Tupac - Hip Hop's Hero     

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6/27/2004 3:02:54 PM
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Tupac - Hip Hop's Hero
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Eight years after being murdered, rapper Tupac Shakur is bigger in death than in life - the subject of books, films, even university courses. How did he become a James Dean figure for a new generation?

On his 1995 song 'Me Against the World', rapper Tupac Shakur uttered his most prophetic lines: 'After death/ After my last breath/ When will I finally get to rest?' Not yet, it seems. Eight years after he was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, Shakur's music and legacy are more relevant than ever and the shadow he casts over American life has never been greater. In the States, he has joined the list of pop stars such as Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain whose short lives have assumed near-mythical status.

Shakur's back catalogue grows each year and he has now released more records dead than alive. Last year, Forbes magazine ranked him eighth on their richest deceased celebrities list, with earnings of more than $12 million. But it's not just the ringing tills that illustrate his enduring place in people's minds. The story of his life has taken on a significance few would have predicted while he was alive. It has been analysed so much that three American universities run courses about him. At Harvard, you can study 'Modern Protest Literature: From Thomas Paine to Tupac', while the University of Washington offers 'The Textual Appeal of Tupac Shakur'. There are also 15 books, four documentaries and a play about him.

On Friday, Tupac: Resurrection, a feature-length documentary, will be released. The film, produced by MTV, is narrated by the late rapper: the words are taken from various interviews and the effect is intimate, yet unsettling. Director Lauren Lazin was inspired to make the film because 'he was becoming an icon for a whole new generation of fans'. When the channel commissioned a poll to discover who their viewers rated as the most important person in music history, the LA-based rapper was number one.

Shakur led a life of headline-grabbing exploits, and while he didn't leave behind a back catalogue of unquestionable quality, he was a rock star straight out of central casting. He also died at the peak of his career; the last album before his death, All Eyez on Me, went straight to number one in America and sold more than 600,000 copies in its first week.

His complex character - the troubled, rebellious musician with a criminal record and premonitions about his own death - fascinates the current generation of adolescent record buyers who have grown up listening to rap. While academics have used his turbulent life to study the psyche of the black American male, Shakur was more than just another angry young rapper. He wrote with sensitivity about his mother's drug addiction and his own frailties, employing the sort of confessional lyrics that Eminem, who admits to being a longtime admirer, has used to become the most notorious figure in pop today.

Hip hop is currently the driving force in American popular culture and Shakur, the handsome, charismatic victim of the much-publicised 'hip hop wars' between the east and west coasts during the Nineties, is its most famous martyr. His violent demise, foretold by himself on record more than once, was seemingly the final act of a modern American tragedy.

The interesting thing about Tupac: Resurrection is the way it follows Shakur's makeover from the middle-class student at the Baltimore School of Arts who loved ballet and Van Gogh to the self-confessed 'thug' who, at the height of his fame, was arrested for shooting two off-duty police officers and convicted of sexually assaulting a girl he met in a New York nightclub.

'Everything in his life, the arrests, jail, his borrowed authenticity, the kind of adolescent misbehaviour gave him a cachet, particularly among the 70 per cent of record buyers who

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