What Tupac Shakur gave to hip hop cannot be measured with words. His lyrics were self-empowering, raw, and even poetic in a sense. It is of no doubt that you could go pretty much everywhere and there would be someone who has heard of Tupac. Here are some of the man reasons why:
1) He knew how to tell a story
It may sound strange but the young rapper studied theatre as a teenager at the Baltimore School of Performing Arts and one of his greatest inspirations was Shakespeare. In an interview with the LA Times he even said:
“[Shakespeare] wrote some of the rawest stories, man,”
Tupac’s lyrics always told the stories about what was going on around him, and you could almost imagine you saw what he did. This probably has something to do with the fact that a lot of Tupac’s early inspiration was taken from the politically-charged songs of Ice Cube and Public Enemy.
We cannot deny the complexity he had. He just wanted to let it all out with his music, free his soul, and not care about what happens next.
However, Tupac also knew how to show all the facets of life in the ghetto. The social conscience he carried in his music was just one more reason to love him. Brenda’s Got A Baby, a song from his debut studio album, 2Pacalypse Now, shows how he spoke out for the black community and wanted everyone to hear those stories.
2) His Samples held great importance
Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Public Enemy, and James Brown are just some of the artists Tupac sampled on his records.
When it comes to samples, Brown and Curtis Mayfield are the two most sampled artists in the history of hip hop. That is also the reason why in his first record, Tupac samples James Brown’s The Spank in one of the hit singles of the album, Trapped.
Choosing a sample is not as easy as it sounds. Tupac never chose them just because they sounded good. He, and some other iconic artists and producers, knew that they need to incorporate people and songs that are meaningful not only to them but to people.
If you are part of the older generations then you will surely recognize Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s The Way It Is as the original. However, people from the nineties will probably recognize it from Tupac’s posthumous hit Changes.
Hornsby’s 1986 track calls out poverty, racial segregation, classism, and other serious problems Tupac experienced during his childhood. Still, the upbeat rhythm of the chorus is somehow at odds with the lyrics.
The situation got quite different with Tupac’s verses addressing war, police brutality, drugs, and violence in between Hornsby’s words. Everything just sounded a bit more authentic.
3) The power of his voice was extraordinary
It is well known that in order to produce different sounds, singers use different parts of their bodies.
“chest voice”, for example, means that the person uses the part of the voice that resonates from the chest area. “Head voice” range resonates from the head, and so on.
Rappers also use different techniques to project. In the documentary Tupac Shakur: Thug Angel, Greg “Shock G” Jacobs, one of Tupac’s former producers said:
“Slick Rick rhymed from the nasal palate, Nas from the back of his throat, and Pac from the pit of his stomach, which is where his power came from.”
Since Tupac was inspired by powerful speakers such as Martin Luther King, you could and still can feel and hear how powerful his voice was.
4) He stacked and layered his vocals
This is another technique the rapper knew how to use perfectly. He stacked and layered his vocals, adding a dimension of rawness and warmth to his sounding.
By doing so, the rapper emphasized on certain phrases or rhythms. The track Dear Mama, from the album Me Against the World is a perfect example of what we are talking about.
Stacking vocal lines is surely not easy. If you don’t do it correctly, the flow of intricate patterns could be disturbed. Tupac knew what he was doing, and all of his phrases were easy to make out.
If you listen to the lyrics “and even though I act crazy/I gotta thank the Lord that you made me”, you will hear how his voice goes from full to husky as he hangs on the last words.
The fact that Tupac studied not only theatre but jazz and poetry as well, undoubtedly helped him control the rhythm and layer his vocals effectively.
5) You can feel the rawness and urgency in his songs
The years before his death weren’t easy for Tupac. He had served a nine-month sentence for something he may or may not have done and had so many things to say and express with his music.
The period between his going out of prison and his death was indeed intense and you can sense that in his music. He felt he needed to start his career over, and make as many tracks as possible. The fact that he needed the money was also important.
He created a new group, Outlawz Immortalz, and signed to Death Row Records. If you think about it he wasn’t exactly focused on the musicality of the songs, as much as he was on the urgency to make music.
Hail Mary is a great example. The song was recorded in just a few takes, and didn’t took more than 30 minutes to make. Just G.O.A.T.