All Eyez on Him
by RJ SMITH
Tupac Shakur was more than just another
million-selling gangsta rapper. He polarized the races
like few pop stars, in death as in life. By RJ Smith.
It was early 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. Afterwards, 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 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.
That 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 hanging 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
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
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
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
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