Still Shining: A Discussion On Tributes To Tupac And Other Hip Hop Greats
In the wake of the Tupac Coachella hologram and a myriad of responses, where do fans draw the line between honoring Hip Hop's legends and exploiting them?
“Them niggas ain’t real / Must’ve started smokin’ rocks / And all fell down ‘cause they was bitin’ too much ‘Pac…” –Pimp C, “Let Me See It” by UGK.
Are you tired of reading about the Tupac hologram at Coachella yet? It seemed to have gone from what we can only take at face value as a genuine tribute to a borderline Internet meme/novelty item that has been covered ad naseum. Whether we’re talking ‘Pac, Notorious B.I.G., Guru, Big L, Pimp C or a host of other fallen greats, each year we see sites, blogs and magazines roll out their commemorative coverage. Given these legendary emcees’ contributions to our culture, we should. Yet it also seems that we’re witnessing a bit of revisionist history.
Prior to his death, Tupac had some harsh words for the likes of Dr. Dre, Nas, Mobb Deep, Jay-Z and a host of others. In the 16 years since his death we’ve seen Nas ink his torso and Ja Rule ride ‘Pac’s elongated bars and melodic hooks to multi-platinum success among other things. Now that Dr. Dre’s use of a Tupac hologram has dominated the news cycle for the past two weeks, it begs the question—where do we draw the line between paying tribute and exploitation? In the tradition of good, old fashioned Hip Hop arguments that used to regularly occur in school cafeterias, barbershops and street corners, I reached out to a couple of HipHopDX’s regular contributors to get some perspective.
The Rising Trend Of Golden Era Nostalgia
“If I should die / I’d tell Big they’re still playing his songs / Run into ‘Pac ask him where we went wrong / Tell him life is miserable / When you’re dealing in the physical form / Is everything that’s invisible gone…” –Jay-Z, “If I Should Die.”
Omar Burgess, Editor-At-Large: Despite the crazy rumor about Dr. Dre accidentally discovering (and subsequently partnering in Coachella) the festival hasn’t traditionally been this Hip Hop heavy. But lately, there seems to be a sharp increase in paying tribute to “golden-era” Hip Hop from the early to mid '90s. Not only are younger artists bringing revered artists onstage, there’s also Rock The Bells—where artists eschew their current material and perform decades-old albums in their entirety.
Ronald Grant, Contributor: I can see more of a trend in nostalgia for older school West Coast Hip Hop (mainly with the amazing run that Death Row Records had in the early to mid-1990s). This year gives some validity to that idea, being the 20th anniversary of the release of Dr. Dre's The Chronic, and next year being the 20th anniversary of Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle. So the hologram stunt by Dre and Snoop at Coachella coincides perfectly with those. And there’s even more proof of a West Coast Hip Hop period of nostalgia with the recent VH1 documentary Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots, which does its best to detail the pivotal part Hip Hop played in such a historic event. And there’s no question that some of the West’s biggest artists like Game and Kendrick Lamar have been influenced by the music of that generation.
The Revisionist Histories Of Tupac And Notorious B.I.G.
“Tupac Biggie / Oh how we miss you so / We want yall both to know / We really loved you so...” –Ghostface Killah, “One.”
Omar: The common West Coast thread aside, we’ve seen this before with Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G., so there’s a precedent. While they attended the same high school (along with Busta Rhymes), they didn’t actually become friends until after recording “Brooklyn’s Finest.” How close are these emcees to the fallen artists?
LaKeia Brown, Contributor: At the height of Biggie’s career, I was a college student trying to figure out how to get $4 out of the campus ATM. So I'm not sure with whom or how the late great Frank White spent his free time. But I do know Jay-Z holds the rapper in the highest of esteem, often touting his friendship, brotherhood and admiration for the emcee.
As far as the general public knows, they became cool after recording “Brooklyn’s Finest.” I'm not sure the exact date those recordings occurred, but I do know Reasonable Doubt was released in the summer of ‘96 and Biggie died the next spring (March ‘97). Even if you factor in the high school years (both artists admit dropping out prior to graduating), a strong friendship can be forged between two kindred souls in a relatively small amount of time.
Jay-Z has said that he saw or at least spoke to Biggie every day after the recording, but again I can't quantify the depth of someone’s friendship based on that information. What I do know is they both did assist on each other’s albums and Biggie made an appearance in Jay’s “Aint No..” video and shouted him out on his last Rap City interview. Ultimately, I think it’s safe to say they really rocked with each other.
