To mark what would have been his 41st birthday today, May 21st, I remember my favourite rapper of all time with excerpts from pieces written on him in the LA & New York Times some years back.
And a Biggie tribute mix to bump while you read.
“Birthdays were the worst days…now we sip Champagne when we thirsty…”
21st May 1972 – 9 March 1997
He began dealing around the age of 12, working the area on Fulton Street between St. James Place and Washington Avenue while his mother taught preschool children during the day and attended school at night. (She says she only learned of her only child’s drug dealing recently. “I found out about my son and his little antics through his music and through magazines,” she said. “I read this thing and said, ‘Huh? I never knew.’ “)
As a 17-year-old high school dropout, the rapper says he was arrested for selling crack and spent nine months in a North Carolina jail before making bail. His case is still pending. He fell into a career in rap music when a tape he had recorded for fun was brought to the attention of Andre Harrell, president of Uptown Entertainment, a New York record label that specializes in hip-hop and rhythm-and-blues.
“He had a voice that just sounded like it was heavy, funky and rhythmic,” Mr. Harrell recalled. “And it had a lot of personality — like a light on his feet kind of big brother.” He signed the rapper but dropped him after Sean (Puffy) Combs, the young assistant who had first heard the tape, left Uptown to start his own label, Bad Boy Entertainment. Mr. Combs then made Biggie Smalls’s album one of his first releases.
With the success of “Ready to Die,” the rapper has put drug dealing behind him but retains the dealer’s constant fear that his life is in danger. “One thing I learned about the game is when you get a lot of money, niggers don’t like you,” he said. “I’m getting more money now.”
THOUGH MANY RAPPERS exaggerate about the lives they led before becoming performers, some are actually former drug dealers. Few have ever been as open in detailing their criminal past as Biggie Smalls, and none have ever been as clear about the pain they felt at the time. “He doesn’t want anyone to see that he’s not as tough as he thinks he is,” said Ms. Wallace, the rapper’s mother. “He cries inside. He bleeds inside. But he doesn’t want anyone to see the vulnerable side of him.”
“Ready to Die” is, indeed, marked by pathos unusual not only in hip-hop but in pop music. “In street life you’re not allowed to show if you care about something,” said Mr. Combs, of Bad Boy Entertainment. “You’ve got to keep that straight face. The flip side of that is his album. He’s giving up all his vulnerability. He’s letting you know how he has felt about his mother. He’s letting you know how he cried. How he has thought about killing himself.”
Though drug dealing carries tremendous heroic value with some young urban dwellers, he sacrifices the figure’s romantic potential. His raps acknowlege both the excitement of drug dealing and the stress caused by the threat from other dealers, robbers, the police and parents, sometimes one’s own. In presenting the downside of that life, “Ready to Die” offers perhaps the most balanced and honest portrait of the dealer’s life of any in hip-hop. “He’s trying to enlighten people to the way your mind thinks when you’re broke, when you’re young growing up and not feeling like nobody cares about you,” Mr. Combs said.
Of course, disentangling fact from myth is not always easy.
Hip-hop thrives on the tension between “realness” and embellishment, artfully blurring the line between raw testimony and fantastical exaggeration. Biggie Smalls, one of several pseudonyms acquired by Christopher Wallace in the course of his short, brilliant career, put himself forward both as a fearless street truth-teller and as an outsize character — a player in at least two senses of the word.
He is a mama’s boy and a ladies’ man; a lovable teddy bear and a glowering criminal; a high-living celebrity and a neighbourhood character.
CHRISTOPHER WALLACE, The Notorious B.I.G., thought he had all the time in the world. His second album, ”Life After Death” (Bad Boy/Arista), flaunts affluence with a leisurely swagger, all midtempo grooves and calmly arrogant raps. Calling himself ”richer than rich,” the rapper from Brooklyn boasts about his condo, his platinum watch, his frequent-flier miles and his women, in a voice as husky as his 280-pound frame. At the same time, he insists that he has to watch his back and defend himself, guns blazing, against jealous rivals and predators. But he doesn’t sound worried, and his guest rappers insist he’ll be on top for years to come.
The Notorious B.I.G. didn’t have that kind of time, of course. He was killed on March 9 1997 in a drive-by shooting, dead at 24. Hip-hop observers have speculated, in one of many theories, that it was a gang-related murder growing out of a lethal animosity between Death Row Records in Los Angeles (the label of Tupac Shakur, who was shot dead last September) and Bad Boy Records in New York.
With its prescient title, ”Life After Death” is bound to be scrutinized for clues, though the raps themselves are circumspect. ”Notorious Thugs” mentions a ”so-called beef with you-know-who,” while ”Long Kiss Goodnight” is a death threat addressed to an unnamed rapper.
But ”Life After Death” wasn’t supposed to be a last testament or Exhibit A. It was gangsta rap business as usual: posturing and raw thrills in accepted commercial form. The album claims underground credentials while aiming for pop ears, borrowing recognizable chunks of old songs (from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Diana Ross and the Commodores) and using smooth voices for sing-along choruses. Even a refrain like ”time for you to die” arrives as a pop hook.
When B.I.G. surfaced in the early 1990’s, gangsta rap was already on its way to formula: tales of gunplay and boasts of sexual conquests, told in uncomplicated rhymes with catchy backup tracks. Sold as dispatches from the urban jungle but slickly stylized, it teased the boundary between fiction and fact, mixing autobiography and fantasy with imagery from Mafia and blaxploitation movies.
In a realm where the demand for newness is a constant, it’s little surprise that despite releases by veterans like Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg, Public Enemy and Arrested Development, nearly all the most acclaimed albums in that era have come from then newcomers: Nas, Method Man and Keith Murray.
Biggie Smalls is not the best vocalist of the group, but he stands out because his lyrics mix autobiographical details about crime and violence with emotional honesty, telling how he felt while making a living as a drug dealer.
Gangsta rap started an endless argument over whether the music reflected the trigger-happy machismo of the inner city or molded and perpetuated it. Esthetic debates aside, too many hip-hop performers and hangers-on have been victims or perpetrators of violence. Wallace was both; he was repeatedly arrested for assault. In one incident, he chased autograph seekers with a baseball bat.
As a rapper, B.I.G. rarely made great claims to originality. Instead, he was a consolidator, pulling together borrowed gambits in approachable form. With raps full of comic details, he was the thug next door, not a supervillain. His 1994 debut album, ”Ready to Die,” which has sold 1.9 million copies, carried West Coast-style gangsta rap back to Brooklyn.
B.I.G.’s backups were sparser and more ominous than their California kin, and unlike Ice Cube or Shakur, he didn’t present himself as a victim of systemic racist oppression. The Notorious B.I.G. character was a lone, amoral entrepreneur who had taken up crack dealing to break out of poverty, then left the criminal life to become a rapper; he was enjoying himself, but insisted he could be killed at any moment.
Death, once a titillating plot point in violent fantasies, has become a reality, and the game doesn’t look like fun any more.
In the words of Biggie Smalls: If you don’t know, now you know…