Six days after his release from a New York prison, Tupac Shakur is holed up in the control booth of a dimly lit Tarzana recording studio.
Bobbing his head and grinning, the 24-year-old rapper turns up the volume on a funky duet called "2 of America's Most Wanted," which he just finished with label mate Snoop Doggy Dogg (a.k.a. Calvin Broadus, whose murder trial is set to begin Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court).
It's the 14th song Shakur has recorded since emerging from behind bars . Death Row Records, which recently signed a contract with Shakur, posted $1.4 million on Oct. 12 to spring the rapper from Riker's Island maximum-security penitentiary, where he was serving up to 4 1/2 years for two counts of sexual abuse. The charges stemmed from a 1993 incident at a Manhattan hotel in which Shakur and an associate were convicted of holding a female fan down while a third man sexually assaulted her.
Shakur denies the allegations but was advised by his attorneys not to discuss the case during his first interview since his release. It was the biggest in a series of confrontations involving the rapper, who was shot five times last December by a robber in New York. He has also faced criminal charges on four other occasions since March, 1993, including a weapons violation in Los Angeles , where a trial is set for Nov. 16.
Shakur comes across as a man of many contradictions--someone who has the words thug life tattooed across his stomach but complains about being misrepresented by the media as a gangsta rapper.
His best-selling music, which covers topics ranging from police shootings to teen-age pregnancy, polarizes listeners. It has been both widely acclaimed by numerous critics and frequently attacked by parent groups and politicians. While Shakur was in jail, his last album, "Me Against the World," entered the national pop charts at No. 1 and held that position for a month. It has sold nearly 2 million copies, fueled by the poignant Top 10 single "Dear Mama"--an ode to the struggle of single mothers. Some of his more violent songs have been accused in a pending Texas civil suit of influencing a teen-age car thief to kill a state trooper.
Dressed in a baggy sweat suit and bandanna, Shakur--who hopes to have a new album out by Christmas, just days before arguments begin on his appeal -- spoke about prison, the media and his music .
Question: How does it feel to be free again?
Answer: I'm so glad to be out. It was tough sitting in jail listening to Jay Leno and Rush Limbaugh and everybody making jokes about me getting shot. And watching the media report all kinds of lies about me, like that I got raped in jail. That never happened. But at least while I was locked down, all the inmates gave me props [encouragement], and so did lots of mothers and kids, who wrote me letters of support.
One of the best letters I got came from [actor] Tony Danza. I've never even met the guy, but he wrote me to say he liked my album and to keep my head up and to just come out stronger. I can't tell you how great that made me feel.
Q: How do you look back on the last couple of turbulent years?
A: It's been stress and drama for a long time now, man. So much has happened. I got shot five times by some dudes who were trying to rub me out. But God is great. He let me come back. But, when I look at the last few years, it's not like everybody just did me wrong. I made some mistakes. But I'm ready to move on.
Q: Did you write this new album in jail?
A: No. I only wrote one song there. But I've been in the studio every waking hour since I got out. Me and my producer Johnnie "J." keep coming up with new songs till people start passing out. Then we come back early in the morning and start over. You're going to feel the entire 11 months of what I went through on this album. I'm venting my anger.
Q: A number of your songs deal with--and some people say glorify--drug dealing and gang violence. What do you say to people who say you are a bad social influence?
A: Let me say for the record, I am not a gangster and never have been. I'm not the thief who grabs your purse. I'm not the guy who jacks your car. I'm not down with people who steal and hurt others. I'm just a brother who fights back. I'm not some violent closet psycho. I've got a job. I'm an artist.
Q: So why is gangbanging and violence so often the focus of your music?
A: Everything in life is not all beautiful, not all fun. There is lots of killing and drugs. To me, a perfect album talks about the hard stuff and the fun and caring stuff. What I want to know, though, is why all of a sudden is everybody acting like gangs are some new phenomenon in this country? Almost everyone in America is affiliated with some kind of gang. We got the FBI, the ATF, the police departments, the religious groups, the Democrats and the Republicans. Everybody's got their own little clique and they're all out there gangbanging in their own little way.
The thing that bothers me is that it seems like all the sensitive stuff I write just goes unnoticed . . . the media doesn't get who I am at all. Or maybe they just can't accept it. It doesn't fit into those negative stories they like to write. I'm the kind of guy who is moved by a song like Don McLean's "Vincent," that one about Van Gogh. The lyric on that song is so touching. That's how I want to make my songs feel. Take "Dear Mama"--I aimed that one straight for my homies' heartstrings.
Q: You studied at the Baltimore School of Performing Arts. Does your theater background influence your songwriting?
A: It influences all my work. I really like stuff like "Les Miserables" and "Gospel at Colonus." And I love Shakespeare. He wrote some of the rawest stories, man. I mean look at Romeo and Juliet. That's some serious ghetto [expletive]. You got this guy Romeo from the Bloods who falls for Juliet, a female from the Crips, and everybody in both gangs are against them. So they have to sneak out and they end up dead for nothing. Real tragic stuff.
And look how Shakespeare busts it up with Macbeth. He creates a tale about this king's wife who convinces a happy man to chase after her and kill her husband so he can take over the country. After he commits the murder, the dude starts having delusions just like in a Scarface song. I mean the king's wife just screws this guy's whole life up for nothing. Now that's what I call a b----.
Q: Why do you use such derogatory terms to describe women? Doesn't that play into the hands of critics who say rappers are misogynists?
A: If the shoe fits wear it, that's what I say. What if all the guys started complaining when women call them dogs? In real life, just like in Macbeth, all women are not just pure and true. Just because I write some songs about bad women, though, that doesn't mean I hate women. I've written songs that show great love and respect for women too. Songs that talk about strong, upstanding women and their pain.
Look around you in this studio right now. I have women working on my music. They understand where I'm coming from. So does my mama. I always play my music for her before it comes out. Why do you think I wrote "Dear Mama"? I wrote it for my mama because I love her and I felt I owed her something deep.