i-D throwback: reflections on the death of tupac
On the anniversary of his untimely death, we look back to i-D's The Energised Issue, November 1996, a month after Tupac Shakur's murder.
'Keeping it real.' That hip hop still revolves around this rather hackneyed ideal is distressing enough, but that someone should die for it is an unequivocal tragedy. Tupac Shakur died in hospital on September 13, after being fatally injured in a driveby shooting in Las Vegas. The exact circumstances behind his death may never come to light, but the rumour mill points firmly to a very public feud between the rapper, New York hip hop mogul Sean 'Puffy' Combs and one of Combs' most successful stars, Biggie Smalls (The Notorious BIG).
The tragic nature of Tupac's demise lies in the fact that such feuding seemed to be as much a gesture in support of his media image as it was a part of his life. Hip hop has grown old with protestors and fans alike failing to remember that, however politically charged and documentary in nature it may be, it is still, in essential terms, for entertainment. Here was one of its players making the same category mistake. Someone like Tupac carrying a gun and dealing in armed threats is like Jackie Chan beating people up in the street to prove his martial arts prowess. And for the Bad Boy/Death Row, East CoastJVVest Coast rivalry to result in murder is like Pete Townshend killing Mick Jagger to prove that mods are better than rockers.
Tupac's death is doubly tragic when you consider another path his life might have taken. His mother was an active member of the Black Panther Party, the militant Socialist organisation of the late '60s, and when she was jailed for Panther activity in 1971 it was Tupac who she carried in her pregnant belly. So even before he'd been born, he had been imprisoned for the cause of proBlack revolution. Because of his Panther upbringing, when he had become a star, some suggested that he should use his fame and influence to stake out a position of serious community leadership and revive the group and its ideals.
Tupac's initial rise to fame came as a member of Digital Underground, a band who laid the Clintonesque musical foundations of the West Coast GFunk sound while cheekily satirising the bullets-and-bitches bravado of Californian gang culture. Movie roles followed: as a gun-intoxicated Bronx teen in Ernest Dickerson's Juice, and as a runaway postman alongside Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice. The sensitivity he seemed capable of as an actor was by this time in direct contradiction to the vicious egotism with which he chose to fill his solo records.
Indeed Tupac always struck you as an unlikely gangster. In interviews he came over as a thoughtful but troubled young man, with an understanding of humanity that was raised a few notches above the well-worn rap cliches by a keen, liberal-educated intelligence and an almost feminine openness. However, like his tattoo proclaimed, it was his 'Thug Life' that he wanted to emphasise, and it wasn't long before his self-fulfilling embrace of gangsta rap's mud-wallowing mentality resulted in real-life crime and punishment. These days, rapping about gang life entails the same involvement as being born into it, and in the last few years Tupac scuffed out completely the line between his life and his art. He was mired in a stream of weapons charges and served eight months in prison for sexual assault. It was clear, also, that he had become a marked man; he was almost murdered when he was attacked in a recording studio.
Plenty of voices have already been raised protesting his senseless death, many pleading for an end to whatever dispute this was a part of. The problem, however, is with rap's understanding of itself. The point is, Tupac Shakur was shot by someone who mistook the artist for his subject matter, just as he had long done with himself. In other words, like his murderer, Tupac was keeping it real.
Text Frank Broughton
Photography Dana Lixenberg