How Modular Synths Rekindled My Love of The NAMM Show

It’s strange how even something you are passionate about becomes boring and tiresome as it transforms into part of the monotony of life. The NAMM Show in Anaheim had become this way after many years of participation. Working for one of the exhibitors, it became more about the work needed to pull off the show as the years passed. Even walking and experiencing the show felt like an elephant migration, taking the same route through the aisles each year.

My first NAMM Show was in 2009. Being new to the company, my main purpose was to shake hands, meet sales reps and customers, and answer product questions. This left ample time to gaze at surrounding booths and walk areas of the show during lunch breaks in lieu of eating a meal. As years passed, responsibilities increased and the wonder of NAMM faded.

Three years ago I began doing research on modular synthesizers for a new project as demand for accessories for the Eurorack modular synth format increased. While it successfully led to a new product line for the company, it also sparked a new personal musical interest that grew as the research and development progressed.

The concept of modular synthesizers requires some explanation. When not in use, modular synthesizer rigs can be confusing. When they are in use, they are a chaotic combination of metal, knobs, lights, and cables. They can simply be overwhelming at first glance.

Thanks in large part to the 80’s, the average synthesizer image that comes to most people’s minds is that of an electric piano with some additional knobs to control the sound you hear. Modular takes the all-in-one synthesizer and breaks it down to its various components. Manufacturers then modify each component to create something unique to their sonic ideals.

Electronic musicians and enthusiasts piece together a synthesizer rig consisting of various components, or modules. Patch cables are then used to make the physical connections between these modules. The sound you hear is the result of painstakingly building and adjusting sound waves, sequences, and signal paths—the essence of music synthesis.

Perhaps the ultimate thrill of modular synths is the lack of permanence in the process. The golden age of audio recording gave the world wide musical experiences in spite of—and possibly as a result of—the limitations of analog. Recording depended on things like microphone placement, editing by splicing tape, and bouncing tracks to record various instruments. As digital recording improved, those teachings were slowly lost. Tape machines were relegated to the corners of tracking rooms as symbols of a more “difficult” time. Today, studios large and small wield unlimited tracks and effects. The danger of analog recording is gone. And with it, so is much of the experimentation.

Modular synthesizers are a lot like those older days of recording. After spending hours perfecting a piece, it’s imperative to record it or risk never getting it back again. Accidentally pulling one cable or tweaking a knob is all it takes to permanently change what has been created.

It was at the 2016 NAMM Show that my excitement levels began to increase. That year, I spent most of my free time within the growing area of modular synthesizers. It was the first time I got to witness players showcasing their abilities and novices (myself included) getting their first taste of patching these perplexing instruments.

It was that same year that saw Moog take modular to a new level. Their booth was transformed into a sort of cactus garden where you used nature and Moog synthesizers to relieve stress. The folks at Moog deemed it the Island of Electronicus (This concept was topped in 2018 when Moog took their booth off-site and created the House of Electronicus).

There were multiple stations on the floor with pillows for visitors to sit and play. While a few different Moog synths were present, many of the stations were devoted to their latest release: the Mother-32 semi-modular synthesizer. It was Moog’s first product designed specifically for the Eurorack synth crowd.

The Mother-32 is the ideal introduction into modular because while it includes a patch panel, it functions like a small Moog synth when cables are avoided. One can simply turn up the volume, hit a key, and hear a sound. The patching ability then becomes a new level of depth for a Moog synthesizer. It also means the Mother-32’s various components can be used in combination with other Eurorack modules should the player decide to expand.

Moog is an iconic symbol of electronic music and owning one was always a dream. The question of how to begin experimenting with modular had been answered. I spent the rest of 2016 learning about modular in my free time and finally picked up a Mother-32 after NAMM 2017.

With the 2018 show upon us, my company decided to put together a few demo units for the show. One of these demos was to be a Eurorack rig. Assembling, understanding, and utilizing the rig became my project. I was able to take the rig home on the weekends to familiarize myself with its components and capabilities. Each morning at the show, I implemented a simple patch. Visitors then had the ability to play with the rig as they came by to check out our products.

My love for music creation and sound manipulation had finally returned—as did my excitement for NAMM. The show was again a space for creativity within a business environment. The week was filled with not only musical ideas but also ideas for future products. I was renewed at both a personal and professional level. The wonder of that first experience in 2009 had finally returned.