Gauging Proximity In Artist Tributes
“Imagine Biggie with his son / Imagine ‘Pac getting called pop by one / Imagine a mother struggling / Dealing with system that don’t give a fuck about who shot her son…” Dr. Dre, “Imagine” by Snoop Dogg f. Dr. Dre & D’Angelo
Omar: Conversely, we didn’t see that type of close bond between Tupac and Dre while the former was alive. But neither artist ever pretended they were anything but labelmates and business associates. Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, who traded diss tracks with Tupac, didn’t mince words about his feelings—even 16 years after 'Pac’s death. Should the fact that Tupac died during a one-sided beef with Dr. Dre make us view the hologram tribute any differently?
LaKeia: I think it's mature of the artist, but sometimes as fans we develop a little slower. I remember Jay-Z throwing a lighter up for ‘Pac at one of his concerts, and I was surprised and confused. How does Jay shout out an artist who had an ugly beef with his homie, not to mention the “Hawaiian Sophie” shot that was directed at him personally? Why was he shouting him out? Are you jumping on the R.I.P. bandwagon because your fans undeniably love and respect this artist, or are you just mature enough to acknowledge another man’s work and legacy despite his feelings toward you which probably weren't merit based anyway. I’m going to go with the latter.
With Dre and ‘Pac it seems a little odd. I mean ‘Pac said some really foul and personal things about Dre. How fueled in truth they were is beyond me. Perhaps Dre didn't take it personal or felt like Suge Knight or others were putting a battery in his back. So in the same sense, maybe Dre, like Jay-Z, didn't take it personally. Maybe at this point in his life he’s more concerned with enriching the fan’s experience and bringing new life to one of the most iconic rappers. I’ll admit though, Dre must be super self-evolved and have read Matthew 5:44 a dozen times.
Ron: The argument of a former “enemy” paying tribute truthfully doesn’t hold much water, because this is something that Dre has done more than once in the past, to an extent. For example, on 2001 he spat the lines, “Best friends and money / I lost ‘em both / I went and visited niggas in the hospital…” on “The Watcher.” And he also rhymed, “Eazy I’m still with you / Fuck the beef / Nigga I miss you / And that’s just bein’ real with you…” on “What’s the Difference”—both in reference to the passing of N.W.A. founder Eazy-E. ‘Pac and Dre definitely had their differences once “the good Doctor” left Death Row, and ‘Pac famously took him to task on the Makaveli album. Still, with ‘Pac allegedly being in the midst of reconciling differences with Nas and a few others towards the end of his life, it may be possible that Dre was on his list, on top of the fact that he never seemed to express much in the way of ill will towards Snoop, even with all of the Death Row drama that surrounded them.
Exploitation Or Tribute?
“Tupac ain’t back / ‘Cause he got set up and shot in the chest / Biggie ain’t neither / So won’t y’all gone let them niggas rest…” –Freddie Gibbs, “187 Proof”
Omar: By all accounts, neither Dre nor Snoop is hurting for money and a Tupac hologram doesn’t really tie into promoting anything either of them is doing. Still, Coachella being the cash cow that it is, I sense that the invisible hand of Jimmy Iovine may have been involved. Should Hip Hop fans genuinely be concerned about Tupac’s memory being exploited?
Ron: That’s a tough question, but I say no. The truth is, anytime some kind of project involving a deceased artist takes place, there will always be a certain amount of the Hip Hop enthusiast population (and music fans, period) that will say said artist is being exploited. When the movie about B.I.G.’s life came out, many people had the same thought about Diddy exploiting Biggie’s memory. And the artists that were involved (Snoop and Dre in Tupac’s case) would probably say they were just trying to pay homage. But what I ultimately look at in this case is Dre seeking the blessing of Afeni Shakur to make this happen, and Afeni giving that blessing. In turn, Dre reportedly agreed to contribute to Tupac’s foundation. I personally think exploitation in this case would have boiled down to Dre doing it for his own benefit without a thought of anybody else or of ‘Pac himself, and that’s not the case here.
LaKeia: How can we leave the almighty dollar out of the discussion? During the Dre and Snoop performance at Coachella Dre bought Tupac back to life via a two-dimensional projection that’s being called a hologram. This stunt definitely had the Internet buzzing and could prove to be lucrative though Dre says he’s not sure if he’ll be doing more with it or if he’s taking it on tour. So I guess time will tell.
