Tupac Shakur Remembered by Closest Collaborators, 20 Years Later

Tupac Shakur
Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

Tupac Shakur

Members of The Outlawz, music video directors & more talk about the "down-to-earth," "passionate" late rapper. "Outside of the great music and the things that he did for his community, we lost a good one, man."

On Sept. 13, 1996, Tupac Shakur died after suffering four gunshot wounds during a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas just under a week before. The rapper, actor, poet and social activist was just 25 at the time of his death, but already he had risen to the status of superstardom, having released four solo albums -- a fifth would be released six weeks later -- two of which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and starred in a handful of films. 'Pac was a pillar of West Coast hip-hop -- despite having been born on the East -- and was an outspoken critic of the political and social issues that plagued (and plague) America, using his platform as an entertainer to share his typically unabashed worldview.

Now, 20 years later, it's almost jarring to look at the world and realize that the exact same issues that Tupac spoke so passionately about are resonating again so loudly in the United States; Kendrick Lamar's March 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, presented almost as a long letter to Tupac, lays out that synergy. Twenty years after Tupac's death, his music is just as relevant and vital as it was when he first released it.

In those intervening decades, Tupac has become one of the symbols of hip-hop, known the world over for his lyrics, message and image. But there was more to Tupac that the world didn't always necessarily get to see. At this anniversary of the late icon's death, Billboard spoke with six of 'Pac's collaborators -- mentors, colleagues, video directors, fellow rappers -- each of whom met the rapper at a different point in his life, to hear stories of their friend and colleague, the one that they knew that his millions of fans may not have gotten to see.

Gobi Rahimi, music video director and Tupac's personal videographer

Tupac Credits: "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted" and "Made Niggaz" video director, 7 Dayz documentary director, book on Tupac photography

I was production partners with my then-girlfriend Tracy Robinson, who had been a production assistant on [Thug Life's] "Pour Out a Little Liquor." And when he got out of [New York State prison in] Dannemora [in 1995], he sent [longtime friend] Molly Monjauze to find Tracy and at that point I sort of came with the package. I remember the first time I met him, I was told to go meet him at this Malibu beach house. 'Pac and the Outlawz were in the backyard having a water-gun fight. I went out there to meet him and he was like, "Hey, I heard about you, you're Iranian. You guys got some cute women." And then he got a call and it was Suge and he put his water gun down on the table and started having an argument with Suge trying to get some money, and the Outlawz kept the water fight going.

I was 30 years old and liked to get in trouble a little bit, so I grabbed 'Pac's gun and started squirting the Outlawz, and next thing I know we're all chasing each other around the yard, and within a minute all the Outlawz had surrounded me and I was in the middle of them trying to squirt all of them. I had a long leather trench coat on, but I didn't give a f--- if it got wet. And Tupac busted through all of them and said, "That's what I'm talking about! Look at that mother----er! He didn't give up and he stood up against all you mother----ers! He's a crazy Iranian!" And from that first meeting, I was known as the Crazy Iranian. It was love at first sight.

Working with Tupac was challenging in many ways, because we had to deal with the people that were around him. Working with Death Row was not easy, but being in Tupac's presence in and of itself made it all worthwhile. He was such an anomaly, such an ingénue, that you couldn't help but sort of become his surrogate, his lap dog; you would do anything he needed done. And at 25, it just seemed like he had such a clear picture of where he wanted to go. And it was our job, as far as production was concerned, to help him fulfill those dreams.

The biggest travesty with the timing of his death was that had he lived another three to six months, he would have completely shifted not only his trajectory, but his environment. In one of our last conversations he said, "In six months from now, no one's going to recognize me because I'm gonna be done with all this bullshit. I'm tired of all this drama." Even in the seven short months that I shared with him, it seemed like he was transforming, even in that short time period. It was a metamorphosis; it was like he was ready to fight out of his cocoon and turn into a butterfly. And unfortunately he was taken out before that could happen.

