The Thug Life Marathon: How Nipsey Hussle And Tupac’s Social Agency Align Them

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Just last year, the late Nipsey Hussle ominously called himself the “Tupac of his generation” on “Dedication” from his Grammy-nominated Victory Lap album. Artists have compared themselves and been compared to Tupac for a variety of reductive reasons since the iconic rapper’s 1996 murder. If an artist is shot, comes home from jail like Boosie, or boasts a devoted fanbase at the time of their death like XXXtentacion, artists and their fans won’t hesitate to evoke the legacy of Makavelli. But for Nip, his claim wasn’t a self-gratifying boast. He told Billboard it was about “intent.” Hip-hop fans have collectively celebrated Nipsey’s life and shared his wisdom throughout the past two week. It’s become clear that his intentions for his community and culture were more aligned with Tupac’s than most artists.

Unfortunately, there have been fans both old and young on social media who have pitted the two against each other, claiming that one wasn’t worthy of being compared to the other. The slander coming from both sides represents a disheartening low in hip-hop’s generational fracture. The reality is, to paraphrase Nas’ “Got Urself A…” line about he and Tupac, Nipsey and Tupac were soldiers of the same struggle. Nipsey knew that.

Last Friday, gang sets from all over LA walked in unison for Nipsey in a peace walk that hasn’t occurred on such a massive scale since the 1992 truce between Bloods and Crips. On the night of Nipsey’s death, many LA natives thought that his Rollin ’60s Neighborhood Crip set would set off a shockwave of retaliatory gang violence in a similar manner to the bloody aftermath of Tupac’s murder. But Nipsey was allegedly shot by someone he had known for years, which alleviated that possibility. Instead of gang members affirming Nipsey’s legacy with trigger fingers, the Crips and Bloods met with open arms.

One of the Instagram captions of the proceedings stated, “Nipsey Hussle look what you started!” It was a powerful, bittersweet moment. As hundreds of sworn enemies stood together in locked arms, one could see the fruition of not only Nipsey’s dream, but the seeds of Tupac’s “Thug Life” goal to unite gangs tragically bloomed through bloodshed. Hopefully, there will be a day where there’s a better reason than martrydom for gang members to come together, but at least it occurred in the memory of an artist who had been planning it all along.

Last week, apparent Blood member FireBugg recalled a chance meeting with Nipsey Hussle that commenced plans to initiate a gang truce between their rival sets. He recalled that the men shared an uneasy moment when they first crossed paths at a restaurant, but ultimately, “we shook each other hand with a firm grip and didn’t release the shake til [five minutes] later.” FireBugg also said that “we both acknowledged the fact we was sworn enemies by gang rights but we said we was born brothers by essence.” Nipsey reportedly stared at FireBugg’s Malcolm X tattoo while telling him he wanted the two to help bring their gangs together, noting “I have no energy for negative sh*t and conflicts.”

Energy. That’s one of the major differences between Tupac and Nipsey in the last years of their lives. At the time of his death, Nipsey was a 33-year-old Father of two in positive head space, looking to make good for his Hyde Park section of LA. Tupac was a 25-year-old, free-spirited nomad who his friends and loved ones recalled was looking for a big brother figure in all the wrong places.

Even as Tupac desired to unite different regions of hip-hop through his One Nation album, he was fanning the flames of beef with Bad Boy Records and a slew of other New York artists. Nipsey acknowledged Tupac’s dichotomy when clarifying his “Dedication” comments to Billboard:

I know what Pac was trying to do. Pac was like, ‘I know if I tell ya’ll the sh*t I know, ya’ll will call me smart. In our culture, smart is weak. So, I’ma show y’all I’m a rider first. I’ma show ya’ll I’m not afraid to fight, I’m not afraid to shoot and I’m not afraid to be with my n—-s in the worst of the worst’…Listen to ‘White Man’z World’ and listen to [his 1997 album as] Makaveli. He was trying to take n—-s there, and they got killed.”

Nipsey’s assertion about Tupac’s intent was on the money. Tupac’s godfather, Black Panther Jamal Joseph, recalled in his Panther Baby autobiography that he had an “ongoing battle” with Tupac, who he thought was going backward from the original Panther agenda by so eagerly identifying himself as a thug. But Tupac’s initial intentions were trying to utilize his Panther connections and trojan horse Black liberation as an agenda of the streets. The fiery rapper, who had come close to choosing activism with the New Afrikan Panthers liberation group over a rap career, had mapped out a Thug Life code with his stepfather Mutulu Shakur. He got gang members in LA and drug dealers in New York to meet and discuss enacting the code.

After the Black Panthers were basically disbanded and the crack era set in during the ’80s, many of the former members were taking their guns meant for self-defense and turning them on each other as rival gangs. Tupac wanted to reverse that cycle by uniting the most powerful street figures in the country and shifting their mission from a capitalistic grab for money and power through destructive means into a collective focus on community. He had vocalized plans for a political party, presumably by and for Black people.

As Tupac sat in jail on sex abuse charges in 1995, he told Joseph about his plans to get out, build community centers and become a better figure for his community. But anyone with even a cursory understanding of rap history knows that drama and the beast of fame diverted his plans. While Tupac wasn’t able to mature and figuratively turn the corner, Nipsey did — and he went back and bought the corner to boot.

Who knows how much Tupac would have achieved with a more stable upbringing. A sizable portion of Tupac’s legacy lies in reverence for his intelligence, and the intrigue of who he could have become through fulfilling his potential. That he was able to inspire millions while being surveilled by the FBI and having so many of his mentors behind bars as political prisoners is a miracle in itself. But he still left a tangible imprint on Black culture and left a huge void in hip-hop that years later, Nipsey was trying his hardest to fill.

Tupac didn’t get to see Thug Life to fruition, but Nipsey’s Marathon of goodwill picked up on the same wavelength through exploits like a STEM program, a basic needs store, and a devotion to helping his community pull themselves up with opportunity. Their fans can debate discographies all day, but its deeper than rap. Nipsey didn’t call himself the Tupac of his generation because of his catalog, but “because I follow the red roses in the grey pavements. The rose that grew from the concrete,” as he told Billboard.

Both Tupac and Nipsey wanted to unite the gangs and stop the violence, they both wanted the best for Black people, and they both had a love and dedication to their communities at their essence. They didn’t want to get rich and give back from ivory towers, they were interested in being amongst the people and doing the intimate, dangerous, on-the-ground work, because as Nipsey noted, “there’s no way we’re going to be able to tap into our potential until we address those bottom-level base needs.”

Tupac may have fallen prey to a nefarious war of egos, and Nipsey may have had opinions about masculinity and homosexuality that needed re-examining, but they both had good intentions at the heart. They navigated the minefield set by America in Black communities the best way they knew how. What happens when roses wilt? Their energy transfers skyward as beacons of possibility. Tupac inspired Nipsey, and now Nipsey’s legacy will inspire another generation in a similar manner. The cycle of dismantling this perpetual struggle will continue with new fighters armed with new lessons. We should take a semblance of solace in that reality instead of bickering.