Sunday, March 9th 1997 was an unseasonably warm day in New York City. I’d traveled from Queens into the East Village, where I was meeting my former co-worker Andrea at Tower Records on 4th and Broadway to hang out, grab a bite to eat and do some record shopping-or more accurately, record browsing, since my retail gig (at another record store) was only paying me $7 an hour. After I paid my rent, bought my subway tokens for the week and fed myself, I barely enough left over to buy a cassette.
The East Village was bustling as usual, nothing seemed particularly amiss. Tower Records was packed-as always-and I remember going down to the basement area, where they kept the magazines. There was just one dog-eared copy of the new Source magazine, which had the Notorious B.I.G. on the cover. I remember reading their feature story and cringing at some of the things Biggie said-I don’t remember specifically what they were, but I remember them coming off as kind of blustery and ignorant. Of course, had I been less oblivious (or had I parked myself in the rap section) maybe I would have noticed what had happened that morning on the other side of the country a little earlier.
It seems almost completely implausible in these days of Twitter, Facebook and cell phones, but I walked in and out of Tower Records that day without realizing that the Notorious B.I.G. had been murdered in Los Angeles earlier that morning. I can’t remember if I figured it out when Andrea and I parted ways and I slipped my Walkman headphones on, or if it happened after I got home and turned on the radio. It might have even been mentioned over the course of our conversation, but it went in one ear and out of the other. Either way, as a hip-hop fan, the loss of two major superstars exactly six months apart from one another (Tupac had been shot six months to the day before) was shocking, since the genre hadn’t lost any major figures (that I can remember) prior to that point. Of course, everyone knows that the two were rivals, and that their murders were very likely related-something we probably won’t know for sure until both Suge Knight and Sean Combs are dead, but in the context of this article, the B.I.G./’Pac beef is irrelevant.
After that murder happened, I kinda turned my back on hip-hop for a minute. Not only had the music become uncreative and lazy (blame Puffy) but many elements of it seemed to revel in a sort of gleeful ignorance, and that gleeful ignorance now had real-life ramifications. In the “Golden Age” of the hip-hop era (which most people say ended with B.I.G.’s debut, Ready To Die in the fall of ’94) there seemed to at least be valid counterpoints to any music that had morally questionable content. Or at least there was usually context behind the questionable content. As the genre became more popular, the other viewpoints got pushed into the margins and there was a period when, with the exception of a handful of solid albums, hip-hop just seemed like a mindless parade of wanna-be gangstas.
And I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge that B.I.G. was a part of that. However, if you listen to Ready To Die (and even Life After Death, even though there’s much less of a sense of remorse,) there’s a consciousness there. Keep in mind that as violent as some of the lyrics may be,
a) B.I.G. rhymed with a grace and style (and wit) that immediately elevated his lyrics several levels above the average rapper. While I sort of cringe whenever I hear the “Gimme The Loot” “I don’t give a fuck if you’re pregnant…” line, I rhyme right along with it because the way he says it is so…I can’t even explain. It’s offensive, but it’s also humorous in a way.
b) Dude blows his own head off at the end of the album because he can’t live with the things he’s done. That sense of consequence and emotion was practically rubbed out of hip-hop for a good couple of years.
So even though a slew of B.I.G. (and ‘Pac) wannabes arrived in the next half-decade or so, they all came off like bad Xeroxes, a reasonable facsimile, but faded in a way, with the soul sucked out.
Regardless of all of that-if you are a hip-hop fan-if you truly understand lyricism and poetry-you’ll see that B.I.G. was a rare breed. I’m not on the dude’s jock just because we were brought up 2 or 3 miles (if that) from one another or are in the same general age range, I’m on the dude’s jock because, as a writer and as a rapper, as a storyteller, dude was incredible. And he was only two albums deep when he was killed. Lots of folks wonder what B.I.G. would have evolved into musically had he lived, and truthfully, he could have gone either way, especially with Bad Boy’s guidance (have I mentioned recently that I really dislike Sean Combs?) He could’ve descended into pop-rap hell, or he could’ve become (or continued being) a trailblazer. It’s the weird conundrum of artists dying young, I guess. They don’t stick around long enough to reach their full potential, yet they don’t stick around long enough to suck, either.
I do think B.I.G. would get a kick out of how different the world is today, though. As the immediate reaction to the passings of Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston prove, and as the man himself once said, things done changed.
Here’s some slightly rare B.I.G. stuff.
One of Biggie’s first appearances, at the beginning of 1993, on Neneh Cherry’s “Buddy X” remix.
B.I.G. saves a mediocre Supercat song (and an uncharacteristically laconic Mary J. Blige vocal) on the “Dolly My Baby” remix, also from 1993.
One of the weirdest collaborations ever, you can pretty much shut this off after Biggie’s opening verse.
One of my favorite Biggie verses. This song is SO NSFW…it’s NS for most places!