Kevin Powell on Tupac: Media Momentum

The mid-to-late 90s can be best described as the gift and the curse for Hip-Hop Journalism. In one respect, the urban written word was in its heyday, where heads anxiously awaited how many mics an album received from The Source. The power of the pen echoed through publications laden with everything from beef to the […]

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The mid-to-late 90s can be best described as the gift and the curse for Hip-Hop Journalism. In one respect, the urban written word was in its heyday, where heads anxiously awaited how many mics an album received from The Source. The power of the pen echoed through publications laden with everything from beef to the soon to be evolution of a culture exiting its Golden Age. However, as the intensity brewed from coast to coast, so did the media’s awareness and willingness to spread the unabridged news. One diss turned into three, and three turned into an entire track or full page spread or radio broadcast. Whether or not that s########## led to the death of our soldiers Tupac and Biggie, there was definitely something to be said about the magnitude of the times and the media’s response to the heat.

Kevin Powell stood at the forefront of Hip-Hop Journalism once the bicoastal beef reached its peak. A staff writer for VIBE, urban poet, and budding activist, Kevin was fortunate enough to learn about Tupac behind the scenes. As we mourn a decade without ‘Pac, Kevin reminisces on his experiences with the late rapper, and how the media dramatized the events leading up to his death. An expert on all things Hip-Hop, Kevin offers his opinions on how both the media and the citizens of the culture can do their part in ensuring Hip-Hop’s survival. You spent a great deal of time [during your time at VIBE] with Tupac. As a person, what was Tupac like once the cameras were turned off?

Kevin Powell: Man, ‘Pac was real. You know, it’s funny. I’ve been trying to write this poem about him. [Tupac was] very intelligent. He was a Gemini, so he had both…he had split personalities as we well know [laughs]. ‘Pac was something else, but I remember, you know very early on, one of the early pieces I wrote about him for VIBE, I said that he was like the James Dean of our generation. You know, that “rebel without a pause,” an iconic figure. James Dean died at 24; I had no idea Tupac would die at 25. [Tupac was] very thoughtful, contemplative. But I also say that ‘Pac was always looking for something outside of himself. Some sort of father figure. That’s why he got caught up in a lot of different things, you know. At some point it was probably Shock G from Digital Underground, at one point Suge Knight, and at the end of his life it was probably Quincy Jones a little bit because he was dating Quincy’s daughter Kidada. ‘Pac was always looking for something, man. It’s funny because I got to write the liner notes for his last live performance at the House of Blues in like summer of ’96. The DVD came out last year and I got to watch Tupac all over again. He was just so intelligent, talented…I don’t think he reached his full potential as an actor. I can imagine the kind of stuff he could have done had he lived.

It’s crazy just to see how people of all different races got this love for Tupac. As I said in my previous book, Tupac dead is more relevant to a lot of young people than a lot of folks who call themselves leaders who are alive. That’s deep! We’ve all seen or heard about the infamous VIBE cover – the East Coast West Coast…

Kevin Powell: Oh, that cover [laughs]. That was after me. [Laughs] Well the cover that supposedly sparked “the war.”

Kevin Powell: Yeah man. A lot of things sparked the war; it wasn’t just VIBE Magazine. The Source, the biggest radio station here in New York. I remember when DJ’s in New York would have West Coast records in their hand and would say, “This is garbage,” and just smash them. People seem to forget that when Ice Cube left NWA, he came East and did production with the Bomb Squad. So there was relationships between the East Coast and the West Coast you know what I mean? Ice-T is from New Jersey! Just like the Fresh Prince, he got shipped out to the West Coast when he was a child. There has always been a kind of synergy.

I think the media unfortunately began to exacerbate it. And to be fair to a lot of us [journalists], we didn’t understand the magnitude of what was going on. We were just trying to tell the story. And so if Tupac said something, we reported it. If Suge Knight said something, we reported it. And with people like Biggie and Puffy- Biggie especially, never responded. He always took the high road. I know that he was personally very hurt by a lot of the stuff that was being said. But I think that was part of the worst part of Tupac. That kind of venom that came out and lashed out at a lot of people. A lot of people think he was so anti-East Coast, but if you actually go and listen to the Makaveli album, he’s got people on the album…some of that album was actually from the East Coast, because Tupac was from the East Coast!

What I say to heads, man, is like look at the best aspects of Tupac: he was a student of history, he read, he loved Hip-Hop culture, he was very clear about what his purpose was here. He had a serious work ethic. Look at all of the music he created, the body of work he created. Very loyal…maybe loyal to a fault. His downside, which happens to a lot of young men, Black men: the temper, the anger, the reckless disregard at times for his fellow brother, for women. I think that ultimately played a role in his demise. We don’t know who really killed him. Just like we don’t know who really killed Dr. King, Kennedy, or Malcolm. I’ve got my ideas, but I’m not saying them on camera [laughs]. I think for young people, there is such a genius about Tupac, that’s why you see his face on so many t-shirts. One of my homegirls that I’m real cool with, her sister is 15, so ten years ago she was five. She has all Tupac things; loves Tupac. One her sister said, “My friend Kev interviewed Tupac back in the day,” she was like, “I have to talk to him.” I’ll be gettin’ Tupac-by-extension props [laughs]. It’s bananas. I’m like, “Yeah, I knew him, but…” You know. It’s just deep. Do you feel that the media has evolved or devolved since then?

Kevin Powell: Devolved, man. I mean when Beyonce and Jay-Z or Brad and Angelina are being talked about or more important than the one year anniversary of Katrina, or more important than people getting sick because of 9/11 work, or more important than the War in Iraq and what’s really going on over there. To me, those things [Katrina, 9/11. Iraq] are more important for the media. It’s sad because when I go to college campuses, which is supposed to be a place where people are educated, you’ve got to explain to people the basics about American history, about world history. It’s sad that we’ve really just dumbed down in a lot of ways. I just encourage younger people to look for alternative media:, is an important website, is an important website. You should certainly read the New York Times. I read it every day. You should certainly watch George Stephanopoulos on Sundays; I do. Balance that out with some other mediums to know what’s going on in this planet. Read man. Exercise your mind. One of the exercises I do when I go across the country and talk about Hip-Hop is I ask, “Are you a Hip-Hop head?” And they say, “Yeah, son. Yeah!’ Especially Brooklyn heads or East Coast heads, they say “son.” At the end of the discussion I say, “What’s Hip-Hop?” Everybody stays quiet. Then they say, “Oh, it’s the t-shirts.” And I say, “Nah, it’s not just the big t-shirts.” People start guessing. But you’re a Hip-Hop head and you don’t know Hip-Hop? When the discussion is done, they have a working knowledge of Hip-Hop. Don’t ever say that you are something if you don’t know who you are. Don’t say you’re African American, West Indian, Italian, Greek, Puerto Rican, Dominican, if you don’t know who you are. Know who you are. How can you expect to relate to other people if you don’t know what you can bring to the conversation? Same with Hip-Hop, we have to see it as a whole people to perpetuate it, you know what I mean?