Prologue: “1994 was a dope year. Mandela was elected president, Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan, IRA declared a cease-fire, and a bomb was dropped on the world with the release of Biggie’s album Ready to Die. Parental Advisory warning labels were in full force. I remember dubbing this CD on tapes to play in my Walkman. Yeah, a Walkman! Such a dope album, as I listen to it right now on Spotify, (it can be found under “THE REMASTER”), it still hits just as hard! Sadat X in “Gimme the Loot” kills it. “One More Chance” comes on and yup, I still remember all the lyrics, “I love it when they call me big poppa, I only smoke blunts if they rolled propa!”; “Fuck the past: let’s dwell on the 500SL, the E&J and ginger ale, The way my pockets swell to the rims with benjamins”. The delivery was and still is hypnotizing. I remember going to bed listening to this album, then waking up to it. “The What” with Method Man, WHAT was so sick. But it was “Juicy” that really made it so easy to for people to fall in love with Biggie. “Birthdays was the worst days, now we sip champagne when we thirstay!” Negative to Positive! Who doesn’t like that! Love this album!” —Louis Roussel, my good friend and yoga master
“Being from the original hip-hop generation, when everything was fresh and innovative, I was pretty hard on all new hip-hop artists. I still remember the first time I heard “Party & Bullshit”. I was at an East Coast vs West Coast Party at Howard University. Everyone was out on floor and it seemed like everyone was from the same hood. It was dope! Although I have on occasion cringed at some of his lyrics, the fact remains that he’s one of the best lyricists that ever lived. Wish he was still here to show some of these youngins how to do it! Long live hip-hop! Long live Biggie Smalls!” —Romy Mondesir Reis, my good friend/mentor/MILF
Special thanks to you both for your respective contributions to the prologue.
“It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being…”
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
September 13th, 1994.
Twenty years ago on this date, I was in the earliest stage of pre-adolescence. I was a sixth grader undergoing a rather rough transition from elementary school to junior high school (aka “middle school”). Junior high school. It was a new playing field where the rules and people were entirely different. The social scenes were now more apparent, school dances were where you could test and affirm your mettle in regards to courtship or ‘coolness’, and sophomoric behavior is in high gear. It was definitely an immature period, but that’s mostly because my mind and body were undergoing a renovation of sorts. The bus that I took to and from school was stocked with pre-dominantly African-American students. Now, I’m Black as well, but my mind was never opened about the racial implications of being Black until this point in my life. It was a lot to take in, with my feelings and experiences being akin to Robert Heinlein’s main character in Stranger in a Strange Land. On said school bus, hip-hop music was played constantly. Though I grooved to it without yet knowing any of the words, I stood out as an anomaly among my peers. I spoke different, had an oral bear-trap contraption for a mouth (i.e. ‘braces’), and had the social IQ of a carrot. September 13th, 1994 had no significance that I was aware of at the time.
Columbia House’s music catalog was enormous back then and my father was offering me week-by-week music CD’s that he’d buy for me. I always politely declined until I decided to do what all middle school kids ultimately attempt: To make people think I was cool. To start, I added hip-hop music to my listening palette. Two songs that were huge at the time were “What’s My Name” by Snoop Dogg and “Big Poppa” by the Notorious B.I.G., with both rappers including those songs on their respective debut albums Doggystyle and Ready to Die. Though my dad would’ve bought both had I asked, I opted for the latter instead. Looking back, this was maybe my subconscious’ inception for a predilection towards east coast/New York hip-hop. Ready to Die was released on September 13th, 1994 and was hailed as instant classic. It became a seminal hip-hop debut in the years to come. The more I became immersed in hip-hop, the more this album became a personal mainstay. So much so that, to this day…despite hip-hop’s evolution as well as Biggie’s media-exacerbated beef with fellow rapper Tupac Shakur, I still refuse to purchase (let alone download) an album from the latter. The man who was born Christopher Wallace became a luminary through his debut twenty years ago today. So why was Ready to Die so big back then and continues to shine now?
Artist: The Notorious B.I.G.
Album Title: Ready to Die
Label: Bad Boy/Arista Records
Release Date: September 13th, 1994
Producers: Easy Mo Bee, Lord Finesse, The Trackmasters, DJ Premier, Chucky Thompson, Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, et. al.
