I conducted this interview with Tupac Shakur on August 10, 1993, when I was working as a freelancer for the Calendar section of The Los Angeles Times. It was the first time I had ever spoken to Tupac. The LA Times had no interest in what the budding 22-year-old rap star had to day, so I pitched it to Rolling Stone.
At the time of the interview, Tupac was pissed at me – due primarily to my coverage of a 19-year-old car thief named Ronald Howard, who was subsequently executed by the State of Texas for a murder that law enforcement blamed on Tupac’s “cop-killing” lyrics. Howard had stolen a truck and shot a Trooper in the face while listening to Pac’s “2Pacalypse Now” album. The cops recovered the tape from the cassette deck of the stolen vehicle. A clever lawyer representing Howard decided to put Pac’s “cop-killing” music on trial.
As a result, police organizations across the nation took to staging angry protests against Tupac. Politicians, including then-vice president Dan Quayle, grabbed headlines during an election year trashing Tupac at televised rallies. Pac blamed me for inflaming the scandal because I flew out to Texas and interviewed the kid who shot the trooper, as well as the trooper’s widow, who later filed suit against Tupac and Time Warner, which was already entrenched in a political firestorm following its release of Ice T’s underground heavy metal hit, “Cop Killer.”
Howard was the one and only individual to kill a cop out of the 500,000 fans who purchased “2Pacalypse Now” in 92. As a poverty-stricken kid, growing up in the ghetto, he had a tough go of it. His dad beat him mercilessly, he told me, with an electrical extension cord, so badly, that blood streaked the walls. He’d been in and out of jail his entire life. Tupac and NWA’s lyrics spoke directly to him, he said. His own personal soundtrack: They detailed his bleak existence – to the bone. Where he lived, police were prone to brutality. Howard was not about to take another licking. As he watched the burly Trooper strutting up to his vehicle, something snapped. Over the years, Howard and I got to know each other. We exchanged Christmas cards until the end. He regretted what he did. In his final statement, just before they executed him, according to one media report, Howard looked over at the Trooper’s family and said: “I hope this helps. I don’t know how, but I hope it helps.”
I talked with Tupac by phone for our interview. In this conversation, as in every conversation I had with Tupac, he waxed eloquent on practically every subject he discussed. He was brilliant – and barely 22. I have never met anyone that age as sharp as him. He called out racist cops and crooked politicians who were ganging up on him, including then-Attorney General Janet Reno, who he blasted as a true cop-killer, referring to the law enforcement agents who got murdered when she decided to raid a cult leader’s compound in Waco, Texas. Tupac could see through it all. He wasn’t just smart. He was cool.
This week, while re-listening to the tape, I was impressed by how far ahead of his time Tupac was, and how, at 22, his dreams long ago eclipsed the empirical trappings most modern celebrities still covet. You never saw Pac shilling merchandise for corporations or lending his name or identity to some shameless commercial brand scheme, as is the fashion now for so many Benjamin-bootlicking sell-outs. Being rich on paper meant little to Pac. Being rich in spirit is what mattered. He was not motivated by greed, but by the transformative power of art.