Tupac: The life. The legend. The legacy

A decade after his violent murder, the scion of a Black Panther family is more revered, more culturally relevant and more commercially successful than ever
Click to follow

Some people are haunted by the moment John F Kennedy was shot in Dallas in 1963. Others remember the shock of John Lennon's 1980 killing in New York. For the hip-hop generation, though, there is only one iconic figure, Tupac Shakur, and one iconic moment, when he was gunned down in Las Vegas at the height of his notoriety and commercial success 10 years ago.

Violence, mythology and an extraordinary power to touch other people's lives followed Tupac throughout his remarkable, and remarkably turbulent, short career in the first half of the 1990s. He was the embodiment of black rebellion against a hostile consumer society, one of the figureheads of the gangsta rap movement, a poet, an artist, an actor, a political agitator and a hellraiser like no other. Given his history of gun violence and bitter rivalries within the hip-hop industry, the most striking thing about him may not be that he was cut down at the age of 25, but rather that he managed to live as long as he did.

Chuck D, the leader of Public Enemy, once said he would go down as the James Dean of his generation. The Texas rap artist Money Waters compared him this week to Marvin Gaye. Others like to make even more lavish comparisons - part and parcel, perhaps of the hype that goes with the territory of macho urban music these days. "To me," Money Waters' fellow Texan Pikhasso said, "Tupac was a wise but misguided soul who was caught between good and evil, like many of our hip-hop brethren ... when he died, it was as if I had lost someone of the magnitude of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. And I truly feel if he would have never been killed, he would have metamorphosed into one of the most powerful black men to ever walk the face of the earth."

And his restless, romantic spirit lives on. Dying young has a lot to do with that. And so does the extraordinary reverence he inspires in his successors in the hip-hop movement - artists like Eminem, Ja Rule, The Game and 50 Cent, whose own mythology of transgression, anger and run-ins with the law would not have been possible without Tupac's example.

In some ways, Tupac has become more vivid in death than he was in life. The music companies keep churning out albums, and they keep selling, better than they did when he was alive. Five of his eight number one records have been posthumous. His 1996 song "Hit 'Em Up" was recently listed as one of the top 10 songs that US soldiers listen to in Iraq. A movie script he wrote in the last year of his life, Live 2 Tell, has just been optioned by a production company called Insomnia Media and is expected to go into production sometime early next year. One of his admirers, the rap artist Muszamil, is busy lobbying to have his star imprinted on the pavement of the Walk of Fame along Hollywood Boulevard. And that's not to mention Ali G, whose inane hip-hop posturings wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for Tupac's romantic hold over the more unlovely reaches of West Staines.

Tupac's remains are spread as widely as his reputation. His ashes have been spread over different parts of Los Angeles, where he spent the last six years of his life. They have been dropped in the Pacific Ocean. Some have been sprinkled on his mother's garden, others on his aunt's garden. One of his bands, The Outlawz, mixed some up with marijuana and smoked them.

For the 10th anniversary of his death, which falls today, his mother Afeni Shakur had planned to fly to South Africa and sprinkle yet more ashes over Soweto, the very symbol of black resistance against white tyranny under apartheid. As it is, the trip has been postponed until next June, the anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising and the 36th anniversary of Tupac's birth.

Like Elvis, or Jim Morrison, Tupac is so vivid in the minds of some of his fans that they actually refuse to believe he is dead. The internet is full of conspiracy theories suggesting he did not die at all - that the videos and music churned out in the wake of his shooting was too prolific to have been based on pre-prepared material alone. A tongue-in-cheek story in this month's edition of the US magazine URB suggests he survived the assassination attempt in Las Vegas and is now considering a run for mayor in the Californian city of Oakland.

The facts of 10 years ago are, however, too stark to be denied. On September 7, 1996, Tupac and Suge Knight, the bruiser in charge of his label, Death Row Records, were in Las Vegas to see Mike Tyson box against Bruce Seldon at the MGM Grand hotel-casino. After the fight, Tupac spotted a member of the Southside Crips gang called Orlando Anderson and immediately knocked him down and started beating him up, along with his entourage. Anderson and a group of fellow Crips had beaten up a Death Row employee in a shoe store a few weeks earlier, and this was straight revenge. (Both Tupac and Knight were affiliated with the Crips' arch-rivals, the Bloods.) Shortly afterwards, Tupac was riding in Knight's black BMW and heading to a Vegas club owned by Death Row Records when another car pulled alongside the two men at the junction of East Flamingo Road and Koval Lane. Four gunshots hit Tupac in the chest, arm and thigh. Knight was scratched by a piece of flying glass, but was otherwise unharmed.

