What was the last Hip Hop video you watched?
Looking at this genre of music today, you would notice is the recurring emphasis on deceiving your enemies, strategics, building personal wealth, asserting your power. We normally associate these with people who need them the most, like politicians, CEOs or pharaohs since they naturally have a lot of enemies. Still, it’s all just music. This big portion of Hip Hop culture has been primarily influenced by a particular book by one Niccolò Machiavelli titled “The Prince”, which one Tupac Amaru Shakur decided to pick up.
Earlier on, rap lyrics were either focused on sociopolitical issues on the streets like injustice and poverty or were simply dope. That was until shit went down so bad, Tupac became Makavelli who became the first person to introduce blatant misogyny, necessity of evil, power play and death threats into music. Since then, Hip Hop has graduated the idea of politics from being exclusively a politician’s game to something even the working class has to play. For all of us today, especially for Millennials who are still proving themselves, this can be something very relatable.
As you climb up the ladder of success, it’s inevitable that you’ll get rivals and enemies. Politics is everywhere; from the classroom to office, restaurant to parking lot, Twitter to Facebook, somebody’s plotting to shoot you. Sometimes literally.
Throughout his life, this was Tupac’s environment.
Even as each top MC we have today diversify themselves against one another, they all have one thing in common; to present themselves as a “threat”. 50 Cent adopts “I chase the paper” as a personal maxim, Rick Ross focuses on cultivating his Wingstop chain, Jay-Z is tries to define music consumption with Tidal, Yeezus tries to heal the crippled and Eminem carves out his name as a “God” in battle rapping. These guys are just among many popular rappers who have all cited Tupac as a big influence, and encouraged the entire Hip Hop world to embrace Machiavelli’s take on philosophy and strategy.
Do you know why?
Let’s get to know Tupac as a school boy.
He wasn’t a thug to begin with.
He was never the type to pick fights our skip school; he was a witty kid, hardworking, kind and energetic. Being on stage was something he did since he joined his school’s ensemble at 12, taking part in plays. At 14, mother and son moved from New York to Baltimore, hoping to escape the bad times there. As “MC New York”, he auditioned for the local Baltimore School for the Arts, and people took to his joyful nature. His flow, technique, lyrical creativity and charisma on stage signaled him out as a unique MC who brought something fresh to the game.
“You didn’t forget Tupac,” said Richard Pilcher, his Shakespeare tutor in the Arts School. “There’s no two ways about it, he had charisma for days.”
He was born into sociopolitical ill, without a father.
His mother, on trial for “conspiracy against the United States”, changed his name at 4 years old to Túpac Amaru II, leader of an uprising in 1780 against Peru’s Spanish colonial rulers who were oppressing the indigenous tribe with low-wage, intensive labor. The name meant “shining serpent” in Inca. Even in his New York birthplace, his entire family circle was actively involved in the “terrorist” organization Black Liberation Army whose members carried out multiple assaults on the police. Both his parents were in its political wing, the Black Panther Party, which had its own portfolio of anti-government acts.
These groups are no longer active.
Let’s get to know how the man embraced the Thug Life.
He loved poetry, and he loved women.
This interest in Literature and the Arts was groomed academically even as he turned 17, and his poems became more polished as a hobby. On the other hand, busting rhymes was just an avenue to be fun and attract girls. As his mentality matured with age, he began to understand how Shakespeare’s psychology behind works like “Romeo & Juliet” and “Macbeth” directly talked about inter-gang wars, inter-cultural conflict and personal politics, all three of which were part of his personal life.
The teenager was starting to realize how fucked up his world was.
He was a true Master of Ceremony (MC).
Things were different back in NY, but as he grew into adulthood and learned more about sociopolitical issues, his rapping took a new turn. He ceased being the kind to indulge in the kind of self-absorbed pity some of us today still have problems with. He started caring about others who were feeling ostracized, not given a shit, left out in a group, things like that. Always bigger than himself, he had this sense of urgency to unite everybody. He started writing his lyrics the same way Shakespeare did, by looking at the world and telling everybody what he saw.
He became a voice for the voiceless. Unfortunately, not everybody liked it.
Why did Tupac go to prison?
Graduating solo from Hip Hop group Digital Underground, he rode on the success of his first 2 albums. As his riches and fame grew, so did his haters. Yet, he refused your standard recipe on how to deal with them. He could’ve bragged about being better, lashed back or pretend they never exist, but he didn’t. He had haters who actually sent him to jail, albeit for a few days, though he was sad about it he never took it to heart.
As teens started pointing to his CD as the “motivation” for felony, politicians started flaming him and his music. Always a ladies’ man, he neither privately threatened nor ever made public the name of a 19-year old woman who gave him oral in a club then flipped the cards and claimed sexual assault by his entourage in a hotel a few days later. It was neither their faults; but this was a classic “trapped male celebrity” case:
- He just happened to be with his crew
- The girl didn’t expect them to be there
- She wrongly assumed Tupac had some kind of authority over them; like he was their boss, but he’s just the performer so he obviously wasn’t
- Tupac’s crew wrongly assumed she’s okay with it
- But she wasn’t, so when they didn’t stop advancing on her she thought Tupac arranged it.
