Thursday, September 13, 2007

From Concrete

"Hey, I just realized today is a sad day," I emailed my friend, a big Tupac Shakur fan. "I don't wanna make you cry, but 11 years ago today, Tupac died."

She reminded me that it was also the same day that her best friend had been killed in a car accident.

"Well, since I just made your day," I typed, "I guess I'll go club some baby seals now."

Eleven years ago, Tupac released the double album All Eyez On Me. It was one of my CDs in heavy rotation that year, along with the first Cypress Hill album, Dr. Dre's The Chronic, and James Brown's Greatest Hits. I remember listening to the first disc of All Eyez On Me dozens of times before I even popped in the second disc. The album wasn't as political or incendiary as his earlier work, but it was an instant classic and cemented his reputation as one of the genre's greatest performers.

I was fascinated by Tupac: he was a walking, talking contradiction at times, not only in his music, but also in his life. He sang praises to single mothers in "Keep Ya Head Up," then sang praises of the player's lifestyle in "I Get Around." He stole scenes as a thug in Juice, then as Janet Jackson's love interest in Poetic Justice. He was a well-read poet who'd studied in performing-arts schools and was involved with a theater company before hitting the big time and living his self-proclaimed thug life.

I was finishing my final year at UCSB when All Eyez On Me was released. I was taking a full load of courses, working part-time at the campus newspaper and living in a shitty apartment in Goleta with my girlfriend. That spring we took a trip to Las Vegas. My game of choice back then was pai gow poker and in between hands, I'd serenade the dealer with a selection from the latest Tupac CD. I slurred the chorus, "Scandalous, you're so scandalous," as the dealer took my chips and began dealing the next hand. I sounded exactly like Tupac; that is, if Tupac was a drunk Filipino playing $5 pai gow poker at three in the morning.

I took my final class that summer and was in a post-graduation funk, trying to figure out what to do next. Most of my friends were still around, and one night in September, Mike Tyson was unifying the heavyweight title against Bruce Seldon in Las Vegas. My buddies and I drank cheap beer and watched the pay-per-view prelims before the main event, bummed we couldn't be in Sin City, but surprised to hear Tupac's "Ambitionz Az A Ridah" as Tyson's ring-walk music. Tupac and Tyson? Damn, it was a good night.

A week later, Tupac was dead.

He'd been shot several times after the fight, at the corner of Flamingo Road and Koval Lane. He was on life support for a few days, but finally succumbed to the wounds on September 13, 1996. He was 25.

The morning of his death, I saw the news on TV and walked outside of my apartment. My neighbor asked, "Did you hear about Tupac?" I remember answering yes, but nothing else from our conversation. I talked to a few friends, then my brothers and it seemed like we were all in a daze.

In the years that followed, Tupac's legacy flourished as posthumous albums, movies, and books were released and various conspiracy theories about his death were hatched, and like so many other great artists, the What If? question will always be attached to discussions of him.

Below are two my favorite pieces by Tupac that reveal his paradoxical nature: the first is a poem that shows his sensitive, contemplative side; the second is a video that shows off his raunchy, don't-give-a-fuck attitude. I miss them both.

The Rose That Grew From Concrete

Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature's law is wrong it
learned to walk with out having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping it's dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.

How Do U Want It (video from All Eyez On Me)