 

CES 2018 Review: AI Will Change Our Lives (for better or worse)

The Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, is always an extravaganza. It’s a show designed to amaze visitors with life-changing products and technology that may never see the light of day. There has been a shift over the last few years to present smarter, more realistic visions of the future. Don’t provide an Epcot view of the world: A glimpse of the future with only imagination powering the concept. Instead, give us the best theory of a distant future using current technology along with the tech in active and advanced research.

But not everything at CES is far-fetched tech. Many manufacturers also present products to be released within the next 12 months. This year, some big names made major impacts at presenting mostly existing products while creating a new experience for the crowd.

If you’re a musician or otherwise tied to the music industry, you are undoubtedly familiar with the Gibson brand. The iconic company behind the classic Les Paul shunned the upcoming NAMM Show (the music instrument industry’s preeminent trade show) in favor of a massive CES tent in the parking lot outside the convention center. Gibson’s official statement is that CES is a better show for them to shift the focus to the pro-audio brands the company has been amassing recently.

Upon entering the Gibson booth, you notice a live stage at the end of the tent with a performing band. The wall adjacent the front door is lined with electric guitars and continues this way to the side wall. Following the trail of guitars leads to the corner of the performance stage and the now-famous Gibson guitar throne: A Game-of-Thrones style seat that’s become a sort of traveling guitar shrine. Visitors line up by this mythical chair and have their picture taken as they unveil their best Ozzy or David Lee Roth impersonations.

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The Gibson Throne: Who is Worthy?

The left wall was strewn with bass guitars to finish the loop of the tent and bring you back to the main entrance. The center section consisted of various demo stations. The first half of the stations was devoted to the Phillips audio brand. There were earbuds and headphones (wired and wireless), and a few different models of portable, wireless speakers. The remaining tables were guitar demo stations where each visitor could sit down and choose from a group of instruments and play them through Philips headphones.

Gibson may claim their goal was to shift focus to their pro-audio brands but it felt more like what they were trying to do was posit Gibson guitars as cool consumer products that fit in any entertainment room equipped with premium sound and a 4K television.

Google was another company intent on making a grand appearance. The tech giant has skipped CES since its rise to stardom, opting to hold independent product releases and parties instead. This year was a different story due in large part to the impact Amazon’s Alexa assistant made at last year’s CES. Car companies, home electronics corporations, right down to smaller experimental companies were touting Alexa compatibility at the 2017 CES.

Google was not about to let Amazon take the AI spotlight two years in a row. LG, Kohler, Kia, JBL, Sony, iHome, to name a few, all had products advertising seamless integration with the Google Assistant. Of course, compatibility can vary from the technology recognizing and working with Assistant to it having the AI built into the unit. Regardless of the level of compatibility, it led to Google having more mentions that its closest competitor.

And then there was the booth. Like Gibson, Google opted for an outdoor space at the show—and they used it to do what Google does best. The easygoing company created an experience that was as much about imprinting the Google name on the minds of users as it was about showcasing their products and abilities. The booth had the longest lines of the show with users eagerly waiting to traverse the three-story, two-structure adventure and see the various ways Google affects their lives. The tour culminated with a rooftop café and tunnel slide back to ground level. It was clear Google was determined to win this year’s battle for best invisible technology.

That brings us back to the main theme of the show. As you walked through the booths to see the latest innovations in televisions, kitchen appliances, smart homes, cars, and transportation in general, it became clear there was one unifying decade. The technology we were treated to was looking over thirty years ahead at the year 2050. This is apparently when experts believe technology will control every aspect of our lives in a seamless interaction between human being and artificial intelligence.

The vision relies on one main aspect: autonomous transportation. Self-driving cars eliminate traffic jams as they weave in and out of lanes seamlessly without slowing the flow of other vehicles. Since we no longer need to be in control of our vehicles, there is little need to own them. Vehicles become a service that picks you up and delivers you to a destination. Parks replace parking lots. The car itself becomes a mobile office where you can prepare for a meeting or presentation as you commute.

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Where’s the driver?

In addition to the self-driving car, the smart home will become aware of its inhabitants and work to keep them comfortable. According to Panasonic, the house of the future will not only know and adjust to your habits but will also understand when you are feeling ill and adjust temperature, humidity levels, and other characteristics to care for you.

It was not too long ago that I sat in a technology seminar and was told experts were unable to see beyond 2045 and in fact were concerned of what lay ahead based on the learning rate of our present tech. This year, CES was encouraging us to instead welcome all these changes fearlessly.

