Tupac plus 10: hip-hop's diminished potential

by Daudi Abe, Seattle Times

It has been a decade since the passing of Tupac Shakur, the hip-hop equivalent of Bob Marley and Elvis Presley, the iconic figures of reggae and rock and roll, respectively.

Like Marley and Presley, whose status has grown in the years since their premature deaths, Shakur has remained relevant, in part due to his appearances in movies and the continued release of new music of his.

The other piece of Shakur's appeal was his life experience. He was raised by his mother, who went from being a member of the Black Panthers in the 1970s to a crackhead in the 1980s.

In a high school for the performing arts, Shakur was trained as an actor with the range to play Shakespeare. Later on, he would serve time for sexual assault; wound in a shootout two off-duty police officers who were harassing a black motorist; and, toward the end of his life, predict his own death in interviews.

His ties to the remnants of the black-power movement from the civil-rights era, combined with his firsthand experience in the apocalyptic wave of crack that came in its aftermath, gave Shakur unique artistic credibility. This allowed him, for the most part, to successfully walk the line between socially relevant "message" music and more "hardcore" street-type jams like no other, laying the critical foundation for the legend.

The case of Shakur's murder remains open, but there have been fresh developments. In the mid-1990s, hip-hop was transfixed by a grudge between Los Angeles-based Tupac and New York native Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls, who had been friends.

In 1994, Shakur was shot during a robbery attempt and blamed Biggie for setting him up. Animosity built and there was a media feeding frenzy that came to frame the dispute as East Coast hip-hop vs. West Coast hip-hop. Six months after Tupac died, Biggie was shot and killed in California. No arrests have been made in either case, but a 2002 documentary has helped to revive both investigations.

In "Biggie and Tupac," filmmaker Nick Broomfield examined the role of law enforcement in this story. Looking back to the early 1990s, hip-hop music was dominated by the militant, socio-political messages of groups like Public Enemy. Broomfield described how the FBI had become concerned with "the subversive qualities of hip-hop." The dynamic presence of Tupac and Biggie caught the FBI's attention, demonstrated in the film by surveillance photos of Biggie and his crew at the party in Los Angeles where he was shot.

Evidence Broomfield presented linked the shooter in that case to the Los Angeles Police Department and Marion "Suge" Knight, CEO of Death Row Records, Shakur's record company at the time of his death. An ex-LAPD officer named Russell Poole discussed his resignation from the force after he was removed from the Biggie case after finding evidence that department personnel were involved. After hearing Broomfield's information, Biggie's mother sued the LAPD over the death of her son and the department has reopened the investigation.

Illegal and immoral activities by federal and local law enforcement against disenfranchised groups, and the black community in particular, is nothing new in the United States. Stories of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI's numerous efforts to sabotage the civil-rights movement and blackmail leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are common knowledge.

Still, the notion that the FBI viewed the hip-hop movement of the early 1990s as a threat is significant and in a way validates the opinion of the times that hip-hop had the power to change the world.

There are still questions about Tupac Shakur's death, but two things are known for sure. One is the imprint that Shakur, who was 25 when he died, left on mainstream culture, particularly youth. The other is the effect that the massive infusion of corporate money has had on hip-hop and rap music in the past 10 years.

Since Shakur's death, the direction of mainstream hip-hop has shifted significantly, with the content of the most-requested rap songs and videos overrun in an exaggerated manner by rims, jewelry and thongs, as the business model evolved. The transformative energy around the social and political issues that was an active piece of hip-hop until the mid-1990s has, for the most part, been relegated to the margins.

Hip-hop still has the potential to create change, but that potential is significantly diminished when the music consistently fails to challenge and inspire critical thought in the people who listen to it.

article originally published at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/200327.

Hip hop

I'd hate to be one of those conspiracy theory types but Tupac has put out way too much music to no longer be a member of the living. Either that or he recorded enough music previously to put out CD's for two decades. The hip hop culture has deteriorated rapidly, although the message has been distorted for years. What started as an art form of power for those struggling quickly turned into messages of violence and drug dealing. From there is went to buying rims and being around lots of promiscuous women. Rap still has a chance to turn itself around, granted individuals like Dre decide its worth saving.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey