In the public imagination, Tupac Shakur will always be a West Coast figure. California is, after all, where he gained fame as the embodiment of the platinum-tongued hip-hop star—the feuding, gun-toting, authority snubbing anti-hero. It’s where he radiated Hollywood-sanctioned sex appeal, stoking tabloid tales that made him a mainstream celebrity.
The fact is Shakur lived most of his life on the East Coast—including four extraordinary years in Baltimore. But that time doesn't get much play. The 2003 Oscar-nominated documentary Tupac: Resurrection, for instance, ran nearly two hours but devoted less than two minutes to Shakur’s life here. That’s a shame, because it’s key to understanding a man who’s become a cultural icon.
Shakur was shot and killed in Las Vegas 20 years ago this month. The media frenzy that ensued focused mainly on violent song lyrics, previous shooting incidents, and a simmering East Coast versus West Coast rap feud. The emerging narrative dovetailed conveniently with the “thug life” that Shakur embraced while living in Oakland and Los Angeles and became legend over the next two decades.
These days, Shakur gets compared to the likes of John Lennon and Bob Marley, and regularly turns up on lists of all-time greatest artists and rappers. A much-anticipated biopic, All Eyez on Me, is set for release this fall. Shakur has also been the subject of theater productions, museum exhibits, and college courses. The Library of Congress added his song, “Dear Mama,” to the National Recording Registry in 2010. A recent New York Times Magazine piece on Kenya noted that vehicles in Nairobi are often adorned with images of Jesus Christ and Tupac Shakur.
“He’s more relevant than ever, not just here in America, but all over the globe,” activist and writer Kevin Powell told ABC News on the anniversary of Shakur’s 40th birthday in 2011. “He really is the most significant icon that hip-hop has ever produced.”
And Baltimore played a major role in Shakur’s development, not as a rough-riding hip-hop superhero, but as an artist.
At age 13, Shakur moved to Baltimore from New York City in 1984 with his mother, Afeni, and younger sister, Sekyiwa. The family lived in the first-floor apartment of a brick row house at 3955 Greenmount Avenue in the small, North Baltimore neighborhood of Pen Lucy. Tupac went to Roland Park Middle School for the eighth grade.
That year’s photo for Mrs. Gee’s class shows him in the second row, near the center. With close-cropped hair and dressed in a light-colored, short-sleeve shirt, he looks lanky, even scrawny, among his classmates. Still, it’s easy to spot him thanks to his thick black eyebrows and dark eyes. And then there’s the mouth. While the other kids sport tight-lipped smiles or teeth-baring “say cheese” grins, Shakur strikes an altogether different pose. Actually, he doesn’t appear posed at all. His mouth is open wide, and he seems engaged, not docile or mindlessly compliant. It looks like he might be talking to the photographer.
Dana Smith sits in the front row, to Shakur’s left. Smith, nicknamed “Mouse Man,” forged a musical bond with Shakur and remembers the first time he spoke to him on the bus home from school. That day, in September 1984, the No. 8 bus was nearly full and Shakur took the only open seat, the seat beside Smith, who was itching to get home and listen to WEBB’s Rap Attack show at four o’clock.
“He kicked a rhyme to me, and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is crazy.’”
Smith, a talented beatboxer, asked the newcomer if he was into hip-hop and knew how to rap. “He kicked a rhyme to me, and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is crazy. It was really good.” He later learned the rhyme wasn’t original—it was actually lifted from a Kurtis Blow song Shakur knew from New York, which hadn’t made it to Baltimore yet.
Their friendship blossomed, rooted in a shared love of hip-hop acts like Eric B & Rakim and Run DMC and an appreciation of different types of music. As Smith recounts the story, he walks around The Sound Garden, the now venerable Fells Point record store, and points out some of the nonrap music Shakur enjoyed. Kate Bush? “Yes, indeed,” says Smith. “‘Wuthering Heights’ was the song.”
Sting? Yup. Steve Winwood? Yup. “Hey, we were also listening to Brian & O’Brien on B104, playing the hits all day long,” he says, referring to the then-popular top 40 radio program.
Smith picks up a CD copy of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. It, too, was a favorite, but not for hits like “Money for Nothing.” Smith starts singing lyrics from the title track that resonated: “Through these fields of destruction/Baptisms of fire.” The tune, sung by Brit Mark Knopfler, traces a protagonist who faces death and treasures his comrades’ loyalty—ground Shakur covered in songs he later wrote.
When asked about this type of music’s appeal back in the day, Smith claims much of it was practical, a lesson in song craft: “For us, it was all about identifying transitions in songs and how smooth they were.”
They would meet up every afternoon to write rhymes, after Smith finished his homework. Sometimes, they’d hang out at a rec center on Old York Road, but Shakur wasn’t into playing basketball or pingpong, because “he sucked at sports, all sports,” says Smith. Most often, the two of them simply composed raps, either sitting inside a plastic bubble on the playground behind Shakur’s house—“the acoustics were so good in there,” recalls Smith—or hunkered down in Smith’s basement on nearby 41st Street.
Smith’s house was lively, populated by an array of family members including grandparents, his mother, an aunt, and two uncles. Music was always playing. Smith was the youngest of his group of friends, a self-professed “good kid, the freshest kid on the block” who had all the latest fashionable clothes and sneakers, thanks to his uncles, who dealt drugs in the neighborhood.
Shakur, on the other hand, came from poverty. His father wasn’t around; his mother had been arrested and charged with conspiracy to bomb New York City landmarks while a member of the Black Panther Party in 1969. A month after being acquitted of the charges, she gave birth to Shakur, on June 16, 1971. Afeni, who passed away in May and was the inspiration behind the song “Dear Mama,” struggled with substance abuse issues (“And even as a crack fiend, mama/You always was a black queen, mama”) and with supporting the family (“You just working with the scraps you was given/And mama made miracles every Thanksgiving”).
Shakur wore hand-me-downs, including pants that were so big they had to be stapled. He slept in a small bedroom, while his mother and little sister slept in the dining room Afeni had converted into a bedroom. Smith says the Shakur house was “always dark, dim. They had lights and it was clean, but it was dark with not a lot of stuff in there.”
Smith’s family and friends razzed him for befriending the raggedy newcomer. “This guy is cornball—everything about him is corny,” he recalls them saying. “Why are you hanging out with him?”
The answer, says Smith, was simple: “We loved to rap.”