For rapper, last line has yet to be written

4 1/2 years after his death, Tupac Shakur's memory is mutating into martyrdom.

Pop Music

April 15, 2001|By Neil Strauss | Neil Strauss,NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK -- On a recent Monday afternoon, Adam Gassman, 14, stood amid a gaggle of teenybopper girls outside MTV's Times Square studios, as he does almost every day after school. While the schoolgirls begged producers to let them into the studio for the day's taping of "Total Request Live," Adam looked on dour-faced. In his hand was a large white sign with two words sloppily scrawled in thin black marker: "Tupac lives."

At the same time in the East Village, at the New York Theater Workshop, tickets were on sale for "Up Against the Wind," a play about Tupac Shakur's life and 1996 death in a drive-by shooting. It opened last week, featuring an actor who looks remarkably like Shakur, along with others playing Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, Suge Knight of Death Row Records, Jimmy Iovine of Interscope Records and other real-life characters.

Several blocks farther downtown, on Canal Street, street vendors were hawking eight separate volumes of posthumously released recordings (and two volumes of remixes) on Cochise Records from a period late in Shakur's career, when he was recording under the pseudonym Makaveli in addition to numerous Shakur bootlegs and recordings by an ever-increasing army of sound-alikes, among them Tha Realest and Krazy.

Shakur's latest legitimate posthumous album, the two-CD set "Until the End of Time" (Interscope), is No. 1 on the pop charts, having sold an impressive 427,000 copies in its first week. In Georgia, the Tupac Amaru Shakur spring camp session for disadvantaged youths is under way. Land there has just been bought for a future Tupac Amaru Shakur Performing Arts and Cultural Center, a combination gallery, museum, performance space, community center and shrine planned by the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation.

Add to this a Quincy Jones-backed Hollywood feature on Shakur, an MTV special about his early days, a big-budget documentary film and volumes of additional official recordings to come, and you have a cultural revolution staged by a corpse.

"How long will they mourn me?" Shakur asked in the song of the same name. By the looks of it, a long, long time.

A hip-hop martyr

"He is going to be viewed as one of the most respected African-Americans of the last generation," says Elliott Wilson, the editor of the hip-hop magazine XXL. Michael Develle Winn, who wrote "Up Against the Wind," says, "Tupac is the closest thing in some ways to a revolutionary that we have had."

That wasn't what many African-Americans were saying before he died at age 25, long after he left Baltimore, where he spent his relatively quiet teen years. "Case Brings Bad Image to Blacks," proclaimed a headline in one African-American newspaper after Shakur was convicted of first-degree sexual abuse in 1995. Like Shakur's music, which vacillated between glorification of the thug life and beautifully moralistic elegies for the wages of that life, public opinion on Shakur was sharply divided.

But in the 4 1/2 years since his unsolved murder in Las Vegas, Shakur has progressively become a much greater symbol. The cover of his very first posthumous record depicted him nailed to a cross, a hip-hop martyr.

"Now that Tupac is dead, people don't have to bother with the actual details of his life," says Bill Adler, a former record executive and spokesman for rap groups like Public Enemy. "He's going to be Jim Morrison, he's going to be Rambo, he's going to be whatever people make of him."

The person who's been making the most of Tupac has been his mother, Afeni Shakur, a former Black Panther who conceived her famous son while free on bail after she was charged with conspiracy to blow up several Manhattan buildings. (She was acquitted.) Because of her, her son is the first rapper with an estate and legacy that is being carefully, even obsessively, maintained and marketed.

Afeni Shakur is in charge of the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation, the Tupac Amaru Shakur Performing Arts and Cultural Center and Amaru Records, the only official home of her son's posthumous recordings. And her mark is all over his posthumous work. In the liner notes to "Until the End of Time," his current No. 1 album, only one lyric has been blown up in large type, and it is a line in which he pays tribute to his mother.

In an interview, Shakur says her responsibility as his mother was clear. "People can like him or not like him individually," she says. "But I need for them to know that he was a person of substance, and he was worthy, and he was a good son and a good brother and a good participant in the community."

She pauses, and adds: "I just need to do Pac's work. I just need to. Maybe because I'm a recovering addict, I'm obsessed like that."

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