Sitting at a traffic light in Los Angeles one night a couple of years ago, I heard the sound approaching, the booming, heavy bass thum-thum-thum beat of rap music blasting forth from the car pulling alongside me. My window was up, but it made no difference. The air was filled with the rapper's lyrics - the angry, loud, obscenity-laden lyrics boasting of rape, of illegal drug use, and of the desire to murder the police.
I'm sure I was exposed to this "music" for less than a minute before the light turned green and the other car pulled away, but I kept thinking that as much as I abhorred this genre, there was something frighteningly authentic about it.
This authenticity has been proven again with the violent killing of gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur, who lived, and died, as he rapped. On September 7, the twenty-five-year-old Shakur was shot four times in a Las Vegas drive-by assault and passed away six days later.
The incident was the last of Shakur's many encounters with crime. His rap sheet includes three convictions for assault and battery, an arrest in connection with the shooting of two off-duty police officers, and a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence (he served eleven months) for a 1993 sexual assault at a Manhattan hotel.
In 1994, also in Manhattan, Shakur was shot five times by a robber; he subsequently claimed that the robbery was a cover for an assassination attempt masterminded by another rapper and some music-industry executives. Shakur was acquitted in 1993 of charges that his soundtrack - "Cops on my tail.They finally pulled me over and I laughed/Remember Rodney King?/And I blast on his punk ass" - inspired the murder of a Texas state trooper.
Last fall, Shakur gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times which indicated he was profoundly in denial about his life, his image, and his career. "I am not a gangster and never have been," he asserted. "I'm not down with people who...hurt others. I'm just a brother who fights back...I'm an artist."
So, too, was Adolf Hitler.
No, Shakur was a criminal, a punk, a thug. But let's put his criminal record aside, if that's possible, and examine the - ahem - artist. Shakur's "art" alone indicates that he glorified gangsterism of the ugliest kind. His 1993 LP "Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z...," released in the wake of the Texas trial, copiously, cold-bloodedly bashed police. The title track declared, "Mister F-- a Cop is back/And I still don't give a f--." "Souljah's Revenge" is even more venomous: "Can't find peace on the streets/So the niggers get a piece/F-- the police/F-- 'em/Motherf--in' punk police/I hate 'em." "Last Wordz" stated, "Pigs wear blue/I wear black/...Motherf--in' police can't stop me/...That's why we burned s-- and wrecked/'Cause the punk police ain't learned s-- yet."
Predictably, for all the vituperation Shakur directed at law enforcement, he was slain not by a corrupt policeman but, presumably, by another common thug, perhaps a member of the L.A. gang the Crips. (Suge Knight, the head of Shakur's record label, Death Row, is said to have ties to the Crips' rival gang, the Bloods.)
During an MTV report which aired three days before Shakur was shot, gangsta rap pioneer Dr. Dre, who recently left Death Row to start his own company, remarked, "I feel like the gangsta rap era is over." He went on to promise, "I'll be able to sell records without any profanity, keeping it real, keeping it positive."
I hope Dre is true to his word, though as the former producer of such performers as Shakur's crony Snoop Doggy Dogg he has a lot to make up for. Apparently Shakur himself never wanted to abandon, as his stomach tattoo called it, "Thug Life."
At the root of Shakur's worldview was a moral vacuum. He told the Los Angeles Times last year that "almost everyone in America is affiliated with some kind of gang. We got the FBI, the ATF, the police departments, the religious groups, the Democrats and the Republicans. Everybody's got their own little clique and they're all out there gangbanging in their own little way." That reasoning is about as meaningless as Shakur's life. The record producers who lined their pockets promoting him surely will find another smart-mouthed punk to take his place. Meanwhile, Shakur has gone off to another place. Some call it hell.