June 16, 2010, A.T.
As it relates to music, I always seem to measure time by a distinct period. I call it A.T.: After Tupac. As a member of a society that has watched hip-hop and the music business it inhabits change drastically over the course of nearly 15 years, A.T. seems to be the most accurate mark to correlate who, what, when, where, why and how in the world of popular culture. The days of when MTV and BET actually played music videos are replaced by looking for your favorite joint to jam to on YouTube. Consistent doses of hip-hop have been replaced by methodical dances and importunate hooks that stay in your head long after you've turned the radio off. And there's nothing wrong with that, because nothing stays the same forever. Especially, it seems, in hip-hop.
The era of hip-hop that Tupac Amaru Shakur resided in was another realm of composition altogether. Pac was competing with legends and future legends such as Ice Cube, Rakim, Nas, MC Eiht, Biggie and Scarface. Pac had to make his unique, mellow rasp of a voice and undeniable bundle of electric aptitude standout in a world of lyrical giants. As an MC, your rhymes had to have style and substance back in those days. And Pac unquestionably had no trouble in that department, as he projected a hypnotizing method to his melodic madness. Tupac would rap about his yearning for women, liquor, weed and vengeance. But he also could touch on topics such as teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, racism, police brutality and violence among inner-city youths. Through all of the layers of human nature and hypocrisy that embodied Tupac, and all of us for that matter, there was a feel of tremendous compassion that he held for all of his people to rise up and become the best that they could be.
It seemed as if Tupac was struggling to find his true identity in the midst of all of the personas he had created for himself. Personas he created as a coping mechanism to deal with the uncertainties of life as he knew it during his last days on earth. Prior to his death, he had survived being ambushed with five shots to his frame at a recording studio in New York City. That shooting, followed with the eleven months he did in prison for sexual assault, had left him extremely confused, terrified and distrustful of anyone in his vicinity. Pac had blamed his chum-turned-foe, The Notorious B.I.G., for the ambush at the studio. The tension between the two icons would lead to an all-out feud between various rappers from both coasts of the U.S. Tupac's music would also take on more of a gangster ideology, with less introspection and more murder and venom towards other MC's laced throughout his lyrics.
But I think this was all a part of the process of a 25-year-old man trying to find his way through a life that wasn't easy from the start. Many thought that Pac was starting to take on the persona of Bishop, the character he played in the 1992 film, Juice. But no one truly knows the thoughts that were encompassing his traumatized psyche, as he was trying to claw his way out of a web of parasites that were feasting off of his undying loyalty. Maybe Tupac had finally figured it out, and was on his way out of the music business for good. Maybe he would take up acting full-time. Or maybe public service was on his agenda. But none of these things would come to fruition, as he was gunned down in Las Vegas the night of September 7, 1996. We would never be able to see Pac's destiny fulfilled. We would never be able to see if a young man blessed with an unlimited supply of gifts could truly hone his craft of charisma and passion and become one the greatest ambassadors of life to ever walk the face of the earth.
Rapper? (Or more accurately, let's say MC. There's truly a difference between a rapper and an MC, but that's another discussion for another article)
There's so much that Tupac Shakur accomplished in his 25 years of life that it would be a disservice to narrow his existence down to one label. But, in the nearly 14 years since he has passed, I wonder what would be strolling through the mental Rolodex of a 39-year-old Pac were he alive today. The passing of the Notorious B.I.G., the 2000 election, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, Barack Obama, Haiti, BP. What would be Pac's stance on these incomparable moments in time? Would he be writing a song about those occurrences? Maybe he would be a policy maker, trying to influence the subsistence of those occurrences. On June 16th 2010, it's so important that we take the time to remember a man whose mix of beautiful complexities changed the way we would forever engage in dissecting the life of a human, walking renaissance.
Today, Tupac has become a deity-like figure in his death. He's become the black Elvis Presley, as people have speculated that he faked his own death to become the world's greatest urban legend. His records have sold more after his departure than they did while he was alive. But the truth of the matter is we'll never see another like Tupac Shakur. Maybe Biggie was on to something when he said you're nobody 'till somebody kills you. But then I look at how Tupac has given life to nearly every MC -- past, present and future -- whose plans are to pick-up a microphone, another quote pops into my head, one from a philosopher who was just as gifted with the pen as Biggie and Pac were in their prime. Mahatma Ghandi:
"Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever."
Happy Birthday Tupac Shakur. God Bless You.