2Pac, A Rebel With a Cause [XXL ARCHIVES]
Originally published in the October 2002 issue of XXL
In 1993 Tupac Shakur was at a firing range in Los Angeles filming a video interview for a local cable show. He fired shots at the paper targets with stunning accuracy. While he didn’t shoot smiley faces à la Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, he left the targets Swiss-cheesed up something awful. “He dead,” he said, admiring his handiwork. “He real dead towards the left side of his face and the whole upper head and this whole side. He dead.” When he squeezed, he didn’t breathe; he kept it lined and even.
“Now you know I’m talking it like I walk it,” he said. “Now all I really gotta do is shoot a live target. But it ain’t get that deep yet. And I’m not really trying to prove nothing. So it’s all cool. Until then, I’ll keep shooting paper.”
He showcased his small arsenal. A .223 caliber 90-round assault rifle loaded with hollow-tip bullets, a 10 mm Glock, a Mac 11, a 9 mm handgun, a .357 Magnum and a 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun. He also had a knapsack full of ammunition. “If they ever come get me for some bullshit and I don’t want to go to jail—which I don’t—I got this for them,” he said loading up the assault rifle. “I ain’t going to jail. Not unless I want to, not unless I did something. I’ll go. But I ain’t finna go for nothing, youknowhuti’msayin? So if they come for me, I’m putting a 90-rounder in...”
When Tupac Amaru Shakur moved to Atlanta that autumn, he was already a household name. The year before had been a busy one. In a case that made national headlines, prosecutors cited a song, “Soulja’s Story,” from 2Pac’s debut album, 2Pacalypse Now, as an influence during the trial of a Black teen who shot and killed a Texas law enforcement officer. On the song, ’Pac rapped: “Cops on my tail, so I bail ’til I dodge ’em/They finally pulled me over, and I laugh/‘Remember Rodney King?’/And I blast on his punk ass... Keep my shit cocked ’cause the cops got a Glock, too/What the fuck would you do, drop them or let ’em drop you?/I chose dropping the cop.” During his reelection bid, Vice President Dan Quayle denounced 2Pacalypse Now as having “no place in our society.” The death of a six-year-old boy was also linked to Tupac after the child was struck by a stray bullet at a community celebration in Marin City, California during a violent altercation between ’Pac and some former friends.
In March ’93, the rapper was arrested after getting into a fight with a limousine driver who objected to marijuana smoke coming from the back seat. The charges were eventually dropped, but less than a month after that incident, ’Pac was arrested for taking a baseball bat to a Lansing, Michigan rapper who supposedly upstaged him during a freestyle session at a concert. He was sentenced to 10 days on the other side of the wall.
’Pac had moved to Atlanta—the ’90s Black Mecca that became a second home to everyone from Too $hort to Erick Sermon to a then-unknown ’bow-throwing MC named Christopher Bridges—in order to get away from the drama that seemed to be following him wherever he went. “Where do I go to stay out of trouble?” asks ’Pac in a scene from director QD3’s 2002 Tupac documentary, Thug Angel: The Life Of An Outlaw. “That’s why I came to Atlanta. What do they want me to do? There’s no place called ‘Careful.’”
On Halloween of that year, ’Pac was heading back to the midtown Sheraton Hotel after performing at Clark Atlanta University. He pulled up to the intersection at 14th and Juniper streets, not far from the hotel. There he is reported to have observed two White men harassing a Black driver. ’Pac took it upon himself to intervene in the situation. When the Black man fled, the two White men, brothers Mark and Scott Whitwell, realized that ’Pac was crew deep and that they were outnumbered. Mark pulled out a gun.
“Apparently ’Pac was like, ‘Go ’head and shoot me,’” says QD3, who also has production credits on ’Pac’s All Eyez On Me and Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory albums. “’Pac put his arms up like, ‘Shoot me, whatever. You can shoot me. What’s up?’”
“The guy took a shot and he missed ’Pac,” he continues. “Then ’Pac pulled out his own strap and shot back.” The time at the firing range paid off: Mark was shot in the abdomen, Scott in his buttocks.
As it turned out, the Whitwell brothers were off-duty police officers. Tupac was arrested and charged with two counts of aggravated assault. At the ensuing trial, however, even witnesses for the prosecution testified that Mark Whitwell fired the first shot. Furthermore, Scott admitted under cross examination that he and his brother had been drinking that night. The charges were eventually dropped, with assistant district attorney Charles Hadaway saying that ’Pac had acted in self-defense. (In 1998, after ’Pac’s death, a Dekalb State Court jury issued a default judgment of $210,000 against Tupac’s estate in favor of Scott Whitwell.)
“For two White cops in Atlanta, a Southern state, to be shot by Tupac, the son of a Black Panther, and Tupac got off?” says QD3. “Something very wrong went down... All the odds were stacked against him.”
“When I heard ’Pac had shot two police officers, I was like, Whoooo!” says Digital Underground front man Shock-G, who gave ’Pac his first break in the music industry. “That nigga really is Chaka Zulu out this muthafucka, he ain’t having it! I didn’t know the details, but knowing him personally, I knew it was just. He wasn’t a murderer.”
“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