I can’t tell you how many times I joined in with about ten white kids yelling the lyrics to this song and almost every other Biggy track I mention in this post. Just last night, I got strange looks from the slide guitar player in my band when I threw this track on after we finished up working on our original music. Not everyone got into gangster rap out here.
I love gangster rap. I talked a while back about my affinity for this genre, starting with the work of the Wu Tang Clan and now moving to the unmatched and incomparable Notorious B.I.G. Of all the solo rappers out there, I can say with earnest that Biggy is my favorite. His combination of hard core gangster and lovable family man coupled with some of the dopest beats in hip hop and often highly introspective lyrical thoughts on street life and the rap game add up to make him the reigning king of gangster rap.
How does an upper-lower middle-class Scandinavian kid from the great white north end up being such a huge Biggy fan? I think that he was such an immense talent and personality, it doesn’t matter where you are from or what color you are to stand up and recognize that this shit is the bomb. And if you don’t know, now you will know.
I watched Casino a lot as a youth and I always loved the reference to the movie in this song. This song has one of the best beats in hip hop music ever while also making an incredibly viable point about mass media and death. Would The Doors be so big if Morrison had lived? What about Jimi Hendrix or Janice Joplin? You can never tell, but it’s a good topic to explore another day!
The closest thing we have to ‘the streets’ in rural Maine is the trailer park which is where I began my education in rap music. Everyone listened to Tupac, Eminem and a slew of other hip-hop artists of varying qualities. Biggy was always a mainstay, the baby-faced gangster from the urban warfare of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in the 1970’s where a 1977 power outage led to hundreds of stores being looted and many more burned to the ground. We are talking about a man who was equal parts court jester and bloodthirsty criminal. In hindsight, I think it’s this juxtaposition that makes him such an enigmatic character, thug and teddy bear. As he puts it in “Machine Gun Funk”, just because he joked and toked a lot doesn’t mean he doesn’t tote the Glock. Lyrically, not many rappers have ever come close to the eloquent and gritty nature of the Notorious.
The production on his tracks is always top notch and this is due in no small part to the skills of Mr. Sean “Puff Daddy”, aka “Diddy” or whatever the fuck he calls himself now. He was a mover and shaker in the NYC hip hop scene and brought on Easy Mo Bee to help produce this album, a genius producer who had worked with Wu Tang Clan’s GZA, Big Daddy Kane and was even behind Miles Davis’ last album in 1992.
His lyrics have a nice easy flow to them that allow you to actually hear them the first time and see how they fit into whatever narrative is happening in the song. This seems like an obvious trait for any rapper, but check out rap from today, such as some recent Lil’ Wayne tracks. I don’t know if I’m too sober, but his tracks have been making less sense to me than ever before. With a recent trip to the hospital for allegedly overdosing on codeine cough syrup, it’s not surprising that his songs have made less sense.. My 8th grade students tell me he is doing painkillers too, but this is neither here nor there.
Biggie’s first album Ready to Die is one of the best rap albums ever, running a whole cycle of stories from party songs like “Big Poppa” and reflective songs like “Juicy” to a song about contemplating suicide and then doing it in “Suicidal Thoughts”. One thing I love about Biggy is the lack of celebrity guest rappers on this first album. The only one to really feature another rapper on the debut is “The What” with the incredibly talented Method Man dropping some serious rhymes. One can see why being such a fan of Wu Tang would also lend well to Biggy, but I can’t remember which I got into first. I am leaning towards the latter though. In the days of entire albums of guest stars, it’s nice to see an artist who only needs himself and a few good producers.
I have given a lot of thought as to what the appeal was to this music to me as a youth because let’s face it, I had a very easy upbringing with almost no elements of the street life. I think the answer is a multi-faceted response. First, the Notorious B.I.G. is an amazing performer regardless of the genre he makes his music in, from the lyrics to the production to the whole persona. Biggy is the man and anyone who likes any type of music can see that. And he also pulled himself up from the streets, sold drugs and then used his experiences to pursue his greatest passion and change the rap genre forever. His gritty tales really do tell a story of a place that is scary and exciting to me, probably because I’ve never been held up at gunpoint or sold crack to feed my family. I’ve never held anyone else up either but I do love hearing Biggy rap about it.
So I don’t think it really matters where you are from, Biggy truly does pass above all socio-economic divisions. I can promise you that anyone who likes hip hop likes Biggy and even if they are rock and rollers, there is at least one song they can get into. This leads nicely to my final point. Like the Felice Brothers or Creedence Clearwater Revival doing genres of music that are not necessarily aligned with where they are from, music does not have geographic , racial, economic or any boundaries for that matter. It is perfectly ok for me to love the Notorious B.I.G. even though I am white and live in the woods, just as it’d be ok for Biggy to be into Lucky Tubb if he was alive and so inclined. Music is a universal language to be spoken wherever it wants to be. Socio-economic lines mean nothing for good music and if that’s the one thing you get out of this post then I’ll be happy. Oh yeah, and the fact that Biggy was probably the best rapper ever!
I think if Biggy had not been needlessly gunned down in the yet to be unsolved murder in Los Angeles, his music would have gone this more poppy direction. I will add that I am sure many of the violent and misogynistic lyrics are frowned upon by those who think song lyrics can push people to act out some of these terrible things. Like I’ve said before, no one has ever shot a man in Reno just to watch him die because of a song; they are surely already crazy. So, I am sorry if anyone is offended by some of this rap lyrics. The joy of the modern era is that we all have the freedom to listen or not listen.