In September 1996, Tupac Amaru Shakur was coming to the end of one of the most extraordinary runs anyone has ever had in any genre of music. Bailed out of a New York prison in October 1995, Tupac went on an absolute tear over the next eleven months. Between recording countless beloved songs for Death Row Records and filming two motion pictures, he somehow found time to leave behind other lasting impressions people reminisce over to this day: walking along Venice Beach with MTV’s Tabitha Soren; clowning around with Suge and Dre on the set of the Mad Max-inspired video for “California Love”; late-night shows at Club 662 in Las Vegas; the Fourth of July concert with Snoop Dogg at the House of Blues; speaking out against Proposition 209 with Danny Bakewell at a Brotherhood Crusade political rally; promoting Death Row East in New York; and on and on. Tupac could have coasted on his natural gifts – his handsome looks, keen intellect, charisma, and talent for speaking – but he didn’t. No one worked harder than Tupac. It was inspiring to watch someone who was so brilliant give so much of himself to his craft, his culture, and his fans.
Tupac’s work ethic is one of the many reasons he continues to endure two decades after he left us. As most of the people reading this article will know, and as hard as it is for some of us to accept, Tupac died twenty years ago today after fighting for his life for nearly seven days at Las Vegas’ University Medical Center. I’m sure I’m not the only person who can still recall where they were when they first learned Tupac had died. A few of you may even have been at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island when Nas announced the sad news at a concert. I was only fourteen years old, watching the news on KCAL 9, when I heard. It was just after 4:03 p.m. when the newscaster announced “breaking news.” Before she even got the words out of her mouth, I knew that Tupac was no longer with us in the flesh. I emphasize that last part because Tupac is still with us in spirit. He was with me in Culver City last Saturday when I heard a car drive by bumping “Ambitionz Az a Ridah”; he’s there whenever people put on “Changes” and wonder whether the madness in Baton Rouge and other cities will ever stop; and he will continue to be here so long as people study, appreciate, and debate the meaning and significance of his art and life.
On this day, an important one for anyone who has ever been moved by Tupac or his music, I don’t want to dwell on his murder. I’ve already discussed the coincidences and circumstances leading up to that tragedy elsewhere. Instead, I would rather share with you a few of the projects available now or currently in the works that honor and carry on Tupac’s legacy.
The first project I want to tell you about is a book by Death Row Records art designer Ronald “Riskie” Brent. It’s called Riskie Forever – From the Streets to the Industry – My Life and Art on Death Row Records and is about Riskie’s artistic development and the time he spent with Tupac and others at Death Row. Riskie’s book, which I co-authored, has just been published by Over the Edge Books in large format hardcover and softcover editions with full-color artwork and photographs. It is one of the most interesting books ever published about that era in Hip Hop history. I can say, without exaggerating, that there has never been a book quite like it.
Riskie Forever contains interesting anecdotes about Riskie’s life in Compton during the worst years of the crack cocaine epidemic, details his struggle to grow up out of the violence plaguing his hometown, and preserves the stories behind all of the artwork he did for Hip Hop albums over the years. The numerous drawings and paintings of Riskie’s in the book, many of which have never before been seen, include not just the artwork on the covers of albums like 2Pac’s The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory and Daz Dillinger’s Retaliation, Revenge and Get Back, but also unused designs Riskie painted for those and other projects.
Are you interested in seeing the mockup Riskie put together for Suge Knight before beginning work on his iconic portrait of a crucified Tupac for The Don Killuminati? If your interest is piqued, you’re going to love Riskie’s book, which contains that jewel and so many more. There is even a heartfelt introduction by Leila Steinberg, the person who discovered Tupac when he was just 17-years-old.
Riskie’s book, Riskie Forever, is available now at RiskieForever.com (signed copies of the hardcover and softcover, along with t-shirts and prints featuring Riskie’s artwork), through Over The Edge Books (softcover), and at Amazon.com (hardcover and softcover).
The second project is a meticulously researched and superbly written new book about the glory days of West Coast Hip Hop by music journalist Ben Westhoff. It’s called Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap. Though the majority of the book is not focused on Tupac, Ben spends a significant number of pages relating Tupac’s story. In fact, one of book’s more interesting historical tidbits is the fact that The Notorious B.I.G. asked Tupac to be his manager before they had a falling out. To get an idea of the music and artists Ben’s history covers, check out this playlist he made exclusively for TIDAL.
Ben’s book, Original Gangstas, is available at Amazon.com and wherever books are sold.
