Tuesday was the 15th anniversary of Tupac Shakur’s death. That anniversary isn’t something that I have marked on my calendar or anything, so to be totally honest, I only realized it the day of. But nevertheless, for most people who are familiar on any level with hip-hop and its history, 2Pac is iconic figure, revered perhaps more than any other emcee. He’s been an unexpected source of inspiration in my life, and I want to take this Throwback Thursday to talk a little about how I came to listen and to admire him.
If I asked you to name a famous swimmer, who would you name? Michael Phelps? Well, like the legends of almost any sport or art, 2Pac’s name is known even among those totally foreign to hip-hop. And when I first began to take a serious interest in hip-hop, I was almost (but not quite) as foreign to the genre as I was to olympic swimming. I’d heard of 2Pac, but save for a song or two, I really had no idea who was or why he was so respected. For an artist who consistently ranks with the top of the top in popular rankings in hip-hop, what would his music sound like? Could he really be that good?
I first started listening to hip-hop while I was living in China, and my roommate at the time was a hip-hop connoisseur. Almost like a hip-hop hipster. He raved on and on about all the classic rappers, music from the early and mid-nineties that I’d probably never have heard without him. I’d always wanted to to get to know hip-hop on a deeper level, so I figured he’d be the best way in. Soon enough was giving me all this music (of course at 320 kbps, god forbid he listen to anything less), and I was listening to it everyday during my long commute to and from work. It came time for me to listen to 2Pac’s albums, and man was I excited. I mean, this guy is like the cream of the crop, right? So I charged up my iPod with Me Against The World and All Eyez on Me and I shuffled on out the door with “If I Die 2Nite” bumpin’ in the ‘phones.
I wasn’t feeling it as much as I thought I should. I felt guilty. I mean this was one of the LEGENDS, and I wasn’t feeling blown away at all. I thought the sound was a little dated, and I was having trouble seeing what distinguished it so wildly from the other nineties hip-hop I was listening to. Maybe I didn’t get it, I thought. Or maybe everyone who claimed to love him was following a heard mentality of “this guy is awesome because everyone says he is.” I’ve had that feeling before; a classic writer whose books I thought were crap, or a painter or poet or film that disappointed me despite being so popularly bloated with reverence. As I’ve learned, in these situations this disappointment usually means one of two things: 1) The popular reverence is phony and self-perpetuating or 2) There’s something you have yet to see or understand about whatever/whomever is in question. Often it’s probably a little of both. But for 2Pac, it became clear some time later that there was more depth than I could possibly see with the feeble scratches I’d given on the surface.
After cruising the Beijing subways to the loss of my 2Pac virginity, I came back to my apartment to my hip-hop connoisseur friend telling him that I wasn’t so overwhelmingly impressed. And that didn’t change until months later when I sat down to get to know him, to really listen to him. To understand the realness of who he was and what he was saying. I listened to him speak in interviews, read things he wrote, and really listened to what he was saying (Use those lyric websites!). He’s transformed the way I listen to hip-hop. And more importantly, even though we come from staggeringly difference backgrounds, he’s given me more wisdom and inspiration than arguably any musical artist out there. When it comes to people citing him as the one of the greatest rappers ever, it’s not because he’s got the greatest flow or the best lyrical and technical precision out there. He doesn’t, not at all. His music is so powerful and he shines so much as an artist because of his reflection and his emotion and his honesty. The potency of what he’s saying and how he says it. When you hear him speak in interviews, his intelligence and his realness is totally consuming. It makes me want to be true and in everything I do….It’s hard to explain, but does anyone feel me?
Listen to Tupac Shakur in his first interview in 1988, when he was 17 (3 years before he was to real ease his first album):
Here is is 7 years later, interviewed while serving prison time. This is long, but so fucking interesting.
I can watch interview upon interview with him and always learn something new or discover another kernel of wisdom. The context and history behind his music and his life is far too long to write here and I probably wouldn’t do it justice, but it’s something I definitely encourage anyone to explore. If you haven’t seen it, Tupac: Resurrection is an amazing posthumous documentary about his life, narrated by 2Pac himself.
Listen to some of my favorite songs of his:
Download ZIP or individually:
MP3: “I Ain’t Mad At Cha (feat. Danny Boy)” – 2Pac
MP3: “Only God Can Judge Me (feat. Rappin 4-Tay)” – 2Pac
MP3: “Thugz Mansion (Nas Acoustic) (feat. Nas, J. Phoenix)” – 2Pac
MP3: “So Many Tearz” – 2Pac
MP3: “Better Dayz (feat. Mr. Biggs)” – 2Pac
MP3: “Hail Mary (feat. Kastro, Young Noble)” – 2Pac
MP3: “Old School” – 2Pac
MP3: “Life Goes On” – 2Pac
MP3: “Runnin (feat. Notorious B.I.G) – 2Pac
MP3: “Still Ballin (MiMOSA Remix) – 2Pac
My grandfather is turning 85 this weekend — he was in born in Berlin in 1926, and he came to the US when he was 11, in 1937. That was a hell of a long time ago. I don’t know if any of you have experienced something similar to this, but every time I sit down with him and chat or, more likely, listen to one of his thousands of stories, I get this incredible feeling where I can see a huge part of myself in him. Like, this man is definitely my grandfather. We’re different people from extraordinarily different backgrounds, but at the end of the day, way at the core, it’s almost as if we’re the same person. It’s bizarre.
