On June 16, 2011, the late, great Tupac Shakur would have turned 40 years old. It's a safe bet that middle age wouldn't have quelled the hip-hop firebrand's youthful ferocity, but his friends and fans tell The Root that wisdom surely would have channeled Shakur's passions into more positive endeavors — politics, they say. Or business.
"Whenever I could hear the radio, [Pac] was what was cracking when I first got into hip-hop," says 24-year-old rapper Meek Mill, who was just 9 when Tupac was fatally shot in Las Vegas in 1996, of when he first gained his affinity for Tupac's music. Although he died at 25, the legend of Pac is an enduring one. Mill's recent song with Rick Ross, "Tupac Back" — in which the rappers invoke Shakur's legacy — is a testament to his lasting influence. "I think he'd probably be a politician now," Meek says. "He was always trying to give it to you raw; what's really going on out here in real life."
A cursory glance at Shakur's clipped career reveals how his image and inspiration were constantly changing. Most fans first caught a glimpse of Tupac the artist on Digital Underground's "Same Song" from their 1990 This Is an EP Release. In the song's video, Tupac is seen wearing a fez while rapping about "clowning around … hanging with the Underground."
A few years later Pac, the progeny of Black Panthers, would rhyme about police brutality on "Strapped" from his 2Pacalypse Now debut, which also featured "Brenda's Got a Baby." Then, around the time of his star turn in the film Juice, it became "all thug life everything" with his breakthrough, platinum-selling Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. album.
Artists change their view from year to year; some day to day. Forgive them — they're only human, after all. Different experiences, or even major incidents, can spin a current worldview on its head. About a year and a half after the release of Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. and after multiple run-ins with the law, Pac was sentenced to one and a half to four years in prison for sexual assault. Just a day before his sentencing, he was infamously robbed and shot in the lobby of Quad Studios in New York City.
After the near deadly shooting, the East vs. West beef was on, with Pac soon aligning with Death Row's Suge Knight, who helped get him bailed out of prison. Tupac spat vitriol at his East Coast rivals, who were rumored to have been involved in the robbery, whether from behind bars or on songs like "Hit Em Up," aimed squarely at the Notorious B.I.G. and Bad Boy Records. But even amid the vicious ire, inklings of Pac's rationale still showed.
"When he got out of jail it was about reformulating what was already in existence," says E.D.I. Mean of the Outlawz, the group Shakur formed upon his release from prison and after signing to Death Row Records in 1996.
"Pac was one of those kind of people that was always evolving," continues Mean, who is dropping a new album, Perfect Timing, with the rest of the current Outlawz lineup this fall. "A lot of people think of Pac at 25 — basically still a kid — so it's hard to say what he would really be like. I know he would definitely be involved in some kind of way in giving back to the people … I think he would be in some type of public service — doing something that was real community-oriented along with the acting and the rapping, if he was still rapping anymore."
Further proof of the fluctuation in Tupac's image were his high school years, during which he attended the Baltimore School for the Arts and studied dance, acting and art, and where one of his classmates and best friends was Jada Pinkett Smith. Pac had a worldview beyond the hood. With Hollywood in his reach thanks to roles in films such as Juice and the posthumously released Gridlock'd, petty hip-hop beef was likely a passing phase.
Buckshot of Black Moon, who describes Tupac as "one of the realest dudes that you will ever want to meet in your life," says that in the mid-1990s he flew him and fellow rappers Smif-N-Wessun and Dru Ha out to his home in California to work on the One Nation album, which has yet to be released. The album saw Pac working with acts from both coasts, such as Snoop Dogg and Melle Mel, despite the East vs. West imbroglio in which he was the center. Having spent time with Tupac, Buckshot believes that had he lived, he would be destined to make his mark as a record executive.
Like Meek Mill and Mean, Buckshot says Tupac would have gone into public service. "Son was about to go business, and then he was about to go into politics, and that was going to rock the world. Pac would have eventually progressed from 'thug.' "
Shock G of Digital Underground was there during Pac's early days an artist. In an email, he offered The Root a few possible scenarios of what his friend would be like at 40. According to the man also known as Humpty Hump, Tupac would be a successful "full-time actor like Ice Cube, but more socially and politically active behind the scenes, or a bitter and broken man like Gil Scott-Heron, still fighting but only a fraction of who he once was." Another option: "Total outta-control hedonist and glutton like Elvis Presley," he joked.
Despite his flaws, Tupac still managed to become a hip-hop icon, even before his martyrdom. On his birthday, it's easy to focus on the promise of what could have been, but his fans will make sure that the artistic accomplishments he made in his 25 years on this earth won't be forgotten.
"Pac is loved and revered around the world; he's on that level with Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Elvis Presley and those people," says E.D.I. Mean. "His legacy is strong. That's due to the people, though. It's not like Pac won any Grammys or lifetime achievement awards. He hasn't got any of those accolades from the industry. But he's the people's champ."