Technological advances always pique my interest. Without our efforts to improve technology, we would not enjoy many of the things we live with and take for granted today. Would you like to go back to a world before the Internet, before microwave ovens, or before refrigerators? Yet, it’s also important to remain vigilant about where our new products are taking us as a society and who or what we may be leaving behind.

As someone who’s spent the equivalent of several years on the road thanks to living in Los Angeles and previously having a stint as a sales and merchandising rep, I’ve seen the various minor human errors that lead to accidents. I welcome autonomous transportation and think it will do wonders for our sanity. That doesn’t mean I wish to relinquish all control to computers or that I want Siri or Alexa determining the temperature of my bedroom and prescribing drugs to me because I sneezed inside my house.

CES is a fun show to attend. You get lost in the glamour of a scintillating future with shiny new products. The purpose of the show is to get consumers excited but I can’t help but feel like an ulterior goal may be to desensitize consumers and reduce their fears of technology that grows smarter each year. As a result, we grow closer each year to a future of friendly robots promising to make our lives better. We are more attached to our machines than ever before and one day soon, we may find ourselves unable to distinguish between human and machine interactions.

Damaged Petals: The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory

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On September 7, 1996, while stopped at a red light on the Las Vegas Strip, Tupac Shakur was shot numerous times. I was a high school junior at the time. Having already survived five shots, I wasn’t really surprised he did not die immediately. Shakur had already proven to be a fighter. This was the primary topic of discussion at school when the week began. As the days passed, we all began to expect the outcome. It was still a shock when his death was announced Friday, September 13, at 4:03 p.m.

If we begin his career from his breakout song with Digital Underground, “Same Song,” we really only knew Shakur for five years. This fact seems false now because of the amount of recorded music left behind and the impact he continues to have on society. He gave us six albums in those five years. The final album, The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, was recorded shortly before his death.

I spent the days after Shakur’s death listening to All Eyez On Me. At home, one of the two CDs was constantly spinning in a small boom box. Outside the house, I carried two tapes dubbed from the album. Still, All Eyez On Me never felt like the exclamation point to an artist so outspoken and controversial.

It cannot be denied that All Eyez On Me is a great album. It is also a record Tupac wrote knowing what Death Row expected of him. It is a breakout album written for the label and the masses. Shakur’s last album should resemble something as touching as Me Against The World or as radical as 2Pacalypse Now. The 7 Day Theory accomplishes both feats.

The album opens with a news broadcast discussing Tupac’s latest release (the very album that is playing) and how the mere mention of a new Shakur record makes other rappers feel inadequate. The broadcaster turns it over to a statement from Shakur, “It’s not about east and west. It’s about niggaz and bitches, power and money, ridaz and punks. Which side are you on?” From there, a gun is cocked and four deafening shots are fired. The shots, precursors to the lyrical assault you are about experience.

On previous 2Pac records, Shakur would often portray himself as a victim of circumstance. Makaveli, the persona that takes over this album, accepts trouble is always with him and is always prepared for it.

In the first song, “Bomb First,” Shakur calls himself a Bad Boy killer and exclaims he wants Jay-Z to suffer the same fate as his Bad Boy enemies. He brags about having an ample gun supply and enough support behind him to take on all challengers. He passes the microphone off to E.D.I. Mean and Young Noble of The Outlawz to prove it. They proceed to spit equally vicious verses.

It is after “Bomb First” that we begin to see the brilliance of The 7 Day Theory. Shakur does not take you into another war track. Instead, we get “Hail Mary.” The song is a cry for help in a life that seldom goes our way. It poses Makaveli and The Outlawz as willing to do what it takes to come out ahead after starting with little to nothing in terms of resources.

“Toss It Up” is the album’s club single. It was destined to be a hit with a Danny Boy beat, a K-Ci & JoJo hook, and Tupac rapping about sexual adventures. In the last verse, Tupac seemingly diverges from topic to attack Dr. Dre for leaving Death Row behind. Shakur masterfully keeps the verse from losing its way by switching the meaning of the song’s titular phrase. He blends two discrete messages into one song without losing the original party feel.

After an excerpt of the Street Science radio show, in which the host calls into question Shakur’s influence on society, we are taken for a ride through the city he last called home. “To Live And Die In L.A.” navigates the convoluted lifestyle of Los Angeles where reality and fantasy are not always clear.

