Tupac Shakur, often known by his stage name 2Pac, was an influential American rapper, actor, and activist. He became one of the most prominent figures in the rap and hip-hop music scene in the 90s. Tragically, 2Pac was shot and killed at the young age of 25. His murder has remained unsolved until 2023.
Despite his short life, Tupac has become influential in the hip-hop world because he became a spokesperson for the Black community and a symbol of resistance. His music is material for activism, as his lyrics tackled themes like violence, poverty, racial discrimination, and social injustice. His rap style is known for blending poetry with raw intensity.
His impact transcended hip-hop – he remained a pop culture icon because he influenced generations of artists and activists. 2Pac became one of the best-selling music artists, with over 75 million records sold worldwide.
Tupac Amaru Shakur, named at birth as Lesane Parish Crooks, was born on June 16, 1971, in the Harlem neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, New York City. At age one, he was renamed Tupac Amaru Shakur, named after a descendant of the last Incan ruler, Tupac Amaru II, who was executed by the Spanish after his failed revolt. His mother explained, “I wanted him to have the name of revolutionary, indigenous people in the world. I wanted him to know he was part of a world culture and not just from a neighborhood.”
His mother, Afeni Shakur, a former Black Panther Party member and political activist, faced legal trouble in 1969 for allegedly planning attacks on police stations and offices in New York City. Tupac’s journey began when Afeni, pregnant while out on bail, was acquitted in 1971 after defending herself in court.
Both his parents, Afeni and his father, William “Billy” Garland, were active members of the Black Panther Party in New York during the late 60s to early 70s. Other family members, including his stepfather Mutulu Shakur, were involved in the Black Panthers’ Black Liberation Army and faced convictions for serious crimes.
Tupac’s father lost contact with Afeni when Tupac was 5 and reunited with his son when he turned 23. Tupac revealed in a 1996 interview with Vibe magazine, “I thought my father was dead all my life. I felt I needed a daddy to show me the ropes, and I didn’t have one.”
Afeni, raising Tupac and his half-sister alone, worked as a paralegal until a crack cocaine addiction got a hold of her in the early 1980s. His mother’s addiction brought financial struggles for their family, and they had to move often, living off welfare because she couldn’t keep a job.
Growing up in the midst of Black Panther activism influenced Tupac’s beliefs. He was initially distant from his mother due to her constant involvement in the movement, but as he understood her, their relationship strengthened later. When he moved to Baltimore, he was exposed to an artistic movement, including dance and poetry.
In the Baltimore School for the Arts, a school he attended in tenth grade, Tupac explored acting, poetry, ballet, and jazz. In this creative environment, he participated in Shakespearean plays and took on the role of the Mouse King in The Nutcracker ballet.
It was also at that school that he befriended actress Jada Pinkett, who inspired some of his poems. Teaming up with beatboxer Dana “Mouse” Smith, he gained recognition as the school’s best rapper.
In 1988, their family moved to Marin City, California, an impoverished community in the San Francisco Bay area. They moved because of the rampant crime in their Baltimore neighborhood. Tupac was enrolled in Tamalpais High School, where he took part in several theater productions. Though he didn’t graduate high school, Tupac got his GED.
As Tupac matured, he became more aware of the struggles faced by Black communities, particularly in poverty. This awareness shaped the themes of his early songs with Digital Underground. As he delved into his own pain for his solo album, picked up by Interscope, he aimed to depict the harsh realities of the streets, much like the Vietnam War footage. Despite not having a criminal record early in life, Tupac’s focus on stories from the hood made him a target for law enforcement, reinforcing his belief in police targeting the black community.
Rise to Stardom
Tupac’s passion for hip-hop diverted him from a life of crime (at least for a while).
At 17, in the spring of 1989, he befriended Leila Steinberg, a poetry teacher he met in an Oakland park. Although she lacks music industry experience, she became his manager. Steinberg connected Tupac with music manager Atron Gregory, who noticed his talent and got him a role as a roadie and backup dancer for the rap group Digital Underground in 1990. Tupac’s recording debut came in 1991 on “Same Song,” featured in the Dan Aykroyd comedy Nothing but Trouble. He also appeared on Digital Underground’s Sons of the P album that October.
With Gregory as his manager, Tupac signed a deal with Interscope Records. His debut album as a solo artist, 2Pacalypse Now, was released a month after Sons of the P.
Despite early success, Tupac felt misunderstood, expressing the importance of addressing both the harsh and the positive aspects of life in his music. While Tupac’s career thrived, his mother, Afeni, initially unaware of his success, eventually became aware and took steps to overcome her drug addiction, leading to a reconciliation with Tupac and a close bond that lasted until his untimely death.
