Twenty years ago this month, Tupac Shakur was sprung from Clinton correctional facility in upstate New York, where he was awaiting appeal to his conviction for sexually assaulting a woman named Ayanna Jackson. Suge Knight and Interscope Records put up Tupac’s $1.4m bail, and the rapper quickly signed a handwritten contract to record for Knight’s Death Row imprint. Fresh out of jail and California dreamin’, he soon rapped on what is probably his most famous song, California Love.
In the midst of his sexual assault trial in late 1994, Tupac journeyed to a Manhattan studio, where he was to record a verse for a rapper named Lil Shawn. There, he was shot and robbed, though he somehow made it to the elevator and went upstairs, where he saw a group including Notorious BIG, the Brooklyn rapper who Tupac then considered a close friend. While sitting in his jail cell at Clinton, Tupac became increasingly convinced that Biggie knew who shot him, and hadn’t warned him. He considered this the ultimate betrayal and, upon his release he began attacking Biggie both in the press and in song, most famously on Hit ’Em Up, in which he claimed to have had sex with Biggie’s wife, Faith Evans.
How much did this feud have to do with Tupac’s murder in 1996, and Biggie’s six months later? It’s impossible to say. Detectives and journalists have destroyed their careers trying to answer this question (journalist Chuck Phillips was let go from the Los Angeles Times after his story on the 1994 shooting was retracted, while detective Russell Poole quit the LAPD, believing his superiors were engaged in a cover-up related to the deaths). But the killings solidified the two MCs’ places at the very top of the rap hierarchy, despite the fact that, at the times of their death, both had only released a minimal amount of work – Tupac, four albums, and Biggie, one, though his Life After Death would soon come out. For many years afterward, it felt like the support for each artist was relatively equal, and hip-hop fans were expected to take sides. Upon the 20th anniversary of Tupac’s death next year, this debate will surely begin anew.
Somewhere along the way, however, the size of one artist’s fanbase became disproportionate, and it wasn’t necessarily the one you might expect. Notorious BIG had always been the highbrow choice, as he was the man with the flawless technique, the breath control to make you dizzy, and the cadences to make you cry. Tupac rapped from the heart, and his songs, from a craft perspective alone, just didn’t measure up in the eyes of many critics, hip-hop heads, and east coast loyalists.
But these days it seems clear that Tupac has the bigger worldwide fanbase, the most devoted following, and the greater influence. He has sold a lot more albums; it helps that his estate has released more posthumous music, of course. But it isn’t just sales. He continues to significantly affect today’s rap music. Countless current MCs sing his praises, and his influence on the larger pop culture is similarly outsized, from his Coachella hologram to the play featuring his music to the African rebel soldiers who listen to his songs to get charged up.
More than anything, I suspect the reason Tupac’s music appeals more than Biggie’s in 2015 is because his message resonates so strongly. Long before the Black Lives Matter movement, Tupac was asking questions like: “What makes a black life any more recoupable than a white life?” For much of his career – basically until he started his war with Biggie – Tupac was focused on telling the story of black discrimination in America, and offering hope to the oppressed. This applied both in his music and his real life, which is why during the protests in the wake of Ferguson, Tupac was referenced by demonstrators. Biggie, on the other hand, didn’t have such a strong sociopolitical message in his music.
Don’t get me wrong. Biggie fandom is not in danger of dying off. His music is simply too impeccable, his rhymes too eternal. There’s every reason to suspect that possibly, at some point, the pendulum will swing back in his favor, and his fandom will dwarf that of his rival.
But for the time being, at least, Tupac’s music continues to feel vital, especially tracks like Trapped, Brenda’s Got a Baby, and Keep Ya Head Up. By speaking out against police persecution, and making pleas for community unity, Tupac’s songs and message are as relevant now as he was when he was alive.