TUPAC SHAKUR: UNCATEGORIZED
The third project I want to highlight is a book titled Tupac Shakur: Uncategorized by noted photographer Chi Modu. In addition to shooting Snoop Dogg, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and other Hip Hop legends, Chi was fortunate enough to work with Tupac on four occasions between 1994 and Tupac’s death in 1996. You might recall Chi’s photographs of Tupac and the Outlawz for the March 1996 issue of The Source or the photograph he took that’s on the cover of Tupac’s Better Dayz album. In addition to those staged shoots, Chi also took more personal photographs at Tupac’s home in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
I recently spoke with Chi about his project. During our conversation, Chi emphasized his mission as a photographer to “honestly capture the essence of his subject, without opinion or judgment” and expressed a sincere desire to share who Tupac was as a person, not just as an artist, with his fans. He also related his belief that Tupac is the “first artist in history who has crossed over so many generations. 50-year-old grandparents love Tupac; 18-year-old kids love Tupac. He’s going to end up one of the most iconic pop culture figures, challenging the Marilyn Monroes, James Deans, and Elvis Presleys.”
Chi’s book is a collection of all of the photographs he took of Tupac during the turbulent last years of his truncated life. Chi told me that in his book, “You get to see the person Tupac really was, the different layers of him, and I think that makes him more endearing to the public. I wanted to do this book because I can’t think of a book like this dedicated to an African-American artist of Tupac’s stature. I want these visuals to live long after Tupac’s gone.” Tupac Shakur: Uncategorized is being published on September 20th in a high-quality hardcover coffee table edition. Any Tupac fan will want a copy of it in their home.
Chi’s Book, Tupac Shakur: Uncategorized, will be available at Uncategorized.com on September 20th.
ALL EYEZ ON ME
The fourth and most publicized upcoming Tupac project is the biopic, All Eyez on Me. Directed by Benny Boom and co-produced by Tupac collaborator L.T. Hutton, All Eyez on Me is scheduled to hit the silver screen later this fall but has already been seen and acclaimed by a number of Hip Hop celebrities including The Game and, to the surprise of many Tupac fans, Sean “Diddy” Combs. In the film, Tupac is played by Demetrius Shipp, Jr., the son of the co-producer of Tupac’s 1996 single, “Toss it Up,” and Tupac’s mother, Afeni (R.I.P.), is played by Danai Gurira, who is best known for her role as Michonne in AMC’s The Walking Dead. Also starring in the film as themselves are E.D.I. Mean and Young Noble of the Outlawz. Will All Eyez on Me live up to the acclaim and success earned by F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A film, Straight Outta Compton? We’ll find out in a few months.
KEVIN POWELL’S BIOGRAPHY
The fifth project currently in the works is the long-awaited authorized biography of Tupac being written by acclaimed journalist and politician Kevin Powell. Powell, like Riskie and Chi, has a personal connection to Tupac. He interviewed Tupac a number of times, including the infamous “Ready to Live” prison interview published in the April 1995 issue of Vibe magazine. Kevin has been hard at work on his book for many years now and it is currently scheduled to be published in 2018.
Follow Kevin Powell @kevin_powell to keep up with the latest on his Tupac biography.
TUPAC LISTENER’S GUIDE
The sixth and final project is one that I have been working on for more than three years now. It is a comprehensive two-volume book tentatively titled Lost in the Whirlwind: A Guide to the Music and World of Tupac Shakur. It will feature illustrations by Riskie and contain articles about Tupac’s songs, albums, films, collaborators, and other topics relevant to his life and work. The first volume is presently scheduled to be published around the end of this year.
If you’ve made it all the way to the bottom of this article, I want to thank you for your patience and interest. With all the talk of books above, let me leave you with a reminder that the best way to keep Tupac alive in your hearts and minds is to listen to and share his music. To that end, below are links to a few of the Apple Music playlists I have compiled for your enjoyment. I hope you will listen to them today as you commemorate this important date in history:
The Best of 2Pac: a collection of my favorite Tupac classics available on Apple Music
2Pac – The Singles: a collection of the songs that were released to promote Tupac’s albums/compilations, from 2Pacalypse Now in 1991 to The Best of 2Pac in 2007.
2Pac: Politics, Social Consciousness, and Romance at Death Row Records: a collection disputing the misguided opinion that Tupac became a “gangsta” caricature in the last year of his life; and
The Don and the Cuban Militant: 2Pac’s Collaborations with Johnny J: a collection of Tupac songs produced by one of his favorite collaborators, Johnny “Johnny J” Jackson.