I may be a bit late to the party here but I am finally going through my “gangster rap” phase. I have to credit Josh for this discovery as he takes us all at the gym on many different journeys with his playlist selection. One of his recent mixes was “90’s rap classics” which until recently has been a chasm in my music library. I remember a lot of my peers in high school having this phase around that time – this period was devoted to eurotrance for me. In fact, during this time I was very anti-rap music and so until recently had never heard most of the iconic, genre-defining tunes of the era. Turns out they are bangers. All Eyez on Me is a track that resonates with me deeply and has caused me to think hard about a few of my core beliefs.
I’m totally invested now. Because of who I am as a person once I decide I’m into something I have an insatiable desire to find out everything I can to have a more thorough understanding of it. Before Josh chose this playlist and I began identifying as a “gangster” my whole knowledge on the subject was that everyone loved Snoop Dogg for some reason, all the rappers killed each other in gangs, Tupac was murdered but there were a bunch of conspiracies that it was faked and he was still alive or something. So I began by trying to find out what exactly happened to Tupac and what lead up to it. This would lead me to learn all about Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and the whole cast of Death Row Records. The East vs. West coast rivalry and how it spilled over into the Bloods and Crips gangs and culminated, at the time, with the murders of Tupac and Biggie within a year of each other and the collapse of Death Row.
It’s a fascinating story and one which I don’t have a lot of life experience to relate to it. There is a collision of two worlds both completely foreign to me. Mostly starting with N.W.A., record companies learned that the defiant rap music born from the streets was popular in the mainstream. For number of young black people who had been neglected, oppressed and trapped in a cycle of crime and police brutality they found themselves making millions of dollars and becoming high profile celebrities almost overnight. This meteoric rise to fame was still not free from the yoke of the rich white man and most artists either unknowingly or with no other choice signed record deals that paid them pennies on the dollar and gave them next to no rights. This last part is really why Death Row Records was able to become what it did.
Suge Knight, an ex-NFL linebacker had decided that he wanted to pursue a career in the music industry and spent time forcing his way into meetings and learning about how contract negotiations take place and what to look out for in deals that got done. He was able to use this knowledge to leverage better deals for black artists and eventually decided that he wanted to start his own label and take back the power from the corporate entities that controlled most of the music scene at the time. He made this happen by doing a number of back alley deals and standing over people but was able to make his flagship signing, Dr. Dre, who had produced for N.W.A. Everything was in place now, Death Row was born and held all the cards. Dr. Dre’s first solo album, The Chronic, was released in 1992 and went triple platinum. After The Chronic, Snoop Dogg, also signed by Death Row, released his debut album Doggystyle, which has been certified quadruple platinum. The brains trust at Death Row knew that with the way their star was rising, if they could sign Tupac Shakur, they’d be unstoppable.
Death Row did end up signing Tupac in 1995 after Suge Knight posted bail for him while he was incarcerated. Tupac’s first (and second) album for Death Row was All Eyez on Me which in 2014 was certified diamond for over five million copies sold. Seven months after release, following a Mike Tyson fight in Vegas, Tupac was fatally wounded in a drive-by on his way to a club to perform. He managed to survive in hospital for six days before passing away on September 13th 1996.
This is how I learned about Tupac and where he came from. Certainly he had ascended to stardom before Death Row, but once he had signed with them it was the beginning of the end. Many young, black people at that time (and, unforgivably, still today) faced challenges that I, or most of you reading this article, have never had to endure. Distrust, overt and covert racism, police brutality and the constant struggle with the law brought about by poverty, organised resistance and the violent backlash that spilled over as the result of all the factors above. Tupac was seen as one of the primary voices for young black people, particularly males. His mother was a Black Panther, he lived through police brutality and being mugged and shot. His lyrics resonated deeply with everyone, not only those who had lived experience of what he was referring to in his songs. By the time All Eyez on Me released in 1996, all eyes indeed were on Tupac. Interestingly the original name of the album was slated to be Euthanasia, however it was changed during the recording process as Tupac explained to MTV’s Bill Bellamy in a December 1995 interview:
“It’s called All Eyez on Me. That’s how I feel it is. I got the police watching me, the Feds. I got the females that want to charge me with false charges and sue me and all that. I got the females that like me. I got the jealous homeboys and I got the homies that roll with me. Everybody’s looking to see what I’mma do now so All Eyez on Me.”
