This issue marks seven years for me at XXL. Wow, I never thought a Y.Y.E. (Young Yellow Entrepreneur) would be working at one place for this long. It’s a testament to my relationship with the powers that be, who have allowed me to maintain creative control and put out the magazine that I see fit. As long as the bottom line is met, and you readers are satisfied, how could I be vilified? I’m universally loved up here, like the homie Lesane Parish Crooks. (That’s 2Pac’s birth name before Afeni came up with Tupac Amaru Shakur a year later. Good save, girl!)

Actually, my first day at Harris Pub. was September 13, 1999. That’s right, three years from the day that rap’s rebel succumbed to gunshot wounds. While another shooting a few months later (anyone remember Puffy, Shyne and J. Lo rollin’ through Club New York?) would help launch XXL’s dominance, I soon recognized that although one of hip-hop’s biggest stars wasn’t physically with us, he was far from forgotten. Two years later, I did our first tribute issue to ’Pac, and the results were phenomenal. Even a blind man could see this was a winning formula, so I ran with it: ’Pac tribute, Biggie tribute, ’Pac tribute… Mo’ money, no problems.

It amazed me then—and still does—that hip-hop all of a sudden revolves around 2Pac and Biggie Smalls. I’m 35 years old, and from the era when Run-DMC kicked in the door and made a young biracial boy proud to be from the Q borough. Rappers, DJs, b-boys and graf artists came before them, but it’s the Hollis, Queens, trio that brought this culture to the mainstream. Made it a business. None of us making bread off hip-hop need to look far to figure out who we need to thank in our “rap pays my bills” acceptance speeches. It’s Run, D and the homie in heaven standing behind two white turntables. It’s a shame what Darryl and Joe have become in their latter years (Who’s crappy show? My crappy show!). But all in all, we can’t touch them with an 8-foot pole, you assholes.

This is exactly how rap’s new generation feels about Biggie and ’Pac. They’ll never be replaced. They died at the height of their fame, so it’s unfair to compare their musical body of work with other rap legends. All that we can all agree on is that at their best they were two of the greatest to ever do it. But it’s the public’s fascination with Tupac that takes things to a whole nother level. He’s more than just an MC. He’s an icon. He’s Ali to the young Gs. Jay may have killed throwback jerseys with half a bar or two and taught us the difference between a 4.0 and a 4.6, but no one will ever come close to being as influential as Mr. Shakur.

I think “influence” gets misconstrued with “greatness.” To keep it a hundred, I’ll never say that 2Pac is the G.O.A.T. when it comes to the MIC. Still, I was wrong about his song-making prowess. After he died, I started bumping his music a hell of a lot more and began to catch on to what the kids were preaching. It’s hard to argue that there’s another rapper who struck your emotions as hard as ’Pac. He’s the forefather of fight music. “Hit ’Em Up” is so exhilarating, you can almost forget how heinous an attack it is on Bad Boy and B.I.G.

I don’t really listen to too much posthumous ’Pac stuff. But the son of a Black Panther still has permanent “greatest hits” playlists in my iTunes and iPods. I love “Pain,” “Definition of a Thug Nigga,” “Ambitionz Az a Ridah” (of course), “So Many Tears,” “How Do U Want It,” “Holler If Ya Hear Me” and the entire Makaveli CD, minus a few clunkers. Hey, no one’s perfect.

With 2Pac there’s no such thing as a perfect ending. This issue’s tribute pays homage to all of ’Pac’s accomplishments since his passing. He’s had a better career in death than most rappers will ever see. He keeps making history, so how can we not keep documenting his second incarnation. It’s not like I’m taking any covers away from deserving ones. As proven in this month’s 360 opener, hip-hop’s fourth-quarter release schedule is shakier than Mel Gibson’s alibi. ’Pac would be ashamed of you lazy bastards. And if ’Pac was alive, XXL would be his favorite magazine. Ha! I said it! That’s blasphemy!

R.I.P. Thug,

Elliott Wilson

Real talk: ’Pac would probably be riding with Vibe. My wife really knew the nigga.