Before gangsta raps there were raps about libraries and teen-age pregnancy; before Dannemora State Prison and the killing bullets, there were pillow fights and the exuberance of youth.
Tupac Amaru Shakur did not grow up in Baltimore. He was not a finished product when he left. But his years here encompassed that crucial time when childhood ends and self-discovery begins.
He was 14 when he and his mother moved here from the Bronx in 1985. He called himself MC New York and won a rap contest sponsored by the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Those who knew him here -- friends and teachers from the Baltimore School for the Arts, senior citizens who shared the stage with him, the neighbor who lived above him on Greenmount Avenue -- remember a time when he was as far from a gangster rapper as Betty Crocker.
They knew him before he became 2Pac with THUG LIFE tattooed across his gut, before he became a cultural icon dividing his time between recording studios, courts and prison, before his death at 25 inspired tomorrow's rap summit in New York.
They recall a compassionate, good-natured jokester who could bust a rhyme off the top of his head. In a school known for performers, Shakur stood out.
"You didn't forget Tupac," says Richard Pilcher, who teaches Shakespeare at the School for the Arts. "There's no two ways about it, he had charisma for days."
The basic outlines of his beginning are public knowledge: Born to Afeni Shakur, a Black Panther pregnant with him as she stood trial on bombing charges, he was named for an Inca warrior. He once dreamed of being a revolutionary. He grew up without a father in a family that never had much money.
They came to Baltimore, hoping to escape the hard times in New York. Shakur was already a stage veteran by then, having performed in a Harlem production of "A Raisin in the Sun." He enrolled at Dunbar High School, before auditioning at the School for the Arts. He used a character from Lorraine Hansberry's play.
Teresa Altoz, 24, remembers audition day. Shakur wore a hat and sport coat to evoke Walter Lee, the son who loses his dead father's life insurance on a desperate gamble to prove himself. The audition lasted less than five minutes, but Altoz says "he came out beaming." That fall of 1986, she saw him again in the halls at Cathedral and Madison streets, "that guy with the really big eyes."
"When he first showed up," says Altoz, "it was, 'I'm a rapper from New York, but then he mellowed out and became like a hippie. He was always, like, 'peace, peace,' before people said peace."
He was a popular student, comfortable in all circles. During one prom he never left the dance floor. He was high energy, endowed with a quick, witty mind and a smooth tongue. He could seize the moment and make you laugh.
One Halloween night found Shakur and two of his closest friends, Seth Bloom and Gregory Schmoke, at a haunted house in Towson. The house had a "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" scene. Schmoke, 25, son of Baltimore's mayor, can still see Shakur jumping on stage during the madness and rapping through the pulse of the strobe lights.
They played arcade games that night, joked around, did what 14- and 15-year-olds do. They ended up hungry outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Shakur tried to sweet talk one of the counter girls into giving them some food. His story was crazy: He and Schmoke were orthodox Jews in blackface; Bloom was a black in white face.
"All we got was a big cup of water with sugar, and we put in bad lemon juice," says Schmoke, 25. "It was awful."
Schmoke and Shakur became good friends. Each saw in the other an example of what might have been had life dealt him a different hand. Sometimes Shakur visited the Schmoke home in Ashburton. A favorite game took place in the basement.
"We all took these pillows and we'd turn out the lights and stalk each other and, 'Bam!' hit you in the head," says Schmoke.
They would go down to the Inner Harbor, stroll and try to make conversation with the pretty girls. They were hopelessly outclassed by the older guys with fine cars. So they watched and suffered the sting of indifference. That never sat well with Shakur.
"It really bothered him to be ignored. He didn't care if you hated him or liked him, but he hated to be ignored," says Schmoke, 25. "The fact of being ignored was worse than any rejection."
The Shakurs lived in the Johnston Square neighborhood and in a small, two-bedroom apartment in the 3900 block of Greenmount Avenue. Sometimes the power was on in the apartment, sometimes not. Schmoke remembers one night when a flash of light broke the darkness near Shakur's mother.
"I pretended I was hard and knew what she was doing, but I didn't know what she was doing," he says. He later realized she was smoking crack cocaine.