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Rock and Roll Book Club

Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Changes: An Oral History of Tupac Shakur'

A wall dedicated to the memory of rapper Tupac Shakur is seen on May 26, 2016, in Los Angeles.
A wall dedicated to the memory of rapper Tupac Shakur is seen on May 26, 2016, in Los Angeles.VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

by Jay Gabler

July 01, 2021

There's a distinctly contemplative tone to Changes: An Oral History of Tupac Shakur. If "contemplative" isn't the first word that comes to mind when you think of Tupac, author Sheldon Pearce and his sources are here to educate you.

"Tupac was like a perfect example of the misunderstood emcee," former Source editor Rob Marriott told Pearce. "At The Source, we could see that he was incredibly intelligent and articulate and a truth teller and very courageous, and so on, but for everybody else, all they could see were the court cases. Dan Quayle is saying, 'There's no place in society for him.' So trying to balance the perspective of who this guy is was a priority."

Pearce lists his sources under the title "Chorus," underscoring the fact that Changes is a multivocal exploration of Shakur's life and times. It's neither a comprehensive biography nor an intimate portrait, but a look back at a brilliant artist gone far too soon — the book's publication marks a half-century since Tupac's birth, and a quarter-century since his death — as remembered by many friends and associates.

The portrait that emerges in the new book, one of the most-anticipated titles of the summer publishing season, is one of a man pulled in many directions. At a pivotal moment for hip-hop, Tupac was both a visionary multimedia artist — the book reminds us that he was an actor and dancer before he was a musician, and that as a celebrity he exercised a Prince-like command over his own image — and a young Black man raised to fight the power.

Sadly, he would only ever be young, killed in a still-unsolved murder one September night in Las Vegas. Shakur was a gentle person who was unafraid of confrontation; a non-gangster who also brandished guns; a rapper who wrote sensitively about women and who was also convicted of sexual assault; and an iconoclastic artist who became an icon.

"Tupac was not a perfect being," says scholar Mark Anthony Neal. "He was a person who was in process and in transition. There's nothing more human than being in process and in transition. So if young folks could connect not to who Tupac was but the process that he was going through, that would actually bring them closer to who he is."

The life and career of the late star, who was actually raised as a theater kid on the east coast before moving out west and finding "California Love," are inextricably tied to that of his frenemy the Notorious B.I.G., who was killed several months after Tupac in another shooting that was also shoddily investigated and that also remains officially unsolved. In both cases, suffice it to say, there are ample theories to go around; both artists were caught in a nexus of money, crime, music, and ego that existed for legitimate reasons (lack of access to the white centers of industry power prominent among them) but that repeatedly led to tragic violence.

"The East Coast-West Coast thing was great for business," says former Death Row Records staffer Alex Roberts. "There was a beef but we leveraged it to sell records more than anything else. It sold one hell of a lot of records. I'd tell people to look at the positives. Just don't push it too far. And nobody needs to get shot."

"I think the fuel on the fire was the record companies," says videographer Gobb Rahimi, "because they're the ones that profited the most. And, you know, Suge had his own little-boy complex or whatever, flexing on who's a bigger CEO between him and P. Diddy."

It was Knight who posted the $3 million bond that freed Tupac from prison after his assault conviction, earning the rapper's loyalty and making Shakur a Death Row artist. Pearce dives appropriately deep on that assault conviction, stemming from an incident involving Tupac and multiple other men in a New York hotel room with Ayanna Jackson on Nov. 18, 1993. Juror Richard Devitt, quoted at length in the book, says that Tupac would have been acquitted if not for the urging of two older white jurors who convinced the panel to find the rapper guilty.

"Tupac said it himself," says journalist Justin Tinsley. "He didn't do enough to stop it. At best, he looked the other's not just 'Did he do this?' Maybe he didn't. But in his own words, he was complicit in what happened."

Although Tupac's life story came to pivot around that prison time — during which he exchanged thoughtful correspondence with multiple people, some of whom talked to Pearce for Changes — the book follows the full arc of his life. We meet the young Tupac as a bright-eyed stage actor who, before he broke out as a music star, would be cast in Juice as a hugely charismatic but effectively understated presence.

He was always driven. "Once you met Tupac," says friend Kendrick Wells, "you knew where he was going, and you were either going to help him get there or get in the way." He would later emerge from prison and head straight to the studio in a fury of creative output that was made possible by his lightning-fast process, a frequent source of wonderment among Pearce's sources.

He found his way into the L.A. hip-hop scene and was dancing with Digital Underground when he was cast in Juice. Signed as a solo artist in the salad days of hip-hop's early '90s commercial explosion, Tupac trusted his instincts ("This sounds good to me," he said after one less-than-pristine studio take, noting, "It don't gotta be perfect. I'm not perfect") but soon bore the brunt of institutional approbation when his music was associated with a shooting and the Moral Majority singled him out as a dangerous influence. Tupac, whose parents were involved with the Black Panther movement and explicitly drew connections to a legacy of Black activism, "was dangerous in a way that N.W.A. could never be dangerous," said Neal.

By the time of the assault conviction, Tupac was a national celebrity. When he emerged, he was poised to use his platform to full effect. His motto, THUGLIFE, was an acronym for The Hate U Give Little Infants F**k Everybody. "The white framing of what a thug was didn't represent the fullness of how we thought about it in the context of our communities," says Neal. "So what he attempted to do was to take this word that we knew already had so many multiple meanings and framings within Black communities, and tried to actually theorize about what that meant."

"He did get reckless toward the end of his life," says associate Nahshon Anderson, "and that's understandable. That's what being shot at multiple times and convicted of certain things will do. He was angry about all of the hypocrisy, and that stuff will really just turn you into a vicious a**hole."

The final chapter of Changes comprises extensive speculation on what Tupac might be doing today if he were still alive. The general consensus is that while he would have continued to make great art, he would have remained strongly committed to the need for political change and ground-level justice.

Interspersed between chapters of Changes are scholars' accounts of the life and legacy of the rapper's namesake Túpac Amaru, the Inca monarch who made a last stand against the invading Spanish colonizers in 16th-century Peru. The name, chosen by Shakur's mother, proved entirely apt.

"He is the perfect hero," says Chuck Walker, "because he represented different things for different people. For the indigenous people, he was a radical who took up arms and defended them. For more moderate groups, he was a rebel forced to fight and he didn't want to; he was a very religious man who said, 'Don't touch the Catholic Church.' He entered this form of incredible martyrdom. Just like any hero, there are lots of different interpretations."

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Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

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