How Did an Actor Who Studied Ballet Become the Most Political Rapper of Our Time?

2Pac's rise to notoriety involved both auditioning for Forrest Gump and spending time in maximum security prison.
16 June 2017, 12:16am
Illustration: Ben Thomson

This article is supported by All Eyez On Me, the new 2Pac biopic in cinemas now. To celebrate the release, we recount some of the moments that shaped 2Pac

The first time I heard 2Pac was in grade 5 during lunch break. My friend, and school playground ruffian, John Paps, had "borrowed" his older brothers Discman and the second CD of 2Pac's All Eyez On Me album.

John and I split the headphones into one ear each and watched the black disc, labelled Book 2, rotate as George Clinton began to spit, "The blind stares of a million pairs of eyes, looking hard but won't realise, that they will never see".

Having been raised on Video Hits and Rage, the architect of P-Funk couldn't have been more wrong. Through 2Pac's militant onslaught, my community of immigrants and outcasts had only just started to "see" the harsh realities of street life.

But his bars weren't always as provocative and street-smart as they were when I started listening to his music.

Backtracking through his albums, from Me Against The World all the way to 2Pacalypse Now, we hear opposing personas expressing the same message; the 2Pac of 2Pacalypse Now used his words as a means of activism, to wake up the troubled youth and take action against modern enslavement, whereas the 2Pac we hear in All Eyez On Me is a thug that has embodied the spirit of his people, disrupting the status quo by taking the Black Panther struggle to the mainstream through the performance and embodiment of the black condition.

He was leading by subverting white expectations of black behaviour, literally spitting it in their faces whilst famously declaring, "I didn't have a (criminal) record, until I got a record deal."

This anarchist performance was an act of protest; his character was a representation of what the American dream had made of the African American diaspora, as immortalised by his THUG LIFE mantra: "The Hate U Gave Little Infants Fucks Everybody."

So how did an actor who studied ballet and acting in the Baltimore School for the Arts become the most politically charged gangsta rapper of our time? Weaving through the events and seminal tracks in 2Pac's timeline provide insight into how Makaveli the Don took shape.

1971

Afeni Shakur is acquitted in relation to her involvement with the Black Panther movement's conspiracy to commit several bombings. She gives birth to 2Pac on June 16th. According to birth certificates, 2Pac was actually named Lesane Parish Crooks. His mother changed his name a year later to Tupac Amaru Shakur after complications with his father. Tupac Amaru are Inca Words meaning "shining serpent." Shakur is Arabic for Thankful to God.

1975-1983

2Pac's family shuttles between the Bronx and Harlem, at times living in shelters. Afeni enrols 12 year old 2Pac in the 127th Street Ensemble, a Harlem theatre group. In his first performance, 2Pac plays Travis in A Raisin in the Sun at the Apollo Theatre to raise funds for Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign.

1986

2Pac's family moves to Baltimore where he is enrolled at the Baltimore School for the Arts in order to study ballet and acting. Whilst studying, 2Pac joins the Young Communist League USA; plays the role of The Mouse King in The Nutcracker; and writes his first rap under the brave pseudonym MC New York (his first single was about gun control, a reaction to the shooting death of a close friend).

During this time, 2Pac also listened to English and Irish pop musicians like Kate Bush, Sinead O'Connor, Culture Club, and U2.

1988

2Pac and his family ironically leave Baltimore due to the escalating violence but wind up in Marin City aka The Jungle, California. "I see that as the point where I got off track," he said in an interview with an Oakland radio station around 1990.

Shortly after, he moved in with a neighbour and began selling drugs.

In the same year, black revolutionary and 2Pac's stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, was convicted of participating in a 1981 attempted robbery of an armoured Brinks car containing $1.6 million, which left two cops and a security guard dead.

1990

After impressing Shock G, 2Pac joins the Digital Underground as jack-of-all trades; a roadie, hype man, backup dancer, and rapper. During this tour, 2Pac finds out that his mother is using crack cocaine.

November 12, 1991

2Pac files a $10 million lawsuit against the Oakland police for alleged brutality following an arrest for jaywalking.

January 17, 1992

2Pac makes his big-screen debut in Ernest Dickerson's Juice, earning the rapper praise for his portrayal of Bishop, a drug dealing brute.

August 22, 1992

2Pac has an altercation with old acquaintances in Marin City. A 6-year-old bystander is shot in the head. 2Pac's half-brother, Maurice Harding, is arrested but released due to lack of evidence.

2pac refocuses his energy and plays a crucial role in the 1992 Watts gang truce. Together with Mutulu and his son Mopreme, 2pac puts together the Thug Life code; a treaty for drug dealers aimed at reducing violence and harm to the African American community at large.

February 1, 1993

2Pac auditions for the role of Bubba in Forrest Gump but doesn't land the part.

April 5, 1993

2Pac is arrested in Lansing, Michigan, for swinging a baseball bat at a local rapper. He's sentenced to 10 days in jail.

A few months later, John Singleton's Poetic Justice, starring 2Pac and Janet Jackson, is released. Before filming began, Janet Jackson demanded 2Pac take a HIV test before she would do any kissing scenes with the rapper who was outraged by the request.

