After interviewing Tupac Shakur, I felt more at ease than ever before
“Damn it. I guess … if I have to.”
That was my response when my producer, Suzette, told me I’d be interviewing Tupac Shakur. I was going to be in Los Angeles, anyway, to interview the stars of Mission Impossible, which was set to release the end of May. At the time, I was far more excited about interviewing Tom Cruise and Vanessa Redgrave — Tupac was an unwelcomed last-minute addition to my itinerary. I was pissed he’d be cutting into my beach time.
The year was 1996, and I was a super young, cocky host of a music video show in Denver called Teletunes. If you’re younger than 30, you may not remember the dark days before the video-on-demand convenience of YouTube. In the “olden days,” we had to watch music videos on TV; and shows like mine were all the rage.
I started that job at Channel 12 in Denver while I was a teenager. It was a dream gig: I got to interview all sorts of celebrities; I got into bars even though I was underage; and I didn’t have a job that I had to ask, “Do you want fries with that?” It was an opportunity I never fully appreciated until much later in my life. The same could be said for what happened the evening of May 4, 1996.
Tupac was scheduled to co-host a variety show with Ice-T called Saturday Night Special. The televised program was produced by Roseanne Barr, and as a local music show host known only in Denver, I felt like just getting on to the 20th Century Fox lot where it was filming was a career move.
Who the hell was I to interview Tupac? I wasn’t intimidated by him or his fame, I mean, I was going to be sitting three feet away from Tom freakin’ Cruise the following day. I questioned “why me?” because I wasn’t a fan at the time; I didn’t really listen to rap; I didn’t understand rap culture; and I certainly didn’t want to do a bunch of research on it.
The publicist for Interscope faxed me at my hotel with Tupac’s bio info, some information on the album and a couple of print interviews Shakur had done in the month prior. She put a note on the interviews and recommended I ask the same questions so I’d know how he was going to answer — she knew I didn’t really know the artist.
I brazenly chuckled at the word “artist.” She said she’d be at the hotel the following morning to escort me to the Fox lot.
Saturday Night Special was slightly different from other TV shows, because along with the standard “green room,” Roseanne also provided her guests with trailers to relax, lounge, party — whatever.
When I arrived at the trailer, the first thing I noticed was the smell. It smelled like the apple lip-gloss a high school girlfriend used to wear. I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe for it to reek of booze, stale cigarettes or pot. Kind of like the dressing rooms of most music stars I’d interviewed before.
When Shakur came in and sat down, he hardly acknowledged me. Little did I know, he already had me pegged. We each did a quick mic check and the cameraman gave us the cue. I jumped right in and started asking a bunch of canned questions, reading from my note pad like I was a real MTV VJ. At the same time I was donning my fake on-camera persona, Tupac was donning his.
Suddenly, he became hostile and loud. I was taken aback by what seemed like anger. I wasn’t expecting it at all.
Looking back later on interviews he’d done when All Eyez on Me was released, I realized the aggression stemmed from his anger at being jailed for false sexual abuse charges; being sued to the point of bankruptcy; and the relentless investigations that followed his 1995 incarceration.
I think he was also irritated because he was beholden to Suge Knight for three albums in exchange for his $1.4 million bail. The fact that he was now being forced to endure a tedious interview with a very inexperienced, and clearly ill prepared suburban bred small-time TV show host probably irritated him most of all. The album was aggressive, and when the red light of the camera came on, he became aggressive, too.
It was a magnificent Pavlovian performance.
I remember feeling flushed and hating myself for letting him grab the upper hand so early in the exchange. There was no point in even attempting to rise to his level at this point. Defeated, I recall looking at my notes after about five questions; I hung my head in shame and did something I’d never done in an interview before. I apologized.
I told him that I was wasting his time. I conceded that I hadn’t even listened to his album before the interview and I was expecting to be in and out in a half hour. At that moment, the magic of Shakur filled the room.
He got up and handed me a bottle of water and I remember him saying, “A’ight then … what do you want to talk about instead?”
The publicist and I looked at each other, puzzled. WHAT?
I started frantically looking through my notes trying form a question.
“Put it down, let’s talk,” he said.
After what seemed like an hour-long pause, I asked him, “Look, I don’t know anything about you, really, so what do you want me to know?”
He smirked and began to tell me about moving to California from New York as a teenager. He said he understood what it was like to be thrust into an uncomfortable position at a young age. Early on and often (he moved a lot as a kid), he too put on a tough act to hide his vulnerability; he related to my on-camera “performance” (as he called it) and he admitted that while I was assessing where his aggression was coming from, he’d been assessing where my false bravado was coming from as well.
It was then that I saw the real Tupac Shakur. This famously angry rap star had immediately and naturally invested in me without being asked. He was curious about me. I’m sure he was curious about everyone he met. He immediately empathized with me. If he was going to be forced to endure an interview by the likes of me, he was damn sure going to force me to at least be genuine with him.
His face lit up when we somehow started talking about how he performed in Shakespeare plays and we both agreed that the "Taming of the Shrew" was probably our mutual favorite. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the obviousness in his choice.
We talked about his work with inner-city youth and how it was so important for him to give back. In the ‘90s, rap was social commentary about surviving the plight of the inner city, not a glamorization of Xanies and lean like it is today. He was surprisingly funny, and soon we were talking about the things that inspired him.
The thing about greatness is, people who are truly great don’t have to prove it to anyone — they’re just great and they let the rest of us watch. This was Shakur.
After what seemed like hours, the publicist started pointing to her watch. It was my time to wrap. I stood up to shake his hand, he reached out and hugged me. He encouraged me to be real, to be honest, to be vulnerable. He told me that’s how art is made.
That advice has stuck with me through my writing career. I don’t think I’d be half the writer I am today had it not been for the freely given, passing comment from a man who didn’t admonish me for my earlier, apologetic vulnerability — rather, encouraged it and embraced it. Tupac saw the potential artist in me and he demanded that I either live it or get the hell out.
Later that night, he appeared on Saturday Night Special with Ice-T, singing a duet of "You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” — laughing and being silly and being vulnerable. While the performance may have seemed like a typical comedy sketch to the television audience, I knew that Tupac was climbing over his own walls.
Only 135 days later, the world learned Tupac had been gunned down in Las Vegas. For a moment, I thought it was silly that I felt like I had lost a friend, but I embraced the emotion (as he asked me to) and I still feel that to this day. The rest of the world knew what it lost, and finally, I did, too.
While I’ve had a prolific writing career — I’ve written millions of words, talked to thousands of celebrities in countless cities across the country — I can honestly say I’ve only met a handful of true artists.
It’s ironic that Tupac and I hardly spoke about his music, poetry and acting. He didn’t feel compelled to convince me he was a great artist, he simply was an artist. And one night, in a trailer that smelled like apples, he let me watch.