In 1994, 2Pac had finally broken through.
His second album, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.AZ had given the controversial Hip-Hop star his first major commercial success. He'd starred in two hit movies, Juice and Poetic Justice, and he had another film on the way (the basketball drama Above the Rim). With his first platinum plaque under his felt, Pac decided that he wanted to help put on some of his homies. And he had the perfect banner to do it.
In 1992, Tupac had gotten "THUG LIFE" tattooed across his torso. The phrase would become synonymous with Tupac Shakur for the remainder of his life. In a famous 1993 interview with Ed Gordon of BET, Shakur defended "thug life" as an ethos -- it was a way to keep him connected to his people in the streets.
"I’m not sayin’ I live [in the same] neighborhood or nothing," Pac explained to Gordon. "But I’m a thug. They’re thugs. They can relate. I don’t have to say that."
Soon, Thug Life would also become a rap group fronted by Shakur. With his star at an all-time high, 2Pac recruited a handful of emcees he was close to for a new project. His follow-up to Strictly... wouldn't be a proper 2Pac album. Instead, he was going to breathe life into Thug Life. He tapped rapper/producer Stretch, as well as rappers Rated R, Pac's stepbrother Mopreme, Macadoshis and Big Syke for the group.
"I met him actually through a guy named Surge," Syke would explain. "Surge’s cousin Wattani was actually 2Pac’s manager at the time. And Surge brought him to the hood, my neighborhood ya know and we hooked up. Surge use to play on my music, so he (2Pac) liked my music so we started hangin’ out and after that we became friends and the next thing ya know we were on tour."
"After I had pressed up my album and got my little label going," Syke said. "I met 2Pac and he said he wanted to start this thing called Thug Life. And we went to the studio and did the first song called Thug Life and it was history from there on."
Mopreme had also gone by the name "Wycked," and his father was Mutulu Shakur, Pac's stepfather and an influential revolutionary, active with the Revolutionary Action Movement and Black nationalist New Afrika party.
"My father is still one of the most impressive people I have ever known," Mopreme said in 2012. "His accomplishments and his struggles inspire me constantly. I always seek to accomplish with my music what he accomplished in his life: to mean something as well as to have fun."
That desire to create music that "means something," informed Thug Life. Pac's new group set to work on an album in late 1993, and everyone was all in. Despite the group aesthetic, the Thug Life project featured 2Pac coming into his own as an artist. His early work had a Public Enemy-esque fire alongside Pac's trademark sensitivity and charisma. But he hadn't fully developed the persona that would come to define his later work; that romanticized fatalism and mythologizing that runs underneath albums like 1995s Me Against the World first begins to show itself within Thug Life.
"When I come out I don’t have to say, ‘I’m real,'" Pac told Gordon. "They already know that—from me being me. [They know this] not from me pushing the ‘thug-ness,’ but I know from the business that everybody in this [industry] is always whispering in your ear about what you can’t say, what you can’t do, and what you can’t wear in this world. It’s two worlds: a White world and a Black world. All I did was stand in the middle and say I’m livin’ in both worlds."
He famously declared "THUG LIFE" an acronym for "THE HATE U GIVE LITTLE INFANTS FUCKS EVERYBODY," as a way to position the "thug" as a creation born of neglect. Pac's charisma and star-power was what convinced Syke to push forward with Thug Life, despite his own aspirations as a solo artist with his own Evil Mind record label.
"I put the Evil Mind to the side, and I started doing the Thug Life tour," Syke would share decades later. "And all the rest of it just kinda turned into Thug Life, and then it turned into the Outlaws, and here I am today. And that’s just kinda how it went, you know I didn’t plan on putting my label to the side cause I ended up signing with 2Pac, the first label he had Out Tha Gutta, and then after the Thug Life album he went to jail and we did the All Eyez On Me album and after the All Eyez On Me album I was going to be the first guy that was going to be signed to Mackavelli Records."
Thug Life, Volume 1 dropped in the early fall of 1994, thrusting 2Pac's new group into the spotlight and spawning such indelible tracks as "How Long Will They Mourn Me," "Str8 Ballin'" and "Bury Me A G." The project became a fan favorite and eventually earned gold status, but would be somewhat overshadowed by Tupac Shakur's pending court case involving sexual assault. It would also be obscured by the November 1994 shooting that almost took Shakur's life.
Thug Life as a group would cease to exist after 2Pac was sent to prison in early 1995, though Mopreme and Big Syke would remain fixtures in 2Pac's world until his murder in September 1996. Today, the Thug Life album doesn't look like a superstar's side project, but more like a necessary step in 2Pac's evolution as an artist. And it stands as testament to how dedicated he was to the bonds that he valued. It's the creative stamp of Tupac-as-a-friend, the one who wanted to stay connected to the streets by riding with his boys.
Listen to The Essential Podcast featuring Stereo Williams discussing Tupac's "Thug Life" Album
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