While Tupac only released four albums during his lifetime, he had 21 albums to his name (including posthumous compilation albums) – 10 of which achieved platinum, multiplatinum, or diamond certification. As of July 2023, the Recording Industry Association of America ranked Tupac as the 45th top-selling artist of all time based on album sales and streaming figures. Globally, over 75 million Tupac records have been sold to date, making him one of the best-selling artists.
1. 2Pacalypse Now
Tupac’s first album, titled 2Pacalypse Now, was released in November 1991. The name playfully references the 1979 film Apocalypse Now. Renowned rappers such as Nas, Eminem, Game, and Talib Kweli consider it an influential work.
Though it did not create any hits, it sold 500,000 copies and established Tupac as a social commentator. It featured songs such as “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” which narrates an underaged mother’s fall into poverty, and “Soulja’s Story,” which controversially talked about “blasting” a police officer. The latter song was cited as motivation for the real-life killing of a cop by a teenage car thief. Because of the incident, Tupac’s music was condemned by then-US Vice President Dan Quayle, who said the record had no place in society. Because of that, Tupac became notorious.
2Pacalypse Now has become gold certified, selling half a million copies. The album, addressing urban Black concerns, received critical acclaim. It reached No. 13 on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts and peaked at No. 64 on the Billboard 200 charts. Ultimately, it earned RIAA gold certification, with nearly a million copies sold worldwide.
2. Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z…
Tupac’s second album, titled Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z…, hit the shelves in February 1993. This album was a critical and commercial success, debuting impressively at No. 24 on the Billboard 200 pop albums chart. With a more hardcore vibe, it showcases Tupac’s sociopolitical views and boasts a distinctive metallic production quality.
Featuring notable collaborations, the song “Last Wordz” includes Ice Cube, co-writer of N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police,” and gangsta rapper Ice-T. The vinyl release cleverly designates side A as the “Black Side” (tracks 1 to 8) and side B as the “Dark Side” (tracks 9 to 16).
The album’s standout single, “I Get Around,” featuring Digital Underground’s Shock G and Money-B, became Tupac’s breakthrough single – it reached No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop singles chart. Another hit from the album, “Keep Ya Head Up,” is an optimistic anthem promoting women’s empowerment. Meanwhile, the “Holler If Ya Hear Me” track marked Tupac’s initial venture into hardcore hip-hop, presenting an anthem of resistance produced by Randy “Stretch” Walker.
The album was certified Platinum, with a million copies sold. It showed Tupac’s ability to use his own narrative and the foundations of the Black Panther Movement to express his frustration with poverty and police injustice.
3. Me Against the World
Tupac’s third solo album, Me Against the World, was released in March 1995 while in jail. Now widely regarded as his magnum opus, the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. It sold 240,000 copies in its first week, setting a record for the highest first-week sales for a solo male rapper at the time.
The lead single, “Dear Mama,” a heartfelt tribute to his mother Afeni, reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1995. The second single, “So Many Tears,” and the final single, “Temptations,” also achieved notable chart positions. Many celebrities showed their support for Tupac by appearing in the music video for “Temptations.”
Me Against the World won Best Rap Album at the 1996 Soul Train Music Awards and, by 2001, had sold about 3 million copies in the US. The album is often described as a powerful expression of pain, anger, and desperation.
4. All Eyez on Me
In February 1996, Tupac released his fourth and final album during his lifetime, All Eyez on Me. It was his most successful one – breaking records as the first double album, fulfilling part of his contract with Death Row. The album came with five singles featuring Tupac rapping about the gangsta lifestyle, leaving behind his political messages in the past. The release showed a more aggressive side of Tupac post-prison.
Reaching No. 1 on both the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and the Billboard 200, it sold 566,000 copies in its first week and was certified five times multi-platinum in April. All Eyez on Me produced singles like “How Do U Want It” and “California Love,” which both reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
All Eyez on Me earned awards, winning R&B/Soul or Rap Album of the Year at the 1997 Soul Train Music Awards. Tupac also won Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Artist at the 1997 American Music Awards. The album achieved multi-platinum status nine times in June 1998 and multi-platinum status ten times in July 2014.
The diss track “Hit ‘Em Up” targeted Tupac’s rivals like Biggie Smalls and Sean “Diddy” Combs, heightening the tension between East and West Coast rap. Tupac even targeted Lil Kim, Junior M.A.F.I.A., and Mobb Deep. The Tupac-Biggie rivalry became one of hip-hop’s most notorious beefs.
