Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Requiem for a rapper

Tupac Shakur: June 16, 1971-Sept. 13, 1996
By Robert Nelson

When I was in junior high, virtually all the boys in my class had divided into two giant gangs. Best friends were separated by allegiances. Guys who’d never spoken before became brothers watching each other’s backs. This went on for a month or so. On the day of the rumble, maybe 50 kids filled the hallway of the second floor, squaring off, ready for battle. When the first bell rang, the melee began: fists flying, bodies being tossed into lockers, and at the second bell, we scattered, laughing and talking trash. It was fantastic.

This was in the middle of the East Coast vs. West Coast rap rivalry, and a year or two after we read The Outsiders in grade school. Blame either, but we were just horsing around. Nobody got hurt. In fact, it was probably the last time we really unified as a class. Ah, the stories I could tell you.

In U.S. History class, I sat next to Jessica Morales. One day I showed up and she was crying. She had these high, strong cheekbones that lifted her smile, almost perky, and a single crooked tooth that could be completely distracting when you saw it, but on that day, was more conspicuous for its absence. Her hair was thick and long, and strands of it clung to the tears running over her lips. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me Tupac died. I don’t know if I ever spoke to her again. It was September 13, 1996.

In 1991, Pac was still a part of Digital Underground when they appeared in the movie “Nothing But Trouble” with Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Chevy Chase and Demi Moore. An abbreviated version of “Same Song” was featured in the film, and I ran out and bought “This is an EP Release” which included the full track with Tupac’s verse. That year, he released his first solo record 2Pacalypse Now. He was 20 years old.

Over the next five years, he released six studio albums, four of which were certified platinum (All Eyez on Me went 9x platinum), wrote enough material for as many posthumous albums, starred in as many movies, and in the 15 years since his death at 25 years old, has sold more than 75 million records. In 2010, he was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. His murder remains unsolved.

I watched a few 9/11 documentaries this weekend. Each touched on how quickly we seem to forget. I don’t remember how I felt when Jessica Morales told me Tupac died. I can recall everything about that moment but the feeling. It evolves. Tupac’s legacy is vast and rich and complicated, but that’s not so important to me. What matters is the feeling. Sometimes, it’s for the sake of nostalgia, sometimes it’s sorrow, but more often, it’s just because he was so good. The feeling is why he’s important. That’s music.

Join Twin Cities contributor Robert Nelson on Wednesdays at Six String Sanctuary and gain a temporary asylum for your soul.

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