Posted at 09:25 AM ET, 09/13/2011

Tupac Shakur, ‘talented rapper and society bad boy,’ died 15 years ago today


Tupac Shakur.
Fifteen years ago, rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur died in a Las Vegas hospital of respiratory failure and cardiac arrest, a result of gunshot wounds in his chest, pelvis, right hand and thigh.

The day after his death in 1996, the Post published the following story by Esther Iverem, “A death as real as it gets; Tupac Shakur’s gangsta image was the rapper’s fatal flaw”:

In his short life and career, Tupac Shakur had three faces: budding actor, talented rapper and society bad boy. It is through the last two roles that he presented the image of a young black man who "keeps it real."

From Harlem ghetto roots, he became a self-made millionaire. On videos and in real life he presented an escapist image to scores of his fans facing poor prospects in an unwelcoming world. The key elements were a flashy car, a fat blunt, women galore -- and a gun in his hand. Well-to-do kids, white and black, could flirt with these images, then head off to college. But for kids without this option, the images were powerfully seductive. Tupac's death showed that "realness" is not invincible -- but will the message get through? 

Grab your Glocks {guns} when you see Tupac.

Call the cops when you see Tupac . . .

You shot me but ya punks didn't finish.

Now you're about to feel the wrath of a menace.

. . . You know who the REALNESS is."

This sort of obsessive threat to perceived enemies, from his current rap "Hit 'Em Up," had, in his last months, become typical behavior of Tupac, who rapped under the name 2Pac.

He built his career on one of the most overused phrases in the world of hip-hop: "Keep it real." At its most meaningful, the phrase urges those in the hip-hop nation to remain true to beliefs and rooted in reality. At its worst, it implies that only those things ghetto-centric are true and "real" in black culture -- be they the positives of toughness and street smarts or the negatives of quick, bottom-line violence and mind-blowing abuse of alcohol and fat "blunts" of marijuana. The latter was Tupac's definition.

He lived a real-life version of his Devil-may-care ideology, proclaiming, for example, that he always stayed "strapped" — or armed — and high on marijuana. He said his "Thug Life" movement -- a phrase he had tattooed on his belly -- was for "all the underdogs, all the niggas with no daddies . . . all the niggas in juvenile hall, in jail and everything." But his movement had nothing to offer his would-be followers except an eventual return ticket to jail...

Tupac was black America's James Dean for the '90's -- young, brash, beckoning trouble. He was a small, wiry man, not nearly as big as he looks on film and video. He had a look of hardness from his chiseled cheeks and thick eyebrows. His aura as black bad boy was only enhanced when he survived after being shot five times during a robbery outside a Manhattan recording studio in 1994.

Shortly after, he was convicted for his role in the sexual abuse of a fan in a Manhattan hotel, and served 11 months in an Upstate New York prison. While in prison, his album "Me Against the World" went to No. 1 on the charts, and has sold 1.8 million copies. Since his release, a hastily made 2-CD album, "All Eyez on Me," has sold at least 2.3 million copies, according to SoundScan...

"Die slow," Tupac warns in "Hit 'Em Up": "My 4-4 {.44 caliber weapon} makes sure all your kids don't grow . . ./ You can't be us or see us./ We're West Side 'til we die . . ."

"The message sent by a lot of rap artists is You're the man. Do what you want,' " [Havelock] Nelson, [rap editor of Billboard magazine] says. "I've seen artists light up a blunt in a restaurant. Tupac gets in trouble over and over again. People say, You got shot and survived.' And then he says, Yeah, I'm bad. I'll keep doing it.' "

But for everything there is an endgame.

While 1960s revolutionaries taught the importance of being willing to die for beliefs, it is a totally different matter to die in senseless gang violence or over a high stakes game of "Yo Mama," proving your "realness" by how much you can bluff, how many bullets you can take, how many times you can cheat death.

"This is really unfortunate," said Heavy D., CEO of Uptown Records and a veteran rapper in his own right, before Tupac's death. "I know Tupac and I know he has a good heart."

"But you know what they say, you live by the sword, you die by the sword." 

The Root DC’s Robert Pierre has written a piece in remembrance of Tupac. Read it here.

By  |  09:25 AM ET, 09/13/2011

 
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