Los Angeles is a unique environment. We may live in the best climate but your guard must always be up, “Writing to my peoples when they ask for pictures, thinking Cali’s just fun and bitches. Better learn about the dress code, B’s and C’s.” We strive to make our largest dreams reality despite the constant reminders that not everyone gets there, “Who was a friend, now a ghost in the dark. Cold part about it nigga got smoked by a fiend. Trying to floss on him, blind to a broken man’s dream.” In the end, we do the best we can and hope for the best; “I hit the studio and drop a jewel, hoping it pay. Getting high watching time fly. To live and die in L.A.”

The calm vibe dissipates quickly as Pac questions all spiritual beliefs in “Blasphemy.” The song strikes as written by a man exhausted of the struggle and at the brink of the end. Makaveli struggles with the possibility that life is actually Hell, “We’re probably in Hell already, our dumb-asses not knowing. Everybody kissin’ ass to go to Heaven ain’t going.” At the other end, it’s highly possible the afterlife we all search for is nothing but the start of a new misery, “I leave this and hope God see my heart is pure. Is Heaven just another door?”

As the album continues, The Outlawz join their general in “Life of an Outlaw” to share the struggles in their lives. That’s followed by “Just Like Daddy,” which speaks to the couples that remain strong through the darkest times. Hooking up with rapper Bad Azz, “Krazy” is a song of loneliness and despair. The emotional tension these songs build leave you particularly vulnerable for the song that comes next.

“White Man’z World” is simultaneously an apologetic letter to black women from Shakur while at the same time being his best call for a revolution. He recounts the reality of a black child coming to grips with poverty and racism all at once in haunting manner, “My homeboy doing life, baby momma be stressin’. Shedding tears when her son finally asks the questions: Where my daddy at? Mama, why we live so poor? Heard you late night through my bedroom door. Now do you love me, momma? Why they keep on calling me nigga? Get my weight up with my hate and pay them back when I’m bigger!”

The lyrics of the song express a sense of hopelessness. Yet, the impact with which Shakur delivers them forces you to strive to rise above the nation’s deeply engrained hatred. A hatred that constantly tells us we are not wanted and not welcome in America no matter how hard we work.

You have to fight back tears to recite the lyrics along with Shakur. That fight is lost by the time we reach the conclusion of the song. The music fades out into a recorded speech from Minister Louis Farrakhan in which he states, “The seal and the Constitution reflect the thinking of the Founding Fathers that this was to be a nation by white people, and for white people. Native Americans, blacks, and all other non-white people, were to be the burden bearers for the real citizens of this nation.” Any person of color growing up in America, and especially we Latinos in 2017, can easily relate to the message behind this song.

We transition from strong words of racism to a violent war cry: “Shit. You motherfucking right. I’m the bitch that’s keepin’ live and keepin it hot.” The song is “Me And My Girlfriend” and it is a brilliant example of personification in music.

Throughout the song, Pac refers to going on a crime spree with his girlfriend à la Bonnie & Clyde. Makaveli describes their assaults, robberies, and sexual escapades in vivid detail. As the song continues, and if you pay attention to the lyrics, you realize his “girlfriend” is a reference to the various guns he’s used to commit these crimes. The explicit sexual words refer to ways of holding, squeezing, and firing “her.” Shakur perfectly captures the intimacy that comes with taking such a powerful tool into your hand.

“Hold Ya Head” flips back to the heartfelt conversation that is The 7 Day Theory. Shakur speaks of prisoners needing all their strength to get through their sentences and of a society that predisposes minorities to living incarcerated. Ultimately, it’s an open letter reflecting on his inner struggles. He often wonders if everything he does is leading to more jail time or perhaps an early end.

Appropriately, a song consisting of Shakur’s deepest thoughts and fears leads to the song he claims to be “the realest shit I ever wrote.” The final track of The 7 Day Theory, “Against All Odds,” is essentially a continuation of “Bomb First.” The two songs serve as militant bookends to a profound album.

Just like in “Bomb First,” Shakur does not hide the names of his targets. In just one verse he berates Nas, Dr. Dre, Mobb Deep, and Puffy (now Diddy). He finishes by comparing older rappers to a “flabby” Larry Holmes and insists they keep silent and step aside with any dignity they have left.

The real bombshell comes in the second verse where he calls out Haitian Jack as the main witness of the sexual assault trial that landed Shakur in prison. He also mentions getting payback on Jimmy Henchman, the man he believed was behind the shooting in New York. Many rappers have insulted other artists by name but in this particular case, Shakur steps out of the rap game to make personal accusations at two people who allegedly are not to be played with.

