20 years after Tupac Shakur's death, remembering his Baltimore beginnings

A candid photograph of Baltimore School for the Arts students, including Tupac Shakur (third from right), from a 1988 yearbook, when Shakur was a sophomore.
A candid photograph of Baltimore School for the Arts students, including Tupac Shakur (third from right), from a 1988 yearbook, when Shakur was a sophomore. (Baltimore School for the Arts)

Legendary rapper Tupac Shakur died 20 years ago today, six days after being shot on the Las Vegas strip. Although his career was centered around the West Coast, Tupac spent a portion of his youth in Baltimore, where he attended Dunbar High School and Baltimore School for the Arts.

The following article by reporter M. Dion Thompson ran in The Baltimore Sun on Sept. 21, 1996, a week after the rapper's death, reflecting on his time in Baltimore.


Before gangsta raps there were raps about libraries and teen-age pregnancy; before Dannemora State Prison and the killing bullets, there were pillow fights and the exuberance of youth.

Tupac Amaru Shakur did not grow up in Baltimore. He was not a finished product when he left. But his years here encompassed that crucial time when childhood ends and self-discovery begins.

“All Eyez on Me,” an upcoming biopic, looks to capture the complicated life of Tupac Shakur

He was 14 when he and his mother moved here from the Bronx in 1985. He called himself MC New York and won a rap contest sponsored by the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Those who knew him here -- friends and teachers from the Baltimore School for the Arts, senior citizens who shared the stage with him, the neighbor who lived above him on Greenmount Avenue -- remember a time when he was as far from a gangster rapper as Betty Crocker.

They knew him before he became 2Pac with THUG LIFE tattooed across his gut, before he became a cultural icon dividing his time between recording studios, courts and prison, before his death at 25 inspired tomorrow's rap summit in New York.

They recall a compassionate, good-natured jokester who could bust a rhyme off the top of his head. In a school known for performers, Shakur stood out.


"You didn't forget Tupac," says Richard Pilcher, who teaches Shakespeare at the School for the Arts. "There's no two ways about it, he had charisma for days."

The basic outlines of his beginning are public knowledge: Born to Afeni Shakur, a Black Panther pregnant with him as she stood trial on bombing charges, he was named for an Inca warrior. He once dreamed of being a revolutionary. He grew up without a father in a family that never had much money.

They came to Baltimore, hoping to escape the hard times in New York. Shakur was already a stage veteran by then, having performed in a Harlem production of "A Raisin in the Sun." He enrolled at Dunbar High School, before auditioning at the School for the Arts. He used a character from Lorraine Hansberry's play.

Tupac Shakur's 1988 Baltimore School for the Arts yearbook photo as a sophomore.
Tupac Shakur's 1988 Baltimore School for the Arts yearbook photo as a sophomore. (Baltimore School for the Arts)

Teresa Altoz, 24, remembers audition day. Shakur wore a hat and sport coat to evoke Walter Lee, the son who loses his dead father's life insurance on a desperate gamble to prove himself. The audition lasted less than five minutes, but Altoz says "he came out beaming." That fall of 1986, she saw him again in the halls at Cathedral and Madison streets, "that guy with the really big eyes."

"When he first showed up," says Altoz, "it was, 'I'm a rapper from New York, but then he mellowed out and became like a hippie. He was always, like, 'peace, peace,' before people said peace."
He was a popular student, comfortable in all circles. During one prom he never left the dance floor. He was high energy, endowed with a quick, witty mind and a smooth tongue. He could seize the moment and make you laugh.

One Halloween night found Shakur and two of his closest friends, Seth Bloom and Gregory Schmoke, at a haunted house in Towson. The house had a "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" scene. Schmoke, 25, son of Baltimore's mayor, can still see Shakur jumping on stage during the madness and rapping through the pulse of the strobe lights.

They played arcade games that night, joked around, did what 14- and 15-year-olds do. They ended up hungry outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Shakur tried to sweet talk one of the counter girls into giving them some food. His story was crazy: He and Schmoke were orthodox Jews in blackface; Bloom was a black in white face.

"All we got was a big cup of water with sugar, and we put in bad lemon juice," says Schmoke, 25. "It was awful."

Schmoke and Shakur became good friends. Each saw in the other an example of what might have been had life dealt him a different hand. Sometimes Shakur visited the Schmoke home in Ashburton. A favorite game took place in the basement.

Pillow fights

"We all took these pillows and we'd turn out the lights and stalk each other and, 'Bam!' hit you in the head," says Schmoke.

They would go down to the Inner Harbor, stroll and try to make conversation with the pretty girls. They were hopelessly outclassed by the older guys with fine cars. So they watched and suffered the sting of indifference. That never sat well with Shakur.

"It really bothered him to be ignored. He didn't care if you hated him or liked him, but he hated to be ignored," says Schmoke, 25. "The fact of being ignored was worse than any rejection."

The Shakurs lived in the Johnston Square neighborhood and in a small, two-bedroom apartment in the 3900 block of Greenmount Avenue.

Sometimes the power was on in the apartment, sometimes not. Schmoke remembers one night when a flash of light broke the darkness near Shakur's mother.

"I pretended I was hard and knew what she was doing, but I didn't know what she was doing," he says. He later realized she was smoking crack cocaine.

In this world, Shakur saw some of the harsh life later depicted in his songs. At one point, a young man in his neighborhood was shot to death, and his mother didn't have enough money to bury him.

Disturbed, Shakur organized a benefit to raise money for her.

"He came in on fire with that," Schmoke says. "That was a big thing with him, to die for nothing and not be remembered."

Schmoke and Shakur often sat on his porch on Greenmount Avenue, talking about life and listening to a boom box. One time Shakur put on Tracy Chapman's first album. He wanted Schmoke to hear "Mountains of Things."

