In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes. – Walt Whitman
Today’s In Memoriam is brought to you by the letter B:
B is for Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn and blunts.
B is for beats and braggadocio.
B is for Big Poppa, Biggie Smalls, or maybe you know him as The Notorious B.I.G..
Guru may have been the architect, RZA is the scientist, but P-O-P-P-A? He’s the king, and Biggie begat a generation of hip hop artists who are still following the path he blazed. No small feat for a chubby drug dealer who released only one album in his lifetime.
Christopher George Latore Wallace was born on May 21, 1972 in Brooklyn, New York. An only child, he was raised by his mother after his father abandoned the family when Wallace was two. By the age of 12, the newly rechristened Big was selling crack in his Bed-Stuy neighborhood; a mere five years later, the high school dropout was arrested for dealing in North Carolina and did a nine-month stint in prison before making bail.
In 1991, he released his first demo tape. Recorded in his basement under the name Biggie Smalls (a hat tip to both the artist’s immense girth and to Calvin Lockhart’s character in the 1975 Sidney Poitier film Let’s Do It Again) and featuring only three single-take performances, the demo caught the ear of both New York-based DJ Mister Cee and Uptown Records producer/A&R man Sean Combs. Combs signed Biggie immediately, and when the producer was fired from Uptown Records, he started his own imprint, Bad Boy Records, and took Biggie with him.
Now going under the alias The Notorious B.I.G., Biggie released his debut in 1994. Ready to Die was a monster hit, reaching #13 on the Billboard charts, eventually being certified four times platinum and revitalizing the East Coast hip-hop scene. The album’s colossal success was due in part to the first single, “Juicy,” the all-American Alger-ian tale of Biggie’s rise to success. The black male misunderstood went from eating sardines for dinner to lunches, brunches and interviews by the pool, and he celebrates this financial windfall by making sure that his people come up with him too. After all, spreading love is the Brooklyn way. And if you don’t know, now you know.
As Biggie claimed his place atop the Iron Throne of hip-hop, the East Coast / West Coast feud took hold, escalating beyond braggadocio to actual violence. The war culminated in the death of Tupac Shakur in September of 1996, and, six months later, on March 9, 1997, the fatal shooting of Christopher ‘Notorious B.I.G.’ Wallace in Los Angeles, California. He was 24 years old. Later that month, the double album Life After Death was released, forever fixing Biggie as one of the brightest stars in the rap firmament.
For apotheosis to occur, living fast and dying young often serve as the sole qualifications, but this is certainly not the case when it comes to the Notorious B.I.G.. Biggie is a venerated hip hop icon not because he lived fast, died at the age of 24 and left a bullet-riddled corpse, but because of his immense talent.
Biggie was large; he contained multitudes, and his short discography is evidence of that. He sang in a rich baritone which sounded as if it were unearthed from deep inside his cavernous chest, a voice unlike that of anyone else on the scene. And what lyrics! Biggie could claim to be a “heart throb never/black and ugly as ever,” then turn into a slick Lothario bragging, “honeys call me Bigga the Condom Filla” in “One More Chance,” or dropping the infamous and infinitely quotable line, “I see some ladies tonight that should be having my baby, baby,” from the classic “Big Poppa.” He could be menacing when boasting about how he’s “been robbing motherfuckers since the slave ships with the same clip and the same four-five/Two point-blank, a motherfucker’s sure to die” in “Gimme The Loot.” He could be a wickedly funny storyteller, as evidenced in “I’ve Got A Story to Tell,” a ribald tale of infidelity and thievery that would have made Chaucer proud. And he could be dark; Ready To Die was a title not chosen lightly. In the aptly titled “Suicidal Thoughts,” listeners gets a jarring look into just how paranoid and consumed with self-loathing Biggie could be as he rhymes, “All my life I been considered as the worst/Lyin’ to my mother, even stealin’ out her purse/Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion/I know my mother wished she got a fuckin’ abortion.”
His lyrics were songs in the key of life – subjects that were universal. You might have never suffered running from the police, but you know what it is to be scared. You might not have more Mack than Craig, but there’s at least one sexual encounter in your life that worked out. And regardless of where you’re from, you understand the sixth Crack Commandment: “That goddamn credit? Dead it! You think a crackhead is paying you back, shit forget it!”
Bold and brash as life itself, Biggie may have been Ready to Die, but the hip-hop world wasn’t ready to lose him. It may never be.
R.I.P., B.I.G.. Ain’t no other kings in this rap thing.
Joseph Arthur – Ten Crack Commandments (The Notorious B.I.G. cover)
Slow like honey and accented by ominous percussion and the tense, tinny whine of guitars, this cover would feel right at home in a Robert Rodriguez western. Whether you’re hustling in Harlem or slinging in Ciudad Juarez, the dope game’s the dope game.
Puff Daddy, Faith Evans and Sting – I’ll Be Missing You (Live) (The Notorious B.I.G. cover)
Technically, this is not a cover, but a rehashed interpolation of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of the song, but this live performance from the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, complete with the backing of a full gospel choir and Biggie’s widow Faith Evans singing the hook, makes it larger than life. That being the case, I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to a fallen icon.
DJ Hathbanger – Party and Bullshit in the USA (Miley Cyrus vs. The Notorious B.I.G. mashup)
Honeys played Biggie close like butter plays toast, and the same can be said for this glorious Miley Cyrus/Notorious BIG mash-up. Yes, it’s another not-technically-a-cover; yes, I’m talking about the same Miley Cyrus who dry-humped Robin Thicke on national television… but there’s something about the Miley’s hook and Biggie’s flow that just fit together perfectly. No bullshit.
Matt Gerhardt – Big Poppa (The Notorious B.I.G. cover)
Jack Johnson-esque flip-flop rock and gangsta rap don’t really have all that much in common – well, other than the purveyors of both dig smoking chronic by the tree – but in this case, Gerhard’s cover works remarkably well. Changing the lyrics ever so slightly (replacing Biggie for Matty and changing the line to “Money, hos and clothes/All this honky knows”) shows that Gerhardt’s tongue is firmly in his cheek, and even though he’s no LL, he ain’t slicker than Rick and he’s certainly no Biggie, there’s probably some ladies tonight looking to be having his baby, baby.