- Tupac was aware of all this, but how on Earth could he have stopped it?
He learned the hard way of the dangers in mixing with the wrong company.
He loved women, dodging his bodyguards and riding dangerously. So he was no stranger to the kinds of felony charges where he assaulted those people who were “asking for it”. Even if those guys were drunk policemen, like the 1994 case where two officers harassed his driver.
However, things only got more violent.
East Coast v West Coast
His most famous incident came from late 1994, where a robbery attempt that he tried to stop made left him badly hospitalized. Even while on the hospital bed with gunshot wounds, the staff had a hard time keeping him from discharging himself early. And he had a personal reason: The strange circumstances leading up to and after the assault made him believe his East Coast contemporaries had set him up. All the tension, which only became worse as the media found out, ultimately led to Hip Hop’s most dangerous rivalry: East Coast v West Coast. It would result in Tupac and Biggie turning from friends to rivals, and eventually their deaths. It took some time for Dr Dre and Nas, from the West and East coast respectively, to end it.
Is Tupac really dead?
Firstly, as cool as it sounds to make him like Hip Hop’s Jesus, as of 13th September 1996, the man is really gone. Anybody who tells you different, or even shows you different, is wrong. Secondly, it was a mysterious shooter in a white Cadillac who emptied a clip of 13-15 rounds into his BMW and drove off. He fought internal bleeding for six days in hospital, but ultimately didn’t survive. Thirdly, it was revenge shooting for him beating up a Crip who assaulted and robbed a label crew.
Anti-climatic, but he was simply a victim of gang rivalry. Still, thanks to all the magazines plus his own spooky lyrics, his unsolved murder has been feeding his “Alive Theory” even until today.
He read a lot.
Tupac loved his intellectual fiction and non-fiction; his library of authors included no less than 30 plus highly influential thinkers from across many disciplines even before he was 20. The closest thing to a cheesy novel he ever read was probably Shakespeare. This habit was believed to have been cultivated by his school mentor Leila Steinberg, and it didn’t wane even while he was in prison. Many of their works would come to heavily influence his art, and eventually Hip Hop itself.
Let’s look at some of them.
Pretty straightforward. As the most famous writer in the world today, Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays have been studied, re-enacted and analyzed by generations of students. Tupac was simply one of them, except that he wasn’t just a textbook figure; the rapper truly appreciated him, having been a student of literature:
He wrote some of the rawest stories, man. I mean look at Romeo and Juliet. That’s some serious ghetto shit. You got this guy Romeo from the Bloods who falls for Juliet, a female from the Crips, and everybody in both gangs are against them. So they have to sneak out and they end up dead for nothing. Real tragic stuff.
– Tupac on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” (1995)
Leading up to his professional debut, he focused a lot on putting Shakespeare’s more socially darker themes into his lyrics when he realized how much of the man’s work directly translated into the present context of his own life.
And look how Shakespeare busts it up with Macbeth. He creates a tale about this king’s wife who convinces a happy man to chase after her and kill her husband so he can take over the country. After he commits the murder, the dude starts having delusions just like in a Scarface song. I mean the king’s wife just screws this guy’s whole life up for nothing…
– Tupac on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (1995)
It was Shakespeare that blossomed his lyrical talent in Hip Hop, and he brought the two as intimately close as possible. Having also read Nostradamus, Sigmund Freud, Khalil Gibran and Carl Jung, he was able to cultivate a poetic style unique to him, expressing in a very mature fashion how his world, as a “young black male” is collapsing all around him. He became one of the first rappers to turn rap into the kind of intellectual art you observe in poems.
Hence, his debut album 2Pacalypse Now (1991) talks about things like injustice and teen pregnancy.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
This novel, now with movie, paints the reality of a poor family so badly affected by the Great Depression that they totally lost their rice bowl. After having to move out their home, they tried moving over to California where they hoped the grass was greener. It was not.
Not only did the large influx of migrants make labour cheap and readily accessible, laws favouring workers’ rights and unions were pretty much non-existent and locals despised them. But where else were they to go? The rich landlords pounced on this desperation, and the socioeconomic divide between the rich and the poor became worse and worse. This tale connected deeply with the working class.
Except your average 20 year old wouldn’t be reading this.
Books like these were instrumental in bringing his sociopolitical awareness to another level, which contributed a lot for the more “what we can learn from past history” theme of his second album Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z… (1993). The difference between this and the previous album was his maturity; “adolescent” has become “adult”.
She is associated most closely as a staunch guardian of black femininity, a cause which she was totally committed to throughout her life.
