…Tupac was killed September 13, 1996 and things have yet to get better.
I grew up in the moment of excess conversation. If anyone ever wants to know what it was like, I point them to a pair of Ethan Hawke (the ‘90s prince of goatees and drippy bangs and slack) movies, Reality Bites and Before Sunrise. If you are staying up super-late and want to complete the extreme talky trilogy and watch the harbinger of things to come (the twee end of all that prattle) then tack on Lost in Translation. Hopefully, I warn, you’re not trying to complete this feat sober.
What I’ve found is those who I recommend these movies to as something seminal, usually never finish the homework assignment. Upon a recent viewing of Reality Bites, I understood why. I found myself at the same time pawing my device looking to see how much homes are in a place called Hopkinsville, Kentucky (don’t ask), trolling eBay for a 2005ish refurbished black MacBook to replace the 2005ish black MacBook that I’ve typed on so hard for so long that all of the letters are now ghost white and the screen hardly ever comes to life …and trying to perform a loose count of non-Trump/non-Hillary stories on the last 24 hours of my Facebook feed.
I was distracted; which may have been the point of these movies after all.
The whole talk until dawn, with an actual person, was actually the precursor to the technology to give us the ability to do such things, albeit in staccato, emoji-filled snippets — but has also ruined the hours spent doing so.
In college, I remember long, mildewy Eugene days spent fiddling around between class or watching the early evening fade into late late at night regaling everyone with my thoughts on everything, from the demise of Def Leppard to the memory of the year metal lunchboxes transitioned to plastic ones. We all agreed that Gremlins (which had both an iconic metal AND plastic box was the bridge for that change.) Everything — Saturday morning cartoons, my older sister’s precious yellow Walkman, wearing a creased Tony Hawk shirt to the first day of school — lived sweeter in memory especially since the images of the above weren’t yet instantly accessible through a search engine.
To me, the artist that most reflected the mix of incredibly intense, important discourse with issues of the day and the mistakes of our ancestors leading up to his own transgressions — combined with occasional fuck it, it’s a Monday and let’s pop some Michelob sensibility — was Tupac Shakur.
I do, in fact, remember where was when I heard the news that Tupac was gunned down in Las Vegas on September 13, 1996. My college girlfriend was moving in for her junior year and I was at her place under the guise of helping, but more likely lounging in a papasan looking through some of her art or fiddling around on her bed burrowing into her pillows she’d arranged to spec just moments before. Her friend, Becca, RAN the fuck into the room full-body crying like babies do and threw herself on the twin mattress.
As she got composure, she looked up. “Tupac,” she said, “is dead.”
I recall in the moment feeling a bit of relief (because it was the ‘90s I was waiting to hear about a HIV diagnosis — trust me kids, it’s what you assumed had happened every time someone started to cry.) After 20 minutes of consolation, I bid farewell, walked down to 13th and grabbed a Southwest Chicken Fajita sandwich from Big Town and went next door to Face the Music to pick up a copy of Me Against the World. Upon returning home, I gave that a spin in my five-disc changer and finally slipped into that nap I’d been prepping for all morning.
I first came to know Tupac as the impish gangster who invited Digital Underground to his scandalous weekday pool party in I Get Around. Growing up in the North Bay, it was common knowledge that Tupac spent his prep years at Tamalpais High, graduating in 1989, a few years after Tam’s second-most-famous alum, Courtney Thorne Smith. Prior to the spawn of finance and tech sycophants taking over the region, the high school was an eclectic and arty mix of children of hippies untangled from the all that Mill Valley macrame, farm kids from West Marin who at one time had to find their way over Mt. Tam by horseback and kids from the projects of Marin City which decorated the hills on the opposite side of the 101 from Sausalito.
The school was sort of this melting pot that, at least from a short distance, seemed to work well and the students who matriculated from Tam commonly fed into Berkeley, Stanford and several east coast liberal arts schools.
Tupac’s time at Tam, where he notoriously delved into its arts programs, can be at least partially blamed for his timing, veracity and eloquence. Look no further than this now-legendary interview the BET’s Ed Gordon where he stepped into the light as not only the most cunning and informed hip hop artist of the day — but maybe in the whole history of the medium, before or since.
It wasn’t all the spitting of pleasant missives, however. There was a sexual assault conviction and Me Against the World (released while he was in prison) was, as Rolling Stone recently pointed out, the first pre-prison album release from a hip hop star. Not so much a rite of passage now as a demarcation between faux gangsterism and a right to a militaristic look — once the broken system has been viewed from the inside, there is a bleakness. Tupac embraced that in works to come and it was that outlook that eventually led him to predict his own demise.
Released posthumously, Tupac’s All Eyez on Me was dropped by the Death Row label later that fall and the double hip hop album was birthed. At just 25, there have been other artists (Lil Wayne) that one could argue have been equally prolific at such a young age — but none with works that will last as long in the conscious and subconscious. Tupac was the original.
As a white kid growing up in the suburbs of San Francisco, I believe that like many white kids of a certain age raised in the hinterlands of urban areas, my existence was informed by hip hop. I have the distance and time enough now to recognize my role as an interloper. The lyrics I sing along with about life on the streets are merely jaunts into a different kingdom than the one I know.
But through repetition came understanding, or at least empathy. Their conversation wove into mine. I have enough stamina to know, at last, what Tupac was telling me foreshadowed the problems of today — where we no longer listen to each other and instead talk over one another. And things have truly changed as he did portend — but not for the better:
Cops give a damn about a negro? Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero/Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares? One less hungry mouth on the welfare/First ship ’em dope and let ’em deal to brothers/Give ’em guns, step back, and watch ’em kill each other/”It’s time to fight back”, that’s what Huey said/2 shots in the dark now Huey’s dead/I got love for my brother, but we can never go nowhere
…Unless we share with each other. We gotta start makin’ changes.