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Celebrating Tupac Shakur: Happy ReBirth-day

Tupac Amaru Shakur would be turning 39 this year. Flirting dangerously with 40, one can only wonder if Pac — whose rebel yell echoed from the streets to the courtroom — would possibly be holding some sort of political office. Maybe he’d still be rapping (he already is with his posthumous releases), or perhaps he’d have retired three or four times before finally throwing in the mic.

Tupac was that breed of an artist you’re lucky to encounter. The original thug prophet, Pac followed suit from groups like NWA and Public Enemy to craft unabashed hip-hop that challenged the societal and cultural constraints black people have dealt with for many years. While we lost Tupac in ’96, the thumbprint he left on hip-hop is clearly reflected in almost every new school rapper. “Even a rapper that isn’t a fan of Pac can’t help but be influenced by him,” Hieroglyphics‘ A-Plus once told The Boombox. “He changed the game and influences all to come after him.”

From the visibly obvious – slender men in tattoos rapping bare-chested (Pac left the chain at home though) – to the subtle (yet not as courageous) insertion of political distrust that the newbies delicately dust into their rhymes, Tupac’s presence is felt. “Tupac is rebel music to the highest degree,” DJ Premier explains. “He represents the have-nots, and not many rappers have the heart to go that route.”

In 1994, just on the outskirts of Tupac’s superstardom, Dream Hampton interviewed Shakur (within months of his first shooting) for his first cover story with hip-hop Bible, The Source. “There’s a purity to Tupac’s rage,” Dream wrote. “Yes, he’s dangerously emotional, but righteously so. He believes something and is willing to act on it. For him conformity means the death of truth.” There isn’t a rapper out today entitled to a description like that. “He was a thinker,” Hampton weighs in sixteen years later. “I know it’s cliché to talk about his passion and his spirit, but those are the first things that come to mind. That passion to interrogate the politics of his environment; it was a shifting perspective. Even with Malcolm X, it’s a little clearer — like, okay he began here, did this, and then ended up here. You can kind of draw a line, whereas Tupac vacillated and formed wildly in different directions.”

Tupac died at 25 years old, when most rappers are just developing their sea legs. While conspiracy theorists pontificate on the real whereabouts of Tupac, those who acknowledge his assassination do so with sheer reverence. “Tupac represents how far and how deep Hip-Hop can reach the masses,” UGK veteran Bun B states. “To date, no artist has captivated hip-hop audiences more than Mr. Shakur. He is our Elvis, our Lennon, our JFK.”

“Pac is a hip-hop apostle,” fellow West Coaster Game explains. “His short-lived greatness will forever be appreciated.”

Stylewise, Tupac’s music was multi-faceted. While songs like ‘I Get Around’ and ‘California Love’ (with Dr. Dre) breathed life back into hip-hop through the Digital Underground grad’s free spirit; many rhymes, like “I wonder if Heaven got a ghetto,” were spent with Tupac mulling over his own demise. In spite of himself — the shifting musical and public personalities coupled with sexual harassment lawsuits to the tune of songs like ‘Dear Mama’ — Tupac maintained a sparkling charisma that young women wanted to experience and young men wanted to emulate. “He had alot of swagger,” rapper Necro recalls. “The ladies loved him.”

There was another whole side to Tupac though; one that the public rarely experienced. Q detailed Quincy Jones‘ first encounter with Tupac around the time he began dating his daughter, Kidada. Prior to dating her, Pac made some comments about Jones’ family and had to deal with the repercussions. In 2007, I spoke to Jones for AllHipHop.com and here’s what he had to say about the man who would have been his son-in-law:

“What happened was [Tupac] said something, I think it was in The Source. He dissed me about my kids being mixed. I don’t like that and neither does my son [laughs]. So I was going to Jerry’s Deli one night and I was dropping Rashida off, and lo and behold there’s Tupac sittin’ in the booth with Kidada. Like an idiot, I jump over to the back of him and put both hands on his shoulders and yelled, ‘HA!’ Thank God he wasn’t packin’ and all [laughs]. So I said, ‘Pac we have to talk a minute.’ We went over and sat down. He had written an apology before that, so that was out of the way because he apologized. At that point, I could tell he was falling in love with my daughter and she was in love with him. So we sat down, and he was so beautiful. We became really good friends after that day. He said he didn’t even have that kind of relationship with his own father — that somebody cared about his future and all that stuff. We became very good friends.

At one point I was gonna do ‘Pimp’ with him and Snoop Dogg, the film. We used to talk on the phone, [Tupac] was very excited about it. Then after a series of events, we lost a very young brother. Very brilliant. I came to know him through the letters he wrote to Kidada. Brilliant writer. Jada Pinkett Smith told me she went to high school with him in Baltimore and he was an A-student. A lot of that other stuff was psychodrama, just trying to be a gangster. But he was a very bright kid. In fact, I was very proud that we inadvertently shared one of his biggest records, ‘How Do U Want It?’ He used my sample from ‘Body Heat’ on that. There was some kind of divine connection there, but my daughter was responsible for us hookin’ up.”

So what does this all mean in 2010, having lost Tupac almost 14 years ago and still celebrating his birth? It’s the reminder that hip-hop’s forever revolutionary, T.H.U.G. Life, middle finger to the law and whoever else, Tupac Shakur is as relevant to hip-hop now as he was when we first met him. Emcee, poet, actor, and activist, Tupac’s diverse storytelling will never die, and in doing so, neither will he. For every person who either rediscovers Tupac or meets his work for the very first time, he’s born again. So on June 16, we celebrate.

Happy Birthday, Tupac.

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