Though the album had a strong degree of nihilism and self-fulfilling prophecy that was communicated in its title and several tracks, Biggie Smalls was an emcee who embodied that cocksure New York state of mind. At 22 years old, he had already been incarcerated for drug dealing, had to support his young infant daughter, and was a high school dropout. He had seen and did plenty in his young life. Raised by a single mother of Jamaican descent in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, he was smart enough to go straight. But the allure of fast money caused him to veer towards the life of a drug dealer. From the four-part album intro (which utilized songs like “Superfly”; “Rapper’s Delight”; “Top Billin'”; and “Dat Shiznit”) to the grim closer “Suicidal Thoughts”, Ready to Die seemed to be conceived as loosely semi-autobiographical. Even with street narratives like “Warning” and “Respect”, somehow the 3rd Bass song “Portrait of the Artist as a Hood” qualifies as the most apt description. There are several lyrical descriptions on the album of Biggie robbing people at gunpoint on the New York subways, carrying weapons, and detailed imagery of the manufacturing, distribution and concealment of crack cocaine. His reasoning for criminal activity is because of the time period of his teens (1987, to be exact) and a lack of familial financial support. The specifics of his rationalization are a reflection of the Reagan era permeating with deleterious effects in urban American landscapes.
A good chunk of the album is devoted to lurid sexual tales. Taking a cue from fellow Brooklyn rapper Big Daddy Kane, Biggie was able to craft a salacious mack-persona that could swiftly go from gentlemanly to a pornographic extreme that would make Fifty Shades of Grey seem like a Dr. Seuss children’s book. On the outro of “Respect”, he talks a reluctant girl into performing oral sex on him, complete with the slurping and sucking sounds. On the album and radio versions of “One More Chance”, he demonstrates his perfected sexual prowess as well as lack of compunctions when tempting women into acts of infidelity. One interesting thing to take note of is how on that song, Biggie describes to himself as a ‘Heartthrob? Never. Black & ugly as ever.‘ He proved that men who were aesthetically-challenged could still attract women with words, language, and style of dress. To sum it up in a word: Game. On record and in practice, he had it in spades (how else do you think he nabbed a fine redbone like Faith Evans?). Also, in his mack persona comes a degree of misogyny. There are several instances where he refers to women (including his mother) as ‘bitches’. Even when using the word as a term of endearment (like on “Me & My Bitch”), I can see how one would still view it as crass. One thing to take note of on this album is how Biggie, much like Nas on his 1994 debut Illmatic, is still in the role of a drug-dealing stick-up kid from the projects. He hadn’t made the transition to the stylish drug kingpin persona of Frank White as he did on his sophomore album, the completed but posthumously-released Life After Death.
The production on the album was sample-based with dark and dusty textures and layers similar to the Da Beatminerz’ work on Black Moon’s Enta da Stage a year prior. The beats were handled mostly by Brooklyn producer Easy Mo Bee, who samples mostly jazz and blues. Despite the reservoir from which he sampled, he still knows how to vary his style. From the blues-riff driven “Machine Gun Funk” to disco-esque “Friend of Mine”, Easy Mo proved his versatility as a crate digger. Gang Starr’s DJ Premier makes an appearance on the battle track Unbelievable, which not only samples the drum-break from “Impeach the President” by the Honey Drippers, but samples the vocals from it to create that scratched-in hook that Primo’s known for. Lord Finesse is behind the boards for the album’s closer, “Suicidal Thoughts“. A storytelling track with background voices, pertinent sound details relevant to the story, a dark groove and dusty drums supporting it. The album isn’t all dark, though. With Sean “Diddy” Combs (then known as Sean “Puffy” Combs”) as the executive producer, he made sure to include tracks in the album that would be commercial hits and street bangers at the same time. His gamble paid off. The first single, “Big Poppa”, samples the Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets” and received good radio play. It’s probably the only rap song that you can slow-dance to. Although, because of that one scene in the 2007 film Superbad, I kind of view it in a new light sometimes. The other single, “Juicy”, samples Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit”. Now this song is what helped the album go multi-platinum and for good reason: Not only is the beat poppy and catchy, but it’s a rags-to-riches autobiography as well. Moreover, when I was in college and attended booze & drug-filled parties, everyone would be dancing to this and singing the lyrics damn-near in unison once the first line “It was all a dream…” dropped. Tone & Poke from the Trackmasters laced a timeless song for this one, as well as their work on the fourteenth track “Respect”. On this one, the beat, hook and outro pay homage to Biggie’s Jamaican roots.
