Monday, March 10, 2008

If Heaven’s Got A Ghetto, Tell B.I.G. Things Done Changed: The Legacy of The Notorious B.I.G. and Today’s Urban America

By Michael Partis

“Excuse me, flows just grow through me/like trees to branches, cliffs to avalanches/ It’s the praying mantis/ Deep like the mind of Farrakhan/ a motherfucking rap phenomenon.”

The Notorious B.I.G.- “The What”

The story of Biggie Smalls is the ultimate urban Black narrative: He went from ashy, to classy. The life of Christopher Wallace tells of a popular sentiment shared by many U.S. immigrant families: wanting more than just getting by; wanting to get all the riches this country has to offer. It is this story, this desire, and one of the most gifted lyrical skill sets of all-time that allowed “the nigga Biggie Smalls” to turn into “the Black Frank White.”

B.I.G. was never afraid to bring you the grimiest stories from the streets, with the most graphic imagery he could conjure up (peep “Somebody’s Got to Die” or “Long Kiss Goodnight”). But even while being gruesome he could make you laugh (who could say, “I shot Maxie Priest at least twelve times in the chest”). He could bring the ladies’ man swag that every kid who grew up on Blacksploitation films fiended for (didn’t it look like Big was resurrecting Ron O’Neil or Goldie in the “Big Poppa” video?).

But what gets Biggie remembered by many as the greatest rapper of all time was his lyrical ability: the skill to tell a story, rhyming words together cleverly on an instrumental, and all while staying on beat (I figured I define lyricism since we so rarely encounter it in mainstream Hip-Hop today). The inventiveness of the rhymes in “Unbelievable” (dude called himself “the triple beam dream”), the poignancy of the lyrics in “Everyday Struggle,” the rawness in “Who Shot Ya,” the realness in the words of “Suicidal Thoughts,” or the superior story-telling in “I Got a Story to Tell,” these are the abilities that puts B.I.G. in the pantheon of rap greatness and in every single argument over who’s the best MC’s… (Biggie, Jay-Z, or Nas???)

Or has it? Do the rhymes, abilities, and stories of Biggie still resonate with today’s Rap fan; especially with today’s young Hip-Hop listeners. Do kids who “Get Lite” or “Hyphy” want to hear about “Playa Haters” or “Goin Back to Cali?”

This question of Big’s reputation today becomes all the more odd considering the fact that he was among the originators of bringing (and talking about) upscale fashion and culture to the Hip-Hop scene. But can Versace shades, Girbauds jeans, Coogi sweaters, trips to room 112 at the Parker Meridian, Kangol hats, Cristal, “Cubans with the Jesus piece,” or “Throwing Rollies in the Sky” match today’s True Religion’s, Mauri’s, Red Monkey’s, Patron, or Prada shoes?

Are the stories he talk about still relevant? Is the everyday life of today’s young Hip-Hop listener filled with crime, stick-up kids, poverty, down South hustling trips, guns, and misogyny?

It might seem like the answers to these questions are easy, but perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to respond. I think maybe we should look a little closer at the realities of life for young people of color in urban America today. We should also be looking harder for Hip-Hop artists that are telling us this reality. And we should try the hardest to promote the ones that do it at a high skill level; those who invoke the memory of the talent and ability of Biggie (and encourage them to exceed that level). As a Hip-Hop community, is that a voice we want to silence?

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies is as we celebrate and remember the eleventh anniversary of the passing of one of Black urban America’s greatest voices, March 9th will now also be known as the day one of the greatest shows to ever convey the contemporary inner-city Black experience ended. Over the past six years, “The Wire” has detailed the story of urban America on television as skillfully Biggie did in Rap music. But now, that story will be over as well.

As we approach the end the twenty-first century’s first decade, we are becoming farer removed from that time; and creating a generation farer removed from that music… possibly even that reality

I know for older Hip-Hop heads it must be difficult to hear, but:

Will we always love Big Poppa?

Michael Partis

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