20 Years Ago, Tupac Broke Through

Jul 18, 2013
Originally published on August 20, 2013 6:37 pm

This year marks the 20th anniversary of a remarkable year in music. Over the 12 months of 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan, Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah and more than a dozen other rap groups released albums that helped change the sound of America. That year one of the most influential rappers to ever hold a microphone released his breakout album.

In January 1993, Tupac Shakur was 21 years old. He was about to drop his second album, and the first feature film he starred in had been a success. He was on the cusp of superstardom. Kevin Powell, a young journalist at Vibe magazine, was trying to talk his editors into taking a story.

"I explained to them, 'Look, there's this young man who is the son of a Black Panther party member, Afeni Shakur. He already has one album out called 2pacalypse Now and he's in this really controversial hit film called Juice. He's someone we should really be paying attention to,' " Powell remembers.

Vibe eventually paid attention; so did radio; and the album Tupac released in February, Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z., landed three songs on the charts.

Filmmaker John Singleton had already put out the groundbreaking Boyz n the Hood when he saw Tupac on TV giving an interview. "My attitude was I wanna work with him," Singleton says. "That's the dude I wanna work with." Before 1993 was over, Tupac and Singleton released Poetic Justice.

Tupac Shakur started acting as a kid. He was born in New York City, and when he was a teenager his family moved to Baltimore, where in addition to acting, he studied poetry, jazz and ballet at the Baltimore School for the Arts. The family moved again to the San Francisco Bay Area, where Tupac hooked up with the hip-hop group Digital Underground.

He released his first solo album in 1991, and it was criticized for violent lyrics in some of the songs. After a police officer was killed in Texas by a man who said he'd been listening to the album, the media came down hard. In an interview with Los Angeles Times writer Chuck Philips the following year, Tupac said he felt misunderstood.

"I started out saying I was down for the young black male, you know, and that was gonna be my thang," Tupac said. "I just wanted to rap about things that affected young black males. When I said that, I didn't know that I was gonna tie myself down to just take all the blunts and hits for all the young black males, to be the media's kicking post for young black males. I just figured since I lived that life I could do that, I could rap about that."

"He had a whole lot of heart and soul and a sense of what I call cultural wealth of black people," says Singleton. "And he used that to forge a persona for himself." He calls the follow-up to 2pacalypse Now the first real Tupac album.

"[Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. was] a record you could party to, but then also had a sense of cultural resonance to it," Singleton says. "That was that time — black people were pissed off but we wanted to party at the same time."

1993 was the year following the Los Angeles riots, which had been sparked by the Los Angeles Police Department's beating of Rodney King. Powell says it was a complex moment:

"It was the era of prosperity in this country. Remember, we were coming off of the first Gulf War, so there was a lot of money out there. It's just a few years before the whole dot-com thing started happening. There's a lot of emphasis on Generation X at the time. It wasn't just Tupac, but it's Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and the whole grunge scene that's coming out of Seattle. So it was a really incredible and exciting time in young American history, and Tupac really embodied that."

"Me being 8 years old hearing 'Keep Ya Head Up' — I promise you I felt that song in my soul," says J. Cole, who currently has the No. 3 album in the country. "At 8 years old, I could feel it."

"Keep Ya Head Up" is a song about society's mistreatment of women. The other two hits from Tupac's album, "I Get Around" and "Holler If You Hear Me," are not. The songs seem to come from different places, but Powell says that's Tupac.

"When you look at his album Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., it's him," Powell says. "Half of it is very deep social political commentary and the other half is the kind of stuff that became associated with thug life and the kind of gangsterism that became associated with hip-hop."

Cole says these two sides are what make Tupac more than just an actor playing a role. "Some people criticize him for being on such opposite ends of the spectrum. But I learned growing up — at least in my case, and I like to think for everyone else's case, whether they like to admit it or not — that's more human than anything."

But Tupac and his second album also represent something bigger, says Powell, who's written 11 books, including Who Shot Ya?: Three Decades of Hip-Hop Photography, and is working on a biography of Shakur.

"There's no other singular figure in hip-hop like Tupac Shakur. He wasn't the greatest rapper in the world. He didn't necessarily have the best lyrics all the time, but there was not a figure that captured what hip-hop is and where it came from: working-class black American and Latino and West Indian people from New York City and black and Latino people from the West Coast. No one captured that the way he did."

A little more than three years after the release of Tupac Shakur's breakthrough 1993 album, the musician was dead. Killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. He was 25 years old.


The portion of an interview with Tupac that appears in this piece has been reproduced with the permission of the Chuck Philips Post.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All this year, we've been marking the 20th anniversary of a remarkable year in music. In 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan, Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, and more than a dozen other rap groups released albums that helped change the sound of America.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAP MONTAGE)

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Rapping) Black reign, 1993...

DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) ...It started in the year of '78. But it's '93, or should I say '94...

SALT-N-PEPA: (Rapping) ...So I tried rap, now in 1993, I'm living mack stack. Check my attitude. It comes with the territory, baby...

SNOOP DOGG: (Rapping) Follow me, follow me, follow me, follow me but don't lose your grip. Nine-trizzay is the yizzear for me to (beep).

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Rapping) So, my man, watch your back. '93 means skills are a must so never lack.

WU-TANG CLAN: (rapping) 1993 exoticness...

GREENE: Yeah, it was a big year for rap. And as NPR's Sami Yenigun reports, 1993 was also when one of the most influential rappers to ever hold a microphone released his breakout album.

SAMI YENIGUN, BYLINE: In January 1993, Tupac Shakur was 21 years old. He was about to drop his second album, and had just starred in his first feature film. He was on the cusp of superstardom. Kevin Powell, a young journalist at Vibe magazine was trying to talk his editors into taking a story.