It is a poignant song of yearning, beginning with these lines: "Life I've always wanted, guess I'll never have. I'll be working for somebody else until I'm in my grave. I'll be dreaming of a life of ease and mountains, oh, mountains of things."

His taste in music was wide and varied, ranging from LL Cool J to Peter Gabriel and Eric Clapton, Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" and Don McLean's "Vincent" At 15, Shakur chose the latter song for an acting assignment. Donald Hicken, teacher and friend, found that a surprising choice.

"I asked him why he selected that piece of music and he said he related to Van Gogh because people didn't understand him," says Hicken.

Too much method

Bloom, 24, now an actor in New York City, did a scene from "Fool for Love" with Shakur.

"We took the method acting thing a little too far," he says. "I brought in a bottle of tequila and he brought in a real gun."


It was a hot afternoon in June. The pungent smell of tequila filled the room. Bloom remembers Hicken coming on stage, smelling the bottle and, flabbergasted, saying, "'You brought real tequila to the school?' And we're, like, 'Well, yeah, he drinks tequila.' Then he looked at the table and said, 'My God, you've got a gun'." Hicken ordered them to take the contraband out of the school and try the scene again the next day, this time with a water pistol and iced tea.


John Cole, 27, was Shakur's best friend at School for the Arts. They were kindred souls, both largely raised by their mothers. The common experience made for a strong connection. In an island of intelligent, creative youths, they became a memorable pair -- one black, one white, tight friends sharing time and circumstance.

"He wore a lot of my clothes," says Cole, a painter. "At times we dressed wearing clothes that we made."

When Cole moved out of his mother's house to stay with his older brother in Reservoir Hill, he left the door open for Shakur, who had had a falling out with his mother. They slept on separate couches in the living room while Cole's older brother and another friend took the bedrooms.

For fun they rode around town in a Volkswagen Beetle, once making a trip to New York with Jada Pinkett, another of the stars to come out of the School for the Arts. To earn money, Shakur worked as a bus boy at the Market Restaurant downtown.

He enjoyed boxing and, like millions of others, saw Mike Tyson as a hero. But Shakur wasn't an athlete. He was an actor, a dancer, a rapper, an incredible ball of talent and energy.

You could be watching a movie on television, and he would pick a character and start spinning narratives out of the air. He could be an old drunk, or Tony Montana, Al Pacino's over-the-top gangster from "Scarface."

"With Tupac, you never quite knew what you were going to get," says Cole. "Tupac had his 'off' switch, but it was a while before he got to that, maybe when he laid down."

And he was sensitive. When Cole and his brother moved out of the place in Reservoir Hill, there wasn't enough room in the new place for Shakur. Their friendship was never the same after that, though they did spend time together later in Los Angeles.

Shakur left Baltimore in the spring of 1988, his junior year. Hicken, the theater instructor, never had the chance to put him in a show. Pilcher says Shakur was "heartbroken" about leaving.

From thespian to thug

"He wanted nothing more than to stay at the School for the Arts," says Pilcher. "There was respect, and acting wasn't looked upon as a sissy thing to do."

Shakur moved to Northern California, found his way into the West Coast rap scene and got his break with Digital Underground. By the time he was 22, he had starred in two films and his two albums had each sold a half-million copies. Tupac was now 2Pac, a walking symbol of the thug life.

Shakur made several return visits to Baltimore, usually as part of record promotions. He arrived in limousines, but still presented himself as the Shakur of old.

"We knew him before he adopted the gangster persona," says Hicken. "It wouldn't make any sense for him to talk to us that way."

Cole visited him in Los Angeles during the filming of "Poetic Justice," released in 1992. But Shakur cut him off when his Oakland friends arrived at the hotel where they were staying.

"I'm rather white, and I didn't fit the image of what his thug life friends wanted, and I don't think he knew how to deal with it," says Cole.

Compassion still lived beneath the public face of the raunchy, angry gangsta. On Oct. 14, 1993, he made a last-minute flight from New York to Aberdeen to visit Joshua Torres, an 11-year-old fan dying of complications from muscular dystrophy.

The meeting was private: no television cameras; no live broadcast by the radio station that had helped set up the meeting. Shakur spent 30 to 40 minutes with Joshua. He held Joshua's hand, talked to him, cried with him. Then, he was gone, and within two hours, Joshua was dead.

"When I told him Josh passed away, he was like, 'Aw, man.' He was pretty emotional," says Sgt. Abdul-Hakim Torres, Joshua's father. "I was really shocked that he stopped what he was doing, got in the jet and came down here to visit my son. Just like that, Bang! It happened."

But increasingly, Shakur's humanity was crowded out by the violence he seemed to embrace. On Oct. 31, 1993, he was charged with shooting two off-duty police officers in Atlanta. Though the charges were later dropped, Shakur was arrested again two weeks later for sexually assaulting a 20-year-old woman in a New York hotel room. The following year, Shakur was shot five times in an apparent robbery in New York. He wound up recovering from his wounds at Riker's Island, where he served eight months for the sexual assault.

In Baltimore, his friends greeted the news of Shakur's death on Sept. 13 in Las Vegas with sad resignation. They know the entertainment industry, how it can bend you, trap you in your own creation. They are wary of selling themselves.

"It's my opinion that he sought out fame and fortune and there was a price to pay, and I'm not sure there are a lot of us who wouldn't do the same thing if offered," says Bloom, reflecting on the dizzying arc of his friend's career. "I am now just getting started with my career, and Tupac has risen, fallen and died."

Up in New York this past weekend, Bloom saw a fresh graffito on the side of an abandoned theater as he walked along Houston Street. There was Tupac Shakur, crudely drawn, a spray-painted inscription reading: "Live by the gun. Die by the gun."

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