Young Noble, rapper and member of The Outlawz

Tupac Credits: "Hail Mary," "Life of an Outlaw," "Bomb First (My Second Reply)"

I met him through Kadafi and Hussein Fatal. I grew up with them in Jersey, and Kadafi was 'Pac's half-brother, basically. I had moved out to Cali with my sister for seven months, just going to school and stuff. One day I got home from school and my sister told me that Kadafi and Fatal had called me and said they were in California; 'Pac had just got out of jail and flew them out there. I called these guys and they were like, "We out here with 'Pac, he just got out and flew us out here." I gave them my address and about two or three hours later they showed up to pick me up in a limo. I hopped in with them and we headed out to 'Pac's condo on Wilshire Boulevard.

We walk in the condo and 'Pac is upset, because these guys took the limo without asking him; he was doing an interview, these guys just leave the house and take the f---in' limo to come pick me up. So as soon as we walk in he starts barking at them -- mind you, no one had cell phones or beepers or none of that -- "What the f--- are y'all doing, y'all took my limo." And then they got a stranger with them, which is me. [Laughs] So Kadafi says, "This is Noble, he's from the 'hood," and 'Pac goes, "Excuse me, Noble, no disrespect to you, but yo, how the f--- y'all gonna steal the limo and bring somebody to the crib I don't even know? Y'all know I'm fresh out and paranoid." Kadafi steps up and goes, "Calm down, this is our homie from the 'hood, we've known him our whole life, you know we wouldn't just bring a stranger." After that, it was like nothing had happened; we started passing blunts around and wound up hanging out that night.

That whole time I was out there with my sister, for some reason I was writing rhymes every day. So by the time I met 'Pac, I had a whole notebook; that rhyme from "Hail Mary," that was something I already had in my notebook. But it never crossed my mind that I would be in the group. 'Pac took to me; I was the little brother. Maybe like two, three months later he made me quit school and move in with him. I was the youngest and the last one added to the group, so he always said, "You gotta be better than all of us." And dude really believed in me.

Man, he loved riding with the top down, speeding and shit, just loved the California vibe. What used to irk me though was he always wanted us to roll blunts in the drop-top. [Laughs] And me and Kadafi was the great blunt rollers, so he would always either look to me or Kadafi and go, "What the f--- you doin'? Roll up!" So we'd be in the drop-top Rolls-Royce or Mercedes or something, and this guy is speeding some-damn-where, and you're trying to roll a blunt without spilling a half-ounce of weed in this guy's car, man, or spilling the blunt shit all over the place. It was like, come on, dude. [Laughs] Nothing was easy with that dude. He would test you like that: "Roll your blunts while I'm driving 80 miles per hour with the top back and the wind coming all in the car." Dude was a piece of work; crazy as all hell, but had a heart of gold.

Richie Rich, Bay Area rapper

Tupac Credits: "Heavy in the Game," Ain't Hard 2 Find," "Ratha Be Ya N---a"

I met 'Pac in maybe 1990 or 1991; it was before the Digital Underground shit [and] he had just come to the Bay Area. I was rapping with a group called 415 back then, and our whole rap styles was totally different; his persona was more with the Black Power shit, but he was always hella cool. We liked the same shit: weed, bitches, he always wanted me to take him to the barbeque spots. He was just a young, good-spirited kid.

Once he turned into the Death Row Tupac, he had a different persona to the world. But to me, he was always the same. I had gotten a Cutlass, a convertible '72 Cutlass, and I used to always pick him up at the airport and he would want to go get barbeque. And my car had this bright white interior and I told him, "You can't eat in the car." He'd get in the car and try to open this barbeque up -- we used to go to Flint's Barbeque -- and he dipped his finger in the barbeque sauce and dragged a line across my white seat. And he would be like, "I'm not tripping off this shit, why you worrying about it? This is just material shit."

He was just a regular dude. Outside of that music persona, he was passionate about a lot of shit: He loved his mom to death, his sister, he was passionate about his work, and he just wanted to get on. That's what his focus was. Even when he started working for Digital Underground, he was a roadie, he carried their bags, he wasn't tripping off none of that. He never played that Big Me, Little You shit.

