Tupac Shakur, best known to popular music fans as the legendary rapper 2Pac, was also an actor with intimate family connections to a number of prominent members of the Black Panther Party. While the rapper was often framed as a symbol of the 1990s gangsta-rap aesthetic, he also wrote a number of thought-provoking and conscious recordings about teenage pregnancy, racial disparity, poverty, and social injustice, among other powerful topics.
Having sold over 75 million albums, the American rapper is still remembered as one of the top-selling artists of all time. Some of his greatest hits include Keep Ya Head Up, California Love with Dr. Dre, Dear Mama, I Get Around, and Brenda’s Got a Baby. Often framed by the media as sensitive, talented, and troubled, once Shakur became a popular music icon, his time in the public eye plagued by his rap rivalries and encounters with the criminal justice system. But Shakur was more than a rapper whose personal and professional situations resulted in tragic consequences. Let’s learn more about this eclectic and unique musician.
A Young Pac
Named Lesane Parish Crooks at birth, rapper Tupac Shakur was later renamed at the age of one after Tupac Amaru Shakur, the last Incan ruler who was executed in Peru in 1781 after his failed revolt against Spanish rule. Tupac Shakur was born in Harlem, New York on June 16, 1971, to mother Afeni Shakur (Alice Faye Williams), a struggling single mother originally from North Carolina, and Billy Garland, an active Black Panther Party member (of the New York chapter) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Shakur would not see his father again until he was 23.
While Shakur’s mother struggled for much of his young life, she wanted him to have a sense of pride. She decided to rename Shakur because she “wanted him to have the name of revolutionary, indigenous people in the world. I wanted him to know he was part of world culture and not just from a neighborhood.”
After changing her own name as a result of her involvement with the Black Panther Party, Afeni became pregnant with Tupac in 1970. A month prior to his birth, Afeni was tried as part of the Panther 21 criminal trial in New York City. While she was acquitted of over 150 charges, Shakur’s godfather, Elmer Pratt, was convicted (and his sentence was later overturned) of murdering a schoolteacher during a 1968 robbery. Luckily, Afeni was able to successfully defend herself in court – where she demonstrated her gift of oratory, which unbeknownst to her, her son would later inherit as a performer.
2Pac was also related to a number of other members of the Black Panther Party: Assata Shakur (his step-aunt and godmother) who escaped a New Jersey prison, and Mutulu Shakur (his stepfather) who was convicted for the 1981 robbery of a Brinks armored truck (and the guard who died as a result) and then spent four years among the F.B.I.’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives.
In 1984, Shakur and his family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he would study acting while he was a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he studied acting (and performed in Shakespearian plays), poetry, jazz, and ballet. It was in high-school where he first began performing his raps alongside his friend Dana “Mouse” Smith, who would accompany him as beatbox.
In art school, Shakur nourished a very eclectic taste in music; he loved listening to all kinds of musicians, including Kate Bush, Culture Club, Sinéad O’Connor, and U2. It was also at his art school that he befriended fellow actor Jada Pinkett, who would also become a subject of some of his poems. Pinkett remembers the two as best friends, stating:
“He was like a brother. It was beyond friendship for us. The type of relationship we had, you only get that once in a lifetime.”
In 1988, Afeni Shakur would make the big move to Marin City, California, a small and low-income community approximately five miles north of San Francisco. While living in Marin City, Afeni succumbed to crack addiction — a drug that Tupac would later sell on the same streets she bought her own supply. Thankfully, Shakur’s love of Hip Hop culture connected him to Leila Steinberg – a white woman who he would initially connect with based on a conversation the two had about Winnie Mandela. Steinberg, who Shakur would eventually convince to become his manager (even though she had zero experience with the music industry), remembers Shakur as:
“A young man with fan-like eyelashes, overflowing charisma, and the most infectious laugh.”
By 1990, Pac’s life consisted of being roadie and dancer for the Hip Hop group Digital Underground – thanks to Steinburg’s ability to connect Shakur to music manager Atron Gregory. A year later, Shakur began recording, first on “Same Song” for Dan Aykroyd’s comedy Nothing But Trouble, and later on Digital Underground’s album Sons of the P. With the help of Atron Gregory, Shakur eventually landed a record deal with Interscope Records, and his debut album 2Pacalypse Now quickly followed. He would go on to release another four albums: Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z…, Me Against the World, All Eyez on Me, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (under the stage name Makaveli), and seven posthumous albums.
In the midst of Shakur experiencing growing fame, he was also increasingly having run-ins with the law. In 1993, Shakur was charged after shooting (and wounding) two off-duty police officers in Atlanta following an altercation. While the charges were later dropped after the court heard that the policemen had been drinking and had initiated the incident, the case was one among many incidents in which Shakur began to feel misunderstood.
Starring Tupac Shakur
A year later, Shakur would spend fifteen days in jail for assaulting director Allen Hughes, who had fired him from the set of Menace II Society, that he was supposed to be starring in at the time, for being disruptive. In November 1993, Shakur would also be charged, along with three other men, for sexually assaulting Ayanna Jackson, in his hotel room. Jackson alleged that after consensual oral sex, Shakur and the other men raped her. Shakur denied the allegations, and on an episode of The Arsenio Hall Show explained that he was hurt that a woman would accuse him of “taking something from her.”
