Nina Bhadreshwar on Death Row Records, 2Pac and Finding CC
Writer and former hip-hop journalist Nina Bhadreshwar's new memoir shares intimate details of her pen pal correspondence with 2Pac and her time at mega-label Death Row Records
Two years ago, a letter written by Tupac Shakur, aka 2Pac, was auctioned off for $172,725. Penning the five-page document while incarcerated in 1995, he wrote it had helped his “spirit rebuild” and he planned to start a “new chapter” in his life. Just a year after the letter was written, he was shot dead in Las Vegas, leading to numerous police investigations as well as countless conspiratorial biopics. Depending on who you speak to, Shakur is remembered as a deep-thinking poet, political activist, gangsta rap icon or misogynistic thug.
However, the recipient of this intimate missive was more surprising, not one of 2Pac's Los Angeles entourage or family friends from New York, but a young journalist from Barnsley. Today, writer and poet Nina Bhadreshwar is back living in Manchester after a stint working as a schoolteacher in Dundee. But her book Finding CC chronicles a very different time in her life: when she was a publicist for sensational hip-hop label Death Row Records, an assistant to music executive Suge Knight, and close confidant to Shakur himself.
Bhadreshwar's journey to LA is just one of the almost unbelievable stories that make up a vivid memoir stretching to nearly 500 pages. There's delicate prose and brief poetic passages interlaced throughout, but much of the text appears in interview format, derived from transcripts going back to the early 1990s.
“To be honest, it's not just my story,” says Bhadreshwar. “It's a collection of so many people's stories. I've been writing Finding CC since I've been writing. A huge part are the interviews I've conducted as part of my journey, and these are people who may be alive or may be dead now. My interview with [the late] Nate Dogg is there, for example.
“I felt a sense of duty and as soon as I returned to the UK, I started chronicling everything. I'm glad I did because it didn't allow lag. I couldn't write the book now because it's so much, but I documented and kept everything. I did an MA in Professional Writing and picked up advice from people – all these sorts of things helped me learn structure and work out the right form for it.”
Her story doesn't begin in LA – the book's title instead refers to a 15-year-old homeless Black poet who she befriended while volunteering at a London night shelter in 1988. He was murdered on New Year's Eve. She says: “My friend's death is still unsolved – there was no police inquiry into what happened. I named the book after him because nobody even knows about him. This Black youth who mattered to me. The lack of care – I see it happening all the time. I felt like: 'I can do something. I'm going to make a noise.'”
Despite suffering bouts of depression and dealing with the death of her mother, Bhadreshwar made it her mission to document stories about struggling young people from minority backgrounds. After discovering hip-hop, a then-burgeoning art form where marginalised youth had space to articulate their own experiences as well as offer commentary on racism and systemic injustices, she started The Real State, her own graffiti and poetry zine, in 1992.
“I was initially into the bass and jungle and underground rave scene,” she says. “I did my literature degree and all that sort of thing, but the emcees were the only poetry that really ignited that poetic spark in me. When I started publishing, I got into hip-hop and the cadences. I loved that it was energetic and had the breakdancing and spray paint. When I went to New York, the artists I met introduced me to the old school values. They schooled me on what it was about and showed me it was a positive force.”
Her first major exposure to the American scene came in late 1993, and after a month visiting New York she discovered 2Pac through word of mouth. “I bought his tape and had a shudder down my spine as soon as Holler If Ya Hear Me came on,” she says. “I sent him a copy of the magazine through his publicist. He wrote back and said he loved the magazine, loved the underground stuff, loved the articles on social issues I did. Then all the craziness started.”
She moved to America on 30 November 1994, the same day Shakur was shot in Times Square and just weeks before he was convicted for sexual assault. Bhadreshwar still maintains “he shouldn't have been in jail... regardless of where the rest of society wanted to put him” and that she felt like she “was in California for a purpose”. You get the sense that, for her, Shakur was more than a muse; he was a representative for young people of colour without a voice.
Bhadreshwar went “hell for leather”, chasing every opportunity she could get until she was picked by 2Pac's own hip-hop mega label Death Row Records as a chief editor and memo writer. “[I was] used to operating as a grey person like most people of colour,” she says. “But they embraced me and helped me develop confidence.” During this time, she also maintained her unique pen pal relationship with Shakur, sending him essays by Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass' writings and excerpts from the Bible.
Although Death Row was wildly successful, releasing multi-platinum albums by the likes of Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre as well as 2Pac, the label became embroiled in a series of controversies, lawsuits and gangland-related disputes. Despite Death Row ultimately bailing Shakur out of jail, Bhadreshwar felt “used and exhausted” as CEO Suge Knight's behaviour became more erratic and the atmosphere became more and more “chaotic”.
What followed was dramatic: Finding CC details how she was harassed, threatened at gunpoint and even held hostage after resigning from her role. She eventually managed to jump on a flight home. Her time at Death Row was minimised and denied by the label, with little beyond her letters and Real State publications left to verify her experiences. “They did everything to erase me,” she says. “But they didn't take hold of everything – they didn't know I had Tupac's letters. He validated me from beyond the grave.”
Parts of Finding CC are undeniably traumatic – How to Survive Puberty at 25, a previous incarnation of the story, had to be rewritten on legal advice before ultimately being withdrawn and re-edited – but “you've got to break to grow”, as Bhadreshwar puts it. Reflecting on her own extremely unorthodox coming-of-age story, she hopes that the message readers get from the book is to “use your voice” regardless of background or circumstance.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she's chosen not to promote through sit-down readings and book shop Q&As, instead inviting local rappers, poets and breakdancers to perform on her tour. Following an “amazing” Dundee event, she's announced a special Beats, Rhymes & Stories night at SWG3 on 15 December. Putting the spotlight on the predominantly working-class Scottish hip-hop scene, she believes the event is something her old pen pal would have enthusiastically approved of.
“I have done readings in book shops before, but it's not the people I need to reach or uplift,” she says. “They ask: 'Why did you go on the wrong side of the tracks?' They can't relate – they don't get it. The whole story is about my passion for music and me pursuing that, so I wanted musicians to be involved. And I wanted to not just be reading but conversing with an audience.
“People like [Bhadreshwar publicist] Kirsty Miller and all the underground artists getting involved – their investment is fantastic. They have fantastic talent, and I hope the event showcases the Scottish scene well. It's exactly what Tupac would have been buzzing off his head about. That was his vision. I want to carry on doing these kinds of events. I want people to really feel they belong and their voice matters and they're part of the story.”
Finding CC is out now via Bhad Publicity
Beats, Rhymes and Stories, SWG3 Poetry Club, Glasgow, 15 Dec