Born Tupac Amaru Shakur, June 16, 1971 in New York, NY; died of complications from gunshot wounds, September 13, 1996, in Las Vegas, NV; son of Afeni Shakur (born Alice Faye Williams), a political activist. Education: Attended Baltimore School for the Arts.
Despite having achieved success as both a rapper and a film actor, Tupac Shakur's notoriety among mainstream audiences had more to do with his outlaw image, which derived in large part from his frequent and high-profile scrapes with the law. Yet despite being sentenced to a prison term in 1995, he remained a presence on the music scene with a the hit album Me Against the World. In an interview he gave from behind bars, Shakur disavowed the "Thug Life" that had previously been his slogan of choice. "I'm going to show people my true intentions, and my true heart," he swore to Vibe. "I'm going to show them the man that my mother raised. I'm going to make them all proud." Tragically, not long after his release from prison and of his double album, All Eyez on Me, Shakur died on September 13, 1996, of complications from gunshot wounds he received in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas.
He was in prison, Shakur often reminded interviewers, before he was born. His mother, Afeni Shakur, was a member of the militant Black Panther movement; in 1969 she and 20 others in the organization were arrested in connection with an alleged conspiracy to blow up several buildings in New York City. By 1971 she was pregnant and living in the Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village. Though she was acquitted, she soon found herself raising her newborn son, Tupac Amaru Shakur--named for an Inca prince--by herself. "My mother was hella real with me," Tupac noted to Vibe interviewer Kevin Powell. "She just told me, 'I don't know who your daddy is.' It wasn't like she was a slut or nothin'. It was just some rough times."
Afeni and Tupac struggled to get by during those rough times, living in the Bronx and Harlem, at times sleeping in homeless shelters. They moved repeatedly, the rapper recalled, and each time "I had to reinvent myself. People think just because you born in the ghetto you gonna fit in. A little twist in your life and you don't fit in no matter what." He admitted to feeling "like my life could be destroyed at any moment." He took refuge in writing poetry; his mother tried to bolster his creative side by enrolling him in Harlem's 127th Street Ensemble, which was the site of Tupac's acting debut, as Travis in the play A Raisin in the Sun. It was here that the acting "bug" bit him. "I remember thinking, 'This is the best shit in the world!'" he remembered.
After he and Afeni moved to Baltimore, Tupac attended that city's School for the Arts, studying acting and dance. He also wrote his first rap there and felt himself beginning to "fit in," at long last. But by his junior year he was packing up again, moving this time to Marin City, a desolate stretch of northern California known locally as "the Jungle." Moving out of his mother's home, he began selling drugs and establishing himself on the streets of his adopted town. "It was like a 'hood and I wanted to be a part of it," he explained to Powell. "If I could just fit in here, I'm cool. And I thought I did."
At the same time, Shakur began to entertain thoughts of a music career. In 1990 he auditioned for the Bay Area rap group Digital Underground, and was hired as a dancer and roadie. He joined the ensemble's "Sex Packets" tour of the U.S. and Japan, and made his recording debut on their 1991 This Is an EP Release. His newfound success, however, was tainted by some unwelcome news: "I was on the road with D.U. and called my homies just to say whassup, and they told me my moms was buying dope from somebody," he related to Vibe. "It f--ed me up. I started blocking her out of my mind." Afeni's battle with crack addiction would try their relationship sorely.
By the end of the year he had released his solo debut, 2Pacalypse Now, on the Interscope label. He paved the way for his solo career while touring with D.U. "Everybody knew me even though my album wasn't out yet," he told Vibe. "I never went to bed. I was working it like a job. That was my number-one thing when I first got in the business. Everybody's gonna know me." Soon everyone would, though perhaps not as he might have hoped; his album's tough stance--in the increasingly popular "gansta" mode--created his first major controversy. In April of 1992 a Texas state trooper was shot to death by a young man who later claimed to have been listening to Tupac's album and cited the track "Soulja's Story" as the impetus for his violent act. The song narrates a fugitive with "cops on my tail"; pulled over, he decides to "blast [the officer's] punk ass/Now I got a murder case."
This incident, along with other descriptions of cop-murdering, led a number of politicians, including then Vice-President Dan Quayle, to call for the record's removal from stores. Of course, such controversy ended up boosting sales of 2Pacalypse Now. Tupac himself, meanwhile, had filed suit against the Oakland police department, alleging brutality in a jaywalking arrest.
