[4 January 2007]
[I was] certain that Tupac was the figure I wanted to write about because he, better than anyone else I had listened to or seen on screen up until that moment, embodied the often difficult and stunted experience of being a Black boy, a Black manchild, in America. He was, in short, the hiphop generation’s James Dean.
—Kevin Powell, liner notes to Tupac: The Complete Live Performances
In the years following Tupac Shakur’s murder in Las Vegas, Nevada, music fans have been treated to loads of posthumous material. Maybe I’m spoiled now, having enjoyed Tupac’s movie roles (I liked Gridlock’d and Gang Related), numerous interviews and documentaries (Tupac: Resurrection earned a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the 77th Annual Academy Awards), various tributes, all kinds of books, and of course the albums. Tupac joined the funky and imaginative Digital Underground collective in 1990; he was killed in 2006. I’ve always wondered how a career so short and cut so abruptly could yield so much. It’s a testament, as many have pointed out, to Tupac’s work ethic, as well as the dedication and hard work of his mother Afeni Shakur and his road dawgs the Outlawz.
However, as I watched Eagle Rock Entertainment’s Tupac: The Complete Live Performances (the CLP), I was stunned by a new question, namely, “How could this happen?” I asked this because, according to this DVD package, the CLP brings us “the only two full live performances by Tupac Shakur that were ever filmed.” I read that and parroted, “Ever filmed?” Say it ain’t so, Pac, say it ain’t so.
But it’s true. While there’s a smorgasbord of Tupac’s audio recordings on the market, we’re faced with a sobering lack of concert material. I suppose there’s a lesson in this, that if we’ve failed to capture and preserve footage of an international superstar, onstage and engaged with and by his fans, doing what he loved to do, then we’d better make sure we carry our cameras and camcorders to the next family reunion, wedding, graduation, or visit to Grandma’s house. The images we keep may turn out to have incalculable value to us later. And so, except for maybe a stray Tupac performance on Saturday Night Live, they’re saying this is it—two discs of performances, the first covering Tupac at Los Angeles, California’s legendary House of Blues, the second at Las Vegas, Nevada’s Club 662. Both performances took place within a year of Tupac’s death.
Upon deeper inspection, I realized that your interest in this package hinges on your responses to either of three crucial questions. If your answer to any of these questions is “a lot”, then you should consider buying this collection.
Question One: How much do you love live rap?
If you’re not a fan of live rap—you know, homies with microphones walking back and forth across the stage kickin’ (I refuse to say “spittin’”) rhymes over pre-recorded beats—then we’ll assume you ended up reading this article by accident. Don’t worry. I won’t mention you were ever here.
At the same time, even a casual observer can appreciate Tupac’s energy and stage presence, the enthusiasm of his interaction with the audience or the gusto with which he assumes the role of bandleader (or let’s say “deejay leader”) when he requests a beat change or when he exchanges his working microphone for a co-performer’s malfunctioning one in the middle of “When We Ride” on Disc Two. You can hear the power of his voice as it projects his passion. In short order, Tupac’s zeal winds up covering him in sweat, chugging water between verses, and going all out to please the crowd. He rocks his jams, from the DVD opening anthem “Ambitions Az a Ridah” to the audience pleaser “How Do You Want It”, and manages to turn the sadness of a song like “So Many Tears” into a celebration. Tupac-aholics, like myself, will also enjoy Pac and the gang’s rival-dissing masterpiece “Hit Em Up” and a couple of new (at the time) tracks like “Tattoo Tears”. I actually preferred this rendition of “Tattoo Tears” to the one that eventually appeared on the posthumous album, Still I Rise. It’s also fascinating to see how Tupac’s layered recordings translate to the stage. With the Outlawz providing background vocals, the translation works rather well.
Question Two: How much do you love Tupac?
It goes without saying, but let’s say it anyway: if you love Tupac and you’re looking to collect all the Tupac-related items you can—and assuming you don’t already own Live at the House of Blues (2005), which is basically Disc One of the CLP—what are you doing reading this review? Get to a store or shop online immediately (which means “after you’ve read another PopMatters column or feature first”) and buy this thing.
Question Three: How much do you love Death Row artists like Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, and the Dogg Pound?
Your answer to this is pivotal because if you’re lukewarm about Tupac (insert open jawed stare here) or merely curious about him, you won’t be psyched about the CLP unless you think Snoop Dogg and the Dogg Pound are the “shiznit”. If you even remotely know what I’m talking about with “shiznit”, it’s possible this package will elevate you to Doggy Dogg heaven.