I like this quote a lot. The lyrics in his song, the way he came to live his life as his star rose; Tupac was unapologetic for living the way he felt was right and he had no illusions about the fact people wanted to watch everything he did. I have many illusions about that. I constantly feel a sense of imposter syndrome in things I do, whether it be the sport I play, the friends I have, the business I run – it doesn’t matter. I always try to take up less space, be less noticeable so that people don’t see through the veneer of looking like I have my shit together and see the truth lurking behind it.
Tupac didn’t have his shit together all the time. In fact, the reason that he signed with Death Row Records is because he was in jail and broke. His mother was going to lose her house. Suge Knight seized on the opportunity and helped Tupac’s mum to make the payments and posted the bond so Tupac could get out of jail. The price for that was to record three albums for Death Row.
Further to that, Tupac didn’t always have All Eyez on Him. He was more of a shy kid, and was doing drama and poetry recitals. His instructor ended up becoming his first manager. Tupac was raised, by his activist mother, to have a strong sense of right and wrong and to stand up for what you believe in but it wasn’t until he was beaten by police – allegedly for jaywalking – that he began to change. He became more angry, resistant and determined not to be silenced. He may not have always wanted or cared that All Eyez were on Him but he certainly knew about it didn’t let it affect how he chose to live his life. Tupac’s story is big and bold and one of transformation and ultimately a tragic end; yet it occurs to me that I am nine years older than Tupac was when he died and he may have lived more truly authentic days than I have.
That’s a hard thought to sit with. I have spent much of my adult life trying to be as authentic as possible, without upsetting anyone. In other words, I curate myself so I don’t make waves. I don’t lie or deceive; I engage in diplomacy; I don’t fully express myself to everyone because it’s easier to keep the peace than risk confrontation. I don’t want All Eyez on Me. I am uncomfortable with any praise, seeking to deflect to others and blame my good work on luck while accepting all the blame for anything that goes wrong. Anything else would be arrogant and more than anything I do not want to be seen as arrogant. It is so antithetical to the person I want everyone else to see me as. What I have to do, what I want to do, is narrow the gap between the curated self and the actual self. I think I am making progress. It is not a linear path though.
When I play hockey and I’m on the ice, I am padded up and hiding behind a mask. I am able to find calm and almost peaceful meditation in being able to retreat into the anonymity of “the goalie” and ply my craft. I find it easier to speak to an auditorium full of 1000 strangers than a room of 10 people who can have a more intimate look at my faux veneer. I don’t like to make posts drawing attention to my achievements, however I have no issue (case in point) writing an article to draw attention to my failings. I hate the thought of someone, falsely, thinking more of me than the arbitrary scale I have in my head of how much worth I provide to them. Mostly because I hate the thought of letting anyone else down.
A lot of the good things in my life I hope no one notices so I don’t jinx it. Paradoxically, I can’t accept that I’ve done something good unless someone else validates it. Part of the process of bringing the inward and outward selves together is beginning to understand the space I take up in the world and being okay with other people noticing it. Being okay with people noticing that I made a mistake or said something in haste that I later regretted and noticing when I swallow my pride and make amends for it. Being okay with people giving compliments and trying harder to accept that they aren’t simply saying things to make me feel better. Being able to acknowledge that not all actions I don’t approve of are personal attacks. Being able to accept that people who continue to choose to be around me are making the choice and not just being polite. Being able to accept that there are people in the world that don’t like me. That one is a doozy. Even writing that I am wondering who they are and how I can fix it. Being able to accept that something I think is worthwhile is worthwhile without needing other people to green light it. Being able to accept rejection without it consuming me so that I can accept the opposite without constantly trying to find the fatal flaw and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Being proud of something I do.
Tupac certainly wasn’t a perfect human. He didn’t have any problems taking up his own space though and he didn’t really care who was watching. He was authentic even with All Eyez on Him. He went through a lot in his life and he came out of it with an attitude of “watch me”. He may not have always embraced the attention but he didn’t let it stop him being who he needed to be. In fact, he welcomed being exactly who he was in spite of the attention.
Learning about his life, the rise and fall of Death Row and the cultural, socioeconomic and political waves that the rise of “gangster rap” had on the world has really given me a new perspective and made me want to embrace having, at least, Some Eyez on Me. Perhaps this gaping chasm from high school and the transformative thinking borne out of this music would have been more helpful to me in my early adulthood than Scooter and DJ Sammy ballads but I got there eventually. Now the challenge is to stay in my space and own it, even when people are watching. I wonder if you can relate to any of this. Do you need to have a “gangster rap” phase too?
Not an exhaustive list of references this time but I highly recommend watching Death Row Chronicles (here). I found the most interesting youtube videos to be this documentary of the Tupac and Biggie murders and this interview Tupac did with MTV.