Even as his rap career was heating up, Tupac broke out as a film star in Ernest Dickerson's 1992 film Juice, portraying Bishop, a kid who becomes addicted to the high of violence. Though reviews of the film were mixed, his performance received uniform raves. Soon, however, his name was making headlines attached to another tragedy, an armed confrontation in Marin City; a six-year-old boy was killed in the crossfire between Tupac's posse and their antagonists. Spin reported that many in the rapper-actor's adopted hometown began to call him "Tu-faced."
But controversy sells records, and Tupac's 1993 effort Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z... went gold in a matter of months, thanks in part to the hit track "I Get Around." Ironically, given later developments, one of the album's other hit singles was the upbeat "Keep Ya Head Up," a paean to the strength and survival of black women. Meanwhile, his other "rap" sheet--listing his run-ins with the law--continued to pile up: he was arrested after alleging beating a limo driver, served ten days in jail after pursuing another rapper with a baseball bat, and was busted for allegedly shooting two off-duty police officers shortly after relocating to Atlanta. He was acquitted of the latter charge.
Shakur co-starred with pop singer Janet Jackson in John Singleton's 1993 film Poetic Justice, once again collecting raves in the generally poor reviews. In November of that year, a young woman with whom Tupac had been involved claimed that he and three of his friends had sodomized and sexually abused her. His troubles continued into 1994; in March he spent 15 days in jail for hitting filmmaker Allen Hughes. But he scored again with critics in the movie Above the Rim; Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly called him perhaps "the most dynamic young actor since Sean Penn," adding that he "gives each of his characters a unique spiritual temper." With his group Thug Life, Tupac also contributed to the film's soundtrack, which sold 2 million copies.
"If we really are saying rap is an art form, then we got to be true to it and be more responsible for our lyrics. If you see everybody dying because of what you?'re? saying, it don't matter that you didn't make them die, it just matters that you didn't save them."
Thug Life--the words were tattooed on the rapper's stomach--then released its own album, Volume One, which Entertainment Weekly described as "a 10-song meditation about life under the gun. Where [Tupac's] solo releases have often dragged, One crackles with kinetic energy." Yet the Thug Life that he advocated--"Thuggin' against society. Thuggin' against the system that made me," as he put it to Rolling Stone--was taking its toll. Out on bail on the previous sexual abuse and sodomy charges, he was shot several times on the ground floor of a building that housed an acquaintance's recording studio. He was ambushed as he prepared to rap on another artist's record, shot, and robbed. Although he sustained multiple injuries, he survived.
Over the strenuous objections of his doctors, Tupac appeared in court shortly before sentence was passed. Despite whatever mitigating effect the sight of the wheelchair-bound defendant could have had on the jury, he was found guilty of sexual abuse; though this was the lesser charge against him, he was sentenced to one-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years in prison. Though he'd previously said that jail would destroy his spirit, he told Vibe's Powell that he saw his incarceration as "a gift--straight up. This is God's will." Adding that getting clean after years of incessant marijuana smoking had cleared his head, he claimed a new perspective on his work. "If we really are saying rap is an art form," he declared, "then we got to be true to it and be more responsible for our lyrics. If you see everybody dying because of what you saying, it don't matter that you didn't make them die, it just matters that you didn't save them."
Meanwhile, his new album, Me Against the World, began moving up the charts. The first single, "Dear Mama," praised his mother for her strength. Tupac couldn't appear in the video, obviously, but Afeni is featured in the clip, watching clips of her son on television. Having recovered from her addiction, the rapper's mother was working for his production company. Though some may have found the sentimental single an attempt to drum up sympathy for its jailed author, Interscope executive Tom Whalley said otherwise. "It wasn't like, 'Well, Tupac's in jail, let's find the most sympathetic song on the record and put it out so that the audience will be sympathetic to him," he asserted to Jerry Crowe of the Los Angeles Times. "I just thought it was a great song, an emotional song."
Me Against the World climbed to the top of the Billboard magazine sales chart, selling half a million copies within weeks. "Dear Mama" reached the Top Ten singles chart. Actress Jada Pinkett--a steadfast friend and supporter who'd allegedly helped, along with superstar singer-actress Madonna and actor Mickey Rourke, to pay Tupac's bail--was slated to direct the video for the album's subsequent single, "Can U Get Away." Shakur had completed filming with Rourke on the film Bullet.
