Editor's Note: Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of Tupac Shakur's death. To commemorate, West Coast Sound is featuring Tupac stories all week. See also:

*Bruce Hornsby on Tupac: “The original 'Changes' was a lot dirtier, had a lot of the n-word.”

*African Rebel Soldiers and Their Eerie Obsession With Tupac Shakur

*Shock G and Smif-n-Wessun Talk Tupac's Eating Habits: “I Never Seen Him Eat a Vegetable, Not Once In The Five Years I Knew Him”

*We Walk Up To Random Angelenos and Ask: “What's Your Favorite Tupac Memory?”

A backing group who coalesced around Tupac only a year before his death, The Outlawz also served as his support system during his most tumultuous times. Best known for backing him on “Hit 'Em Up,” the group has now been whittled down to three members, Hussein, E.D.I. Mean, and Young Noble. They made headlines recently by confirming the long-held rumor that they smoked Tupac's ashes, prompting an angry retort from Shakur's mother.

In conjunction with the 15th anniversary of his death, the group's new album, Perfect Timing, dropped yesterday. The trio knew Tupac like few others, at a time when his profile was highest. They bonded in large part through their ink, an art form in which 'Pac was something of a pioneer, at least in hip hop. The Outlawz, in fact, even got their name from one of his tats.

Who used to do Pac's tattoos?

Hussein: 'Pac probably got them all over the place. There was this spot on Sunset [Mark Mahoney's Shamrock Tattoo, surely], but I can't remember the name. They were some cool cats in there — Irish guys who wore zoot suits, greaser type dudes. We could be driving past the ink shop and he would suddenly pull over. “Where you going?” we'd ask. He'd say: “I'm going to get tatted.”

Young Noble: Shit was always sporadic, whenever motherfucker felt like going to get a tattoo. He loved getting tattoos. I remember back then there wasn't too many rappers with tattoos; we looked like aliens, to me. Us and 'Pac seemed like the only rappers we'd really see with tattoos. I think 'Pac really started the whole tattoo trend, and we was right there with him.

E.D.I. Mean: Absolutely, he inspired the whole culture to start getting tattoos. I also got to give Jodeci some credit on the R&B side, since they both started doing it at the same time in the early '90s. 'Pac had been getting tatted when he was still a teenager, before he got his record deal. When he started doing photos with his shirt off, people noticed he had a lot of tattoos. We come from the era when every tattoo means something. It was a way to deal with pain, or trials and tribulations in your life. I think nowadays the younger generation gets tatted just to get tatted.

Hussein, you've got “Thug Life” across your stomach like Tupac did. Did he inspire you to get that?

Hussein: Yeah, he had his first — before I even met him – and I got mine with his permission. Mine is a lot smaller than his.

The authors of Tupac Shakur: The Life and Times of an American Icon and others assert that “Thug Life” it's actually an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fuck Everybody.” Did you know that?

Hussein: Nah. Maybe he said that. Thug Life will mean whatever you [want it to] mean. If you're a thug, you're a thug. I don't know about naming the letters and all that. I doubt if that's what it really meant when he first got it.

Did anyone else in the group get the Thug Life tat?

Hussein: Nah, I think I was the only crazy, goofy one who wanted to get that on my stomach. But ee got a lot of tattoos together. We all got tatted on our neck together when he got Makaveli on his neck. 'Pac had his “Outlaw,” and [eventually] we all grabbed it on our left arms, one at a time. The name [of the group] had to have been in his mind, because that's all he talked about: “The Outlawz, the Outlawz.” It was between that and another name, the Lil' Homies. That couldn't happen. Thankfully we chose the Outlawz. [Laughs]

Young Noble: I also got “Outlawz” across my stomach. I got some prayer hands, and I got “Thugs Pray Too” under it. I have a Makaveli cross on my right arm that says, “Heart of a Soldier With a Brain To Teach a Whole Nation,” and I got a Hail Mary tattoo in memory of Kadafi on my right arm.

E.D.I. Mean: I have “Thug Life” down the middle of my forearm, opposite the “Outlawz.” I got that from 'Pac's line, “Thug life running through my veins so I'm strong,” from “Bomb First” off of the Makaveli album. So for that reason it goes right down my vein on my left arm.

Why are there always rumors that 'Pac is still alive?

Young Noble: Because he's a legend. He's like the black Elvis, but really he's “Tupac the first.” He has a cult following that loves him and appreciates him. They wish he was still here, and don't want to let him go.

When he died, did you have had any idea his legacy would still be so strong 15 years later?

Young Noble: Yeah, because he was a legend when he was living. When he passed, I knew it wasn't going to dwindle at all. To be honest, he used to say things like that when he was alive, the people would not let him rest in peace [when he was dead], that they were still going to say he was still alive. We didn't want to hear it; we said we'd die before him. Any of us would have taken a bullet for him. He was just one of those souls, sent here from God, to put inspiration in people.

Tell us about your new album. How is it the same as old Outlawz music, and how is it different?

Hussein: In the '90s we was a bunch of little kids rolling around. I felt like we was out there on some thug life shit. I was getting tatted like it would be my last time. Now I got three daughters. I look at life differently. I want to live life, and you'll be able to hear that in the music.

E.D.I. Mean: When I listen to Perfect Timing, the thing I hear most is diversity. There's no two songs alike on the album. We didn't just get features because they were big names, we brought them into our world. We're going to put a period on the era. We'll still do music, but as far as the Outlawz this will be the last one. Now it's time to pass the torch to the next generation.

Young Noble: Hands down, this is our best album, and the fact that it's our reunion album with [Hussein] Fatal makes it more sweet. It will feature Scarface on there, Bun B, Lloyd on two songs, Trae, Tech N9ne.

LA Weekly