The album’s conclusion consists of distant explosions and gunshots as Shakur delivers a final message: “To all you bitch-made niggas, I’m comin’ for you—against all odds. I don’t care who the fuck you is. You touch me, I’m at you. I know you motherfuckers didn’t think I forgot. Hell nah, I ain’t forgot. I just remember what you told me. You said don’t go to war unless I got my money right. Well, I got my money right now. Now I want war.”

Shakur did not see the release of The 7 Day Theory. The album was set to drop in 1997 but Suge Knight pushed it up after Shakur’s death and it was released November 5th, 1996. The full record was recorded and mixed in seven days—hence the title.

“Bomb First” and “Against All Odds” are meant to incite anger and violence. The real soul of the album is represented by the 10 other tracks. Those are the songs that elicit tears, smiles, and empathy. They force us to question our government, our society, even ourselves as human beings.

Tupac “Makaveli” Shakur was a talented actor and one of the greatest rappers of our time. He was also candid, loud, rebellious, unruly, and at times violent. Above all else, Tupac Amaru Shakur was a poet, political activist, and social leader. Today, his words continue to ring true as the injustices he detailed are more present now than when he originally wrote them. It is now that his voice is most needed and should be played at its loudest.

Damaged Petals: All Eyez On Me

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Prison is not a healthy place. It changes every person it holds within its walls. Prison is likely one of the reasons the follow-up to Tupac’s most personal work is its antithesis: an album full of bravado and anger, featuring a bombastic 2Pac backed by some of the largest voices in the industry.

Shakur was released from prison on October 12, 1995 thanks to the $1.4 million bail posted by CEO of Death Row Records, Suge Knight. In exchange for posting bail, Shakur inked a three-album deal with Knight. Death Row Records was already the biggest rap label on the west coast thanks to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg but signing Shakur immediately secured Death Row as a nationwide force.

Shakur left the Clinton Correctional Facility and flew directly to Can-Am Studios in Los Angeles to begin writing and recording what would become All Eyez On Me. “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” was the first song he completed. According to rapper Kurupt (of Dogg Pound fame), “Pac wasn’t in the studio for any more than 45 minutes before he had his first verse done and laid it that fast.” The whole album was recorded within two weeks and released to an eager audience on February 13, 1996.

Lyrics raced out of Shakur at an unprecedented pace. To match his intensity, Suge brought in some of the hottest hip-hop producers of the 90’s to provide beats as fierce as the lyrics Pac was prepared to lay down. Producers like Dr. Dre (already Death Row’s top producer), Daz Dillinger, DJ Pooh, DJ Quik, Johnny J, Rick Rock, and many others came in to provide the backing beats that would become part of this hip-hop classic.

In addition to producers, All Eyez On Me was heavy on the guest rappers. The album’s various voices are a representation of the areas Shakur at one point called home and drew inspiration from. Method Man and Redman came in representing New York. Rappin’ 4-Tay, C-Bo, Richie Rich, D-Shot, B-Legit, and E-40 took the short drive to make sure the Bay was present. And of course, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, CPO, Nate Dogg, and Tha Dogg Pound provide that classic Death Row, L.A. flow. The eclectic mixture of producers, rappers, and singers created an album that like Tupac’s own style, represented more than just one part of the country.

In addition to the star power, Tupac’s inner circle was brought to the forefront for this record. Shakur always kept a few rappers around him that were featured in each of his albums and appeared with him on stage. All Eyez On Me brought them together to form something special.

While incarcerated, Shakur spent a lot of time reading. He enjoyed reading about wars and revolutions throughout history. It was then he had the notion of creating a group where each member was named after infamous dictators, revolutionaries, or enemies of America and the other established world powers.

Tupac put the plan into place starting with a group then known as Dramacycal. The members of the group had already been touring with Tupac and had been most recently featured on “Outlaw”, the final track of Me Against The World. Shakur assigned each of them new monikers. Young Hollywood adopted the alias Yaki Kadafi after Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. K-Dog became Kastro after Fidel Castro of Cuba. Big Malcolm took on the alias E.D.I. Mean after Idi Amin of Uganda. Finally, Hellraza became Napoleon after France’s own Napoleon Bonaparte.

Next, he brought in two members of his previous group, Thug Life. The first was Mopreme Shakur (Shakur’s stepbrother), who received the name Komani after Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran. The other was the unmistakable booming voice of Big Syke, who received the alias Moozaliny after Italy’s Benito Mussolini.

