(I wrote this in 1996 for the journal Bad Subjects. I am reprinting it here, slightly edited, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years. This feels very 1996 to me.)
Pour Out a Little Liquor for Tupac
Four or five years ago, my daughter Sara went down to Berkeley Square with a friend to see Raw Fusion, one of the many spin-offs from Digital Underground. Sara was 13 or 14, and she was kinda sweet on DU's Money B, so when the group hit the stage, she went straight to the front. Late in the show, a couple of assholes started some shit, someone sprayed mace, and Sara and her friend snuck backstage to get away from the crap. She was totally enthralled, as well she should have been. Among the folks hanging out at that show was Tupac Shakur, who was another one of the Digital Undergrounders back in the day. Sara remembers him with a beer in each hand, very down-to-earth, just chillin'. Berkeley Square is very small, and it says something about the easy feeling of community that can emerge around local music acts that there was room in the tiny club for rapstars-to-be and young teenage fans.
I've been thinking about a recent thread on the Bad Subjects mailing list about generational stereotypes. And I've been reading Todd Gitlin's book on culture wars. And there's been a long-lasting and very fruitful discussion going on at our house lately between me and Sara and her brother Neal, about an upcoming album track by Vallejo rapper B-Legit that features Daryl Hall from Hall and Oates. And all of these thoughts come together in my mind when I think about Tupac's stupid death (as if death was ever anything but stupid).
Gitlin argues that the left has become fragmented partly because we have lost our ability to think in terms of commonalities. He attacks identity politics for many of the reasons Bad Subjects does, noting that while the left emphasizes difference, the right latches onto a fake-but-effective commonality, best represented by the image of President Ronald Reagan. Gitlin draws a line back through the 60s (as he always does) and beyond, to show why he thinks the left fell victim to this fragmentation, in effect celebrating the fragmentation under the multicultural umbrella.
Some folks on the Bad List have noted that the 60s generation was different from the 70s, or the 80s, or the 90s, while others have said "hogwash." Meanwhile I am thinking about the notion of community, both narrowly defined as it can be when identity politics hold the upper hand (I am a Spaniard), and more broadly defined as it can be when commonalities hold us (I am one with all oppressed peoples). The Me Decade, Gen X, and other derogatory stereotypes are attached to various post-60s generations, but Gitlin seems to be saying that the memory of the 60s as a time of great community is false, that the roots of 90s fragmentation can be found in those 60s.
And my kids are 18 and 21, and they have their own notions of community. They are not children of the 60s, for sure. Not even children of the 70s: when I used to go to Berkeley Square in the 70s, it was to see punk, not rap, but times change.
And now B-Legit, one of the many hot Vallejo rappers currently making some great music, has gotten Daryl Hall to do a reworking of the old "Sara Smile" song. My kids and their friends are all totally excited about this. They don't much remember Hall and Oates, but they love that B-Legit has gotten Daryl Hall on his new album. I've talked to them about this a few times in the last couple of weeks. I don't understand why they'd want a hot, current artist to go back and drag up some leftover from another time. B-Legit should be making his own music, not dragging Daryl Hall into the mix. But Neal and Sara tell me that they'll be happy if even one Hall and Oates fan takes a listen to the new song and decides that B-Legit is good. I try to insist on a generation-gap reading of this stuff, but then my kids tell me "our music doesn't always have to be about rebellion, that's YOUR thing." It would have crushed me to think my parents liked my music, but my kids are happy if I like their tunes. They love B-Legit and the whole V-Town music scene, they want to share it with everyone, and if Daryl Hall can get more people to hear the V-Town sound, then, as Neal is always saying, "It's all good."
That is to say, my kids are part of a community based in part on their love of particular styles of music, but that isn't enough. They want the whole world to be a part of that community. In their way, they are rejecting the notion that we must be fragmented in the 1990s, and are instead grasping for a larger community where "It's all good."
As soon as the news of Tupac's death hit the wires, the two main "urban contemporary" radio stations in the area started into Tupac mode, playing his music, playing interviews with him, playing Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday," which may be the standard song for such situations now. The DJs stepped out of their usual act to talk about what had happened, even making tiny and perhaps soon to be forgotten steps towards connecting the music they play on their stations, the music that Tupac made, with what happened to Tupac when the gunmen opened fire. And they took calls from the folks in the community. Community, there's that word again.