Writing in the Village Voice, critic and pop-culture analyst Toure pointed out what she called "massive distance between Tupac's fame and the quality of his work so far." She praised his acting talent but dismissed most of the films he'd appeared in, and argued that though he remains "along with Snoop [Doggy Dogg] one of the two most famous rappers in the world, he is merely an average vocalist and lyricist, and has yet to record one aesthetically important song." Yet, Toure insisted, Tupac's experiences on the public stage have been remarkable "performances" in their own right, and have lent an air of importance to his otherwise unimpressive records. The Source, however, praised Me Against the World as the rapper's "best so far," while Jon Pareles of the New York Times admired its "fatalistic calm, in a commercial mold."
Shakur was released from his eight-month prison sentence in 1995 and shortly after put out the double album All Eyez on Me, which features a guest appearance by Snoop Doggy Dogg and Shakur's characteristic hardcore rap lyrics. Ironically, he bragged on the album about surviving his 1994 shooting with the line "Five shots and they still couldn't kill me." On September 7, 1996, while All Eyez on Me was still a presence on the pop charts, Shakur was in Las Vegas to attend a boxing match between Mike Tyson and Bruce Sheldon. En route to Death Row Records head Suge Knight's nightclub, Shakur was shot four times; Knight was grazed with a bullet and sustained minor injuries. Tupac remained hospitalized in critical condition for a week before dying on September 13 at the age of 25.
The death of Tupac sent a wave of controversy through the music industry as some felt the rapper, by his words and actions, brought on his own violent end, and others, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, saw him as a symbol of the inability of a talented, successful artist to escape a past of drugs and crime. "This is so sad," commented Jackson to the Los Angeles Times. "Sometimes the lure of violent culture is so magnetic that even when one overcomes it with material success, it continues to call. He couldn't break the cycle." Fans mourned Shakur's death by blaring his music from parked cars in Las Vegas near the hospital where he died. A friend of the rapper's from Marin City told the New York Times, "Success killed [Tupac]. It made him feel like he was invincible, and nobody is invincible."
by Simon Glickman
Rapper and film actor. Appeared in play A Raisin in the Sun, c. 1983, with 127th Street Ensemble; joined rap group Digital Underground, 1990, and appeared on recording This Is an EP Release, 1991; signed with Interscope Records and released solo debut 2Pacalypse Now, 1991; appeared in films Juice, 1992, Poetic Justice, 1993, and Above the Rim, 1994; formed group Thug Life and contributed to Above the Rim soundtrack as well as releasing the band's debut, Volume One, 1994; established own recording label, Out Da Gutta, affiliated with Interscope Records; established own production company.
Platinum records for Above the Rim soundtrack and 1993'S Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z...; gold record for 2Pacalypse Now.
- Selective Works
- (With Digital Underground) This Is an EP Release, Tommy Boy, 1991.
- (With Digital Underground) Sons of the P, Tommy Boy, 1991.
- 2Pacalypse Now (includes "Soulja's Story"), Interscope, 1991.
- Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z... (includes "I Get Around" and "Keep Ya Head Up"), Interscope, 1993.
- (With other artists) Above the Rim soundtrack (Thug Life appears on "Pour Out A Little Liquor"), Death Row/Interscope, 1994.
- (With Thug Life) Volume One, Out Da Gutta/Interscope, 1994.
- Me Against the World (includes "Dear Mama" and "Can U Get Away"), Interscope, 1995.
- All Eyez on Me, Death Row, 1996.
October 2005: 2Pac's album, Live at the House of Blues (recorded July 4, 1996), was released posthumously. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_3/index.jsp, October 7, 2005.
- Detroit Free Press, September 14, 1996, p. 9A.
- Entertainment Weekly, April 8, 1994, pp. 25-26, 39; October 14, 1994, p. 60.
- Los Angeles Daily News, June 26, 1993, p. L17.
- Los Angeles Times, April 4, 1995, p. F1; September 14, 1996, p. F-1 and p. A-1.
- Newsweek, December 12, 1994, pp. 62-63; March 27, 1995, p. 66.
- New York Times, December 1, 1994, pp. B1, B3; February 8, 1995, pp.
- B1, B3; April 9, 1995, p. H34; September 14, 1996; September 16, 1996.
- People, December 6, 1993, pp. 89-90.
- Rolling Stone, October 28, 1993, p. 22; June 16, 1994, p. 30.
- The Source, February 1995, p. 19; April 1995, pp. 27, 79.
- Spin, April 1994, pp. 43-47.
- Vibe, February 1995; April 1995, pp. 51-55.
- Village Voice, December 13, 1994, pp. 75, 85.
- Additional information was provided by Interscope Records publicity materials, 1995.