The Surprising Origin of one of Rap’s most Iconic Terms: Thug
Thuggish or Thuggee? It’s all Gangsta to Me.
What exactly is ‘Thug Life?’ The late, great artist Tupac Shakur once described it thusly: “The Hate U Give Little Infants F*!#$ Everybody.” Though his famous acronym was poignant in its observation of oppression’s tragic effects upon future generations, Pac’s interpretation does not fully encompass the long history of the word ‘thug.’ To do that, we have to go back in time 600 years to the reign of terror that was the Thuggee cult.
Derived from the Hindi word ‘deceiver,’the Thuggees were an organized gang of professional assassins and thieves that operated throughout the Indian subcontinent from about 1350 to 1870. Here, ‘Thug Life’ meant joining groups of travelers and gaining their trust before surprising them in the night and strangling them with a noose. They would then rob their victims, bury the bodies and move onto the next hit job, a modus operandi that makes modern drive-bys look downright amature.
The most notorious members of the Thuggee Cult worshiped Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and renewal. In addition to murder for booty, this group believed they were helping the goddess maintain the worldly balance of good and evil through their ritualistic slaughter and bound themselves to a set of rules. These included: no killing the sick, which was considered an unworthy sacrifice and, in a show of early ‘feminism,’ no murdering women, as they were considered to be incarnations of Kali.
While some historians are skeptical of the more outlandish accounts of the Thuggee, there is evidence to suggest that the group was responsible for approximately two million deaths before they were suppressed under the British occupation in the late 1800s. It was during this time that the modern concept of a ‘thug’ as an aggressive, common criminal became ingrained into the English vocabulary. Even Mark Twain got a case of Thug fever when he wrote in a 1897 travelogue: "The joy of seeing killing done, these are the traits of the human race at large. We White people are merely modified Thugs; Thugs fretting under the restraints of a not very thick skin of civilization.” We all knew Twain was gangsta.
Today the word thug has many meanings: a slur to some, a badge of honor to others. So why not take all that social, cultural and racial baggage and layer on some crazy cult history? Pour some liquor out for Kali and holla “Thuggee Life!”
At the memorial to honor Tupac Shakur after he was killed in a 1996 Las Vegas shooting, members of his rap group, The Outlawz, celebrated his cremation like any normal human by taking his ashes, mixing them into a marijuana cigarette and smoking them. Long live the black jesus