Like me, my grandfather loves music. But unsurprisingly, our musical tastes aren’t so similar. Almost exclusively, he listens to classical music. Piano, orchestra, opera, waltzes, and on and on. I couldn’t even name all the subgenres, let alone the composers. Classical music is beautiful, and I love it too, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to it with entirely the same ear that he can. And when it comes to the music I listen to, well…he doesn’t listen with any ear. The music my parents grew up with — the music I call oldies — wasn’t around until my grandfather was almost 40. And hip-hop only began to appear when he was in his 60s. Like generations before him, my grandfather grew up listening to classical music. It’s what he knows and it’s what he loves. Here’s one of Chopin’s amazing Nocturnes. Ever stressed out? Throw this on and watch it melt away.
So, as I was saying, my grandfather never enjoyed the music my parents grew up with. I remember hearing stories of my grandparents giving my aunt shit when she was a teenager for listening to Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan. (Are you kidding me?!) But, like fate, my parents don’t enjoy the music I listen to. Admittedly, I’d be more than a little taken aback if I caught my dad listening to Biggie…or even Andrew Bird to be honest. But still, why is that? I like to think that I’m pretty open-minded about music, but what will I be listening to when I’m 40? Or 60? Or 85? Will I enjoy the new music of my kids’ generation, or will I think it sounds like crap and wonder how on earth they do it? A related South Park clip where Randy (one of the fathers) tries to prove to himself and his wife that parents can enjoy the newest rage in music that their kids are listening to… (If you don’t like poo jokes, skip this one):
Haha god that clip always puts a smile on my face. Anyways. A few months ago I got new headphones, and I was back at home visiting the family and my amazing dog. My dad wanted to try the headphones out, so I thought just for kicks I’d throw on some, err, electrofolkstep and see how he took it. The James Vincent McMorrow dubstep remix posted in april. He could barely take 30 seconds before telling me to put on some “real music.” I succumbed and threw on Led Zeppelin.
Surprisingly, I’ve made progress introducing my mom to hip-hop. She most definitely doesn’t listen to it or know the names of any artists, but I was able to break down one of the biggest barriers — that mass rejection of hip-hop on the grounds that it is just vulgar, or violent, or mindless. I took her to my room and brought up the lyrics to 2Pac’s Dear Mama on my computer screen. I didn’t play the song for her initially, I just had her read them.
Pour out some liquor and I reminsce, cause through the drama
I can always depend on my mama
And when it seems that I’m hopeless
You say the words that can get me back in focus
When I was sick as a little kid
To keep me happy there’s no limit to the things you did
And all my childhood memories
Are full of all the sweet things you did for me
And even though I act craaazy
I gotta thank the Lord that you made me
There are no words that can express how I feel
You never kept a secret, always stayed real
And I appreciate how you raised me
And all the extra love that you gave me
I wish I could take the pain away
If you can make it through the night there’s a brighter day
Everything will be alright if ya hold on
It’s a struggle everyday, gotta roll on
And there’s no way I can pay you back
But my plan is to show you that I understand
You are appreciated
MP3: “Dear Mama” – 2Pac
It’s real, honest, heartfelt poetry, and she saw that. But when I played her the song, no matter how powerful the lyrics, it just wasn’t something she could sit down and enjoy.
Is the ability to enjoy new music quashed by age? And if so, why? I heard a statistic somewhere that if you’re over 35 years old when a new genre of popular music comes about, there’s a 95% chance you’ll never listen to it. This might be a nonsense statistic, but it actually sounds kind of true. It makes me wonder, though, how and if the internet might change this. Discovering and exploring new music is easier than it ever has been. It’s leaps and bounds easier for us than it was for our parents, and even more so compared to our grandparents. There’s definitely a social aspect of learning to enjoy new types of music. That is, you’re more likely to give music a chance if you have people around you listening to it and enjoying it themselves. Maybe that environment has historically been harder to come across as you age, but perhaps the existence of social media might change that.
It’s hard to imagine what music will be out there when I’m 85. Maybe I’ll still be truckin, giving the iTunes its daily injection of new music. Or perhaps I’ll longingly look back on the days when electrofolkstep reigned king…
It’s another Thursday, so I hope y’all are thirsty for a little throwback. Today’s TT is continuation of the story I posted last week — how music forever entangled itself within my life, how my music tastes evolved, and I how I ended up listening to what I do. We left off somewhere around the end my high school years, when I left Texas for bigger and badder adventures in the wild wild west…
When I think of the summer after my first year in college, in terms of music, I think of the Cambrian Explosion — when out of the blue, like, 600 million years ago, life decided to diversify like crazy and start being badass. I was working in Beijing and studying Chinese (long story), and I was living with some friends from other California colleges. One of them, my friend Supallav, was a total hip hop snob and connoisseur. I was not. I didn’t know shit about hip hop, top 40 or otherwise. I never thought poorly of hip hop, and I certainly wasn’t one of those guys to ignorantly bag on it — I just didn’t know where to start, and I knew it.