Shakur was later convicted of first-degree sexual abuse but acquitted of associated sodomy and gun charges. In 1995, he was sentenced, though he would later be released from the Clinton Correctional Facility after Suge Knight, then C.E.O. of Death Row Records posted his $1.4 million bond. While Suge Knight agreed to post bail, he did so on the condition that Shakur would sign to his label, Death Row Records.
In an interview with Chuck Phillips, Shakur discussed being upset by how critics were passing over his work and were instead only interested in his run-ins with the law. He confessed: “
“Everything in life is not all beautiful. There is lots of killing and drugs. To me, a perfect album talks about the hard stuff and the fun and caring staff. … The thing that bothers me is that it seems like a lot of the sensitive stuff I write just goes unnoticed.”
Even as 2Pac was in the public eye for his Rap career and his interactions, he was also involved with a number of social justice initiatives, including financing an at-risk youth center and setting up a telephone helpline for young people among other things.
Along with his music career, Shakur also was working on his burgeoning film career. After appearing in Nothing But Trouble in 1991, his film debut, he would follow that performance up in 1992 as Roland Bishop in Juice. After seeing his performance, journalist Peter Travers of Rolling Stone Magazine called Shakur’s role, “the film’s most magnetic figure.”
A year later, Shakur would star in John Singleton’s (of Boyz N The Hood fame) Poetic Justice, a romance film where Shakur would star alongside pop superstar Janet Jackson. Shakur continued to develop his film repertoire with performances in Above the Rim, Bullet, Gridlock’d, and Gang Related. While Shakur was set to play Sharif in the 1993 film Menace II Society, directed by the Hughes brothers, he was later replaced as a result of the conflicts that would ensue between Shakur and Allen Hughes.
Shakur & Biggie Smalls
2Pac is probably most known for his public conflict with east coast rapper the Notorious B.I.G. The two were initially cordial, as was the case in 1993 when Biggie was introduced to Shakur by a local drug dealer when visiting Los Angeles. On later visits to Los Angeles, the two were so cordial that Shakur would allow Biggie to stay at his home while staying in the city, and even join him on stage in live performance.
When Shakur was in New York City, Biggie would spend time with him as well. Together, the rappers recorded two songs: “Runnin’ from the Police” and “House of Pain.” Shakur even invited Biggie to be a part of his new group, Thug Life, though Biggie would decline and begin a group of his own on Bad Boy Records, Junior M.A.F.I.A., featuring Lil’ Kim. While the two were initially cordial, the rivalry quickly developed in the first half of the 1990s. The conflict truly began when Shakur was shot multiple times in the lobby of a Manhattan recording studio.
Shakur, who some say was increasingly becoming paranoid, believed that Biggie was responsible for the shooting – even as no one was ever legitimately charged in the case. While Biggie always denied that he was responsible or knew any of the details about the crime, in 2011, Dexter Isaac, a New York prisoner serving a life sentence for an unrelated crime, claimed that he was paid by Shakur’s manager and mogul James “Henchman” Rosemond to shoot the rapper during the robbery. Shakur would later release “Hit ‘Em Up,” a diss track directed at Biggie and his record label. The tension between the two rappers materialized into what would later be called East and West coast rivalry.
The Death of Tupac
On September 7, 1996, Shakur was in Las Vegas, Nevada, celebrating his business partner Tracy Danielle Robinson’s birthday. While in Vegas, Shakur also attended the Mike Tyson vs. Bruce Seldon boxing match alongside Suge Knight. Following the match, someone in Shakur’s group of friends spotted Orlando “Baby Lane” Anderson, an alleged Southside Compton Crip. Shakur then headed to Club 662 with Knight in a black BMW 750iL sedan as part of a much larger convoy.
At approximately 11 pm that evening on Las Vegas Boulevard, the vehicle that Shakur was in was stopped by bicycle-mounted police for playing their music too loudly and failing to have license plates. Approximately fifteen minutes later, while the car was stopped at a red light and what has been described as a white, four-door, late-model Cadillac sedan pulled right up next to the passenger side, and one of the occupants fired bullets into Shakur’s car. Shakur was shot four times: once in the arm, once in the thigh, and twice in the chest. One of the bullets eventually entered his right lung.
While Shakur’s bodyguard was not in the car (due to the fact that he was tasked with protecting Shakur’s girlfriend at the time, Kidada Jones), and therefore was not injured, Suge Knight was impacted when shards hit his head. Shakur was immediately taken to the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada. Once hospitalized, Shakur was heavily sedated, put on life support, and later put under a barbiturate-induced coma. Unfortunately, Shakur died at 4:03 pm from internal bleeding on September 13, 1996, in the intensive-care unit.
The coroner’s report indicated that Shakur had died from respiratory failure and cardiopulmonary arrest associated with multiple gunshot wounds. Shakur was eventually cremated. Fifteen years later, F.B.I. documents were released that indicated that the Jewish Defense League allegedly had been investigated for making death threats against Shakur and other rappers. Nine years earlier, journalist Chuck Philips reported that the evening of Shakur’s murder, Anderson had been attacked by Suge and Shakur’s entourage. Philips also alleged that Biggie and members of the criminal underworld had been involved in Shakur’s death.
To this day, the details of Shakur’s murder remain an unsolved mystery, but his artistic legacy and global impact are still spoken of loud and clear. He has inspired artists like Snoop Dogg and Eminem as a result of his incredible talent.