Having been raised and tutored by them, Tupac had great respect for women. His interest in volumes about Martin Luther King Jr and Jesus Christ, though he wasn’t strictly Christian, further let him reflect upon the real meaning of devotion and sacrifice, even as the world conspired against you. In all examples, the protagonists were always bigger than themselves; everything they did was for their faith or community. After taking a serious look back at himself, he embraced his “thug life” with such conviction that it became both his art and lifestyle.
“A woman brought you into this world, so you have no right to disrespect one.”
– Tupac Shakur
These became crucial for the deep, self-reflecting nature in his later album Me Against the World (1995), a thug’s confession to God and himself.
The Art Of War (孫子兵法) by Sun Tzu
This masterpiece by Chinese war strategist Sun Tzu is treated like gold by a lot of people now, not just Asian business moguls. Within the volume, whether you’re reading it in paperback, on a tablet or bamboo, is a rich collection of chapters showing what it takes to be a military general. This includes knowing how to put on a poker face, knowing your enemy, rules as a commander and tactical advice for each step to ensure victory.
Having faced time in prison for mixing with the wrong kids, reputation in the drain and broke as hell, Tupac needed a new game plan for his life or risk dying poor but working everyday like Mozart. As cool as it was, the rock n’ roll lifestyle just ruined him. A brand new opportunity came when 2 music moguls offered to pay for his $1.4 million bail in exchange for 3 album records under a label owned by them.
“Fuck ‘em all who don’t understand my plot to get richer… Outlaw to the grave, a muthafuckin’ made nigga I got a plan to get richer.”
– Tupac, on his track Made Niggaz
With All Eyez on Me (1995), which included tracks like “Ambitions Az A Ridah”, “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” and “Can’t C Me”, Tupac methodically climbs back up to the top of the game while mocking his rivals. Utilizing proper monetization skills adapted from this book, he started his own group and label, the Outlaws and Makavelli records respectively. His eventual goal was to groom the best rappers around, like what YMCMB and MMG are doing, and be Hip Hop’s richest man, something which his ex-labelmate Dr Dre is today.
An Italian diplomat who lived in the Renaissance period, Machiavelli is credited as a pioneer of today’s political science, though he is most famous for what he wrote in his book “The Prince”. In essence, it was a practical guide on how a government can attain and, more importantly, flourish as a political and financial power. Inside were useful tidbits for a “hereditary ruler” who is part of a dynasty, as well as a “new ruler” who would need to establish himself. From how generous to merciful you should be, who you should trust and what type of army is best, it’s all there and more.
What’s interesting, however, were the advice themselves.
“…a prince should carefully calculate all the wicked deeds he needs to do to secure his power, and then execute them all in one stroke, such that he need not commit any more wickedness for the rest of his reign.”
This is him endorsing the elimination of all political rivals that can potentially usurp you, except you should do it as fast as possible not because you can’t handle guilt, but because the “wickedness” might become a hobby. Not because “wickedness” is a bad trait, but because you don’t want your citizens to have a good reason for an uprising.
“…I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.”
He practically said that a government can get hurt being too nice. The thing is, he was advocating that you need to look like a nice person to everybody, but in private you need to have a wicked, cruel, immoral attitude. Because you will be challenged, and you will need it to survive.
“…it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”
This has got to do with personal security; if people love you, that’s cool. But if they hate you, then you should make sure that they’re afraid of you as well, so that they wouldn’t dare to pull off anything. Even those who “love” you can’t protect you.
“…it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because fortune is a woman; and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down.”
Now you know where “life’s a bitch” really came from. The Italian renaissance.
If you’ve ever wondered where all the negative connotations about politicians came from, it’s all thanks to Machiavelli right here.
The reason it was so highly controversial was because he also painted Moses as a guy who established himself through proper use of cruelty against his opponents, which was the complete opposite to how the Bible portrays it. Until today, it’s regarded as a manual on “how to be a tyrant”, though Machiavelli used the term “great men”. Still, it would actually be a practical handbook if you were someone with enemies.
If his haters were after his life, what’s a man to do?
Tupac wasn’t a complicated person. His top 3 loves were, in descending order: money, weed and pussy; just like any other man. His humor, fun persona and his talent never left his childhood. Yet, his journey into fame and adulthood can’t be described as a smooth one. The world blessed him with riches and women, but also cursed him.
The media took pleasure in feeding the rumor mill, in his injured state, that eventually caused him to believe all the false news and lash out at Biggie and the East Coast, just because it was a profitable headline. Politicians used him as a scapegoat, saying that his aggressive music was promoting street violence; when it was actually the other way around. True, he wasn’t a saint, but he was still just a man. And he definitely had no desire to see his lyrics become his life.
The romantic playboy who was Tupac Shakur reinvented himself as the ambitious strategist Makavelli in response to everything the world threw at him.
Today, even after he’s long gone, there’s so many rappers today bearing Tupac’s sociopolitical sentiment, like T.I and Kendrick Lamar, that even the media’s getting confused.