Brooklyn death angels come draped in oversize Tommy Hil and Timberlands. There are 10,000 midnight troopers selling get-high in the Borough of Kings, home to 2 million of New York’s stories. Take a look at the infamous zones: Bed-Stuy, East New York, Red Hook, Flatbush, and Brownsville, and it is obvious who owns the night. The burly Brooklynite professionally known as the Notorious B.I.G. was once among the ranks. When I was coming up, way before the buppies and gentrification, before Spike Lee opened his “joint” and people with designer dreads moved next door, Fort Green was the refuge of the buck wild, with streets as dangerous as a shared needle. It was the city within a city where B.I.G. did his dirt and collected his cash. And it was those same streets that brimmed with brown people lured out to witness the funeral procession of Christopher Wallace.
The spectacle itself was tinged with surrealism, partly a grim final tour of the fat man’s stomping grounds, partly a gauche playa’s parade showcasing the same culture that contributed to his demise. Twenty-two limos, escorted by 17 police vans, four helicopters, and innumerable Beemers, Benzes, and Pathfinders, trailed a black hearse down Fulton Avenueall backed by the unearthly rumble of the dead man’s music booming from scores of car speakers.
Whatever else Biggie may have been in life, his death conferred upon him a nearly sanitized status of neighborhood hero, a symbol of the local boy makes good. Ergo the convo in greasy bodegas, barbershops, and check-cashing joints centered on his lyrical skill or the fact that he “took his peeps with him” when fame came knocking on his door. No lie, 50-year-old reverends stood on streetcorners giving B.I.G. posthumous props for “talking about reality.” Two days later, there was an effort underway to rename the street he lived on Biggie Boulevard.
Ready to Die opens with the sounds of a woman in labor, the subcurrent of Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, and the cries of a newborn. It closes with the gruesome report of a .38, the sickening thud of a body hitting the floor, perishing by its own hand. We hear the heartbeats slow and stop. The listeners shift uncomfortably as audio witnesses to a suicide. Even set against the shock-value interludes crammed onto nearly every hiphop CD, the final moments of Ready to Die are among the most disturbing in hiphop.
Between those two poles, birth and self-inflicted death, were 17 tracks that etched out B.I.G.’s history and worldview. The addition of B.I.G., along with Nas, Wu-Tang, and the Fugees, to the roster of New York MCs shored up the East Coast’s fortunes at a time when L.A. and Oakland had basically become the dominant voices in the industry. What set Ready to Die apart from the dozens of blathering would-be-playa releases was the combination of B.I.G.’s verbal virtuosity and his willingness to ascribe to himself a level of vulnerability that was, at that point, unparalleled.
Ralph Ellison described the blues ethos as “fingering the jagged edge of life,” for the purpose of alchemizing beauty out of pain. But if the blues was about acknowledging pain in order to transcend it, most of hiphop is about swaggering in the face of it. Denying that pain is an element of its reality. While Eazy E was nagged by the ominously persistent cough and withering into nothingness, he was steadily spinning out yarns in which he played the immortal, almighty nigga supreme. Minus exceptions like Ice Cube’s morose Dead Homiez, the pre-Notorious gangsta used hiphop as urban folklore in which he could write his name in the sky, render himself invincible, and stand out from the anonymous precincts of the ghetto. But only in the rarest of moments could hiphop cast light on the fact that suicide trails murder as the leading cause of death among black men between 18 and 25.
B.I.G. broke ranks with that. He spoke of pain anesthetized by malt liquor swilled to excess. Ready to Die was crass and backward, but it was also the forum for a sublime rapper to exorcise his demons. He pushed lines like, “All my life I been considered as the worse/Lying to my mother, even stealing out her purse/Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion/I know my mother wish she got a fucking abortion.” The rapper broods for three or four more verses, then abruptly squeezes the trigger, canceling his own life.
Life After Death picks upliterallywhere Ready to Die ends. We hear the emergency-room drama and the rapper’s final moments in an eerie prelude to what actually went down at an L.A. hospital two weeks ago. Biggie appears on the CD cover sporting a fedora and overcoat, Hitchcock-style, and standing in front of a hearse. The 24-track double-disc release showcases B.I.G.’s ability to rip rhymes from every conceivable angle, but the flashes of insight that redeemed its precursor are all but gone. Nevertheless, Life would have easily continued B.I.G.’s ascent through the ranks of hiphop with its bicoastal flavor and mix of bass-driven heaviness and melodic, R&B-suffused tracks. Almost as if to prove a point, B.I.G. shows up on “Mo Money Mo Problems” in Bone Thugs mode and proceeds to flip their style better than they could. The irony of Life is that B.I.G. attempted to build a musical detente between the coasts and that, at least indirectly, he became a casualty of that conflict. Ready to Die ended with B.I.G.’s recorded suicide; Life After Death closes with a death threat being issued to B.I.G. and the rapper divining that “you’re nobody ’til somebody kills you.” B.I.G. ain’t a nobody no more.
Biggie was ignorant. Or, he chose to speak ignorantly. There’s a difference between speaking ill of the dead and speaking truthfully about history. And the truth is that the emotional honesty of his work was too often drowned out by status-obsessed materialism. I learned a long time ago that if you look at people’s excesses, you’re also looking at whatever they were once deprived of. For Biggie, life was all about the cash, the women, and a steady flow of Alize.
His first single was the retrograde “Party and Bullshit,” in which he inverted the Last Poets’ criticism into a credo for big-city living. He spoke of robbing women: “I don’t give a fuck if you’re pregnant/Gimme the baby ring and the No. 1 Mom pendant.” And in the end, the industry partiers and bullshitters could not stop the tide of homicide that claimed B.I.G.’s life on March 9.
Minutes after his death, Biggie’s “assassination” was incorporated into an ever-widening web of conspiracy theories that hold, among other things, that Suge Knight is an FBI operative and that Tupac, like his hero Machiavelli, faked his own death in order to kill his enemies (i.e., Biggie). The whole lot sounds only slightly more outlandish than preachers standing on Brooklyn street corners giving props to ex-drug dealing rappers for keeping it real. Only an iota farther away from reality than people struggling to rename boulevards so people can sell crack and pay homage simultaneously.
The conspiracies are pathetic evasions of the truth, ugly as it may be. The truth is that if we take hiphop as a representative demographic sample, there will be many more violent deaths. The truth is that to the music industry, the deaths of Biggie, Tupac, and Eazy-E mean a chance to cash in on the posthumous-release market. Dead sells. The truth is that there is more than enough self-contempt to fuel black-on-black homicide without spooky FBI manipulation. And that both Tupac’s and Biggie’s seemingly prescient knowledge of their deaths has more to do with history and the meaningless loss of black life than clairvoyance. How else do playas’ lives end?
The truth is that most rappers are apolitical character actors whose first allegiance is to their bank statements. After a moment of silence, the stream of senseless death will continue to wind its way through black communities unabated. The killings have only the symbolic value of setting an everyday occurrence in high relief. The truth is that black people desperately need a new set of heroesones who are ready to die for a cause. Or better yet, live for one.CP