This article is supported by All Eyez On Me, the new 2pac biopic in cinemas on 15 June. To celebrate the release, we asked music writer Christopher Kevin Au to reflect on what it was like growing up listening to 2pac
As my squealing tinnitus can attest, I was heavily into punk rock in my younger years.
Influenced by the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater soundtrack and my wallet chain-wearing older brother, it wasn't long before I was scrawling Dead Kennedys logos all over my school diary and styling my hair into hardened, spiky clumps, leaving the pungent waft of cheap hair gel wherever I walked.
When I began delving into the tumultuous world of rap at the turn of the millennium, it was no surprise that 2Pac was one of the first artists I gravitated towards. The son of two Black Panthers and named after a South American revolutionary, 2Pac's voice boomed with defiance and decisiveness, oozing with the underground resilience that I previously found in my favourite three-chord anthems.
Like many newcomers to rap, the first 2Pac song I heard was 'Hit Em Up.' While the infamous diss track might lack the formulaic precision of a 'Takeover,' it was so unapologetically raw that it snatched you by the earholes and dragged you straight to the frontlines of the West Coast. Just like punk rock, the track was more about stirring emotion rather than subtle technicalities—a sonic slap in the face—and boy, was it effective.
Around that same time, 'Got Rice'—a humorous Asian pride rap recorded over the beat of 2Pac's 'Changes'—was circulating heavily on Kazaa and Limewire. I remember playing it on my humble 32MB MP3 player on the way to school, at a time when Australia was still reeling from Hanson-isms and racist rhetoric that dominated the media throughout the 90s.
'Got Rice' provided a humorous gateway into 2Pac's broader catalogue. While the track became a badge of honour for my fellow Asian friends, 2Pac himself sparked a special connection with many minority groups across the world with his championing of black rights, fierce social commentary, and staunch attitude. 2Pac echoes the outcast mentality on 'Death Around The Corner' with a sampled hook from American Me stating, "When we were kids, belonging felt good; but respect, that feels even better."
Kazi Mamun is one man that idolised 2Pac after receiving an All Eyez On Me cassette tape in primary school, describing him as "an older brother figure" in turbulent Western Sydney.
"I was a Bangladeshi with light skin colour, but looked like an Afghan, and Afghans were the minority within the Lebanese dominated areas. This is where 2Pac came into our lives. Basically his songs inspired us to never back down, even when outnumbered. We went from being bullied to being feared because we wouldn't back down. We learned to stick up for ourselves," he says.
Growing up in the West, Mamun recalls listening to 'Ambitionz Az A Ridah' with his friends to get the testosterone flowing before their clashes with other groups and gangs. "I guess Pac's songs resonate with the West because most of what Pac says coincidentally happened in Western Sydney. Police harassment, shootings, domestic abuse. I mean, the gang culture in Australia isn't as bad as America, but we still do have a gang culture and Pac's music helped us survive in those areas," he says.
In fact, the rapper's icon status in Western Sydney was acknowledged by Mutah Beale, formerly known as Napoleon and an ex-member of 2Pac's Outlawz group. Lidcombe's Muslim youth centre, IRAC, brought Mutah to Australia in 2006 to speak to troubled teens from the area. Mamun was one of the thousands in attendance.
"Mutah was saddened by the fact that a lot of crime in Australia was done by the Middle Eastern community, and he also expressed guilt that his music with 2Pac has a lot of influence in crime," he says.
Tyson Hennings is a tattooist who has etched 2Pac's lyrics permanently on his customers, and importantly, he notes that 'N****z Nature (Remix)' was playing gently over the speakers when he lost his virginity. He also remembers 2Pac's effect on youths in his Belmore neighbourhood.
"A lot of young people at the time—especially throughout the 90s and early 2000s —saw themselves as a 2Pac type of thug, a macho and masculine type of figure. Whenever someone listened to 2Pac they thought they were some sort of drug dealer, but technically they were just selling red frogs," he says.
2Pac's overt nature might be what makes him so appealing, but Hennings says that his perception of the rapper has changed greatly with age, accompanied by a more thorough exploration of his messages.
"You grow out of that hood mentality. When I was younger, I had a lot of pride, always trying to flex. When you get older, you tend to have a lot more common sense, and listen to 2Pac's other songs that aren't so OG. You sit back and think that this guy is more of a philosopher than he is a thug," he says.
For Mamun, a stint in rehab also allowed him to re-examine 2Pac's words, which he now considers a deterrent for criminal activity. "As an adolescent, many of my friends and I took 2Pac's word for face value and his words in literal context. I started listening to it with a more mature understanding and got the deeper messages behind his songs," he says.
Since his death in 1996, 2Pac's legacy has been kept alive by constant rumours that he is, in fact, literally alive. There have been enough conspiracy theories to fry even the biggest tin foil hat wearers, while the CIA has even addressed the issue on Twitter, adding more mystique to 2Pac's magnetic legacy.
The topic of 2Pac's death, or lack thereof, made for premium playground chat during high school. Just like the East Coast vs. West Coast debate that engulfed much conversation about Golden Era rap, you almost felt compelled to pick a side when it came to the topic of 2Pac's supposed passing.
Chris Yee, an illustrator known for weaving hip-hop themes into his Oriental works, remembers the 2Pac rumours spreading rife in the dial-up days, where word of mouth took precedence. "Back then, there wasn't as much Internet access, and it would be about what you passed onto your brothers and cousins. People would be like 'Oh, I heard 2Pac is still alive,' and that word would spread like real truths," he says.
Tyson's experience was more specific. "It was either 2Pac was alive in Makhmood's house down the street, or he was on the run from Biggie's boys. Those were the rumours going around since I was in Year 2," he says. The Internet still houses endless listicles giving weight to theories about 2Pac's whereabouts, with a popular version of events placing him in Cuba, nonchalantly smoking on a fragrant cigar.
Outside of the conspiracies, 2Pac's profile has remained at the forefront of hip-hop consciousness. Troy Ave has just released a new album called NuPac, while Lil Boosie is set to release his full-length titled BooPac. Jhené Aiko, Pia Mia, and basically everyone who's attended a hip-hop themed dress-up party has replicated Pac's bandana-centric look, probably while twisting their fingers into a 'Westside' sign.
Any club DJ will tell you that 'California Love' continues to be requested endlessly by everyone from drunk white girls named Becky to dudes who still wear fitted 59FIFTY caps, while 2Pac's influence can be heard everywhere from the abrasiveness of YG to the political leanings of Kendrick Lamar. But with Trump's America causing concern in 2017, Pac's stories about living in a 'White Man'z World' may be more poignant than ever.
And if you need solid proof that Makaveli's spirit is truly alive locally, then remember the case of 33-year-old Gold Coast rapper 2Pec, who was arrested for fleeing a $621.30 seafood dinner bill earlier this year. Thug life, indeed.
Follow Christopher Kevin Au on Instagram
This article is supported by All Eyez On Me, the new 2pac biopic in cinemas on 15 June. You can find out more about the film here