Being a dead rock star is a total cliché, so you’d think they’d stop doing it already. Still, in 2011, the best way to secure your legacy is by knocking off at a statistically improbable age. Fifteen years ago today Tupac Shakur left the earthly plane after a six-day struggle with the hail of bullets lodged in his body. Pac isn’t a member of the “27 Club.” He didn’t even make it that far, dying at the ripe old age of 25. Join us for a trip down memory lane as we honor those who died before their time.
Blew Our Minds With: Taking a flaming sword to hair metal with Nevermind. Even at their most overproduced and tuneful, Nirvana were a breath of fresh air into the fart-filled room that was early-1990s hard rock. The self-consciously difficult follow-up In Utero set new standards for how loud and abrasive a mainstream rock band could be. If you like being able to see the Pixies and the Stooges live and in person, thank the ghost of Kurt Cobain.
Died When: Courtney Love paid Il Duce to whack him. Kidding. Dude ate a gun.
If He Had Lived: He’d be holed up in a Northampton, Massachusetts, basement with Thurston Moore working on some free jazz/noise guitar project you’d hate.
Blew Our Minds With: Every sound that ever came out of his mouth. Marvin Gaye made a number of unlikely career transitions from outstanding-but-not-groundbreaking soul singer to voice of a generation to resurgent pop star. If you’re ever looking for some prime baby-making music, look no further than the easy sexuality of “Let’s Get It On.”
Died When: He decided to tell his pops what was on his mind. Intervening in a fight between his parents, Marvin Jr. apocryphally told his father that he’d had enough of his shit and planned to fuck him up. Marvin Senior responded by shooting him down with a gun received from Marvin Jr. as a gift.
If He Had Lived: We’d have a lot of great tracks criticizing the Iraq War and praising boot knocking.
The Notorious B.I.G.
Blew Our Minds With: Odes to slinging crack and loving your lady. Biggie Smalls was at the forefront of the New York Hip-Hop Renaissance along with the Wu-Tang Clan (RIP Ol’ Dirty) and Nas.
Died When: Some guy in a bow tie capped him in the head.
If He Had Lived: We’d have gotten a grip of Biggie and Pac collaboration records. Hey Universe: we demand to see the manager. We have a Sean Combs to exchange for a Biggie.
Blew Our Minds With: Few proto-punk rockers were able to reinvent themselves for the punk rock era. New York Dolls guitarist and Heartbreakers founder (no, not the one with Tom Petty) Johnny Thunders took his low-rent Keith Richards schtick from the early-70s Max’s Kansas City crowd to the late-70s CBGB scene without batting an eye. He lost some prominence during the 80s, but kept busy with projects like Gang War with Wayne Kramer and his solo act, which attracted thousands of devoted cult followers.
Died When: The Murder City Devils put it best: “It took a city like New Orleans to kill a man like Johnny Thunders.” Few details are known about how precisely JT shuffled off this mortal coil.
If He Had Lived: People would be really confused about why the band opening for the Stooges wasn’t playing “Refugee” or “American Girl.”
Blew Our Minds With: Jimi Hendrix single-handedly invented the electric guitar. Before Hendrix, you just had an acoustic guitar with a different tone you could play a little louder. After Hendrix you had a six-stringed sonic weapon. It’s hard to imagine the entire genre of jazz fusion, strangeness of Parliament-Funkadelic or the wailing axes of Prince without the contributions of Hendrix to the world of guitar.
Died When: Probably when he choked on his own vomit, but as is often the case, opinions vary.
Blew Our Minds With: We’re not sure what was in the water in 1987-88, but between Appetite for Destruction and Straight Outta Compton, Los Angeles was on. The latter featured early Dr. Dre beats, Ice Cube ranting and the criminally underrated MC Ren. But perhaps more than anything, it featured nasal rhymes about the pleasures of being more gangsta than gangsta from a tiny but fearsome rapper and hip-hop impresario named Eric “Eazy-E” Wright.
Died When: Years of raw dogging anything on two legs caught up with him.
If He Had Lived: We’d have gotten a real N.W.A. reunion and Eminem would be cooking meth in a trailer park somewhere outside of Detroit.
Blew Our Minds With: Tupac Shakur started off carrying equipment and dancing for Digital Underground. He progressed to recording some of the last truly essential West Coast hip-hop for a decade, parlaying his rhymes into a film career where he displayed remarkable talents in Juice, Gridlock’d and Poetic Justice. Little did you know he also wrote some decent poetry.
Died When: Someone or other unleashed a torrent of bullets into his body.
If He Had Lived: Turn on hip-hop radio. You hear that Soulja Boy shit? Tupac would have cut down middle schoolers who think they have microphone skills with a quick flick of the liquid sword.
Blew Our Minds With: Proto-hardcore band The Germs were an early highlight of the nascent Los Angeles punk scene. Dirtier than the Dickies, but not quite Black Flag yet, The Germs made disgusting, ugly, greasy rock and roll for hardcore degenerates.
Died When: An intentional heroin overdose seemed like a really good idea.
If He Had Lived: GG Allin would be pumping gas in Manchester, New Hampshire, and music history would have had a feud to rival the greatest rap battles between Crash and Fear frontman Lee Ving.
Blew Our Minds With: Her second and last album, Back to Black, the first legit soul record to come down the pike in at least 20 years, probably more.
Died When: We’re still not sure.
If She Had Lived: Like that was going to happen.
Blew Our Minds With: Before Bon Scott, AC/DC were a boring, indistinct Australian pub rock band. After Bon Scott they became the Rolling Stones of rock and roll, blowing the roof off of venues around the world and recording records so good they defy reality like Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and T.N.T.
Died When: Scott was another vomit choker.
If He Had Lived: We’d never have gotten to hear the epic Back In Black, but AC/DC also would have made good records after 1980. Pick your poison.
Blew Our Minds With: If you’re looking for the Elvis of soul, it may well be Sam Cooke. In addition to creating the template for soul, he also embodied the aesthetic of sharp clothes and gentlemanly smoothness. Perhaps most importantly, Sam Cooke was a proponent of the Civil Rights Movement, the crucial social backdrop of the soul sound.
Died When: Cooke got a little ignorant at a hotel one night and the manager shot him. Or the FBI conspired to have him assassinated on the DL. It all depends on what brand of tin foil your hat is made of.
If He Had Lived: Pitch-perfect funk, smooth as silk Philly soul and the best contemporary R&B you’ve never heard.
Blew Our Minds With: “The comedy of hate.” Not a rock star, strictly speaking, Hicks set the template for 21st Century rage comedy. Like Denis Leary? He literally lifted his entire act from Hicks. Hicks was a modern-day prophet, preaching a message of fire and destruction to a willing crowd. Often times his live show broke down into little more than him berating a crowd for their stupidity and complacency.
Died When: Complications from his liver and pancreatic cancer took him.