The mid-’90s were a time of change in the music industry. Mainstream hip-hop had become oversaturated with the MC Hammers and the Vanilla Ices of the era, and had moved towards the edge, espousing a jagged, street-wise aesthetic championed by artists like Nas and Tupac Shakur. With Tupac, audiences gained a lyrical juggernaut who could wax poetically about the struggles in the urban jungle while doling out pipelines of braggadocios, becoming one of the most powerful voices in rap music at the time. The California rapper spent most of 1995 in prison due to charges stemming from a sexual assault conviction, but was released towards the tail end of the year with a new lease on life, and a new recording contract with the West Coast-based Death Row Records, headed by infamous record executive Suge Knight.
Known for his spirited work ethic, Tupac immediately went back to recording, with his gaze set upon his first release for Death Row, All Eyez on Me. The first single off of the album, “California Love,” was not one intended for Tupac, but for its producer and Tupac’s label mate, Dr. Dre. There are several stories about the song’s creation, and likely, the truth in somewhere in the middle. Hip-hop producer and DJ, Chris “The Glove” Taylor, tells one story where Tupac appeared at a barbecue at Dre’s home in Calabasas shortly after he was released from prison. Dre was finishing up the beat for “California Love” when Tupac jumped in Dre’s backyard studio and recorded his portion of the track in just 20 minutes. Taylor told LA Weekly that:
As the party went on at the house, Tupac ended up coming through and he kind of snuck up behind me, because he was stealth like that. We said hello and shook hands and then he left to enjoy the party — or so I thought. A short while went by and I went back in to the studio to see what was going on, and I saw Tupac in the booth recording a verse to the beat we had just made. The entire process was about 20 minutes all-together and it was just amazing.
Suge Knight has a different story, telling BET in 2014 that he orchestrated the amalgamation of Tupac and Dre:
When [J-Flex] wrote it for Dre, we already did The Chronic, we already did Doggystyle, we already pretty much did Tha Dogg Pound, so now it was All Eyez on Me time. When I heard it, the first thing I thought about ‘California Love’ — Pac fresh out of prison — is Tupac. At the same time I have a long relationship with Dre, so instead of just saying, ‘Take the song completely and just make it Pac’s song,’ I did the right thing.
“California Love” was released in December of 1995, and immediately, it became a hit. Famed music video director, Hype Williams, was tasked with creating the visual component of the single, and instead of retreading the glossy, shiny suit mise-en-scène used routinely by Death Row’s rival, Bad Boy Records, Williams delivered a dystopian nightmare landscape — set in 2095 — that recalled Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Williams even included the Thunderdome itself, replacing the barbaric battles in the film for shots of Tupac and Dre dancing and rapping in the center of the structure. The video boasted star power, too, with rising actor Chris Tucker, Roger Troutman (he provided the chorus for the song), and Tony Cox (Bad Santa) appearing in segments.
There’s an interesting story that’s followed the location scout for the setting of the “California Love” music video. In February of 1995, Dre and Hype Williams were in Nevada, looking for the perfect place to film the shoot. In a letter — later released on the internet — written to his girlfriend Nicole, Dre went into detail about coming across a group of Burning Man festival participants. Amid a “bunch of crazy, naked motherf*ckers,” Dre and Williams apparently got the idea that filming in the Burning Man location was a sound proposition. One representative of Burning Man neither negated nor corroborated that Dre had anything to do with the desert festival in 1995. While it’s not clear whether or not that actually happened, and whether or not the letter is actually really from Dre, it still provides a fascinating insight into the possible impetus for the video’s location.
At the end of the “California Love” music video, we see a “To be continued” card. That continuation occurred with the remix video which saw Tupac awaken from a dream that was the first video. The second video is much more standard fare for hip-hop, with Dre and Tupac cavorting around L.A., cruising in lowriders and rapping along to the lyrics. (Kendrick Lamar has since said that he was a young boy in the crowd during one of the scenes for the remix video.)
The high-concept nature of the original “California Love” video proved to be a success. Both the song and its visuals were monstrous triumphs for all the participants, and to this day, stands as one of the best hip-hop music videos in existence, even ranking No. 9 on MTV’s list of greatest music videos. The video deviated from the era’s ostentatious and flamboyant characteristics, but was no less cinematic than some of the best visuals of that time. More than just a sonic classic, “California Love” — much like Michael Jackson did in the ’80s — proved that the optical was just as important as the audible.