The song “Hit ‘Em Up” also eerily seemed to foreshadow Tupac’s own death and the ensuing conspiracy theories. Within three months, Tupac was killed. Six months after that, Biggie was, too.
Contributions to Film
Tupac’s venture from music to acting kicked off in the early 1990s with his notable debut in the crime drama Juice (1992). Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson, the film revolves around four Harlem teenagers and their pursuit of power. Tupac took on the role of Bishop, a troubled and unpredictable young man whose quest for power spirals out of control.
Tupac’s entry into the acting realm was considered the first great dramatic performance by a rapper in a movie. He brought a raw intensity to the character of Bishop, capturing the complex emotions of a troubled soul. His performance garnered critical acclaim, showcasing his natural acting talent and making himself a rising movie star.
Building on the success of Juice, Tupac continued to make an impact in the acting world with roles in Poetic Justice and Above the Rim. In the 1993 romantic drama Poetic Justice, Tupac starred alongside Janet Jackson as Lucky, a mailman with a troubled past. The film explored themes of love, loss, and healing, and Tupac’s portrayal showed depth and vulnerability.
In Above the Rim, a 1994 sports drama directed by Jeff Pollack, Tupac played Birdie, a drug dealer and former basketball star. The film delved into the gritty world of street basketball and the challenges faced by young athletes. Tupac’s performance was praised for its authenticity and intensity, solidifying his reputation as a talented actor capable of delivering powerful performances.
Impact on Hip-Hop Culture
Tupac stands out as a key figure in hip-hop history, leaving a lasting impact on the genre. His influence echoes through contemporary hip-hop, influencing the work of numerous artists after him.
One significant way Tupac has shaped today’s hip-hop culture is through his poignant lyrical commentary on social injustice, violence, and the struggles of the African American community. He courageously delved into political and personal themes, and his lyrics were direct and emotionally charged.
Growing up in poverty in New York, Tupac witnessed firsthand the struggles of marginalized communities. This experience shaped his commitment to social justice. He believed in the power of music to effect positive change, using his talent to convey messages of empowerment and societal awareness.
He had a knack for blending different musical genres, significantly influencing modern hip-hop. He was among the rap pioneers who incorporated elements of funk, soul, and jazz into his music – setting a trend for current artists who fuse different musical styles in their songs.
Tupac’s enduring impact is evident in the multitude of tributes and references found in contemporary music. Many artists incorporate Tupac’s name, quotes, and song samples in their work. Some, like Kendrick Lamar, have even dedicated entire songs to Tupac, expressing gratitude for his influence, as seen in Lamar’s track “Mortal Man.” For more information on Kendrick Lamar, read our article, ““Find Out More About the Musical Career of Kendrick Lamar.”
When it comes to fashion, Tupac became an icon of the 90s street style. He combined sportswear with high-end fashion, which is now common to see in hip-hop artists today. His signature use of the bandana tied into rabbit ears is one of the most distinctive and recognizable hip-hop fashion styles.
Enduring Legacy and Advocacy
Tupac Shakur is considered one of the most influential rappers of all time, and Rolling Stone listed him as one of the greatest artists of all time. He was a father figure to many rap and hip-hop artists, as Tupac was cited to make them want to be better at their craft. Along with Snoop Dogg, he was one of the top two American rappers in the 90s.
In April 2017, Tupac made history by being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, becoming the first solo hip-hop artist to receive this honor in his first year of eligibility.
Tupac actively engaged in various activism initiatives throughout his career. In 1992, in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, he established the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation, dedicated to supporting at-risk youth and promoting educational programs for peace and social justice.
Moreover, Tupac championed the right to vote and political involvement for the African American community. He emphasized that it is important for young people to take an active role in the decision-making in their community and in the fight for human rights.
Tupac was an example of connecting hip-hop and activism, inspiring other artists to address societal issues in their music. Today, many artists follow in his footsteps, using their music as a platform to raise awareness and advocate for justice.
Tupac Shakur was and still is a hip hop icon, and his influence remains prominent in today’s popular culture. Through his music and activism, Tupac emerged as a powerful voice for the Black community, symbolizing resistance and the fight against oppression. His lyrics tackled issues like poverty, violence, racial discrimination, and social injustice, showcasing a rap style that skillfully blends poetry with raw intensity.
Beyond hip-hop, Tupac’s influence extends across generations, influencing both artists and activists after him. This makes him a pivotal figure in hip-hop history and pop culture.