Tupac Shakur: Things You Didn't Know About The Pop Culture Icon
Tupac Shakur is most famous as the king of West Coast '90s hip-hop, rapping alongside fellow Death Row Records luminaries like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg until his young life came to a sudden and violent end in Las Vegas, but Pac was a much more complex man than his gangsta image let on. He had a background in classical dance, grew up under the tutelage of a member of the Black Panther Party, and dated Madonna, just to name a few fascinating facts. His life was a myriad of contradictions, many that we'll never understand.
Tupac And The Black Panthers
Born Lesane Parish Crooks on June 16, 1971, he was renamed Túpac Amaru II when he was only one year old. Both of his parents were active members in the Black Panther movement during the '60s and '70s, and his mother, Afeni, was even criminally charged as a part of the Panther 21 trial for more than 100 crimes, including coordinated bombings throughout New York City. She was acquitted of a truly impressive number of charges at the end of the trial.
Shakur's mother wasn't the only member of his family who found themselves in hot water over their political work. His godfather, Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, was targeted by the FBI, who sought to neutralize him "as an effective (Panther) functionary." Coincidentally, he was convicted of murdering a schoolteacher during a 1968 robbery. After 27 years in prison, his sentence was overturned, and he moved to a village in Tanzania.
Tupac And The Young Communist League
Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, Tupac was known as a social butterfly who made fast friends with a wide variety of people, but his closest friends were the kids in the Young Communist League USA. As a member of the group, Tupac studied communism and took part in the group's active social projects. He even dated the daughter of the director of the local chapter of the Communist Party in Baltimore. If he hadn't moved from Baltimore to the Bay Area in 1988, it's entirely possible that the Langston Hughes of his generation might have spent his time radicalizing D.C. instead.
Tupac The Ballerino
Tupac was a prolific student at the the Baltimore School for the Arts. Even at this young age, he excelled at music and poetry, but he fell deeply in love with dance. He even studied ballet and performed as the Mouse King in The Nutcracker, but that wasn't his only foray into the stage. Foreshadowing his future acting success, he was enamored with all forms of theater, particularly the world of Shakespeare. "It influences all my work," he told the LA Times. "I love Shakespeare. He wrote some of the rawest stories, man."
Tupac The Roadie
While living in Oakland in the late '80s, Tupac picked up work as a roadie for the rap group Digital Underground. They were fans of his own group and wanted to work with him, but the only spot they had on their crew was for someone to carry gear and do the "Humpty Dance" every night on tour. Chomaster J, one of the group's co-founders, told Rolling Stone that Tupac was a go-getter who did everything the band needed him to do and more:
A Digital Underground show was like a vaudevillian variety show. This guy was the guy who filled up the buckets with popcorn, filled up the buckets with confetti, made sure my champagne bottles, the cork was off. You know, it's Karate Kid, man. Wax on, wax off. Paint the house. That motherf---er was down to do these things ... He joined the circus, he came on out, and he did everything he had to do 'til he became the star. He went from roadie to movie star in less than a year.
Tupac And The Joneses
As a rising star living in Los Angeles, Tupac naturally drifted toward legendary music producer Quincy Jones and his family, but things weren't always so pleasant between them. You could say Tupac had strong feelings about black culture and community, so before they became friends, he publicly called out Jones for dating women of different races. Jones's then-17-year-old daughter, Rashida (future star of The Office and Parks And Recreation, to name a few), responded with an open letter to Pac in The Source, chastising him for the "ignorance and lack of respect for his people" that was "destroying his race" and pointing out that her father created a space for performers like Tupac. Rather than bite back at the Jones family, Tupac became friends with all of them and even dated Rashida's older sister, Kidada, shortly before his death.
Tupac And Madonna
Tupac loomed large in the world of West Coast hip-hop, but he was such a massive star that he didn't just hang out with his crew. In the early '90s, he made friends with everyone from Madonna to Sting, both of whom said that they loved the way he used humor to put everyone at ease. Madonna and Tupac even dated briefly in the early '90s, but things ended shortly before he went to prison when he was 24. While in prison, he wrote her a letter to apologize for how he handled their break-up. The letter reads:
I must apologize to you. Because like you said, I haven't been the kind of friend I know I am capable of being. Not because I am evil or because you weren't worthy but, at the risk of sounding over-dramatic, the effects of racism make it difficult for a young black man to properly show affection for an older white woman.
But those '80s icons were far from his only famous friends outside the rap game. He grew up in Baltimore with Jada Pinkett, long before she was an actress, and hung out with such diverse celebrities as Mike Tyson, Rosie Perez, and Mickey Rourke.
Tupac's Favorite Song
Although his own music tended to be harder-edged, to say the least, Tupac's favorite song was "Vincent" by Don McLean of "American Pie" fame. Written as a tribute to Vincent van Gogh, "Vincent" takes a more sympathetic view of the Dutch artist who is remembered as much for his "crazy" antics as his world-famous art. It's likely that Tupac related to Van Gogh's attempts to get all of the pain out of his head through his art, but maybe he just loved the melody. All we know for sure is that after he was shot multiple times in September 1996 in Las Vegas, he asked for the song to be played as he suffered on his deathbed so it would be the last thing he ever heard.
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