Even before his untimely death at age 25 in 1996, Tupac Shakur was a legend. The Harlem-born rapper is one of the top-selling artists in the world; as of 2010, 75 million of his albums have sold worldwide.
Now, PBS’s Blank on Blank animated interview series presents a previously unreleased 1994 talk between Tupac and Entertainment Weekly reporter Benjamin Svetkey. The stark black-and-white animation brings the late rapper back as a complex, introspective, and deeply pained young man.
“This was one of a three-part interview that took place when Tupac was promoting his film Above The Rim, Blank on Blank‘s David Gerlach (who is married to Fast Company‘s Danielle Sacks) tells Co.Design. “People had read snippets of it 20 years ago but no one had heard Tupac order crabcakes or talk about how he could’ve been John Wayne.”
The interview took place at the height of a grim scandal: Tupac had recently been accused of raping a woman and would go on trial shortly afterward. Of being the target of media outrage, he says, “I have no friends. I have no resting place. I never sleep. I can never close my eyes. It’s horrible.” In court, he was acquitted on all charges except for one of “unwanted touching of the buttocks,” and would go on to serve 11 months of a one-and-a-half year prison sentence. “I cannot live in a jail cell,” he tells Svetkey in this interview.
Animator Patrick Smith’s minimal, graffiti-inspired style lends humor to what’s largely a tragic piece of recovered history, with a cartoon of a cackling Dan Quayle, a robot with Tupac’s “Thug Life” stomach tattoo, and Tupac as a cowboy hat-wearing John Wayne. “What the animation does is trigger something in the listener–it brings to life the images that are coming into their own heads as they’re listening,” Gerlach says.
When Tupac is asked where he sees himself in 15 years, his response is depressingly prescient: “Worst case, sprinkled in ashes, smoked up by my homies,” he says. “Best case, multimillionaire, owning all this shit.” Two years later, he would be dead by gunshot wounds, and some of his ashes were indeed smoked by members of the Outlawz, the hip-hop group he formed after his release from prison.
“I feel like a tragic hero in a Shakespeare play,” he tells Svetkey of his life. Tupac studied theater at the Baltimore School of the Arts and was an avid reader of Shakespeare, understanding firsthand the psychology of his tales of inter-gang warfare and cross-cultural conflict. “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,” he told [i]Los Angeles Times[/i] writer Chuck Philips in 1995. “You don’t often hear this kind of openness in front of journalists now,” Gerlach says.