He was described as a “‘gangsta’ rapper,” with the quote marks just like that; the story spent nearly as much space on his rap sheet as his career. But the death of Tupac Shakur 20 years ago today, nearly a week after he was shot in a still-unsolved Las Vegas shooting, was a major front page story in The Washington Post.
There was a lot of powerful journalism in the Post that week, as writers grappled with the violent death of a rising young star.
Alona Wartofsky detailed the East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry that had brought bloodshed to hip-hop. (“The 31-year-old [Suge] Knight, who was driving Shakur the night of the shooting and who himself was injured, is a compelling figure. . .” she noted with careful understatement.)
Columnist Courtland Milloy took a deeper listen and found some depth in an artist he had been quick to dismiss at first. (“Shakur’s death was a reminder. . . of how times have changed since black people were in a civil rights struggle against the system. Now we are at one another’s throats, and the role of gangsta rap in all of this is a matter of considerable debate.”)
Poet Kenneth Carroll mourned the loss of Shakur’s talents but blasted the way he had applied them. (“As positive, powerful and profound as some of Tupac’s songs were, they do not begin to atone for his unforgivable crimes of denigrating women and calling for the murder of other young black men.”)
But the A1 news story, by Pamela Constable, brings you back to what that startling news was like that week; we have republished it below.
(All front pages are time capsules; this one is also notable for news of another candidate Clinton disclosing his medical history after a period of secrecy; and the unbearably sad story of brothers Larnell and Larell Littles, innocent victims of a nearly forgotten Washington gang war.)
RAPPER DIES OF WOUNDS FROM SHOOTING
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 14, 1996
Tupac Shakur, 25, the controversial but wildly popular “gangsta” rapper whose life and lyrics evoked a ghetto culture of violence and nihilism, died yesterday in a Las Vegas hospital of gunshot wounds he suffered in a drive-by shooting last weekend.
Shakur, who survived being shot five times in a 1994 robbery, had courted and defied death in a series of violent confrontations. His bitter, explosive and often cruel music shocked critics but struck home to a generation of rap fans already hardened by life.
“Five shots and they couldn’t kill me,” he boasted in one song after recovering from the 1994 shooting. Then last year, in a song called “If I Die 2Nite,” he wondered whether “heaven got a ghetto for thug niggaz” and added with flip fatalism: “Don’t shed a tear for me, nigga. I ain’t happy here.”
Shakur had been in critical condition since being shot four times last Saturday in Las Vegas by a man who pulled up beside his BMW in a white Cadillac and opened fire. The rapper was driving with friends to a nightclub after watching the world heavyweight title fight between Mike Tyson and Bruce Seldon.
Doctors at University Medical Center in Las Vegas had operated on Shakur’s chest and removed his right lung, but hospital officials said he died at 7:03 p.m. EST of respiratory and heart failure.
No one has been arrested, but Shakur and some friends had been involved in a fight inside a hotel beforehand. There was speculation that the intended victim was Marion “Suge” Knight, head of Death Row Records. Knight, who was driving Shakur’s car and was wounded slightly, allegedly had crossed swords with Los Angeles’ violent Crips gang.
Shakur, known on his records as 2Pac, was mourned by rap fans across the country, many of whom identified with the angry, despairing outlook he projected, even while critics said his music promoted gratuitous violence and contempt for women.
“This is such a tragedy. This sort of violence is so unnecessary,” said Brad Krevoy, the producer of “Gang Related,” an urban thriller film starring Shakur that is due out in February. “Is there anything positive that can be learned from a tragedy like this? Hopefully, kids can learn from it.”
In many ways, Shakur’s death seemed an inevitable product of his increasingly extreme lifestyle. In 1993, he was convicted of assaulting a movie director and later charged with the shooting of two off-duty police officers during a traffic dispute in Atlanta.
In 1994, he was arrested in Los Angeles after police spotted pistols in his car, convicted of assault and battery in two separate incidents, and finally shot in November while being robbed of jewelry outside a Manhattan recording studio.
In February 1995, he was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for a sexual attack on a 21-year-old woman in a New York hotel the previous spring. The woman claimed that Shakur and three friends held her down and forced her to perform oral sex. He served 11 months before being released.
Yet Shakur did not completely fit the “gangsta” mold. He was a thoughtful man who had acted in a number of films, once playing a soft-hearted postal worker in “Poetic Justice.” At times, he complained that his more sensitive side was ignored by the public, and he suggested that his “thug” image was mostly an act.
“There’s no softness. . . . That’s not what people want to see,” he said in a 1993 interview. But in another interview in October, he protested: “I am not a gangster and never have been. . . . I’m the kind of guy who is moved by Don McLean’s Vincent.’ ”
In his childhood in New York and then Baltimore, Shakur was surrounded by radical politics. His mother, Afeni Shakur, was a member of the Black Panthers. Shakur was born in 1971, just one month after she was released from prison. His father’s identity is not known.
Malik Rahsaan, a Washington-based rap artist, said last night that many people knew Shakur was not as hard-core as he pretended to be.
“He was an entertainer. . . . He wanted to be known as Thug Nigga,’ so that’s what he created in his videos,” Rahsaan said. “But you have to be careful what kind of image you build up, because then you have to live up to it. That’s how he tried to live. That’s how he died.”
Staff writers Hamil R. Harris and Lonnae O’Neal Parker and special correspondent Sharon A. Waxman, in Los Angeles, contributed to this report.
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