"We're working on a new project called One Nation," an excited Tupac Shakur said during the spring of 1996 while walking into Los Angeles' Can-Am Studios, in a video available on YouTube (below). "It's going to be an East Coast/West Coast collaboration."
The 25-year-old rapper certainly had his differences with other artists, industry bosses and street soldiers -- disputes that may have ultimately led to his death 20 years ago on Sept. 13, 1996 -- but if you ask some of those who were with 'Pac during the final months of his life, they tell a different story. Tupac's unreleased and unfinished album known as One Nation intended to show the rap industry, and perhaps the world, that rappers from opposite coasts could work together.
Looking back on One Nation, many of Tupac's associates feel it had the potential to be his most acclaimed work. Those who were there during its initial recording sessions recall just how potent its message was shaping up to be. Perhaps the album was set in motion by his mother, Afeni Shakur, and her contributions to the Civil Rights movement. She combated the divide-and-conquer strategies of COINTELPRO, a program used by the FBI to survey, infiltrate and stifle the Black Panther Party, among other leftist groups, during its rise around the late '60s and early '70s. She was also pregnant with 'Pac while behind bars.
"[Afeni] was saying [the East vs. West beef] was reminding her of the tactics that COINTELPRO used," E.D.I. Mean of Tupac's affiliate group The Outlawz remembers. "Even though he was trying to explain to her that that's not what he was doing, I believe some of that got through to him."
One Nation's inception began with a meeting that hosted Tupac, members of his Outlawz crew and other trusted friends and advisors. At the time, 'Pac was public enemy No. 1 to a lot of rap factions in New York and New Jersey, as most of the East Coast sided with Bad Boy during the label's meteoric rise. His initial aim was to show he still had love for the East Coast, and his target was the Brooklyn rap collective, Boot Camp Clik.
Comprised of the groups Black Moon, Smif-N-Wessun, O.G.C. (also known as Originoo Gunn Clappaz) and the newly-formed duo Heltah Skeltah, Boot Camp had the unique position of not being signed to a major label. The backpacks and Timberland boots they brandished in the videos for their highly successful underground singles "I Got Cha Opin," "Bucktown" and "Leflaur Leflah Eshkoshka" were about as New York as you could get. They also had formed their own label, Duckdown Records, a year prior, which many say 'Pac admired as he was trying to start a label himself.
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"Whoever we reached out [about One Nation] felt conflicted because they didn't want to disrespect Biggie and Bad Boy. [They] had to be independent and self-sufficient in their own where they didn't have to worry about offending nobody," E.D.I. recalls. "On top of that, we were fans of Boot Camp. We was bumping that at the time so it was like, let's reach out to Buckshot and the whole Boot Camp, and specifically Smif-N-Wessun. 'Pac was like, 'Oh hell yeah. That's a great idea. I f--k with them too.'"
Then came the phone call that would rock Buckshot (of Black Moon), Smif-N-Wessun and all of their cohorts to this very day. It was an initial correspondence that was almost written off as a prank. "We was in the studio and my boy called me. He said that 'Pac was on the phone and I was like, 'Get out of here.' I didn't believe him," Buckshot recalls. "I was like, 'Seriously?' He said, 'No bullshittin'.' I went to the phone and sure enough it was 'Pac. He said, 'Yo, B, I want y'all to come out to California and work on this project with me [called] One Nation.'" Dru Ha, Duckdown Records president, adds, "Two days later he sent the plane tickets and we went out there."
As soon as the crew touched down in L.A., Tupac was out in front, greeting them with the biggest grin on his face. "Leave the bags," he yells in video captured of Buckshot and his team getting out of the limousine 'Pac had sent for them. From there the newly acquainted parties would head for Shakur's new home in Calabasas where they stayed while recording his proposed new album. A familiar face also helped ease any discomfort.
"Before we even get out the limo the first person we see is Snoop [Dogg]," General Steele of Smif-N-Wessun says. "Snoop and Buckshot see each other. They knew each other a long time from family members so it kind of eased the tension because we didn't know what we was going into. This would be the first time for us meeting Tupac. Being cats from Brooklyn, we didn't know how we'd be received."
According to Steele, he and the rest of his New York comrades were searched for weapons before entering the studio, a requirement that stemmed from the shooting at Quad Studios just two years prior. Following the search, they entered Can-Am studios, where they were eventually joined by the aforementioned Outlawz, Daz Dillinger, Nice & Smooth's Greg Nice, The Luniz's Numskull, and New Jersey natives Asu and Capital LS from the group Rumpletilskinz. Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel also supposedly stopped by at some point during Boot Camp Clik's week-long stay in California. From those present, what came from the sessions was magic.
"We would just go to the studio and 'Pac would stock the studio up with weed, liquor, chicken wings and shit and everyone would do what they do," Young Noble from The Outlawz recalls. "Those guys are legends in the game. The music was the easiest thing." Dru Ha remembers, "He just led by example of how he expected all these artists to record. He was just knocking songs out. He had his verses ready and was like, 'Who's up next? Who's getting in?' If the artists didn't have a verse ready, he moved onto the next song. It didn't matter who it was."
Those closest to Tupac say the media had spun the whole East versus West Coast beef out of control. He not only wanted to eventually end all beef but actually work with the people he was beefing with just days prior. "Pac was excited as hell to get into the studio with him two days before he got shot," Young Noble says about Queens rapper Nas, who had briefly beefed with 'Pac until they reconciled at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards. "He didn't even wanna go to Vegas, he was that excited. He was ready to get back into the studio. His energy was crazy to get back and finish up product. That would've been an album that would've changed the course of hip-hop because the timing of it." Nas, Houston rapper Scarface, Bay Area's E-40, Cleveland hip-hop crew Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Atlanta's OutKast were other names slated to feature on the LP, as confirmed by both The Outlawz and a handwritten 'Pac letter that surfaced in February 2015.
"He was going to have volumes of One Nation," Dru Ha says. "The first one was going to be on Makaveli, which was his imprint. He was like, 'Yo, I'm going to have my label, Makaveli, do volume one,' and then he said, 'We're going to put volume two on Duckdown.'"
"It would've been a predecessor to an eventual Outlawz album that we were working on," E.D.I. Mean notes. "The future was bright for us as a collective. We had so many different plans that we were working on that never came to fruition because of his eventual demise."
After the initial recording sessions, Boot Camp Clik and the rest of the non-L.A.-affiliated groups never recorded with Tupac again. They would stay in touch however. To this day, Tupac's family still remains in contact with Buckshot and his crew. The Outlawz also continue to have a strong bond with Boot Camp.
Tupac and Buckshot did meet again in New York months later at an awards show. Steele claims that 'Pac handed Buck a cassette tape with more songs from the album that they didn't have at the time. No one knows for certain how much of the album was actually completed. Estimates range anywhere from just four or five songs to 70 percent of it being done. Unofficial versions of the project have been released over the past 20 years, but none have been confirmed by Tupac's estate.
"It hurt me to know that eventually that whole thing with Biggie was going to die out. 'Pac was a real motherfucker man. Real n---as don't hold grudges," says Buckshot. "I know we would've all moved on. It wouldn't have been One Nation except for New York, One Nation except for Brooklyn, One Nation except for Biggie. It would've been One Nation, and it would've been all of us."