In 1995, Death Row Records made headlines by signing popular rapper Tupac “2Pac” Shakur to a 3-album contract worth nearly $5 million – that’d be over $7 million in today’s terms, if we counter for inflation. The deal also included 1.4 million dollars for 2Pac’s prison bail, paid by Death Row manager Suge Knight so that 2Pac could begin recording for the label. The result of these recording sessions was 2Pac’s 4th solo record, the double disc All Eyez on Me. The title was an appropriate one, given the controversy surrounding Death Row Records, as allegations of Suge Knight’s behavior began to surface alongside accusations of gang ties, not to mention 2Pac’s own mounting legal battles. Like the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and the record went on to massive success, hitting number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 album charts, selling over 5 million copies, and launching two number 1 singles, “How Do U Want It“, which featured R&B singers “K-Ci” and “JoJo” Hailey, formerly of the platinum selling group Jodeci, and the albums lead-off single, “California Love”. “California Love” is a stone cold classic, but it has a little bit of a mixed-up release history, so I shall here attempt to set the record straight, as viewed through my own experiences.
I admit that prior to his signing to Death Row, I was never much of a 2Pac fan. From my perspective today, I recognize that it was probably because his music was a truer reflection of the real-life struggles faced by folks in the ghetto, as opposed to the glamorized, hollywood version presented in the music of NWA and their spin-offs. Anything that had Dre’s name on it, though, and I was there. So it was that one night, late in 1995 I made sure to tune in to MTV for the much-publicized premiere of the new 2Pac video, featuring Dr. Dre. The video was…interesting, with a Mad Max, post-apocalyptic vibe, but the song was in-freaking-credible. Because of the Death Row / Dr. Dre connection, I didn’t buy the single because I knew that I’d want the whole album, and I got it the day it came out in February, 1996. I rushed home and popped it in my CD player, and was really unimpressed. The track “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted”, which featured Snoop Dogg, came about halfway through the first disc, and I kind of liked that, but the rest of the first disc was really disappointing. As I listened to it, I grew more and more disgusted. “At least I know I like California Love”, I though “That’s coming up soon”. Finally, the awaited track 12 rolled around, and…IT WASN’T RIGHT?!? This wasn’t the same song at all. I checked the track-list again…It said “remix“. I made myself listen to the rest of the album and I don’t think I liked any of it. I was crushed. Apparently, the video that I’d loved so much was for the “original version” of the song, which was being held back for an upcoming release from Dr. Dre. I asked around, and one of my buddies eventually clued me in that the version I wanted was a B-side on the single for “How Do U Want It”. even though I actively disliked “How Do U Want It”, I broke down and bought the single anyway. By the time that single had rolled around, though, Death Row was making so many waves that I forgot all about my dislike of the 2Pac record.
Death Row Records and 2Pac were heavily involved in a feud with New York based Bad Boy Entertainment and two of their stars, CEO Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and rapper Notorious B.I.G. 2Pac claimed that the two east coast rappers were involved in a 1994 attack during which 2Pac was shot. A heated war of words began, with both parties releasing “dis records” targeting the other. Suge Knight also insulted Puff Daddy at the 1995 Source Awards, then claimed that an associate of his was shot and killed in response to the insult. A heated war of words began, with both parties releasing “dis records” targeting the other. 2Pac also began to publicly speak out against his label-mate Dr. Dre, claiming that he was receiving credit for songs he was not involved in. Things got so bad, in fact, that Dr. Dre left Death Row Records without ever releasing his “upcoming album” that I referenced above. The public was divided regarding Dre’s split from the label he’d helped formed only a few years earlier. Many sided with the popular rapper against Dre, citing Dre’s beef with Eazy E as proof that the producer was impossible to get along with. Others, however, viewed the split as hurtful to Death Row, and doubted that the label’s string of hits could continue without Dre’s production fueling them. A second, even bigger blow was dealt to Death Row not long after, when their rising star 2Pac was fatally shot in Las Vegas, Nevada. As soon as 2Pac died, it was clear that a chapter in the ongoing story had ended, and so the shooting’s investigation and the subsequent fallout is something we’ll delve into more fully next week.