Tupac came from nothing, man. I remember his manager Atron Gregory bought him a brand-new Jeep Cherokee, and he called me like, "I got a car, I got a car, come by and bring some weed." So he had an apartment in Oakland, and it was him and the young Outlawz and he had this brand-new Jeep Cherokee and he didn't know how to drive. So I get in the driver's seat and he was like, "What are you doing?" and I was like, "You don't know how to drive," and he didn't care. So he gets in the driver's seat. And his apartment had this small parking lot in the back, but you had to drive down this little alley to get out to the street. The alley has this concrete fence next to it, so there's only enough room for one car to go down it. I get in the car and he asks me what to do. I'm guiding him, he starts backing out, and we get the truck to the alley. He rubs the truck up against the fence. My mirror falls off, and he starts laughing like a mother----er. He drags the truck all the way down the wall -- what would have to be 35 feet, maybe -- and we get to the street and I get out and I'm like, "The truck is all f---ed up." And he's like, "I don't give a f---! I ain't had shit. Which way we going?" He tore up a brand-new Jeep pulling out the driveway.

But that was the beauty of him. He didn't give a f--- about any material things, because he never had anything. He was a cool dude, though, a real down-to-earth cat. Outside of the great music and the things that he did for his community, we lost a good one, man. And I just miss him.

Dave Hollister, singer and former member of Blackstreet

Tupac Credits: "Brenda's Got a Baby," "Keep Ya Head Up"

'Pac and I lived together when I finally ended up moving to Oakland; we shared an apartment at the Parkwoods over the Caldecott Tunnel. When we did "Brenda's Got a Baby," he was still part of [Digital] Underground, but he was working on the [2pacalypse Now] project and he asked me to come to the studio that day because he had a song he wanted me to sing on. "Brenda's Got a Baby" hit me in the heart; it brought tears to my eyes because it was like a movie. You could see what he was rapping; he pulls you in from the very first words. It was a movie in song.

[Living with him was] a circus with him being the Mad Hatter of it all. He was always happy, he was always bouncing around. He was just a bubbly dude, and most of the stuff he rhymed about then was socially conscious stuff. The gangster rap and all of that, he just didn't do that. That wasn't him. He was an incredible, well-rounded artist and he wasn't just a rapper, he just wasn't an actor, he could sing a little bit. He was no Marvin Gaye, but just let me say he wouldn't need Auto-Tune if he started singing his own hooks.

I remember one time we left a session at the Record Plant [and went to] Marin County, where he lived, and we were walking to a corner store and this homeless guy was sitting on the corner and he didn't have no food, he didn't have nothing, he didn't even have a shirt and it was pretty cold out there. And I remember 'Pac had this fleece shirt on and a tank top and that was it. He took off his shirt and gave it to the man, went in and bought him some food and gave it to the man. And that might not mean nothing to a lot of people, but that was just the type of person he was.

I think people misunderstood that they didn't really know who he was, because he had to portray and keep up a persona to sell records. That's why he became that person, because he knew that that sold records, and it did. He couldn't be the 'Pac that I knew, you know what I mean? I think once he played that role in Juice, a lot of people felt like he was supposed to be that dude, so that's who he turned into.

I just want people to just remember that, despite all his shortcomings, despite all the legalities and the pains that he suffered, he just wanted to make a difference with his music. He wanted to make a difference, and he wanted us to be heard. Outside of God creating me who I am, Tupac Shakur is the reason I do what I do today. If it wasn't for him I would still probably be singing background with people. He meant a whole hell of a lot to me. As far as my career is concerned, if it wasn't for him I wouldn't be here.

J. Kevin Swain, music video director

Tupac Credits: "How Do U Want It," "I Ain't Mad Atcha," "Hit 'Em Up," "California Love," "2 Live and Die In L.A."

Tupac, on the first video "California Love," right away I was thinking, "I like this cat, he's really cool, he's chill." Affable; he liked to laugh and have a good time. We did five or six videos, and most of them we had a really good time. I really appreciated that he saw it as work, as I did. Some artists see music videos as their time to clown and hang with girls and everything like that; he was very clear that this was work for his career, and he treated it as such. We had a great working relationship.

