'He's kind of like the Jesus of hip-hop'

Studio 360

A new movie about Tupac Shakur, called “All Eyez on Me,” tells the rap artist’s story from childhood until his murder at age 25, in 1996.

Some say the biopic — like a lot of coverage of Shakur’s life — doesn’t get beyond myth. Shakur’s longtime friend Jada Pinkett Smith took to Twitter after the film came out, calling its reimagining of their relationship “deeply hurtful.”

But if Shakur’s celebrity is drenched in myth today, what about when he was alive? Studio 360 producer Daniel Guillemette talked to several people who watched the rapper’s meteoric rise — including journalist and “The Undefeated” editor Danyel Smith, who was in a limo with Shakur around the rapper’s 21st birthday. (This article contains language that some may find offensive.)

There were two white women with them in the car, she says. “And at a certain point on the bridge, they just realized they were going to Oakland — which, I guess Oakland has a reputation for being somewhat rough and wild. And they went into a mild panic, and Tupac let them have it.”

“But the power of Tupac as a rising star at that time was such that he was immediately forgiven for saying some of the most heinous things,” she says. “And they stayed with him and spent the night. It was a lesson for me in superstardom, it was a big lesson for me."

Smith had met Shakur in 1990 when she was 22 and dating the tour manager of hip-hop group Digital Underground. Shakur was 19, and a roadie for the group. Back then, she says, he never had any money.

“I remember him not having very stylish clothes,” she adds. “I remember him trying to put money together [to] go to the barber. And honestly, cooking a lot of food for him back in those times.”

The next year, however, Shakur had a break. He was cast as a leading role in the crime film “Juice” and began recording as a solo artist. “He had a strong desire to tell stories about what was going on in the poorest neighborhoods of the different cities that he'd lived in,” Smith says.

Shereen Marisol Meraji, co-host of the Code Switch podcast, watched Shakur’s “I Get Around” video as a teenager, on cable TV at her grandmother's house.

“I know that this is contradictory because in ‘I Get Around,’ he calls women "hoes" like, a million times,” she says. “That's not funny, but for me, the high school me, there was something relatable about him. He was goofy and fun-loving, he had a million-dollar smile. He was super charming.”

But there are other, less flattering sides to Shakur’s legacy, as well: In 1993, the same year "I Get Around" was released, he was accused of trying to hit another rapper with a baseball bat and of shooting at two off-duty police officers during a traffic dispute. He was also accused of sexual assault — specifically, of forcing a woman to have sex with his friends, which he denied.

The woman who accused Shakur of assault didn’t respond to Studio 360’s requests for comment. But in a victim impact statement, she told the court that “This man who I admired, as someone who has been able to make something of his life, and whose songs talk about 'keep your head up' — addressed to black women — is obviously not what he appeared to be.”

As the jury was deliberating the case, Shakur was shot by three men in a Manhattan recording studio. He survived and was convicted of first-degree sexual assault, which carried a maximum sentence of 4 1/2 years in prison.

“Actually, going to prison made him seem tougher and stronger and bigger, and in this sort of backward way that a lot of us look at [him, like], you know, a real man and authentic,” says journalist and critic Touré, who covered Shakur’s trial for the Village Voice. “And at the same time, you know, a victim because … the man has got him, and he's going to prison.”

Shakur appealed his conviction, and in October 1995, Suge Knight, the head of Los Angeles-based Death Row Records, posted Shakur’s bond in exchange for the rapper signing to the label. “So, that propels him into this sort of last era of like, him with Suge and Snoop and Dre and being on Death Row, and being on the biggest, baddest gang in all of hip-hop,” Touré says.

With his new label, Shakur put out songs like 1996’s “Hit 'Em Up,” attacking Biggie Smalls, Puff Daddy and the East Coast rap establishment. Just a few months after “Hit 'Em Up” was released, Shakur was wounded in a Las Vegas drive-by shooting and died from his injuries six days later.

For Meraji, the Code Switch co-host, that’s when his myth was cemented. “I think that he was a very real, relatable, flawed human,” she says, “and after he died, he became this bigger-than-life person.”

Charlamagne Tha God, who co-hosts The Breakfast Club radio show, agrees. “I remember people liking Pac, but I don't remember Pac being on nobody's top 10 list until after he died,” he says. “Like, people can remember hip-hop before Pac's death, and they remember hip-hop after Pac's death. He's kind of like the Jesus of hip-hop, so to speak.”

But for Danyel Smith, who had known Shakur before he was a star, he was just a friend gone too soon.

“If there's anything I can say … it’s that he was a real human being, as is made super clear by the fact that he was shot down in the street and killed,” she says. “He is not, to me, a superstar that was killed at the height of his fame. He is a person that I knew, who was murdered.”

This article is based on a story that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.

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