaulted them. That’s why I live this way. For my homeboys who are geniuses, who are mathematicians, who can’t get no work. Who the only thing he could see is being a drug dealer, that’s why I live like this. For my homeboys that’s pimps who don’t even know what a real woman is because they never met one, that’s why I live this way. For all of that. For my momma who struggled and starved, for my family. For everybody who could never do, I can, and I’m gonna do.”
A wise prince will seek means by which his subjects will always and in every possible condition of things have need of his government, and then they will be faithful to him.
Where did all this beef with Bad Boy Records come from?
This just stemmed for some gangster sh*t that got caught up in this record company sh*t. And some n*ggas that you thought was strong, that you thought was gangstas, that you thought was Big Poppas, turned into cowards ‘cause some real gangstas came at them.
I remember when I first met you in ‘93, you were rollin’ with Biggie. What killed that?
I was puttin’ Biggie on. What killed it was Biggie got put on. Biggie was in Thug Life. He used to be like, “Thug Life, Thug Life.” He used to be like, “F*ck Bad Boy, I hate Puffy, I ain’t f*ckin’ with him. Sign me PAC.” I just ain’t have no chips for the n*gga and I wasn’t gonna lie to him. He made his album and I was making my album. This is before Me Against The World came out. I used to hear his tracks, he used to hear my tracks. Our styles were totally different. My sh*t was on some, I’m about to die, like you hear me on Me Against The World, but it was even a lot ore sh*t about death. This n*gga album come out, Ready to Die, it’s all my album. And Biggie used to sit up there and ask me, “How do you do them choruses? You the hook man. How do you do this? How do you do that?” I used to tell that n*gga, don’t do none of that gangsta sh*t. You better get at these females. Because the females buy your tape. The n*ggas buy your tape because the females want the tape. And look, he came out on some Big Poppa sh*t. That’s straight up robbery. But even after that, long as he was my homeboy, that was okay. But soon as he started acting like he was his own man… N*ggas knew that I was at the point where I couldn’t just be just ridin’ on n*ggas. I had like 50 gun cases, 30 assault cases, and they didn’t have one. So they was plottin’.
And what about you and Stretch from Live Squad?
Stretch was my closest dog, my closest homie. I did a lot of drama, I got into a lot of cases and sh*t because of Stretch. Money wise, he could’ve had anything. His daughter, was my daughter, whatever she wanted she could have. Then this sh*t happened and the n***a didn’t ride for me. He didn’t do what your dog is supposed to do when you shot up. When I was in jail, n*gga never wrote me, never got at me. His homeboys was coming to see me and he wasn’t coming to see me. And he started hangin’ around Biggie right after this. I’m in jail, shot up, his main dog and he hangin’ out going to shows with Biggie. Both these n***as never came to see me.
And before he passed, you never got a chance to talk to him?
Ain’t no words. The rules of the game are so self-explanatory.
After all that went down, people are trying to say it’s some sort of hit connection…
Nah. Know what happened? Rules of the game, what comes around goes around. I never had no violent thoughts toward Stretch at all. I just didn’t want to f*ck with him no more, but I didn’t want to kill him. He was my dog. He got shot like I got shot. Everybody believed it was just a random f*ckin’ robbery [when I got shot], this n***a get killed, now random sh*t don’t happen.
There are two methods of fighting, the one by law, the other by force; the first method is that of man, the second of beasts; but as the first method is often insufficient, one must have recourse to the second.
What made this an East Coast vs. West Coast thing?
I’m from the East Coast. That why Ican feel like this. To my peoples in New York who got love forme, ignore this. Don’t even trip. But they attacking me in such mass amounts that I can’t no longer call these n***as names out. And they all coming from New York. That’s where I gotta start bangin’.
But even after all this happened, Dre, Snoop and the Pound made peace with Puffy on stage at THE SOURCE Awards…
Biggie got on the radio saying, “This is where them n*ggas is at, they making a video dissin’ New York. Y’all need to get at them.” N*ggas rolled down there and got with them. Funkmaster Flex, all them n*ggas was who ridin’ on the radio and some n*ggas went own there and handled their wax. But nobody got hurt, fortunately. But see, all they did was step this sh*t up a level.
How did Biggie’s wife Faith get into all of this? (On the new album, Tupac performs with Faith Evans on a song entitled “Wonder Why They Call You Bitch.”)
Because them n*ggas be on the radio and in their records and on the videos acting like players. Didn’t Biggie say he was a player? [imitates] “Baby, baby…” Stole my lyrics, I stole his bitch. Took my rhymes, I took his wife. He touched my style, I touched his wife. If he talk all that sh*t about being a player and I got at his wife two days after I got outta jail, imagine that gangsta sh*t he’s talking, how plastic that sh*t is.
Where do you see the end of this?
I’m Black. I believe in the Million Man March and all of that, and I know a lot of kids that are looking up at me…
Did you go?
