Tuesday, February 24, 2009
"Whoever thought that hip-hop could take it this far"?
The new movie about the late rapper Biggie Smalls, "Notorious", is garnering a lot of attention at the moment. I haven't seen the film but Biggies short life was ripe for the Hollywood makeover, and i'm sure it will prove popular. It will certainly lead to a few more people buying and listening to his music and this is a good thing in my book. He was only 24 when he died, but according to many observers, including me, Biggie was one of the top 5 rappers of all time. The media got caught up and indeed helped create the so-called East-West feud between him and 2 Pac in the 90's and while I have a lot of time for the former Digital Underground rapper, who on his day was also a great lyricist and a charismatic performer, he would never have reached Biggies status in the rap game.
Even those coming to Biggies music late will be able to appreciate the rawness and hardcore delivery of music. His second album, prophetically titled "Life after death" and indeed released only days after he was shot dead, contained many patchy moments and was a product of it's time, which saw rap at a major crossroads. The mid 90's was the first real era where hip-hop took hold of the mainstream music charts and started to really dominate, and suddenly, the likes of Puff Daddy, Biggie's label boss and a highly regarded producer and record executive, wanted it to become even bigger.
The music got watered down and the imagination was no longer necessary. Tracks like "Notorious", from which the movie is also named after, found Biggie rapping over a rather un-imaginative Duran Duran funk groove, rather than the left-field soul and jazz and 80's boogie leanings of his earlier material. The delivery was still great, but rap was now a popular commodity and it was no suprise that Puff Daddy's tribute to the late rapper was also a watered down simple loop off another 80's hit, this time by the Police. These songs were not bad as such, but Biggie himself was capable of so much more, and even on "Life After Death" his unique flow and style was sometyimes let loose, and tracks like "Kick in the Door" and "Ten Crack Commandments" remain hip-hop classics that stand up next to anything he did on his seminal "Ready to Die" album.
Like "Illmatic" from Nas and "Paid In Full" from Eric B and Rakim, "Ready to Die" was an album which basically announced the arrival of a music legend, and years later the album sounds as amazing as ever. It is likely had he lived that Biggie would have had a few more dodgy moments in his career, like Nas and Rakim, but it is also likely that he would have produced a few more classics too. We will never know, and unlike those who lived, we are forever left with the romantic image of a young hungry rapper on the streets of Brooklyn firing off rhymes with a tenacity and dexterity that few have ever matched. The movie might water this down, but at the very least the soundtrack has provided us with a snapshot of some killer early Biggie demos, where his dynamic delivery over some raw chopped up breaks would win over even the most cynical of rap fans. These mix show demos are also very much of their time, and those nostalgic for raps golden era of the late 80'sand early 90's will get misty eyed, but at least we had Biggie for awhile, and for awhile those of us in thrall of his rhymes knew that we were experiencing something special.
Hip-hop was a much more unified force back then, and in his own words, "we never thought that hip-hop would take us this far", but having achieved it's goal hip-hop became divided and now many rap fans will have more affinity with underground jazz and soul than many of the water-down MTV puppets who masquerade as torch carriers of the Biggie legacy. Some of these guys are true to the game though and although they have also had to walk the critical tightrope between commercial success and hip-hop credibility, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that Biggie would have been making strides with Kanye and friends in 2009. The movies and re-packaged greatest hits will come and go, but one of the greatest rappers of all time will be with us forever in spirit and for that we should be thankful.
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- I'm a DJ from Cork in Ireland. I work with RedFM, presenting Red Drive, The Hitlist and my specialist show, Black on Red. I'm probably best known for being one of the main hip-hop/soul DJ's in Cork and Ireland. I've been DJing in Cork since the early 90's in legendary clubnights such as Sweat in Sir Henrys, Mor Disco, Free La Funk, Yo Latino and also Jam and Jam Junior at the Savoy and the Pavilion. I've also held down long term residencies at clubs around Ireland such as Brown Sugar at the Kitchen in Dublin, U-Turn at Ri Ra in Dublin, Jazz Juice at the GPO in Galway, Thompson Garage in Belfast, the Soul Clinic, Dee-Bop, Meltdown and Mo Bounce in Limerick and i've played abroad in the United States and the U.K. on numerous occasions. I also write a music column for the Evening Echo and i'm a regular contributor to the U.K.'s Blues and Soul, the longest running black music magazine in the world. These days i run the Pavilion, a music venue in Cork, which hosts my Jam night every few Fridays http://www.pavilioncork.com also you can catch me at http://djstevieg.podomatic.com