March 14th will mark twenty years since the release of Tupac Shakur’s third (and arguably his best) album, Me Against The World. Released while he was serving his prison sentence at Clinton Correctional facility for a sexual assault conviction, MATW vaulted onto the Billboard 200, giving Pac a #1 album and making him the first artist to have a #1 debut while behind bars.
Much of that success was due to the albums platinum first single “Dear Mama,” the poignant open letter to his mother Afeni Shakur. Built on samples of The Spinner’s “Sadie” and Joe Samples “All My Wildest Dreams,” Pac praised his mother while acknowledging her faults: “Even as a crack fiend, mama/you was always a Black Queen, mama.”
The accompanying video was filmed while Tupac was incarcerated and sadly foreshadowed a life without him, his mother flipping through photo albums and reminiscing on their past relationship. Director Lionel Martin employed flashbacks to recreate the portraits Pac painted in his lyrics and cast model and magazine editor Tracii McGregor to play Afeni in her younger days. Having appeared in videos for Mint Condition, Coolio and Ice Cube, the then editor at Urb magazine in L.A. (and later at The Source in NY) also worked as a PA for Martin.
WatchLOUD invited McGregor to share her earliest memories of Tupac and what it was like playing the most important woman in his life.
In 1995 I was still on the West Coast and I was working at Urb magazine. I was an editor at Urb in Los Angeles. I had been writing for a few years for different magazines like Rap Sheet then I went to Urb. But on the side I was in a gang of music videos. I would do these modeling gigs and music videos. I had done several up until that point. I would also do some PA (production assistant) work, that’s how I initially met Lionel Martin, who directed that Pac video. I was the worst. I didn’t know this wire from that plug, but I knew some casting agents and when this video came up they called me in. I didn’t really compete with too many people to get this role, because visually I was what they were looking for. I had the look where you were either looking for me or you weren’t. For this role I looked like Afeni, I looked close enough. So they hired me for the role.
[Afeni] came over and said hi and she was just marveling at how much I looked like her, couldn’t believe the casting. We got to watch the parts where she was looking through the photos and it just made it more real and there was more pressure to get it right and not make it contrived.
It was kind of intense. I had to take the day off from Urb to shoot the video. It was a long day. I got there early in the morning. Of course I was a Pac fan, he was locked up at the time. We shot in some locations and in a studio. The one thing I remember, and I still don’t know to this day if they did this on purpose, but I didn’t eat the whole day. They didn’t feed me! And I don’t know if they did that to get me in character but it was an intense day. One minute I’m going to a graveyard with my kids and the next minute I’m partying and smoking. I was being a parent and at that point I wasn’t a parent, so I’m doing what I THINK I’m supposed to be doing. But the day is getting more intense…I’m smoking crack, I’m beating my child, I’m in prison and pregnant. That was actually the last shot, where I’m in prison 8 or 9 months pregnant. And I’m gonna tell you, I broke down. I guess having to live all of that in a day really just…this was someone’s life. These are all real life instances that we are re-creating. Pac was someone that we all loved and we watched his tribulations close up. And because I worked on both sides of the business it was a strange position to be in and I felt it in that moment.
It’s really quite surreal. Every year around Mothers Day the video comes back up and I go “wow, that’s me.” Lionel Martin was amazing and he was the go-to director at the time and he was very gentle with me and knew what to get out of me in all of those instances. Everybody took their job very seriously because we had a lot of respect for Tupac, his mother and the journey they had taken that brought them to this point. Even still now people remember that video, they remember me from that video, which is wild. So I feel like I did my part.
That little boy[playing Pac] was so wonderful. Then they had the older Pac and there was a moment where I’m mad at him because he ditched school that day and I was supposed to fake slap him, but I really did. I didn’t mean to but the slap happened for real. The kid took it, he was so brave.
I had met Pac on a couple of occasions and they weren’t always under the best circumstances. I had been writing for a different magazines, one of which was Rap Pages, which was run by Sheena Lester at the time. There was a moment in time when Pac was very angry about things written about him in the magazine, not by Sheena, but in the mag. And he could be…a lot. I went to a listening party out here in L.A. and introduced myself as Tracii McGregor a freelancer for Rap Pages and he said ‘Rap Pages??!” he went off! He cursed me out. [but] I took the heat. I was a fan and I understood where he was coming from. He always got a pass from me.
It was so nuanced how he was able to call her out [in the lyrics], but told the story with love, an intense love. I didn’t know it then, but I’m a mom now…
I think about the person I was then and I who I am twenty years later and had he just had the opportunity to grow into the fullness of what he was going to be… but that wasn’t supposed to be I guess. He’s an artist that I play in my house. I play a lot of stuff for my kid. We listen to Big Daddy Kane, KRS One and of course Tupac. I try to give him some context and turn down the curses, but yeah…he was an amazing young man that gave us so much and voice to so many in his short life. He was just gone too soon.
-As told to Jerry L. Barrow