The final members of this massive group were Hussein Fatal, a childhood friend of Kadafi; Storm, the only female rapper in the group; and Young Noble, a friend of Kadafi and Fatal and the last to join the group. Storm and Noble would be the only two members whose names did not fit Shakur’s original vision.

Shakur adopted the pseudonym Makaveli after Niccolo Machiavelli. Together, the ten members formed the super group Outlaw Immortalz. Five songs on All Eyez On Me feature at least three members of the group while two tracks feature the majority of the group. Those two songs, “Tradin’ War Stories” and “When We Ride,” remain two of the strongest, in-your-face tracks on the album.

Unfortunately, the full potential of this group never came to fruition due to Shakur’s untimely death. As if losing Shakur was not enough, Kadafi died of an accidental gunshot to the head at the hands of Napoleon’s cousin just two months later. The two deaths shook the remaining members and the turmoil already evident at Death Row only exacerbated the situation.

Big Syke and Mopreme chose not to sign with Death Row and officially separated from the group. Hussein Fatal also refused to sign with Death Row and went solo instead. Storm remained active as a marginal member for a short period but eventually left rap altogether.

Kastro, E.D.I., Napoleon, and Young Noble signed with Death Row after Pac’s death and became The Outlawz. They went on to release multiple albums; none more successful than 1999’s Still I Rise, an album credited as Tupac and The Outlawz. While Outlaw Immortalz was a short-lived group, the songs featured on All Eyez On Me stand as examples of the hip-hop family Shakur was building and would have developed once he moved on from his obligations to Death Row.

Despite the many other voices on All Eyez On Me, Shakur is never outshined. Equally surprising is that this album is a successful amalgam of Shakur’s artist personas where his previous works each relied heavily on one more than others.

“Wonda Why They Call U Bitch” hearkens back to the painful societal tales of “Brenda’s Got A Baby” and “Part Time Mutha” on 2Pacalypse Now. The song tells the story of a promiscuous high school teenager who believes sex will be her way to success. Instead, her casual encounters lead to a lonely death at the hands of the AIDS virus. It’s a painful story seen all too often. Without even knowing this girl’s name, you feel as though you grew up with her right along Shakur.

“How Do U want It”, “Picture Me Rollin”, and “All Eyez On Me” question facets of our system like Pac did in Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. Never one to pull his punches, Shakur is quick to name Bill Clinton and Bob Dole as politicians not interested in helping the have-nots of America. He mocks the prosecutor that put him behind bars, the officers inside, and the haters that wanted him gone all along. The music on these songs complements his derisive statements by opposing the themes of his lyrics. “How Do You Want It” still brings people to the dance floors today and the other two rely on bass-heavy, chill California beats.

Shakur was never shy about his appreciation of the female gender. “Run Tha Streetz” and “What’z Ya Phone #” are reminiscent of past hits like “I Get Around” and “Temptations.” Many rappers are adept at writing sexual songs but Shakur went beyond that. He was able to write actual love songs without losing his street credibility. And when the songs were about the pure act of sex, he took it to a place of passion and sensuality that appealed to women where others often come off misogynistic.

The tracks with Outlaw Immortalz and the Bay-Area anthem, “Ain’t Hard 2 Find” are aggressive, self-aggrandizing tracks with multiple voices. They present Shakur as a kind of music general who can set the tone for other rappers to step in; much like he did on Thug Life: Volume 1. “Life Goes On” is a tough perspective at lost friends that brings back the feelings present on the same album’s “Pour Out A Little Liquor” and forces us as listeners to think of the close ones we’ve lost through our own journeys.

“Only God Can Judge Me” takes us through an introspective look at the immediate aftermath of Shakur’s near-death experience of 1994. Shakur gives us partial visions of emergency procedures, suicidal thoughts, and nightmares of enemies coming back to finish the job. Combine this song with his attempt to reach out to youngsters in “Shorty Wanna Be A Thug”, the sensitivity behind “Heaven Ain’t Hard 2 Find”, and the questions of belonging of “I Ain’t Mad at Cha”, and you essentially form an EP that could be titled, Me Against The World 2.

All Eyez On Me was the first commercial hip-hop double album of exclusively new music. Reaching Certified Diamond status, it’s Shakur’s most successful album and one of the biggest in hip-hop history. Sadly, we would only get one more album from this revolutionary voice. On September 13, 1996—exactly seven months after the release of All Eyez On Me—Tupac Amaru Shakur would be pronounced dead.

