Bootleg records and CDs have historically focused on rock music. But there are exceptions. When a multitude of unreleased Tupac studio recordings began making the rounds on up-from-the-basement CD-R releases, Rock 'N' Rap Confidential editor Dave Marsh covered them for Live! Music Review. This article was first printed in the October/November 1998 issue and is part of Piss On It: The Best Of Live! Music Review, to be published by BigO Books later this year.

Hit 'Em Up 2: The Album
(no label, CD-R)

Play Your Cards Right (w/ Jodeet & The Outlaws)/ 4 My Niggas (w/ Storm)/ Letter 2 The President (w/ The Outlaws)/ Die (w/ Kurupt)/ Hit 'Em Up 2 (w/ The Outlaws)/ World Wide Mob Figures (w/ The Outlaws)/ Soon As I Get Home/ This Life I lead (w/ Dogg Pound)/ Grab The Mic/ Fade Me (w/ The Outlaws)/ Resist The Temptation/ Me & My Homies (w/ Nate Dogg)/ Why U Turn On Me/ Kummin' (unedited w/ Dreamacydal & Notorious B.I.G.)

Thug Life
(no label, CD-R)

Where Ever You Are/ When We Ride On Our Enemies/ Never Be Peace/ F***in' With The Wrong Nigga/ Catchen Feelenz/ My Closest Road Dogs/ You Don't Have To Worry/ Fright Night/ Good Life/ Late Night/ Street Fame/ Pac's Life/ Thug In Me/ The Struggle Continues/ Things Are Changing/ Stoublesome "96"/ Who Do You Believe In

Thug Life After Death: Unrealeased Sh*t
(no label, CD-R)

Interview/ When We Ride On Our Enemies/ Things Are Changing/ Military Winds/ Who Do You Believe In?/ Still I Rise/ What's Next?/ Teardrops & Closed Caskets/ Interview/ Bad Boy Killaz/ Interview/ Why You Gonna Turn On Me?/ Life Goes On, Stay Strong/ What Cha Gonna Do?



The appearance of bootleg Tupac albums is perhaps inevitable. Like his rapping style — which I did — or not, he was the most charismatic individual performer hip-hop culture produced. Tupac lived a short life of great drama, from his birth to an imprisoned Black Panther revolutionary who refused to reveal the identity of his father to his death in a barrage of shots into a limo traveling a Las Vegas Street. In between, there was a bizarre childhood, lived partly as a beloved child of the revolution and partly as near-destitute progeny of a crackhead, an adolescence almost as diverse (Tupac prospered in Baltimore at a special school for gifted young artists; he withered at an everyday, thus nakedly racist and class-biased high school in Marin County, California).

His career included being thrown in jail for abetting the sexual assault of a woman who had sucked his dick in public the night before, being shot in the balls on the ground floor of a recording studio (and "rescued" by the same cop who'd made the bust in the sex assault), a long stint of incarceration on Riker's Island after his assault conviction, and finally release on appeal bond after he agreed to sign up with the gangsta-mysterioso Death Row Records. Tupac was murdered inside the limo of Death Row's gangsta-impresario Suge Knight. He did not die immediately but lingered for days, giving his mother and friends a chance to grieve openly, and the cops yet one more reason to fail to investigate since it wasn't a homicide... yet.

Compared to this, just about nothing ever happened to James Dean and Elvis lived a life of commonplace composure.

And of course, with this much mystery going on, we want to know more, and to possess more. The flow of movies has stopped. The flow of music hasn't and, if the careers of everyone from Elvis to John Coltrane are any indication, it won't for many years.

Nevertheless, I was surprised to see these boots. Hip-hop isn't a widely bootlegged form, and with good reason: There is no group in the history of rap that relies on live shows as the wellspring of its creativity; it's a purely studio form. And what happens in a hip-hop studio is such an intricately technological method of music-making, with basic tracks being intercut with samples and often several different rappers (even on records credited to one individual). You're not likely to get spontaneous jams out of this process, and the whole idea of "songs" becomes obliterated (quite productively obliterated) by the process.

Nevertheless, the Tupac albums — Thug Life, which bears the same name as a Tupac solo album, Thug Life After Death: Unrelaesed Sh*t (the censorship is on the cover), and Hir 'Em Up 2: The Album — are jammed with alternates: different mixes, different takes, different samples, different satellite rappers. Aside from the interview material on Thug Life After Death, which goes farther than the libel laws would allow even Death Row to go in castigating Biggie Smalls and his crew as treacherous, spineless pipsqueak rip-off artists and apers of the one true Tupac, I don't think there's much here that adds a lot to our overall image of Tupac, especially in the later (post-bust) part of his career.

He appears as the resilient, furious, pissed-off artist we already know. He's also sometimes amazingly funny as on Hit "em Up 2, where "Why U Turn On Me" represents an assault on New York deejay Wendy Williams far nastier, in the end, than anything he ever said about Biggie or Puff Daddy. Nevertheless, it's amazing how little of this music has anything at all to do with the brutal sexism that supposedly completely dominates such gangsta recordings (and this stuff is pure gangsta).

Instead, these discs serve to confirm and deepen our impression of Tupac as a recording artist with a mission. Especially on Thug Life and Hit 'Em Up 2, where he's less distracted by the feud with Biggie and crew, his comments amount to an overt attempt to goad black people to revolution, and revolution on class more than race terms. Thug Life's "When We Ride On Our Enemies" declares that this is where "there'll never be peace." And "Pac's Life" is a remake of Prince's "Pop Life" with all illusions dispelled — it's one of the meanest pieces of music that I know. Nevertheless, the overall impression is of someone who is totally dedicated to the transformation of his life, and means to drag society along with him.

Tupac, then, was a figure of black liberation, more akin to the Black Panthers' equally handsome, equally contradictory Huey P. Newton (whose first book was called Revolutionary Suicide, a title that fits this story well) than to any entertainer I can think of. His social vision, which includes a radical analysis of poverty and racism and a critique of police terrorism far more trenchant than he's usually credited wit, reaches farther than any other pop music performer I'm familiar with. Before his legal troubles and ensuing financial problems and personal feuds took him away from the field, Tupac had all the earmarks of a serious, committed musical revolutionary, one who meant to leave not just the entertainment field, but the entire world a different place than he found it.

I don't know who shot him in Las Vegas. I do know that this story, of the black insurrectionary just beginning to give full voice to his transforming vision, smacks deeply of the stories of Malcolm X and of the Black Panthers as well. As with those murders, the question is less who pulled the trigger than who, and what, put the gun in those hands. And, of course, what we're going to do to stop it before everyone's freedom is demolished.

Interscope Records continues to mine the legacy of Tupac with an average of one new official release per year. Suge Knight, head of Death Row Records, was jailed for parole violation just before Christmas, 2002. Tupac's murder
remains unsolved.

Note: This is an early glimpse at the upcoming book "Piss On It: The Best Of Live! Music Review. A featured chapter will be made available each month on the BigO website leading up to the books release in the Fall of 2003. Review copies will be available to journalists upon the book's release. Requests should be made to [email protected]. Please include your name, address and magazine affiliation.

Also see Bathtub Gin: The Public Fights Back, by Bill Glahn.

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