November 18, 1993

A 19-year-old woman alleges that she is sodomized and sexually abused by 2Pac and three of his friends after partying together in a New York nightclub.

October 14, 1994

Joshua Torres is an 11-year-old suffering from muscular dystrophy and an avid 2Pac fan. His mother phones a local radio station and inquires how she can get 2Pac to call him before his untimely demise. According to the Baltimore Sun, 2Pac not only phoned in, he also flew into Aberdeen, Washington, and paid a personal visit to Joshua Torres. Two hours after his visit, Joshua passed away and 2Pac renamed his charity as a tribute.

In the same month, 2Pac is arrested for allegedly shooting two off-duty Atlanta police officers who he claims were harassing a black motorist. Charges are eventually dropped.

March, 1994

2Pac is sentenced to fifteen days in a Los Angeles jail for knocking-out director Allen Hughes for dropping 2Pac from the cast of Menace II Society.

During this time 2Pac meets Madonna at the Soul Train Music Awards in Los Angeles, which sparks an on/off relationship up until his death.

2Pac stars as Birdie, a troubled drug dealer, in Above the Rim.

December 17, 1994

2Pac records his only song with Notorious B.I.G called "Runnin' From Tha Police", released a year later.

September 7, 1994

Two Milwaukee teens murder a police officer and cite 2Pac's "Souljah's Story" as their inspiration.

November 30, 1994

While on trial for sex and weapons charges, 2Pac is shot five times and robbed of $40,000 worth of jewellery in the lobby of a Times Square recording studio. 2Pac checks himself out of the hospital less than three hours after surgery. The case remains unsolved.

February 14, 1995

2Pac is sentenced to up to four and a half years in a maximum security prison, convicted of sexual abuse. He immediately begins serving his time in New York's Rikers Island penitentiary.

It was during this time that 2Pac began to be heavily inspired by the written works of Niccolò Machiavelli, specifically his political study, The Prince.

April 1, 1995

While he's incarcerated, 2Pac's third album, Me Against the World, debuts at no. 1 on Billboard's pop chart. The single "Dear Mama," blows up and the album goes double platinum in 7 months.

April 20, 1995

In a Vibe magazine interview from jail, 2Pac implicates Biggie Smalls, Puffy Combs, Andre Harrell, his close friend Randy "Stretch" Walker, and others in the recording studio ambush. 2Pac also cites the artist formerly known as Prince a vital source for inspiration, and sampled some of his tracks on the All Eyez On Me album. 2Pac mentioned in an MTV interview that, "Prince loves women like I love women."

August, 1995

The Bad Boys Record crew, namely Biggie, Puffy, and Harrell speak to Vibe claiming that they had nothing to do with Tupac's shooting.

October, 1995

Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight posts a $1.4 million surety to release 2Pac, who immediately flies to LA, signs with Death Row and begins recording one of raps most significant albums: All Eyez On Me.

November 30, 1995

Exactly one year after 2Pac's Time Square shooting, Stretch is murdered execution-style in Queens.

February 1996

In Vibe magazine 2Pac suggests he's been sleeping with Biggie's wife, Faith Evans. She denies the stories.

In the same month, 2Pac's's Death Row Debut, All Eyez on Me, rap's first ever double CD, is released. All Eyez On Me goes quintuple platinum and remains one of the most famous rap records of all time.

March 29, 1996

During a timing miscommunication at the Soul Train awards in Los Angeles, words are exchanged and a gun is pulled when the Death Row entourage cross paths with Bad Boy Records employees.

June 4, 1996

Death Row releases the biggest diss track of all time, the infamous "Hit 'Em Up," a brutal diatribe against Biggie, Bad Boy, Mobb Deep, and other East Coast Rappers.

August, 1996

2Pac's final album, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, is recorded and mixed in seven days.

When the album debuted a few months later, it reached number one on both the US Pop album and Hip-Hop album charts. It is also the record that made waves with conspiracy theorist who claim the album is laced with proof that 2Pac faked his death.

September 7, 1996

A fight between 2Pac and a member of the LA crips breaks out in the foyer of the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon fight in Las Vegas. 2Pac quickly leaves in Suge Knight's car. After a short drive 2pac is shot four times in the chest by an assailant in a white Cadillac.

Knight, who holds deep connections with the Compton Bloods, escapes with a minor injuries. 2Pac is rushed to University Medical Center, where he undergoes surgery to remove his right lung.

September 11, 1996

A Compton crip who police say was present at the casino the night 2Pac was shot, is shot to death while sitting in his car, which sparks a series of gang related murders. Police begin investigating possible connections to 2Pac's shooting, most of which remain unresolved.

September 13, 1996

After six days in critical condition, Tupac Shakur is pronounced dead at 4:03pm. His body is later cremated. He was only 25. After 2Pac was cremated, according to Mopreme, members of 2Pac's group The Outlawz blended some of his ashes with weed and smoked it.

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This article is supported by All Eyez On Me, the new 2Pac biopic in cinemas now. You can find out more about the film here