Damaged Petals: Me Against The World

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The year 1994 was the most chaotic in Pac’s public life. On the plus side, he was already one of the biggest rappers of the era. His starring role in Above The Rim elevated his notoriety. Tupac the artist had just as many layers as Tupac the person. The artist was enjoying a spectacular ride to the top.

Shakur’s personal life was in direct juxtaposition to his professional one. Throughout his life, he’d been in numerous legal battles but there were two events that shaped not only 1994, but the remaining years of his life.

In late 1993, Shakur was involved in a shooting with two off-duty police officers. He was initially charged with aggravated assault. The case was dropped in 1994 when the court learned the officers were intoxicated and had incited the altercation. Witness testimony also revealed one of the officers threatened Shakur with a gun stolen from an evidence locker. He took on the law and won. The entire incident elevated his hero status in the streets.

The case that did go to trial and kept Shakur in an unwanted spotlight throughout 1994 was the sexual assault case that allegedly took place at the Parker Meridian hotel in New York. Right up to his death, Shakur insisted all sexual acts had been consensual. The prosecution and the victim argued to the contrary. He was found guilty of the lesser of two charges on December 1st, 1994.

Me Against The World was recorded in the midst of this personal turmoil. There is no doubt the stress and emotion of the year led to the most introspective collective work of his career. The album was released March 14,1995. At the time of its release, Shakur was already serving time after being sentenced to a minimum of 1 1/2 years in prison.

Tupac was a complicated individual and like many artists before him and since, it was not always easy to spot the real person. In Me Against The World, Shakur did away with all reservations and exposed himself like never before.

The album jumps right into his controversial life by playing a compilation of various news reports documenting the man’s troubles. That intro leads into “If I Die 2Nite,” which delves into Shakur’s hectic lifestyle and poor beginnings.

That powerful start then takes us to the album’s titular track. At the end of the song, Pac gives us this message: “I know it seems hard sometimes but remember one thing. Through every dark night, there’s a bright day after that. So no matter how hard it get, stick your chest out, keep your head up, and handle it.”

From there, we are treated to one of his most powerful anthems, “So Many Tears.” A 4-verse microcosm of both the album and Pac’s life, the song expresses Shakur’s deepest feelings of his childhood, “Back in elementary, I thrived on misery. Left me alone, I grew up amongst a dyin’ breed;” those he’s lost; the family he wished he could have, “I’ve been really wantin’ babies so I could see a part of me that wasn’t always shady;” and the inevitable untimely end to a life that seems to bring such little happiness.

Two tracks later, “Young Niggaz” speaks to the youth with a harsh tone, “You could be a fuckin’ accountant, not a dope dealer. Fuck around and you pimpin’ out here when you could be a lawyer. Niggas gotta get they priorities straight.” Shakur always wanted to be a positive influence but he understood kids were just as stubborn and unwilling to listen to advice as he had been in his youth. The only way to reach them was to speak from the heart and with brutal experience. If only one person changed their life at the time they heard this song, Pac made a difference.

The midway point of the album is arguably the most personal song ever written by the self-nicknamed Realest. To this day, it’s impossible to hear “Dear Mama” and not be overcome by emotion when he proclaims, “When I was low you were there for me. You never left me alone ‘cause you cared for me. I could see you coming home after work late. You in the kitchen tryin’ to fix us a hot plate. Just workin’ with the scraps you was given. And mama made miracles every Thanksgiving.” The vulnerability he expresses in the song is seldom seen in a genre where it’s expected for artists to exude grandiosity and a sense of being untouchable. This willingness to stand defenseless made Shakur a stronger person in the eyes of his listeners.

Shakur reflects on the many aspects of his life throughout the album. “Temptations” can be considered a sequel to “I Get Around” on the surface if not for the confession that he struggles to remain loyal. “Heavy In The Game” is a Thug style 2Pac song aimed at the streets. “Lord Knows” professes how getting high is the only way to stave off suicide, “Try to calm me down, I ain’t givin’ up. I’m gettin’ lost in the weed, man, gettin’ high. Livin’ every day like I’m gonna die. I smoke a blunt to take the pain out. And if I wasn’t high, I’d probably try to blow my brains out.”

The soul bearing continues in “It Ain’t Easy” and “Fuck The World,” as Shakur questions how his life is leading to misery, prison, or death. “Can U Get Away” provides us a picture of female physical and mental abuse from a slightly different perspective and “Old School” makes time to celebrate the music and moments of Shakur’s childhood that helped mold him. It’s a joyous track that shows us just how much music played a part in his youth. Through the song, we understand many childhood memories are connected to music—a completely relatable sentiment.