An ambulance rushed Tupac to hospital, where he languished on life support for six days. But the injuries were just too extensive. The official cause of death was listed as respiratory failure and cardiac arrest. The big question, though, was the identity of his killer or killers - a question that has never been satisfactorily answered since.

Orlando Anderson was one obvious suspect. Some people thought Suge Knight himself might have ordered the hit, because of a dispute with his star over money - an unlikely scenario since he was in the car himself, but one that spoke to Knight's fearsome reputation and long rap sheet.

The most heavily explored theory is that Tupac was caught up in a deadly rivalry between West Coast rappers like himself and East Coast rappers including Sean "Puffy" Combs and Christopher Wallace, also known as Biggie Smalls or Notorious B.I.G. In November 1994, Tupac had been shot five times in the lobby of a Manhattan recording studio, and he openly accused Combs and Wallace of responsibility - most notoriously in the song "Hit 'Em Up", in which he gets back at Wallace by claiming to have slept with his wife. The East Coast-West Coast theory went into overdrive after Wallace himself was shot dead outside a music awards ceremony in Los Angeles in March 1997, another crime that has yet to be solved.

The Tupac-Biggie mysteries have since turned into a mini-industry of their own, spawning investigative newspaper and magazine articles and documentary films including Nick Broomfield's 2002 stab at an explanation, Biggie and Tupac. For all the talk of high-level conspiracies and police cover-ups, however, the biggest obstacle to ascertaining the truth was probably the code of silence that many gangsta rappers and their hangers-on observed. These were people who harboured a deep distrust of the police, having either rapped against them or found themselves on the receiving end of a pair of handcuffs, and weren't inclined to reveal what they knew. A startling number of them - starting with Orlando Anderson - ended up dead in subsequent shootings, suggesting that whatever scores needed to be settled were settled outside the remit of law enforcement.

Tupac's fame, both during his life and after, was deeply bound up in the catalogue of real-life violence that mirrored the gangsta ethos of his music. He came from a revolutionary background - both his mother and his stepfather were heavily involved in the Black Panther movement, and his godfather was Geronimo Pratt, one of the movement's leading lights who was convicted of murdering a schoolteacher during a 1968 robbery.

His debut solo album, 2Pacalypse Now (1991), did not receive widespread notice until a young man in Texas killed a state trooper and claimed he had been inspired by Tupac's lyrics. Suddenly, the record became notorious - the then US Vice President Dan Quayle said it had "no place in our society".

From then on, his recording career and his criminal career were never far apart. In 1992, a six-year-old boy was killed in the crossfire as Tupac's friends and a rival gang engaged in a shoot-out in northern California. In October 1993, he shot two off-duty police officers he claimed were harassing a black motorist. Luckily for him, it turned out the two officers were drunk and carrying weapons stolen from an evidence locker, and he was not charged. Two months later, he was charged with anally raping a woman in his hotel room and encouraging his friends to follow suit. He was eventually convicted on three counts of sexual abuse, although some of the more serious charges were dropped.

Tupac's legal bills racked up so fast that even his soaring music sales couldn't cover them. To pay the $1.4m (£750,000) bail money to get out of prison pending appeal of his sexual abuse conviction, he had to turn to Suge Knight, who in turn extracted a commitment from Tupac to record three albums on his label.

It was a smart move by Knight: Tupac's previous album, Me Against The World, turned multi-platinum, largely thanks to the publicity surrounding the start of his prison term. He remains the only artist ever to reach number one while behind bars.

Tupac's murder sent his sales soaring into the stratosphere, along with his mythological status. By now, he's sold well over 70 million albums worldwide, making him the most successful rap star ever. He has also attracted the attentions of academics and cultural critics, who see in him a symbol of his times and a phenomenon who revolutionised popular culture, for both black and white young people, and straddled the boundary of gangsta fantasy and real-life crime in startling and unforgettable ways.

"Tupac was never the best rapper in terms of flow or lyrics," Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University in North Carolina, told a newspaper interviewer this week. "But what enabled him to transcend everybody else in the room was that he had a sense of performance. When Tupac was onstage, in the broad sense, he always knew how to live up to the hype of the crowd - even if it was being wheeled out of the hospital the first time he was shot. He had that flair for the dramatic, which speaks to his real talent: as an actor."