“There’s a lot of things that Tupac would do,” says QD3. “And if you didn’t do your research and you were a person looking at the news, just watching what happened, you would probably think he was a straight-up loose cannon with no intelligence. I think if you research every single one of his run-ins with either the police or the law in general, or any other rapper, there’s almost always a logic behind it and a redeeming quality about the beef. Especially with the Atlanta shooting. He didn’t know those guys were cops. He stopped just to help a brother out. That was it. It was a pretty noble thing to do in my opinion.”
“White people got you believing that [I’m insane],” said ’Pac. “Just ’cause I’m telling a nigga to stop getting his head kicked in by the police, to take the gun he would use to shoot his brother in a second, and kill the muthafuckin’ cop that’s killing you, killing yo’ family and everybody else on the block. That is not insane. That is sane—it’s straight like a muthafucka. That’s positive like a muthafucka.”
Tupac’s no-love affair with the police began way before he moved to Atlanta. In fact, you might say it began before he was born. On April 2, 1969, his mother, Black Panther member Afeni Shakur, was arrested as part of the NY 21, a group of political activists charged with conspiracy to blow up various New York City landmarks. Out on bail, Afeni got pregnant, but she returned behind bars when her bail was revoked. She remained in jail until the charges were dropped on May 14, 1971. One month later, her son was born.
As a youth, Tupac was indoctrinated with Panther politics and the codes of the street. “He learned a lot from the people,” says his stepfather, Dr. Mutulu Shakur. (Currently serving a 60-year sentence for his involvement in a 1981 armored-car robbery that resulted in the deaths of a security gaurd and two policemen, Mutulu allegedly aided in the famous 1979 prison escape of Black Panther Assata Shakur.) “He hung around the dope fiends, he hung around the gangsters, he hung around with oppressed people, he hung around with the people who were struggling for things, he listened at the meetings. He attended all the Panther meetings that Afeni was at. He was part of that struggle as a young child.”
“’Pac didn’t bow to authority,” says Shock-G. “To him it didn’t matter whether you were a regular cat, a gang cat, an illegal cat, police, media, White House or the man next door—if you disrespected him, look out.”
“He always had a fascination with power,” says Leila Steinberg, who played mentor and manager to a teenage Tupac and housed him for three years in Marin City. “Guns are power, weapons. But he didn’t have access to weapons until he started making money. When you start making money, you have a different access.”
On October 17, 1991, before he had such access, Tupac was arrested for jaywalking and resisting arrest in downtown Oakland. He claimed that he also caught a good ol’ fashioned ass-whupping from the cops. “Those muthafuckas had me on the ground, and they bashed my head into the sidewalk over and over,” he said the next day to Danyel Smith, a local music writer who would go on to become Editor-In-Chief of Vibe magazine. Tupac filed a $10 million civil suit against the city (still pending at the time of his death).
“Police, law enforcement—always a discussion,” says Steinberg, recalling an incident when the cops showed up at her home because ’Pac was playing music too loud. (It wasn’t the first time.) While she was talking to the officer, ’Pac stood over her shoulder, showing the cop facetious respect. “Officer, stay right there,” he said. “I wanna change the volume to make sure this is OK.” He went to the stereo and put on N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police” just loud enough for the cop to hear, but not so loud as to be a disturbance. “Listen, officer,” he said, “let me know if this is too loud.”
In the wake of the Rodney King beating, ’Pac—taking a cue from an old Panther tactic—began policing the police, even going so far as to videotape arrests in progress. “He was always trying to get people to cue in to what was going on,” says Steinberg. “Whereas most people would be like walking with the camera, zooming in on body parts, ’Pac always, anytime where there was police activity, he’d walk up, camera or not, and be an active observer.”
“’Pac knew how to rile officers up,” she continues. “But what he said was always challenging. He never gave up information that could be used against him. He spent time doing his homework trying to understand why somebody wants to pull you over and go through your things, the parameters of that. He knew how to let them do just enough so that he could flip it on them later.”
When Tupac dumped bullets into the Whitwell Brothers and walked away vindicated, he merged the apparent schism between his street ethos and his revolutionary upbringing—he satisfied all of his families. To the riders, dope dealers and OGs he’d befriended, he became Thug Emeritus. To the Black Panthers who raised and claimed him, he became a revolutionary. To his fans, he became the realest of the real. He earned ultimate credibility beyond question, a ghetto pass beyond revocation. It was the moment in which he transcended from rapper to political figure, from pop star to super hero.
“Shooting cops?” wrote Smith in her essay about Tupac in The Vibe History Of Hip Hop. “And living to tell the story? And beating the rap? He was beyond real.”
“When ’Pac shot those cops, he became the embodiment of Thug Life,” says Steinberg. “That was him diving into what he felt he was a voice for. That was like some serious badges and medals, some serious stripes. He got the Purple Heart.”
“Back then,” says Smith today, “in a moment that felt like the battle for the world—Black men versus law enforcement, new against old—it was easy, and almost necessary, to look at that incident with the Atlanta police as one that made Tupac a hero. But, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy.’ Looking back on it now, I would rather have had him be a pop star who was still alive than a hero who died tragically.” —kris ex
Additional reporting by Sara Vilkomerson and Benjamin Meadows-Ingram