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Convicts Discuss Why Tupac Remains a Gangster Icon 20 Years After His Death

He had "Thug Life" tattooed across his belly. What did the late rapper represent to those who lived that?

by Seth Ferranti
Sep 13 2016, 2:24pm

On September 7, 1996, after attending the Mike Tyson/Bruce Seldon heavyweight championship fight in Las Vegas, Nevada, with Death Row head honcho Marion "Suge" Knight, hip-hop superstar Tupac Shakur was fatally shot with a .40 caliber Glock in a drive-by shooting. Tupac lingered for six days before finally succumbing to his wounds on September 13, 1996. Although there have been rampant theories—including speculation that he was the victim of a retaliatory hit after his beatdown, captured on a security camera, of Southside Compton Crip Orlando "Baby Lane" Anderson that night in the lobby of the MGM Grand—20 years later we're still no closer to knowing who murdered the gangsta rap icon.

Tupac's death was sudden, but his music and legacy live on​. The rapper, actor, and all-around icon has come to define a generation. His was a voice that wasn't afraid to speak up and show the world the ugly faces of poverty, crime, despair, and violence, as well as the hope and beauty that life alongside them. He was gangster, but he also loved his mama. That's why Tupac holds a special place in the hearts of criminals, drug dealers and street hustlers—the practitioners of the "thug life" idea Tupac epitomized and had tattooed across his belly.

Generations of hip-hop fans loved Tupac for the way he talked hood politics, spit the real, and gave a visual reference of what was really going on in his world. He gave it to us raw​, and the denizens of the streets admired and respected him for that. "Let the Lord judge the criminals," Tupac was quoted as saying. On the anniversary of his death, we asked some high-profile convicts, legends in their own right, why Tupac remains a gangster icon 20 years after his death.

Char "Shocker" Davis

46 years old from the Southside of Jamaica, Queens, New York
Serving a 33 year sentence at FCI Mendota in California for a drug trafficking charge as part of the Bebo's/Fat Cat Crew

I really can't believe it's been 20 years since the death of Tupac. I remember it like it was yesterday when I first heard the unfortunate news of his early demise. His death wasn't just a tremendous loss to hip-hop but a tremendous loss to the struggle. Let's not forget that he was born in the struggle. His mother was pregnant with him when she was in the belly of the beast. I really don't look at him as a gangster. I really think the reason he's dead now is because he was hanging around gangsters, and he started to think he was one of them.

To me he represented a revolutionary voice. It was a travesty losing such a strong voice of the movement. Tupac died too young, just like a lot of the all time greats. He was extremely talented. He could've done it all when it came to the arts. He was a rapper, poet, and an actor. To this day they are studying his poetry in college. Tupac died young, black, and gifted. I salute brothers like him that were born in the struggle. May his soul rest in peace and power to the people.

Andre Cooper 

37 years old from Chester, Pennsylvania
Serving three life sentences at USP Hazelton in West Virginia for racketeering, drug dealing, and homicide

2Pac! The name alone represents something greater than most people understand. I became a fan of the rapper in the mid-90s. 2Pac was running the industry with his vast street intellect and dope lyrics. With 2Pac spitting that thug life, a lot of the inner-city youth and hustlers alike related to the struggles and fame that he spoke of. But what we on the outside didn't know was that the industry was slowly turning and becoming the same environment that most of us criminals grew up in. Pac's skills of creating vivid images of the streets created many enemies along the way.

2Pac's gangsta was tested by some real live street goons in order to see if he really was about that life. Pac was shot up, and this caused a major problem in the streets, as well as in the industry. Nothing in the history of hip-hop was bigger than the bi-coastal beef that Pac took part in​ with his Death Row cronies. The drama made soldiers on the street pick sides. If, you were on the East Coast you rode with the Notorious B.I.G. And, if you were on the West Coast then 2Pac was the homie. I had love for them both. But each of them carried their respective coasts to the fullest.

Some say Pac's murder was a set-up by Suge Knight or that Pac wanted to fake his death in order to get away from the rap/street life. This was the rumor or gospel because he'd depicted this vision in his lyrics on the Makaveli LP. But the streets knew better. He'd been murdered right after putting in some real live gangsta shit. Whatever the case may be about who killed him and why he was murdered or if the events at the Tyson fight lead to his death, we must celebrate the legend. For the simple reason that, for me on a personal level, I had a chance to witness history in the making by such an epic, real life "get it how you live" rapper, who lived the life he rapped about. RIP Tupac!

Walter "King Tut" Johnson

52 years old from Cypress Hill Projects, Brooklyn
Serving a life sentence at FCI Otisville in New York for a federal Three Strikes Law conviction

The reason why Tupac remains a gangster icon 20 years after his death is because his spirit and example were greater than death. His life represented the immortality that could only be earned through transitioning from this existence to the next. Tupac wasn't afraid to say what other people feel on a daily basis. Where the thinking man used caution, Tupac courageously stepped up without fear of the repercussions. His image was his way of telling people that he could relate to them whether they were crack addicts, dope fiends, criminals, prostitutes, or even crazy. He found level ground in his gangster image and wanted to utilize it as flagrant bait with the hook of truth beneath it.

Tupac would rather dance with wolves than live a life of timidity, speaking his mind rather than be in a psychological prison. He came out of the womb of a revolutionary and was taught that theory is nothing without action. All real gangsters truly desire to become revolutionaries. They know that dying for a worthy cause is better than being a pawn in a game that is designed to play you out of true peace, love, and prosperity. The gangster side of him was how he related to the men/woman who believed that they were ghetto bound—pariahs, outcasts, and unqualified to play a role in anything meaningful. Pac actually sacrificed his life trying to wake others up so that they would recognize and develop self values. 

LaMont "Big Fridge" NeeDum

41 year old from the Short North in Columbus, Ohio
Serving 10-25 years for a gun charge at Pickaway Correctional Facility in Ohio

I believed 2Pac's legacy has endured because he genuinely loved his people. One of my homeboys brought 'Pac to my hood in the early 90s. He rolled down Eighth Avenue in a bright red UNLV coat and had on all his jewelry in a Crip neighborhood. He smoked and chilled with us like he was born in the Short North. Stories like that are common about him. He literally touched the lives of many people. His personality did more than sell records for him; he became a star of the people, and it resonates.

Not only that, his music has a haunting effect. In "Soulja's Story," a shout-out to the lives of George and Jonathan Jackson (R.I.P.), he opened by saying "You cops killing black, whites killing black, and blacks killing blacks. Shit just gonna get worse. Niggas gonna become soldiers, straight soldiers." And now with black men under such pressure, some are reacting as he said they would. Pac also said we weren't ready to have a black President, and black America was not. We put President Obama in the Oval Office then turned Congress over to his adversaries, leaving him hanging. Dude was a prophet.

Call me a conspiracy brother, but many of us think 2Pac was assassinated for the work he was doing behind the scenes in cities like California and Chicago. The brother was doing free shows while promoting unity amongst street niggas that were already anti-establishment from jump. Not too far-fetched for a man that was born in prison to a mother targeted by the government sanctioned COINTELPRO. The same program that targeted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., murdered Chairman Fred Hampton and his comrade in cold blood, gangland style in a Chicago apartment. The man's stepfather is rotting away in federal prison for standing up for his people. Is it really outrageous to assume he was put down by Uncle Sam?

Lead image by Adam Mignanelli. Follow him on Instagram​.

Seth Ferranti writes about the prison system and more for VICE. Follow him on Twitter​.