It was just a dream…
I woke up that Saturday morning around 8:30 AM ET, with no reason to get out of bed. As I used to do before the advent of the laptop, I turned on the clock radio, and the DJ was talking about someone dying the night before. And then they said “Biggie”, and my jaw dropped.
For many of my pop music counterparts, hip-hop is an annoying interloper into their musical temple, but for me, hip-hop IS pop music, because it’s mainstream. While my mom would like to argue against this, the seeds of my love of hip-hop go way back to the mid-70s, when the album collection of a single mom of two included “Barry White’s Greatest Hits” and a 45 of “The Hustle”. Come on, now! I got indoctrinated to funky beats and a good chunk of hip-hop samples before I was allowed to cross the street by myself!
“Rapper’s Delight” blew my mind. “Double Dutch Bus” was as addictive as Sesame Street. “White Lines” made me actually understand lyrics. It was tough to avoid, given that there was no full-time R&B station in Syracuse, so the one station that played that music from 7PM to 7AM had to fit in every type of music that would appeal to that audience, and rap was in the mix. While LL Cool J and Beastie Boys merely floated on the peripheral of my pop music obsessions, you could say that the love for hip-hop was gestating, and it was going to give birth by the time I got to college.
I could talk about the college radio stations that I worked at, and how they exposed me to a wide range of rap, but I want to stick with the impact at hand. With the release of Notorious this weekend, the memories of that day back in ’97 come streaming back to me. I was managing a Camelot Music in High Point, NC at that point in my life, and our meat and potatoes was hip-hop. For a small mall store, we did huge volume, and our initial order for “Life After Death” was well over 200 copies and growing daily.
Don’t think that the irony of “Life After Death” eluded me. It was clear that this was not just any death, and my world was going to be rocked in a big way, at least from a work perspective. The CD came out a couple of weeks later, and it blew out, as expected. What many people seem to forget was that “Life” was a double CD. The fact that it sold almost 700,000 copies that first week was unheard of for a rap double album, and in 2000, “Life” became the first hip-hop double CD to be certified diamond (10 million units).
So why’d it hit me so hard? I never had to resort to selling drugs, I never lived in the projects, and I didn’t grow up in a minority, so what resonance could Biggie have with me? What we did share, though, was the desire to improve ourselves. Granted, my idea of success wasn’t a hottub full of bikini-clad ladies, but we both saw ourselves as coming from some type of disadvantaged upbringing, and success was the only way out of that. Different means, but the same goals. The fact that he was from New York didn’t hurt, either.
Is “Life After Death” a classic hip-hop CD? Absolutely. Is it pure rap? Nope. Puffy changed the game with that record, having folks as diverse as Jay-Z, R. Kelly and Angela Winbush appear in cameos, and the whole idea of a crossover became much more possible. While B.I.G. was still talking about the game, he was also working to move beyond it. “Sky’s the Limit” is cautious optimism, and the fact the he was even able to look to the future after contemplating his mortality showed growth. “Ready to Die” will always be the raw, potent debut that put him on the map, but “Life” was about living. Sadly, he embraced that attitude way too late.
I will probably see Notorious next week, but I’m not necessarily looking forward to it. It’s almost as if I need to see it to put some things to rest that I didn’t even realize needed closure. To see the struggle, the success, and the tragedy will hurt, but if nothing else, his life is a testament to what is possible. He very easily could have been dead years earlier if he hadn’t gotten out of his original profession. No “Candle in the Wind” here, but man, he left way too soon.