Of course, Tupac, through his music, through his art, through his public persona, is not blameless in the events that led to his death. And gangsta rap culture is not blameless in the events that magnify the fragmentation of our culture. Too much of gangsta rap culture is based on the narrow version of community, not a reaching out for recognition of the common ground of all oppressed people as much as an exaggeration of the Us versus Them mentality that too often drives identity politics. East Coast vs. West Coast, revolting sexism and homophobia, sometimes so awful you understand people throwing up their hands in disgust and joining in with the Tipper Gores and Delores Tuckers. But as I type this I'm listening to the radio and they're talking about Tupac, and I'm thinking about my kids, who are not happy right now, and I'm thinking about Sara going to see Money B back in the day, and I'm thinking about how my own kids understand the importance of Daryl Hall in 1996 better than I do, and I think there is still a chance that community can recover its broader definitions, can defeat the self-marginalized, I-got-mine-I-hope-you-got-yours "community" that can't see beyond its own self-interest. But it's still hard. When I was growing up, I didn't have any rituals surrounding death. No one ever died, it sometimes seemed. But my kids, they're fucking 21 and 18 years old, and they have death rituals, people dying ain't an abstraction to them. They're out somewhere right now, pouring some beer on the ground for their dead homies. And on the radio, Tupac is singing:
How many brothas fell victim to tha streets
Rest in peace, young nigga, there's a heaven for a G
Be a lie if I told ya that I never thought of death
My niggas, we tha last ones left
But life goes on
I wrote the above words a few weeks ago, the night Tupac died. I've had a chance to think about those words, revise them a bit, and I've also had a chance to read the tens of thousands of words others have written about Tupac and his death. I'm not sure how many people realize what an impact Tupac has had and is having, not only on hip-hop culture but among all the regular folks who might not have explicitly identified themselves with that culture but who loved his art nonetheless. Comparisons to Kurt Cobain are appropriate, including a note of the different ways members of various subcultures respond. My guess is that at least some readers of Bad Subjects were deeply affected by Kurt's death, and that most readers would understand that Kurt Cobain was "important." I also guess that Tupac Shakur would not seem as "important" to many Bad Readers, and that fewer of them are deeply affected by his death, although I could be wrong. In both cases, we have a recognition that the fragmentation of daily life during the reign of Taste Cultures makes different people important to different peoples, that Kurt Cobain is important to particular subcultures but that nothing universal is to be learned from him. There is another recognition, that there is a hierarchy among subcultures, that while Kurt Cobain can not speak to anything universal, what he does speak to is more "important" than what Tupac Shakur spoke to. There is an easier recognition of Kurt Cobain as Artist than there is for 2Pac.
Most commentary on Tupac in the aftermath of his death continues the simplistic "analysis" of his art that existed prior to his shooting. People latch onto what is easy, no matter from what perspective you approach the situation. Tupac is good or he is bad, he is a saint or he is evil. Everyone has evidence to support their opinion, and everyone who takes this simplistic, easy approach is required to ignore all contradictory evidence. So Tupac's fans cite his touching, realistic ode to his "Dear Mama" while his detractors point to his jail term for sexual assault, and no one bothers to investigate the possibility that Tupac Shakur, like all human beings, was a complex individual who lived among other complex individuals in complex times. If we can reduce Tupac to a single element, if we can turn him into a symbol, our own lives are easier. Tupac will not force us to re-evaluate our own lives. We will file him under whatever narrow label matches our preconceptions, and we will forget about his life and his art.
And this would be an insult to Tupac's art, which asks that we do not take the simple and easy way out, which gets in our faces and demands that we actually think about the deep implications of his work. Too much of what has arisen in the past weeks insults Tupac by drowning in simplicity. He was not a saint, he is not the devil, he was not one single thing at all.
Tupac sang, "Only God can judge me, nobody else, all you other muthafuckas get out of my business." We answer to no one but ourselves and "god"; I am not responsible for you, you are not responsible for me. It's a 90s rap replay of Fritz Perls in the 60s:
I do my thing, and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
And if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.
If not, it can't be helped.
It's a celebration of fragmentation.
But Tupac's art is not that simple. He may claim that only God can judge him, but he must have known the power of his own music to affect others. We who listened were being connected to him in a larger way than is possible when we owe nothing to no one. And because Tupac's art is not simple, we see this in his own songs, as when he describes being shot five times in an earlier shooting:
How did it come to this?
I wish they didn't miss
Somebody help me
Tell me where to go from here
Cuz even thugs cry
But do the Lord care?
Tupac is commonly vilified for his misogyny, for which there is indeed little if any excuse. Dave Marsh, in an intelligent and heartfelt defense of Tupac in Addicted To Noise, might note that "Tupac was sent to prison for a crime that white rock stars have committed, and continue to commit, with absolute impunity," but that doesn't justify Tupac, it only explains what happens to the Tupacs of the world in comparison to other more privileged artists. Nevertheless, as Marsh and other Tupac champions point out, Tupac's work could be far more respectful of women than his image would imply, most famously in "Keep Ya Head Up":
And when he tells you
You ain't nothin', don't believe him
And if he can't learn to love you
You should leave him ...