Author and journalist Kevin Powell, who interviewed Tupac on numerous occasions and wrote some of Vibe Magazine’s most insightful Tupac pieces, penned the liner notes for the House of Blues performance (Disc One). “The funny thing,” he writes, “is [Tupac] is not the headliner.” Despite what the title of the DVD says, it’s Snoop Dogg’s concert. Snoop romps through his musical turf like a champ, with classic songs like “Murder Was the Case”, “Who Am I (What’s My Name)”, and “Gin and Juice”. It might’ve been nice if Snoop had performed “Nothin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” or “One Eight Seven”, but that might not have worked without Dr. Dre, who’s absent from both club nights (although Tupac managed a decent Dre-less plug of “California Love”).
Disc One finds Snoop absolutely inspired, vigorous in his presentation, fiery in his vocals, much different from the laidback, sleepy-eyed Snoop of the present. At the height of Tupac’s feud with the Notorious B.I.G. and Sean “Puffy-soon-to-be-Diddy” Combs, Snoop’s performance captures the mood and bicoastal-ism of the times. Aspects of the so-called East Coast-West Coast rap beef were exaggerated and/or amplified for effect, to be sure, but the tape tells the tale. When Snoop asks if anybody in the crowd is from the East Coast, the response is under-whelming. Snoop says, “Nobody’s gonna represent? Well, we gon’ represent it for ‘em.” He then gets back to work, launching into “New York” with the Dogg Pound.
As far as bonus features, Disc One contains five music videos (“California Love (remix)”, “To Live and Die in L.A.”, “Hit Em Up”, “How Do You Want It”, and “I Ain’t Mad At ‘Cha”). Having never owned any Tupac videos, I appreciated these, although I would’ve preferred the “2 of a Amerika’s Most Wanted” video instead of the “concert version” of “How Do You Want It”. Nevertheless, as I’ve already mentioned, Disc One is essentially the same as last year’s Live at the House of Blues. If you already own that, you’ll pretty much be buying the same show twice if you get this one too.
As with Disc One, when Tupac finishes his six songs on Disc Two’s Club 662 performance, all eyes are on Tha Dogg Pound (Daz and Kurupt) until the end of the disc’s 78 minutes. Kevin Swain’s notes for the Club 662 performance call the footage “rough around the edges”. Visually, the footage is strong; it’s the audio that sounds a little coarse.
Disc Two’s bonus features are initially promising, beginning with an engrossing “reprise” performance of “Ambitions Az a Ridah” and “California Love”. But the remainder lacks the reprise’s punch, especially the commentary from Tupac’s pal and Naughty By Nature front man Treach. Since Treach recorded “Mourn Ya Til I Join Ya” (1997) in Tupac’s honor, I expected stronger remarks from Treach, maybe a little something about his relationship with Tupac, or his impressions of Death Row’s impact or legacy, perhaps even a story or two. Instead, Treach, who’s normally quite intelligent, witty, and most of all chatty, comes off as being interested in the performance but decidedly reserved about discussing it. Beyond that, you’ll find a freestyle from Kurupt of the Dogg Pound that fails to excite, in spite of Kurupt’s well-deserved reputation for wicked off-the-cuff wordplay. And I guess I should mention the option for alternate camera angles, but it’s nothing to write home about.
Since Tupac is the focus, and 2006 marks the tenth anniversary of his death, a “definitive” set of live performances should have reflected that significance of the occasion. To that end, we might’ve liked additional videos to round things out. Full interviews (or clips) with Afeni Shakur, Treach, or Kevin Powell could have done the trick, as well as words from rappers and producers who worked with Tupac. I needed something more on par with our remembrance of the artist we adored.
Tupac: The Complete Live Performances leaves us with the eerie feeling Kevin Powell describes when he says, “No one knew [Tupac] would live just two months after [the House of Blues performance]…You wonder if he knew the end was near.” I was thinking the same thing, studying both discs for hints, like I was investigating the Zapruder film for clues about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But you’re not going to find the hip-hop equivalent of a grassy knoll or an umbrella man. Like Tupac says in “2 of Amerika’s Most Wanted”, “it ain’t nothin’ but a gangsta party”. And if you like that sort of thing, you won’t mind giving the discs in this package a couple of twirls.