No I just got outta jail. So instead of being violent, I’m saying do it like this—and I’m doing this because I’m a player and a business man. F*ck the fighting, f*ck the beef. Bad Boy put an album with the East Coast: best. Death Row put out an album. West Coast best. We release it on the same day. Whoever get the most sales completely, that’s the winner. N***as is petrified of that sh*t ‘cause they know we gonna outsell ‘em. There would be no more beef, we’ll hug. Me and Biggie could do Pay-per-view shows for community centers. We could rap against each other on stage, we could box on stage. That’s what I’m willing to do ‘cause he Black.
And while all the Tanions who populate the West and East, who claim to represent their coast, find their own ways to personally escalate the rift between states int isolated violent incidents of ego and misguided aggression, few clicks, G’s, ballers or big willies stop to consider the alternatives as in the true nature of the Death Row/Bad Boy situation. Who takes pause to ponder if an artist who has everything he could ask for might need what actors call “motivation” now that hard times are past? Certainly there is enough to draw from in all our own personal experiences as young Black men, but what moves one to strike an aggressive stance when one doesn’t appear necessary? Why do gangs bang on each other instead of the government which excludes them? To find that such twisted forms of urban angst reach even into the realms of superstars who are looked up by fans is disturbing, yet it typifies the reality that these artists are many times only the magnified versions of the millions of Black man, children who, fatherless and directionless, struggle to find identity and truth through trial and error. The question then becomes how many trials can one endure before error results to death in the form of a jail cell or shotgun shell.
Again it is the contradictory dynamic that holds the streets as a captive audience as they watch their own dreams played out on the electronic stage of radio waves floating across the country from the unknowing mouths of G’ed up performers. Many of these performers are still finding their own identity, and in the process and sometimes tragically perpetuating a fantasy persona that damages the hungry mind of the four-year-old who knows all the words to “Why I’m A Gangsta N***a & Don’t Give A F*ck.” Dealing with unromanticized reality (whether the brand is East Coast Moët or West Coast drop tops), there is one question which looms heavily over the heads of Tupac and every young Black man in the street who embraces the “rebel” code of ethics: Are you really free?
A general rule, which never or very rarely fails, that whoever is the cause of another becoming powerful, is ruined himself: for that power is produced by him either through craft or force; and both of these are suspected by the ones who has been raised to power.
How did the relationship with you and Suge Knight begin?
He always used to tell me to come to the Row. But it was too many stars over there and i know how I am. But watching how New York flipped on me…
What are you saying happened?
They think I rushed on Tribe Called Quest’s stage [at the Source Awards ‘94] and that’s not what happened. They played my music, I’m going on with my music. What the f*ck I look like, Plastic Man? I’ma play my own DAT? But that’s not what I was mad at. I was mad ‘cause they was booing me. I was mad ‘cause those Zulu Nation n***as came out saying if he ever do that again, he’s gonna get his ass locked. Well, whip my ass then.
Even though you knew Death Row had many priorities, what made you go there anyway?
Because the homie [Suge] came to me personally, and I was like, “I gotta get outta here.” He said, “I can’t make you no promises, but if you don’t get out, I’ll look out for you.” I was like, “I’m trying to do my album. Help my moms, I got enemies…” He said, “Don’t worry about it.” And I was like, if you get me out Suge, I guarantee I will put Death Row in a position that nobody can take it to. I will take us where no man has ever been before. I’ll be a soldier for Death Row. To show loyalty. Because he was being real to me when nobody was being real.
Money wise, N***as knew I was getting out, nobody wanted to touch me, nobody wanted to f*ck with me. N***as was all on the radio talking about they was coming to visit me, but they wasn’t coming to visit me. Only MC Lyte, April walker, Nefertiti, Jada [Pinkett], that’s it.
What were you feeling towards the Million Man March?
I was extremely proud of it. My only disappointment—and it’s not a critique of it at all, it’s just a wish—is I wish rappers could’ve had a bigger participation. We who they listen to.
Do you think it will change something?
Yeah, I think it changed something, it just set it up for the next time. I got a lot of respect for Farrakhan and everything them brothers just did. I love them for that.
I’ve heard something about Farrakhan possibly being involved in a mediation between your camp and Bad Boy…
I don’t know nothing about that. When superpowers go to war—we not suckas, we superpowers—once they declare war, they don’t sit down at the table immediately and start negotiating.
Where do you see the Black man in our age group in the scheme of things—in America and in the world?
We are in the midst of a very dangerous, non-productive, self-destructive civil war. And its not just rap sh*t. It’s ideals. And this rap sh*t is just bringin’ it to a head. The East Coast believe one thing, and the West Coast believe one thing. The East Coast got one way of life, the West Coast got another way of life, it always co-existed. We coming to the turn of the century where we gotta mash together.