As far as the lyrics go, Biggie was rumored to have never written anything down before going in the booth to record. Various sources said he’d listen to a beat, compose the lyrics in his head and then recite it off-the-top. His flow was on-point throughout the album. He knew how to ride a beat like it was instinctual and could modify his flow even on quirky beats. His voice was pretty deep and sounded like he was shouting into the mic most of the time. But on “Big Poppa” and “Unbelievable” and he sounded smooth and mellow a la Barry White. Also, unlike modern hip-hop debuts, this album was all Biggie. Track #9 (“The What”) featured Method Man, and that was the only song that included an outside presence. It was probably the first time a Brooklyn emcee collaborated with an emcee from the often-forgotten borough of Staten Island. On “Suicidal Thoughts”, he sounded calm and resigned. The content of the lyrics are mostly criminal activity, hardcore sex and blunt-smoking. And though Biggie was never on the level of lyrical savants like Rakim or Big Daddy Kane, he could definitely hold his own on the mic. Biggie was also adept at telling street stories as well. From “Warning” to “Juicy” to “Everyday Struggle” and onto the album closer, positivity and nihilism exist hand-in-hand for each of these. Check out this thematic juxtaposition:
Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis
When I was dead broke, man I couldn’t picture this
50-inch screen, money green leather sofa
Got two rides, a limousine with a chauffeur
Phone bill about two G’s flat
No need to worry, my accountant handles that
And my whole crew is lounging
Celebrating every day, no more public housing
Thinking back on my one-room shack
Now my mom pimps a Ac with minks on her back
And she loves to show me off, of course
Smiles every time my face is up in The Source
We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us
No heat, wonder why Christmas missed us
Birthdays was the worst days
Now we sip champagne when we thirsty
Uh, damn right I like the life I live
Cause I went from negative to positive
And it’s all (It’s all good)
When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell
Cause I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fucking tell
It don’t make sense, going to heaven with the goodie-goodies
Dressed in white, I like black Timbs and black hoodies
God’ll prolly have me on some real strict shit
No sleeping all day, no getting my dick licked
Hanging with the goodie-goodies lounging in paradise
Fuck that shit, I wanna tote guns and shoot dice
(You talking some crazy shit now, nigga)
All my life I been considered as the worst
Lying to my mother, even stealing out her purse
Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion
I know my mother wished she got a fucking abortion
Even before his death in 1997, Biggie’s lyrical style and appearance influenced and continued to influence rappers like Big Punisher, Fat Joe, and Shyne to name a few. For the borough of Brooklyn, it was significant because of the level of success and the then-lack of high-profile emcees from that region. Sure, there was Big Daddy Kane, MCA from the Beastie Boys, Masta Ace and Prime Minister Pete Nice from 3rd Bass, but none of them were literal commercial giants like Biggie. His formula was later co-opted and modified by rappers like Jay-Z, Fabolous and even the Clipse from Virginia. Prior to this album, he was even featured in The Source magazine’s Unsigned Hype column. Up until the early 2000’s, being included on that column was similar to winning the WWF’s King of the Ring tournament: The winner would get a significant push for their career. And because he actually lived the life a drug dealer, there was a level of authenticity to his content that future generations would often emulate, but rarely attain. If you look at the Swagger Jacker section in XXL magazine, there’s usually at least one rapper who tries to interpolate Biggie’s rhymes into their own. The interpolation varies from straight-up stealing to clever and crafty.
I’ve covered why Ready to Die was so popular twenty years ago, but why does it remain so? Is it because of Christopher Wallace’s untimely murder or hip-hop’s tendency of turning its dead practitioners into martyrs? The answer is neither.
It’s because it’s an album that showcases versatility in terms of storytelling, partying, battle raps, and was part of a resurgence of New York hip-hop that had begun to dwindle in the shadow of their west coast counterparts like 2Pac, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. As with the debuts from Nas, Black Moon, and the Wu-Tang Clan during this period, Ready to Die was raging against the dying of the light. It contains a diversity of emotion and unrepentant narratives that flow through the listener’s mind like unbidden memories. Also, with the South’s dominance in recent years and many emcees claiming to be the one to bring the crown back to hip-hop’s birthplace, what they all fail to realize is that the crown doesn’t move. Christopher Wallace aka Biggie Smalls aka Frank White aka the Notorious B.I.G. is still the king of New York even in death. As once stated on HBO’s The Wire, “The king stay the king”.