So I asked my friend to give me some of his albums for me to listen to, and he basically sat me down, laughing, and told me he was going to do it the right way. He began introducing me to all the greats and legends one by one, an album a day, and at the same time he’d let me in on their stories, histories, philosophies, controversies and the works. I had an hour commute to and from work everyday. I spent the entire summer walking and riding the Beijing subways to Jay-Z, B.I.G, Nas, Wu-Tang, Lil-Wayne, Eminem, 2pac, Dr. Dre, and on and on. I couldn’t get enough of it. He’d make me listen to all the old school records, something I don’t think I ever would have listened to without him pushing me. I remember standing in crowded ass subways listening to 2pac’s All Eyez on Me or GZA’s Liquid Swords. The first Jay-Z album I heard was Reasonable Doubt. I remember exactly where I was walking the first time Juicy came on when I first listened to Ready to Die. I had no idea how famous that song was, and when I came back to the apartment that night telling my friend how awesome it was, he just sighed and shook his head. Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, Common, The Roots, Dead Prez, Blu. It was SO good. Kanye and Lupe Fiasco. Every once in a while I’d come back to our apartment, complaining that some of the old school music sounded dated — he’d then play the song on his computer, and break it down for me line by line until I was forced to admit that these guys were clever as hell.
The first song I want to share is D’Evils, from Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. Another one of those songs were I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the first time I heard it. A super powerful song about friendship and competition between two friends who grew up together — how life hustling on the streets can infect, corrupt, and poison the mind. Look up the lyrics to this song and take your time.
We used to fight for building blocks/now we fight for blocks with buildings that make a killin/The closest friends when we first started/But grew apart as the money grew, and soon grew black-hearted/Thinkin’ back when we first learned to use rubbers/He never learned so in turn I’m kidnappin’ his baby’s mother
MP3: “D’evils” – Jay-z
Hidden Bonus Track on Johnson&Jonson’s self titled album (Blu and producer Mainframe). If you’ve never heard of Blu, get on it. There’s something so real and honest and youthful about him, something that very few hip hop artists seem to touch. It’s hard to put a finger on, but I think this song does him justice. That John Lennon sample…so good!
Old School, from 2pac’s Me Against the World. Ok so I admit it, I threw this one in because it is, after all, throwback thursday. But a great song nonetheless.
MP3: “Old School” – 2Pac
The year after I discovered hip hop, I became a music blog addict. Like friends and the outdoors, music can reinvigorate life like nothing else can, and especially new music. I discovered Blind Pilot and Bon Iver around this time…oh my. Those two guys helped me through one of the toughest times of my life. And Andrew Bird. Don’t get me started on Andrew Bird.
A little while later, I heard Chiddy Bang’s Swelly Express for the first time. A couple weeks later they came to play at my school. I was front row, fist-bumping Chiddy:
I was still happily discovering all the amazing hip-hop in my iTunes that my boy Supallav had introduced me to, but for the first time I was also stumbling on mashups. Do you guys remember when the Notorious XX album came out, the mashup between The XX and the Notorious B.I.G.? Amazing. I was coming across so many DJs, so many mixes… I was in heaven. Some of my favorite indie-rock songs fused with hip hop raps and beats, or with dubstep lines or electronic melodies. I found Big Z Remixes on Sunset maybe a little less than a year ago. All I could think was, holy shit, this guy is so young but his music is SO good.
Here I am a year later, still uncovering incredible music…some new and some that’s been out for ages. And as I move forward with my life, musically and otherwise, I’m just trying to take it all in and shut nothing out. You never know what you’re missing.
I’m resisting the urge to post Bon Iver’s re: Stacks. I’m sure you’ve all heard it before, and if not, it’s on Sunset’s Flying Through Summer mixtape. But..of course, of course I’m posting an Andrew Bird song. Actually, to be embarrassingly honest, I’m actually wearing an Andrew Bird shirt as I write this…I swear I’m not creepy. He’s an amazing artist, and he does everything by himself (even live!) using looped tracks he makes on the spot. It’s nuts. Here’s Plasticities, from Armchair Apocrypha.
My favorite Big Z Remix song, Slow Down (feat. Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def), with a beautiful sample of Nico’s These Days. The song is soft and melodic and wise and powerful, with great verses from Lupe and Mos Def. Mos Def’s verse comes his song Priority, from The Ecstatic. It’s a one verse song, but with a totally different feel.
Save Me Concubine (Ghostface Killah vs. Beirut), TheHoodInternet remix. I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times. Ghostface is a hard dude, but this story is surprisingly touching and sentimental. It was on repeat during another tough time for me.
Finally, here’s an Arcade Fire cover I stumbled across some weeks back, by Mr. Little Jeans. One of the best covers I’ve ever heard. This girl’s voice is gorgeous, and it fits perfectly over the dreamlike dubstep coatings.
If you had to pick 5 or 10 songs to represent the history of your musical discovery, what would you choose? Treacherous, huh?