A Death as Real as It Gets; Tupac Shakur’s Gangsta Image Was the Rapper’s Fatal Flaw

The Washington Post
September 14, 1996, Saturday, Final Edition


LENGTH: 1236 words

HEADLINE: A Death as Real as It Gets; Tupac Shakur’s Gangsta Image Was the Rapper’s Fatal Flaw

BYLINE: Esther Iverem, Washington Post Staff Writer


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. Before he was sent to prison for a sexual abuse conviction, he had been accused of a variety of infractions, including assaulting a limousine driver, assaulting film director Allen Hughes after being fired from the film “Menace II Society” and an arrest for carrying a concealed weapon.

He was arguably the most visible media creation of ghetto-gangsta-as-authentic-black. Tupac’s death yesterday from a shooting last week is only the most visible reminder of how a ghetto-ized interpretation of “keeping it real” — especially the willingness to “bust a cap,” or shoot someone — is selling many young people a lifestyle leading only to an early grave, life behind bars or a place in the growing urban armies of young people disabled by gunfire.

“Black culture has remade American society — music, style, fashion, all that,” says cultural critic and author Michael Eric Dyson. “Because it’s been so important, the styles of black popular culture have become important to the debates of how we define real black culture.”

In popular culture, these debates are limited to who comes from the baddest ghetto, the darkest ghetto. Such reductions, say artists, executives and critics, narrow the panorama of black life into one bleak and hopeless landscape.

“You reduce the complexity, the authenticity of black culture to the ghetto, and reduce the complexity of the ghetto to the gangster,” Dyson says.

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.

The message to be real in the gangster mode is powerfully conveyed through hard threats with swinging backbeats on rap albums, and in the thug-player lifestyles depicted in their corresponding videos.

“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 . . .”

Hip-hop has been built on a macho foundation of posturing and boasts. Old school acts in New York, such as Boogie Down Productions, Kool Moe Dee and L.L. Cool J traded nasty barbs over which borough of New York gave birth to rap. (The Bronx).

But this escalated to the point where popular gangster rappers NWA were boasting in their “Straight Outta Compton”: “When I’m called off/ I gotta sawed off/ Squeeze the trigger/ And bodies are hauled off.”

Most recently, the outlaw image has fused with that of the player. Havelock Nelson, rap editor of Billboard magazine, points out that being “down,” or “real,” isn’t about being broke. The lavish lifestyles depicted in rap videos shot at rented mansions send the message that everything can be achieved by doing nothing or having fun. In rap terms, being “real” and “down” means driving, as a rap says, a Lexus, Jeep, BMW or Mercedes. It means having unlimited access to blunts, cheap malt liquors or expensive drinks like Hennessy or Dom Perignon — not to mention skimpily clad women who crowd your pool and sometimes get naked.

But in the real “real life,” if you’re not rich, the only way to get money by not working is illegal. “Everybody wants to be ‘Big Willy’ now,” Nelson adds, using the current term to describe a big boss, someone large and in charge with lots of cash.

“The Big Willies in Harlem are the guys hustling, and pimps. Kids don’t see the entrepreneurs. Whenever you go to speak to a group of school kids about your job, they say, ‘That’s cool, but how much money do you make?’ That’s the first question that people want to ask you. You try to explain that there are certain steps that you have to take — go to school, take an internship, maybe work for nothing. But they don’t want to hear that. They want it now.

“The message sent by a lot of rap artists is ‘You’re the man. Do what you want,’ ” Nelson 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.” More Information

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