KEVIN POWELL: I explained to them - look, there's this young man who is the son of a Black Panther party member, Afeni Shakur. He already has one album out - called "Tupacalypse Now" - and he's in this really controversial hit film, called "Juice." And he is someone we should be paying attention to.

YENIGUN: Vibe eventually did. So did radio, and the record landed three songs on the charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GET AROUND")

TUPAC SHAKUR: (rapping) It's a lot of real Gs doing time because a groupie bit the truth and told a lie. You picked the wrong guy, baby, if you're too fly. You need to hit the door, search for a new guy because I've only got one night in town. Break out or be clown, baby doll, are you down? I get around...

YENIGUN: By 1993, filmmaker John Singleton had already put out the groundbreaking "Boyz in the Hood." He says when he saw Tupac on TV giving in an interview...

JOHN SINGLETON: My attitude at the time was, I want to work with him. That's the dude I want to work with. (Laughing)

YENIGUN: Before the year was out, Tupac and Singleton released "Poetic Justice."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POETIC JUSTICE")

SHAKUR: (As Lucky) ... If I had got there on time, this never would've happened.

YENIGUN: Tupac Shakur started acting as a kid. He was born in New York City, and his family moved to Baltimore when he was a teen; where, in addition to acting, he studied poetry, jazz and ballet at the Baltimore School for the Arts. The family moved again, to the San Francisco Bay area, where Tupac hooked up with the hip-hop group Digital Underground. He released his first solo album, "Tupacalypse Now," in 1991.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNG BLACK MALE")

SHAKUR: (rapping) I bust what I bust, and cuss when I must. They give me a charge for sales, for selling tales of young black males...

YENIGUN: The album was criticized for violent lyrics in some of the songs. After a police officer was killed in Texas by a man who said he'd been listening to "Tupacalypse Now," the media came down hard. In an interview with then-LA Times writer Chuck Philips the following year, Tupac said he felt misunderstood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAKUR: I started out saying that I was down for the young, black male, you know; and that was going to be my thing. I just wanted to rap about things that affected young, black males. And when I said that, I didn't know that I was going to tie myself down to just take all the blunts and the hits for the young, black males of society; be like, the media's kicking post for young, black males. I didn't know that. I just wanted to never run out of material. And I felt like, since I lived that life, I can do that; I can rap about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLLA IF YA HEAR ME")

SHAKUR: (rapping) I'm a throw a change up Quayle, like you never brought my name up. Huh. Now my homies in the backstreets, the black streets. They feel me when they rolling in their fat Jeeps. This ain't just a rap song, a black song. Telling all my brothers get they strap on, and look for me in the struggle. Hustling till other brothers bubble. Holla if you hear me...

SINGLETON: He did have a whole lot of heart and soul about - and a sense of what I call cultural wealth of black people. And he used that to forge a persona for himself.

YENIGUN: Filmmaker John Singleton calls the follow-up to "Tupacalypse Now" the first real Tupac album.

SINGLETON: A record that you could party to but then also had a sense of cultural resonance to it, in terms of that was that time; that was that moment. We was coming out of the riots. Black people were pissed off, but we wanted to party at the same time.

YENIGUN: It was the year after the Los Angeles riots, sparked by the LAPD beating of Rodney King. Kevin Powell says it was a complex time.

POWELL: It was the era of prosperity in this country. Remember, we were coming off the first Gulf War, so there was a lot of money out there. It's just a few years before the whole dotcom thing started to take off in our country. And there was a lot of emphasis on Generation X in that time. You know, it wasn't just Tupac; but it was also Kurt Cobain, you know, with Nirvana and the whole thing that was happening with the grunge scene, out of Seattle. And so it was a really incredible and exciting time in young American history, and Tupac really embodied that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP YA HEAD UP")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) ...And since we all came from a woman, got our name from a woman and our game from a woman. Oh, yeah. I wonder why we take from our women, why we rape our women. Do we hate our women? I think it's time we kill for our women, time to heal our women, be real to our women...

J. COLE: Me being 8 years old, hearing "Keep Your Head Up" - I promise you, I felt that song like, in my soul. At 8 years old, I could feel it.

YENIGUN: That's hip-hop artist J. Cole. who has the No. 3 record in the country right now. "Keep Ya Head Up" is a song about the mistreatment of women in society. The album seems to come from two different places, but Kevin Powell says, that's Tupac.

POWELL: When you look at his album, "Strictly for My (Beeped)," it's him. You know, half of it is very deep social, political commentary like "Keep Ya Head Up." And the other half is the kind of stuff that became associated with thug life and the kind of gangsterism that came to dominate hip-hop.

YENIGUN: Rapper J. Cole says these two sides are what makes Tupac more than just an actor playing a role.

COLE: You know, some people criticize him for being on such opposite ends of the spectrum. But I learned, growing up - at least, in my case; and I'd like to think for everybody else's case, whether they admit it or not - that's more human than anything.

YENIGUN: But Tupac and his second album also represent something bigger, says author Kevin Powell, who is working on a biography of Tupac.

POWELL: There's no other singular figure in hip-hop like Tupac Shakur. He wasn't the greatest rapper in the world; he didn't necessarily have the best lyrics all the time. But there was not a figure who captured what hip-hop is, and where it came from - working class black American, Latino and West Indian people from New York City; and black and Latino people on the West Coast. No one captured that the way he did.

YENIGUN: Just a little more than three years after the release of Tupac Shakur's breakthrough, 1993 album, Tupac was dead, killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. He was 25 years old.

Sami Yenigun, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.