Tupac Shakur and the death of gangsta rap;

Copyright 1996 Globe Newspaper Company
The Boston Globe

September 13, 1996, Friday, City Edition

SECTION: LIVING; Pg. D17

LENGTH: 1055 words

HEADLINE: Tupac Shakur and the death of gangsta rap;
As the music loses its taste for violence, a star falls victim to it;
MUSIC

BYLINE: By Michael Saunders, Globe Staff

BODY:
In gangsta rap, words mean little – even if they’re permanent – because in the street version of “rock, paper, scissors,” bullets beat words every time. Tupac Shakur will certainly learn this lesson, if he lives. A perforated chest and lost lung are far more representative of Shakur’s fascination with the “Thug Life” than those two words, splayed across his belly in a tattoo that has become self-fulfilling prophecy for this self-professed outlaw.

It’s likely that there’s very little swagger left in Tupac Shakur, currently in the intensive care unit of Las Vegas’ University Medical Center. After taking four bullets in the chest last Sunday morning, the rapper, who records as 2Pac, remains in critical condition. Shakur’s last album, “All Eyez on Me,” has sold at least 5 million copies, but in his case, his words – songs about stylish lives spent eluding the law – returned not to merely haunt him, but to hurt him. As uncertain as Shakur’s prognosis is what effect the shooting will have on hard-core rap. It comes at a time when the genre was undergoing a perceptible shift away from the no-holds-barred violence and misogyny that held sway the last five years. Dr. Dre, one of the style’s biggest personalities, announced during last week’s MTV Music Video Awards that, at least as far as he was concerned, “gangsta rap is dead.” It was an eyebrow-raising statement from someone who has made millions combining bass-heavy rhythms and verbal stories of gang mayhem. It was as if McDonald’s suddenly announced it was switching to tofu burgers and yogurt shakes.

Perhaps better than anyone else in the business, Dr. Dre knows how to forecast the commercial climate. A decade ago, he made millions by switching stage personas the way a hermit crab changes shells. In his earliest incarnation, he was a lover, not a fighter, and looked the part – adorned with eyeliner and a mane of Jheri curls in his role as a Casanova from Compton.

But he understood the fickle nature of pop music and made a 180-degree turn to adopt the mess-with-this-and-you’re-dead look of his next group, N.W.A. The group sold millions of records by blending realistic, bullet-riddled stories and a brand of black nationalism. It worked especially well among white audiences, who now make up more than half of all buyers of hip-hop records. But the old guard is mostly gone. Dre’s N.W.A. bandmate Ice Cube has faded from sight after several solo albums, and Ice T’s last album, “Return of the Real” was DOA when it reached store shelves. More than most businesses, pop thrives on eventual dissatisfaction among its customers. That’s likely why Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, appearing tomorrow night at the Worcester Centrum, was so successful with its stop-the-killing ballad, “Tha Crossroads.”

Nas, whose latest album spent more than a month at the top of the Billboard charts, only flirts with the outlaw image. The commercial viability of socially conscious groups such as the Fugees and Tribe Called Quest may help push hip-hop away from its hardcore side.

There’s a precedent in Tupac’s own work. Even as he raked in cash from hard-hitting cuts on his last two albums, “Me Against the World” and ‘All Eyez on Me,” he acknowledged the need for reconciliation on tracks such as “So Many Tears” and “No More Pain.”

But these just added to the countless contradictions in both his life and career. He was a doe-eyed actor in “Juice,” a penner of emotional lyrics as a second-tier member of Digital Underground, until his pace in the rap game became a bold, provocative strut.

He has been arrested a double-handful of times in the past three years. He has spent most of the past two years in jail or in the hospital. But who would want to shoot him?

Almost immediately after the shooting, speculators set upon the news like old men in a barber shop chewing conspiracy theories.

Daryl James, editor of the Los Angeles-based newspaper Rap Sheet, said the hip-hop community has as few insights into the shooting as any other group. “It could be anything, someone mad at Tupac, someone mad at Suge Marion (Suge) Knight, who was also hurt in the same shooting. These guys are in the public eye a lot out here, so it could be anything. People can get mad just because you’re making money.”

A surveillance tape filmed at Saturday night’s Mike Tyson fight at the MGM Grand arena shows Shakur arguing with an unknown man shortly before he and Knight were shot.

It’s just as possible that Knight, who suffered a slight bullet graze to his head, could have been the intended target. Knight opened a club in Las Vegas last year, and might have run afoul of one or more of the city’s gangs, lesser known but just as lethal as their coastal counterparts. In newspapers and on the Internet, the top theory was that the shooting was the latest salvo in the “East Coast vs. West Coast” rivalry, proof that it had evolved from macho threats in song into real shooting. Both Shakur and Knight, owner of Death Row Records, were engaged in a verbal feud with Sean (Puffy) Combs, head of New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment, and Combs’ top act, Biggie Smalls, a k a, Notorious B.I.G. In an interview last year with Vibe magazine, Shakur implicated Combs and Smalls in the November 1994 robbery in the lobby of a Manhattan studio that left Shakur with five gunshot wounds and $ 40,000 poorer. In late 1995, Knight bailed Shakur out of a New York State prison, where he was serving a potential four-year sentence for his role in the sexual abuse of a groupie. Knight paid $ 1 million to free Shakur, at least temporarily, while he awaits the outcome of his appeal. While free, Shakur celebrated his 25th birthday, a landmark age that has taken on a chilling symbolism in black communities around Los Angeles. Many young black men are dead or in jail by the quarter-century point. Shakur looked as if he would beat the odds, at least for a while.

His type of injuries and subsequent complications usually prove fatal in 80 to 90 percent of cases, according to thoracic injury specialists. Machines now help him breathe, nourishment enters his body through tubes, and his wastes leave the same way, flushed through catheters.

His words have been trumped again, this time by the only rhythm important to him now, the constant beep of a cardiac monitor.

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