I know you're fed up ladies,
But keep your head up
Ultimately, the misogyny or lack of same in Tupac's work mainly serves those who would think simplistically, misogyny being so prevalent in gangsta rap that it becomes far too easy to merely add Tupac's name to the list of sexist rappers to be condemned. The bigger problem, I think, comes not from the attitudes of either "Keep Ya Head Up" or its opposite, but in the combination of machismo and individualism that informs "Only God Can Judge Me." It is, again, too easy to merely say that Tupac's art is "what killed him" (a notion expressed by fans and detractors alike, with one side sadly but with admiration crying "live by the sword die by the sword" while the other side screams the same, but without admiration, and at some level are glad that he "got what he deserved"). However, it is safe to say that whatever elements of Tupac's life and art that contributed to the situation which ended in his death, he was not killed because of his attitudes towards women. Valerie Solanas was not in the car with the shooters.
Each and every black male's trapped
And they wonder why we suicidal
Runnin' around strapped
Please try to see
That there's a million muthafuckas stressin' just like me
Tupac, one of the "black males trapped," demands respect, in the absence of anything better to live for. "I'd rather die like a man than live like a coward." Because he insists on his existence as an isolated individual that only God can judge, because Tupac accepts on one level an ideology of the power of American individualism, he sees every attack on his life in personal terms. He wants other muthafuckas out of his business; if they interfere, it's personal, it needs to be addressed on a personal level. This seems true even though Tupac expresses great love for his homies (a love that gets artistic expression via the interaction of various friends on each other's albums). It appears that while one should always be there for your partners, ultimately, it comes down to "my" business. What begins as a cartoonish version of two tough guys blowing ass at each other on a playground escalates into something far more horrific, as if the very escalation itself is the meaning of life, as if the demand for respect overrides any other considerations. And, of course, the refusal and removal of respect for one's enemies becomes a way of getting respect for yourself, with this "playa hatin" then becoming an excuse for a hatin' response.
And so Tupac put a song called "Hit `Em Up" on a release of a single from his latest album. Tupac had always blamed Biggie Smalls for being behind his earlier shooting, and in this song, Tupac offers his reply. As a song, it's terrific, led by the bass line to Dennis Edwards and Siedah Garrett's "Don't Look Any Further" that had already been effectively sampled by Eric B & Rakim in "Paid in Full", and propelled by a dynamic vocal performance from Tupac. In the right frame of mind, one might even laugh at some of the razzing Tupac sends Biggie's way. After announcing up front that "you claim to be a playa, but I fucked your wife," Tupac gives the mic to his friends, saying that Biggie and his crew are so far beneath Tupac's level that he doesn't even know why he bothers to appear on the song. He disses the shooters ("five shots couldn't drop me"), but gradually, the bile increases: "Fuck you and your muthafuckin' mama, we gonna kill all you muthafuckas." And then Tupac lays it down, sounding less and less like Joey Ramone singing about beating on the brat and more and more like Johnny Rotten scrabbling at the Berlin Wall. Tupac means it, maaan. He chants a mantra of hate at his enemies. "Fuck Mobb Deep! Fuck Biggie! Fuck Bad Boy!" ... the list goes on to include any who would side with the wrong ones: "Fuck You Too!" And finally:
All y'all muthafuckas
DIE SLOW MUTHAFUCKA
My .44 make sure
ALL your kids don't grow!
As Tupac sings in "Only God Can Judge Me," "They say it's the white man I should fear, but it's my own kind doin' all the killin' here."
We're a long way from community, here, but as with all of Tupac's art, it isn't that simple. For he tells us, "Please try to see that there's a million muthafuckas stressin' just like me." What killed Tupac is the denial of those million muthafuckas in the face of rampant individualism, the insistence on the personal, the rejection of everything outside one's self. Tupac gets respect, he's thug `til he dies, but "now ya gone, and all I got left are stinkin' memories." If those million muthafuckas came together, what then? If we refused the simple answer, refused to accept as inevitable the ideology of the individual, overcame fragmentation and our own personal demons, and banded together as a community of muthafuckas, what then? Who would we fight? Who are the real enemies?
"If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other's objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak to your own private, entirely circumscribed situation's many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis's. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won't bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you."
-- Lester Bangs, August 29, 1977
Copyright © 1996, 2019 by Steven Rubio. All rights reserved. Permission to link to this site is granted.