The year was 1994. The rap world had absorbed Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. for a year in the aftermath of the Los Angeles Riots. It was time for new 2Pac music but it didn’t arrive in the form of a third solo album. Instead, Shakur spearheaded a group project. The group was Thug Life and the album was Thug Life: Volume 1. While not part of Shakur’s solo discography, it’s impossible to separate Thug Life from Shakur’s legacy.
The group consisted of Tupac, Big Syke, Macadoshis, Mopreme, and The Rated R. The rappers are scattered throughout eight of the album’s ten tracks. The remaining tracks are solo Tupac songs. One of those solo tracks, “Pour Out A Little Liquor,” was also featured on the Above The Rim soundtrack and is the best known track off Thug Life: Volume 1.
The Thug Life project faced many roadblocks. There were reportedly three different iterations of the album before reaching store shelves. The album that was ultimately published was not the album Tupac had in mind when the group began recording. Interscope Records faced intense pressure at a time when multiple organizations and politicians were looking to eradicate rap. Several recorded tracks were deemed too violent and subsequently left off the album. Despite the censorship issues, the album reached music stores with tales of poverty, violence, and death in the streets. It stands as a small victory that allowed hip-hop and gangsta rap to continue to flourish in the 90’s.
What many didn’t realize then was the real importance of Thug Life: Volume 1 would go beyond the music. The project as a whole is proof that Tupac was a forward-thinking artist and that he paved the way for younger voices. In Shakur’s eyes, Thug Life was not an album or a group—it was a movement.
The album was named a first volume because Tupac envisioned multiple projects with each volume possibly standing on its own and with voices that could potentially change. On a larger scale, Thug Life was to take the shape of everything associated with Shakur.
Thug Life was to become what we now recognize as an artist’s brand. It would begin with music and extend to apparel, record labels, and whatever else could be branded this way. Every rapper understands the worth of their brand today but in the early 90’s, it was Pac that tested the concept. At this time, most artists sold their likeness to sponsor established brands rather than start their own.
Thug Life: Volume 1 also marks the emergence of Shakur’s thug persona. This is the 2Pac no longer focused on leading a social revolution. This Tupac believes personal success is the best revenge and the biggest revolution against the established powers. It is at this time that he embraces the thug life—the life he acknowledges will lead to his demise.
The album pushed through despite constant pressure to never exist. Even now, it sits counter to the three solo albums Shakur released prior to his 1995 stint in prison. At the time, Thug Life was seen as a new layer of Tupac’s personality. We didn’t realize then that this personality would take over in later years.