*Tupac Shakur, no doubt inspired by equal parts competitive nature and sheer mischief, stood over me late one afternoon free styling to a track he’d never heard before, all the while, between words, exhaling into my face a cloud of chronic so potent that a physician could have used it to sedate an outpatient for surgery.
August 1996. Assigned by The Source magazine to do a piece on Death Row Records, I’d come to Can-Am studio, the label’s recording headquarters, as Death Row Communications chief George Pryce strategically advised, to “just kinda hang out and get the feel of things.”
Suge Knight, Death Row’s notorious CEO, was nowhere to be found, but label mate Snoop Dogg was. Snoop invited me into the studio proper, where he, an engineer and two other fellas purposefully listened to music, as if searching for that special track. A particularly enticing loop of beats was in full groove and had heads bobbin’ when in walked Tupac.
In a long-sleeve green and gray plaid shirt buttoned up to his neck, from which hung a couple of unobtrusive gold chains; in faded blue jeans and white sneakers, Tupac Shakur resembled a “civilian” more than hip hop royalty.
He arrived alone, unusual considering the entourage synonymous with rap stars. A fat marijuana joint occupied the right corner of his mouth. He nodded greetings to the room. Then that beat hit him.
“What’s that?” a sly smile was Snoop’s only response.
Tupac listened a bit, locked in and let loose. The engineer lowered the volume enough for ‘Pac to be heard by all in the room. Immediately, the track became all his, as Shakur rapped something about it “getting late in the day.”
He paused to let the track breathe for impact, then a few seconds later, ferociously started up again. I glanced over at Snoop to see if he saw Tupac as intruding; he seemed to be digging the impromptu performance more than anyone. ‘Pac paced the large room as if with each step he found another rhyme to supply his funky cadence. Then, slowly, he made his way toward me.
Free styling—-rapping words to a beat spontaneously off the top of one’s head—-is something I’d never (knowingly) heard anyone truly execute. Cats I knew who attempted to usually ended up sounding like Stevie Wonder during the last few minutes of his 1982 hit, “Do I Do.” On that record, the singer himself playfully acknowledges he’s a lousy rapper.
Now, here Tupac was standing over me, his impulsive ingenuity flying over my bald head like so many warning shots, as I nonchalantly rocked along, working hard to pretend that, no, I wasn’t at all excited that hip-hop’s most celebrated rapper had gone to work in my personal space.
During Death Row’s creative and financial peak, being invited to do a story about the enterprise usually meant interviewing Knight and no one else.
However, the days I spent inside the label’s camp—-at the recording studio, at the label’s Wilshire Blvd. office building in Beverly Hills; while at lavish dinners with Knight and posse as they took over private rooms of high-end restaurants; in Vegas, in Manhattan—-I also got to spend random time with Tupac.
What struck me most was the chasm between the man and the legend. To be sure, what you saw and heard is what and who Tupac was. But there was so much more. I found him quiet. Introspective.
During a Death Row dinner at Georgia’s, an up-scale soul food restaurant in West Hollywood, ‘Pac pretty much opened his mouth only to put food and drink into it, watching the goings-on with calm, wary eyes.
On another afternoon, sitting in Can-Am’s parking lot—–Shakur behind the wheel of the black Rolls Royce Corniche and me in the passenger seat, listening to the Dramatics’ greatest hits—I pointed out all the great things ‘Pac had going on. The hit albums. The movies–he’d starred or co-starred in six of them, three of which, “Juice,” “Poetic Justice” (with Janet Jackson) and “Above The Rim,” had already been released (“Bullet,” “Gridlock’d” and “Gang Related” would be released posthumously).
I asked him if he was happy.
The question was asked because whenever I’d seen Tupac jovial and obviously having a good time—-talking shit with friends about whatever—-he never seemed too far from melancholy.
Gazing pensively out the windshield, beyond the car’s iconic hood ornament, Tupac slightly jerked his head back for effect, as if to say, Why you askin’ me some shit like that?
“Depends on what day it is. It’s all relative. You find out fast that this shit going on here,” he stretches his arms out as if to encompass it all, “is just one dimension of life. It’s not real.”
“What I’d like to see you do,” I said, as casually and non-judgmental as I could, “is stay out of trouble.”
“Trouble finds me, Mr. Ivory.”
“Well, when it does, just walk away.”
“Trouble don’t let you walk away,” he retorted. “No sir. Trouble don’t respect that. When trouble find you, you gotta deal with it right then or it’s going to keep coming back and fucking with you.”
Those words, when spoken by a young man no stranger to trouble—most of it situations he seemed hell-bent on bringing upon himself–somehow reeked of a certain righteousness.
But just a few weeks after our conversation—-the same month my Source interview with Suge hit the stands—-Tupac was shot on the Las Vegas strip by a gunman in a car-to-car shooting. He died six days later, September 13, 1996.
Tupac Shakur crammed a lot of living into just 25 years. It’s almost as if he didn’t know he was allowed to live longer.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]