The concluding track features The Outlawz, who were then still known as Dramcydal. “Outlaw” has always felt like a bonus track. The real culmination of Me Against The World is “Death Around the Corner.” This is a foreboding piece in which Shakur lays out the various circumstances that force him to believe he will die while still a young man, “If they bury me, bury me as a G, Nigga. No need to worry, I expect retaliation in a hurry. I see death around the corner any day.” This prophecy would become real the following year.

Me Against The World marks the end of a period for Tupac Shakur as an artist. All of his albums were remarkable in their own ways but Me Against The World stands alone. It’s an album filled with pain and joy, mourning and celebration, hate and love. It is a representation of every person’s inner struggles and remains Tupac Shakur’s most personal and passionate work.

Damaged Petals: Thug Life: Volume 1

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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.

Damaged Petals: Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.

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One year after Tupac’s debut album, Los Angeles was forever changed. In 1992, the City of Angels witnessed the revolution Shakur warned about as the weeklong riots devastated the city. It was an uprising of a people fed up with their local police department and the governmental structures designed to protect that department instead of the people.

Perhaps appropriately, we did not get a Tupac album in 1992. The O.J. Simpson trial, the L.A. riots, and their aftermath all happened with 2Pacalypse Now as the city’s soundtrack. That tumultuous year helped to make Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. a long-awaited sophomore album when it hit stores in February 1993.

Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. is a personal album. Shakur takes direct aim in his attacks rather than directing them at the system as a whole. Vice President Dan Quayle is at the receiving end of Shakur’s vitriol throughout the record. Like most politicians in the early days of rap, Quayle mistook reporting and recounting street stories for glorification of a violent lifestyle. Pac’s lyrics came from growing up in circumstances created by others under the watch of our governing bodies.

In the interlude “Pac’s Theme,” the only lyrics are, “I was raised in this society so there’s no way you can expect me to be a perfect person.” Intertwined with these words we hear Quayle’s original condemning words of 2Pacalypse Now. Without any real experiences in less-than-affluent neighborhoods, Vice President Quayle organized his thoughts based solely on excerpts of violent lyrics provided by some staffer. He had no insight into the plight and struggles of the people Shakur channeled.

Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. gives us a more personal look at the person behind the microphone. The album connects with society and includes stories of loss and misery in the ghetto but it also begins to paint the picture of 2Pac the person.

The most touching track comes at the tail end of the album. “Papa’z Song” breaks down the reality of growing up without fathers or male role models, “Had to play catch by myself, what a sorry sight. A pitiful plight, so I pray for a starry night. Please send me a pops before puberty. The things I wouldn’t do to see a piece of family unity.” Like the feelings of the average boy in the same position, the song shifts between feelings of guilt, anger, and sorrow. It marks the first time Shakur allowed his fans to see some of his personal scars.

It is in 1993 that we are introduced to Tupac the teacher. Where 2Pacalypse Now wanted government to change or face a revolution, this album urges the people to stand up to those in power through education and knowledge. In “Last Words” Shakur manifests, “One nigga teach two niggas. Three teach four niggas. And them niggas teach more niggas.” The statement uses the most controversial word in the English language with what seems like utter disregard. In fact, the statement takes back the power of the word to create an impact on his listeners and evoke emotion and change.

This album also marks the first pair of 2Pac singles to make a significant impact on popular music. At a time when rap faced a backlash for lyrics offensive to women, Shakur presents a new side with “Keep Ya Head Up.” The song encourages men to treat women with the respect they deserve. It quickly became an anthem for women in our society and raised the enigma of Shakur to a new level.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have “I Get Around.” The track is a reunion of Tupac and Digital Underground. Shock G and Money-B each provide a verse to the song with Pac’s two verses as the bookends. Where “Keep Ya Head Up” asked that we respect women, each rapper in this song boasts of sexual triumphs and asserts they don’t intend on settling down with one woman.

The two singles stand as paradoxes and serve to humanize Tupac. In fact, this is what sets the album apart from Shakur’s previous endeavor. 2Pacalypse Now presented us with one message but this second endeavor gives us a glimpse of the complicated psyche of the man. We hear multiple beliefs, thoughts, and actions from the same person. 2Pacalypse Now was a strong introduction to a revolutionary voice. Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. presents the complex, wounded, flawed, real person behind that voice.