The video that we most connected on was "I Ain't Mad Atcha." That video we had a great conversation about judgment; man's judgment vs. God's judgment. So the casting process I said, "Look, how about we have Redd Foxx in heaven?" and he said, "Why not?" 'Cause we don't know, because of the records he did early in comedy and the persona he gave out, maybe by man's standards he would be in heaven, but he have no idea how God judges us. So Redd Foxx is the first person he sees in heaven. And we had a great time establishing also, musically, who was in heaven: There's Donnie Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holliday, Sammy Davis Jr., Dorothy Dandridge, Miles Davis, all these great luminaries, and we had a ball coming to an agreement on that and what their interaction was and the casting of it all.

You know, it's wild. Long before I met him, I read his article in Vanity Fair where he was talking about how much he loved Italy. He loved Italy, the whole scene. And we were doing "To Live and Die in L.A." and we were talking about that, and his whole countenance lit up. It just changed everything about him; he loved it, he started smiling about it, you know. And for me, I was like, I know a lot of cats, but I don't know a lot of thugs, if you will, who hang out in Milan and Rome and Venice. And it was great; Tupac, to me, was a renaissance man. I really loved having conversations with him about that.

But other than that, it was work. On the "How Do U Want It" video, there were a lot of wardrobe changes. And I was like, "If you want to do this 12 times, it would be great if you kept the same wardrobe on, I'm gonna change the cameras around and make it look like we have a 12-camera shoot." And he was like, "No, I'm gonna change clothes." And I was like, "Well, we want to have continuity," and he was like, "Nah, I don't care about that." And I would have to say it's a better video because of that, because it's not the same every take. It made me step out of my comfort zone as a perfectionist, and it made it a better video.

I've been so fortunate and blessed to have worked and met with some great talent; Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Teddy Pendergrass, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock. And he, to me, is a part of that. Working with Tupac was incredible and it was great. Sarah Vaughan was, too. I'm in it for the whole experience, and that's what's helped keep me humble. I don't take that for granted at all.

E.D.I. Mean, rapper and member of The Outlawz

Tupac Credits: "Hit 'Em Up," "Tradin' War Stories," "When We Ride," "Thug Passion," "Life of an Outlaw"

Our families were friends before I was born, so I don't remember the exact day I met him. But we were friends, cousins, family. We started working together in the summer of '92. I went to Oakland on the strength of the fact that I had sent him some music when I was still in high school, and I guess he heard the potential. So along with myself, Kastro and Kadafi, we went to Oakland. For myself, that was a great learning experience. It was me traveling on a road that I had wanted to get on for a long time. And I was very grateful and thankful that someone I knew and grew up with had made it in this industry and was actually successful.

He was somebody who was just very focused and very driven in the studio. There was never no guessing, there was never no, "Let's see what happens." He pretty much had his mind made up every time he went up in there of exactly what he wanted to accomplish. There are so many memories [of the studio] that they all tend to blend together, but definitely the "Hit 'Em Up" session [sticks out], when we did "Made N---as," even going back to when we were doing records like "Me Against the World" and "Outlaw," those records that eventually became classics, it was just another day at the office for us, and for myself it was a great time to learn how to actually make music and actually put songs together.

The "Hit 'Em Up" session, it was just how much fun we were having. It wasn't an overly intense session, even though the song came out that way. It was really just another day at the office like, "OK, we gonna do this record." I remember a few members of Goodie Mob had rolled through the studio once we finally got finished with it, and they were actually some of the first people to hear that record.

He influenced me in a lot of different aspects, from manhood to loyalty to focus and tenacity when trying to achieve a goal or mission. How to handle yourself in this industry. And I even learned a lot from his mistakes, because like all human beings he wasn't perfect.

We laughed a lot, man. We both had silly senses of humor, I guess, and we did a lot of laughing. I enjoyed bringing some humor to his world, despite everything he might have been dealing with. It was definitely a friendship: one with a lot of good times and fond memories that I'll always cherish and never forget.