As far as exploitation of the Bad Boy Records artist, Jay has been accused of recycling Biggie's rhymes too often. In “Ether” Nas expressed what many fans had been whispering for a while. “How much of Biggie's rhymes is gonna come out your fat lips?” he quips. Jay’s response to it all can be found on “What More Can I Say” in the following bars: “I say a Big verse I'm only bigging up my brother / Bigging up my borough / I'm big enough to do it / I'm that thorough / Plus I know my own flow is foolish.” I think Jay sincerely admires his friend but has sometimes made it difficult for fans to identify where B.I.G. stops and Jay begins.
The Overall Impact Of Hip Hop Tributes
“I’m your true motherfucker / Thug nation alert / Keep his name on the streets / Till you lay in the dirt / This shit hurt…” –Treach, “Mourn You Til I Join You” by Naughty By Nature.
Omar: Since this story has dominated the news cycle for two weeks now, is this ultimately a good or a bad thing for Hip Hop?
LaKeia: Peace is good for any culture, especially Hip Hop's. Paying homage and giving due respect is a sign of maturity and in many ways Hip Hop needs to grow up. It’s important though that we check the motives and ensure these “celebrations” are not from a self-serving place or being used as a crutch to further a hidden agenda. In a sense both B.I.G. and Tupac died for Hip Hop. So Hip Hop in a sense owes them life...Life After Death.
Ron: Yes. Not only in the fact that it potentially introduced Tupac to another generation and crowd at Coachella that may not be familiar with him. But it brings back memories for those of us that felt ‘Pac’s impact when he was alive and was Hip Hop’s biggest, brightest star. It’s also an argument that Hip Hop can do what other forms of music can’t and in ways that they can’t, or at least haven’t already. True, other forms of music keep their artists alive through all kinds of tributes and nostalgia, but have you ever seen an Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley or Kurt Cobain hologram performing live at a music festival that’s consistently one of the biggest and most well-attended in the country, year after year? Nope, didn’t think so.
An Unparallelled Legacy
“Pour out liquor on the curb / For my homeboys Yuk and ‘Pac / You got ‘em jockin’ ‘Pac / I know you watchin’ ‘Pac / Lick shots at cops / I ride on my celly high / Bangin Makaveli 5 / People think you never really died…” –Yukmouth, “Still Ballin’”
At his best, Tupac could talk a groupie out of her panties and offer scathing social commentary against Bob Dole and C. Delores Tucker in the same song (no pun intended). If we eliminate the wave of pro-Obama bandwagon anthems released in 2008, how many Top 40 Hip Hop artists today have dared to educate and/or confront someone from Capitol Hill? Tupac was a poet, actor and an emcee—and he earned rather significant critical and commercial success in the latter two fields. In the 16 years since he’s passed, that seems to be something that’s lost on the many clones that are quick to holler out, “Thug life.” In nearly every major Rap beef that has occurred since his passing, at least one party has used ‘Pac’s method of borderline juvenile disses. That includes two of ‘Pac’s primary Hip Hop foes—Jay-Z and Nas. It’s a nod to just how in tune Tupac was with the pulse of Hip Hop that people are still channeling him.
Most fans can probably tell you exactly where they were when All Eyez On Me was released. Additionally, they can definitely tell you where they were when it was announced that Tupac had been gunned down on the Las Vegas strip. If you fit in that category, feel free to share your story in the comment section. Neither of those two experiences should be the barometer for how much cultural impact an emcee has, but it’s a start. For good measure, go ahead and throw in the fact that Tupac has sold upwards of 15 million albums. Sadly, Tupac isn’t back. And there’s coroner’s evidence to prove he never will be. But when done properly, acts like Dr. Dre and Snoop’s hologram performance give us a glimpse into the past as a reminder of why Hip Hop holds our greats in such high regard.
Ron Grant is a freelance writer originally from Detroit and currently residing in Orlando. He has contributed writings to BrooklynBodega.com, PNCRadio.fm and runs two independent music blogs. Follow him on Twitter @RonGreezy.
Lakeia Brown is a freelance writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in publications and websites like Essence, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, New York Newsday and TheRoot.com.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @FourFingerRings.