June 16 is Tupac Amaru Shakur’s birthday. Today—June 16, 2020—he’d be 49 years old. Since it’s Tupac’s birthday and one of his singles— “California Love”—happens to feature one of the most iconic hip hop videos of all time, it only makes sense to include him here. The video for “California Love,” which was directed by Hype Williams (as were all big-budget and over-the-top videos were in the mid-90s), was inspired by Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
A lot of things came together to make this an iconic work, as much of that had to do with the circumstances surrounding the video and the video itself. For starters, it was Tupac’s debut single (and video) after Suge Knight and Death Row Records (though it was apparently really Jimmy Iovine and Interscope—Tupac was an Interscope artist, for what it’s worth) put up over $1 million to bail him out of prison. At the time, he was in the midst of a serving a prison sentence for a 1994 conviction for first-degree sexual abuse and was sentenced to one-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years at Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in upstate New York. Tupac gets out in October 1995, hits the West Coast, and immediately gets to work on All Eyez On Me, his last release while he was alive.
But while he was in jail he let off one of the most incendiary interviews ever for Vibe Magazine where the East Coast-West Coast rivalry really got its birth, blaming Puffy, Biggie and Andre Harrell for setting him up to get shot in the famous Quad City Studio shooting in Times Square. Also, while he’s in jail, his Me Against the World album was the number one album in the country and “Dear Mama,” the lead single from it became, and still is to this day, the gold standard for hip hop odes to mothers. So Tupac is in jail with an axe to grind, a successful rap career and then gets out to sign to the hottest label in hip hop that features a CEO with an axe to grind in Knight. Tupac gets out and immediately records an ode to California. The song is a hit. The video, though, becomes the kind of stuff that plays over and over again on MTV because of its production value alongside with everything else behind the scenes.
Tupac looked happy and even an unhappy Dre at least made it look believable that Death Row was the unstoppable monster. This video, though, would be sort of a last hurrah for Death Row. In a matter of months, Dre would be gone, leaving another label he helped get off the ground (Ruthless, now Death Row) to start his own label, Aftermath; Tupac would be infamously shot in Las Vegas, Nev., succumbing to his wounds on September 13, 1996, and Death Row would fall into absolute turmoil. I’ll bet that nobody there saw it coming. But for a moment in December 1995, Death Row hit its apex with one of the biggest stars in the game, the biggest producer in the game with the biggest video in the game. Iconic.