ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Well, now to a more recent moment in history, a year that helped change the sound of America, 1993. The Wu-Tang Clan, Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah and more than a dozen other rap groups released albums that year. The list includes a breakout album from one the most influential rappers ever to hold a microphone.
NPR's Sami Yenigun has his story.
SAMI YENIGUN, BYLINE: In January 1993, Tupac Shakur was 21 years old. He was about to drop his second album and had just starred in his first feature film. He was on the cusp of superstardom. Kevin Powell, a young journalist at Vibe magazine, was trying to talk his editors into taking a story.
KEVIN POWELL: I explained to them, look, there's this young man who is the son of a Black Panther Party member, Afeni Shakur. He already has one album out called "Tupacalypse Now," and he's in this really controversial hit film called "Juice." And he is someone we should be paying attention to.
YENIGUN: Vibe eventually did, so did radio and the record landed three songs on the charts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GET AROUND")
TUPAC SHAKUR: (Rapping) ...sweating me, it's a lot of real G's doing time 'cause a groupie bit the truth and told a lie. You picked the wrong guy. Baby, if you're too fly you need to hit the door, search for a new guy 'cause I only got one night in town. Break out or be clown. Baby doll, are you down? I get around...
YENIGUN: By 1993, filmmaker John Singleton had already put out the groundbreaking "Boyz in the Hood." He says when he saw Tupac on TV giving in an interview...
JOHN SINGLETON: My attitude was, I want to work with him, that's the dude I want to work with.
YENIGUN: Before the year was out, Tupac and Singleton released "Poetic Justice."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "POETIC JUSTICE")
SHAKUR: (as Lucky) Don't touch me. If I had got there on time this never would have happened...
YENIGUN: Tupac's Shakur started acting as a kid. He was born in New York City and his family moved to Baltimore when he was a teen, where, in addition to acting, he studied poetry, jazz and ballet at the Baltimore School for the Arts. The family moved again to San Francisco Bay Area, where Tupac hooked up with the hip-hop group Digital Underground. He released his first solo album "Tupacalypse Now" in 1991.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNG BLACK MALE")
SHAKUR: (as Lucky) I bust what I bust and cuss when I must. They gave me a charge for sales for selling the tales of young black males...
YENIGUN: The album was criticized for violent lyrics in some of the songs. After a police officer was killed in Texas by a man who said he'd been listening to "Tupacalypse Now," the media came down hard. In an interview with then-L.A. Times writer Chuck Philips the following year, Tupac said he felt misunderstood.
SHAKUR: I started out saying that I was down for the young black male. You know, and that was going to be my thing. I just wanted to rap about things that affected young black males. And when I said that, I didn't know that I was going to tie myself down to just take all the blunts and the hits for the young black males in society, be like the media's kicking post for young black males, I didn't know that. I just wanted to never run out of material. And I felt like, since I lived that life, I can do that. I can rap about that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLLA IF YA HEAR ME")
SHAKUR: (Rapping) I'll never throw a change up. Quayle, like you never brought my name up. Now my homies in the backstreets, the black streets, they fell me when they rolling in they fat Jeeps. This ain't just a rap song, a black song telling all my brothers get they strap on. And look for me in the struggle, hustling till other brothers' bubble. Holla if you hear me...
SINGLETON: He did have a whole lot of heart and soul about, in a sense, what I call cultural wealth of black people. And he used that to forge a persona for himself.
YENIGUN: Filmmaker John Singleton calls the follow-up to "Tupacalypse Now" the first real Tupac album.
SINGLETON: A record you could party too but then also has a sense of cultural resonance to it, in terms of that was that time, that was that moment. We was coming out of the riots. Black people were pissed off but we wanted to party at the same time.
YENIGUN: It was a year after the Los Angeles riots, sparked by the LAPD beating of Rodney King. Kevin Powell says it was a complex time.
POWELL: It was the era of prosperity in this country. Remember, we were coming off the First Gulf War, so there was a lot of money out there. It was just a few years before the whole dotcom thing started to take off in our country. And there was a lot of emphasis on Generation X at the time. You know, it wasn't just Tupac but it was also Kurt Cobain, you know, with Nirvana and the whole thing that was happening with the grunge scene out of Seattle. And so, it was a really incredible and exciting time in young American history and Tupac really embodied that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP YOUR HEAD UP")
SHAKUR: (Rapping) And since we all came from a woman, got our name from a woman and our game from a woman, I wonder why we take from our women, why we rape our women. Do we hate our women? I think it's time to kill for our women, time to heal our women...
J. COLE: Me being eight years old hearing "Keep Ya Head Up," I promise you, I felt that song like in my soul. At eight years old, I could feel it.
YENIGUN: That's hip hop artist J. Cole, who has the number 3 record in the country right now. "Keep Ya Head Up" is a song about the mistreatment of women in society. The album seems to come from two different places, but Kevin Powell says that's Tupac.
POWELL: When you look at his album, strictly from a (BEEP), it's him. You know, half of it is very deep social political commentary, like "Keep Ya Head Up." And the other half is the kind of stuff that became associated with thug life and the kind of gangsterism that came to dominate hip hop.
YENIGUN: Rapper J Cole says these two sides are what makes Tupac more than just an actor playing a role.
COLE: You know, some people criticize him for being on such opposite ends of the spectrum. But I learned growing up - at least in my case and I like to think for everyone else's case whether they like to admit it or not - that's more human than anything.
YENIGUN: But Tupac and his second album also represent something bigger, says author Kevin Powell, who's working on a biography of Tupac.
POWELL: There's no other singular figure in hip-hop like Tupac Shakur. He wasn't the greatest rapper in the world. He didn't necessarily have the best lyrics all the time. But there was not a figure who captured what hip-hop is and where it came from - working-class black American and Latino and West Indian people from New York City, and black and Latino people on the West Coast, no one captured that the way he did.
YENIGUN: Just a little more than three years after the release of Tupac Shakur's breakthrough 1993 album, Tupac was dead, killed in a drive by shooting in Las Vegas. He was 25 years old.
Sami Yenigun, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.