‘There and Back’ again sadly remembers one of Hip-Hop’s darkest days.
On the morning of March 9th, 1997, I was in a frantic rush and as usual, late for work. It was a Sunday, and the 55 bus didn’t run as early as it did on weekdays. I lived in Mount Vernon, but worked all the way in Yonkers. There was no way I’d get to work in time. As I struggled to iron my shirt and brush my teeth at the same time, my mom knocked on my door to deliver some startling news. “They killed that guy you like, Biggie Smalls.”
“What?!” I replied. Time stood still. “Yeah, I just heard it on the news,” my mom said calmly. Suddenly I gave even less of a shit about work than I had before. I grabbed the remote to my TV and flipped to MTV. The horrible news my mom relayed was confirmed. B.I.G was no more. He’d been shot dead on the very coast he’d supposedly been warring with.
I felt an awkward mix of emotions. For the past year and a half, I’d felt disillusioned with B.I.G and the Bad Boy camp in general. In 95, B.I.G was on every remix imaginable, and had gone on record as saying he loved the money more than he loved Hip-Hop. To make matters worse, he’d been allowing 2Pac to make a fucking fool out of him. I knew he had a double album on the way, and I honestly could have cared less. I much more excited about Wu-Tang’s double CD, which had been pushed back repeatedly since 95.
Just like that, the “East Coast/West Coast “Beef” was now over. Both generals were now dead, and there was nothing left to fight for (not that there ever was in the first place). Oddly, the conflict had given me disdain for both artists. I was never much of 2Pac fan to begin with. I was fascinated with his iconic swagger, but his music bored me to tears. I thought his debut, 2Pacalypse Now, sounded like a badly produced demo. His second album was just as bad. He always struck me as a mischievous kid seeking attention, and his brushes with the law only confirmed that in my eyes.
Upon hearing “Hit ‘Em Up” for the first time, my indifference toward him became full blown disgust. He was the first rapper I had ever seen as a true villain. It wasn’t even the declaration of having boned Faith. It was the part about Prodigy’s sickle Cell that got me. The Infamous had been the soundtrack to my senior year in High School. You don’t diss the Queensbridge crew.
I also thought Pac’s assertion that B.I.G stole his style was quite amusing. I have no problem believing that Pac exerted a certain amount of influence over B.I.G artistically. That much is evident listening to B.I.G’s flow on Big Poppa. But to accuse him of biting? I once heard it said that every rapper starts off as a biter, usually “biting” from whichever rapper inspired them. This is no different than any artform that has ever existed. An artist’s influences are often prevalent in his work. I can hear some of Pac in B.I.G (among many others), just as I heard a lot of Scarface and Chuck D in Pac’s early recordings.
When the beef popped off, NY was enjoying a resurgence both artistically and commercially. B.I.G was a huge part of that. Though I didn’t care for the brand of Hip-Hop he specialized in, I was glad to see the home team scoring big again (pun very much intended). Now Pac aimed to put a damper on the celebration, and it seemed to be working. I knew the kind of animosity that folks outside the NY tri-state area (and even some within it) held for the Big Apple. They had long since grown weary of east coast bias and NY arrogance. Pac, being the worldly type he was, knew this, and capitalized on it.
The most frustrating part of all was that B.I.G refused to respond, and he wasn’t the only one. New York largely remained silent during Pac’s very public chest thumping. He aired his grievances in song, print, and video. Ice Cube (one of my favorite rappers ever at that point) was also becoming vocal. The only real response I remembered hearing, was one by King Sun titled “New York Love” on the Stretch and Bobbito’s show. It was a nice comeback, but King Sun hardly had enough mainstream clot for it to matter. Fat Joe, ever the Bronx patriot, was about to set it off on Video Music Box one day, but “Uncle” Ralph McDaniels cut him off. Wu-Tang and The Boot Camp Click were down with Pac, and as such were effectively neutralized. My countrymen were looking like a bunch of cowards to the rest of the world, and I was beginning to see our general as a consummate bitch.
I wasn’t alone in feeling that way. One day I accompanied my cousin Cee on a trip to his old block in the South Bronx. We met up with his childhood friend G. I’d heard about this cat for years. When I said “What’s Up,” he didn’t return my greeting. He simply looked me up and down and kept watch over his immediate area like a sentry. As Cee began conversing with a group of his childhood friends, the topic of Pac vs. B.I.G came up. “Pac got them niggas shook yo! You could tell!” B.I.G was getting clowned in his own backyard.
Late that same summer, I heard Mobb Deep’s “Drop a Gem on Em” on a late night mix show about a month before Pac’s death. “Well at least someone’s standing up” I thought. When Pac’s death finally happened, I didn’t find it shocking to be honest. His crusade seemed to be pointing to something big on the horizon. While I wasn’t expecting that event to be his death, I wasn’t surprised by that outcome either. B.I.G was a different story. I was totally taken aback by the news. In hindsight I shouldn’t have been, since every action has an equal but opposite reaction.
When I finally got to work on Sunday March 7th, there was a dark cloud over my head. I felt a bit guilty for looking down my nose the way I did at B.I.G. I found myself reassessing my own opinion of his worth as an artist. I remembered that I really liked the guy when I heard the leaked early version of Ready to Die. When I finally arrived at work, the murder was all anyone could talk about. Most of my coworkers saw me as the most serious Hip-Hop fan on the planet. They were mostly respectful to me on that particular day.
All except for one asshole that I happened to be friends with outside of work (for reasons I still can’t understand). He was a Jehovah’s Witness who fancied himself more street smart than I’d ever be. He took every given opportunity to rail at me about my fascination with Hip-Hop. When I mentioned B.I.G’s passing, he immediately cut me off: “I don’t care that Biggies dead. Good music gone. Fuck it. Biggie doesn’t pay my bills.” I was stunned at first. I turned my back to him and shunned him for the rest of the day for being such a dick. He later tried to make amends, but I dissed him. Needless to say, our friendship didn’t last.
Another coworker managed to get an official copy of B.I.G’s double disc solo album a week or so early. In all honesty, I only liked about half of it. Puffy had made the R&B element even more prominent than before. His fingerprints were all over the damn thing. I wasn’t feeling the debut single “Hypnotize” at all. Yet, B.I.G still managed to hit cats like me off with that crack, literally. Songs like “Ten Crack Commandments,” “Kick in the Door”, “What’s Beef”, “I Got a Story to Tell,” and “Pray for my Downfall” reminded me why I initially liked this guy so much. My Hip-Hop snobbery aside, I’d be buying B.I.G’s joint after all.
On March 24th, at about 10:30pm, I was on the Metro North Railroad headed toward Manhattan. At about 11:45pm, I was at the now defunct Virgin Megastore in Times Square. I saw a line nearly snaking out the door of the massive complex. I dutifully took my place at the end and listened as the in store DJ played the hilarious “Player Hater” over the stores system. Me and my crew at work thought that joint was the funniest thing we’d ever heard. For weeks, me and my man Big Will would call each other on the phone and play the chorus of the song, which broke us up in hysterics. A cat from an area of the Bronx nicknamed “The Valley” caught us doing that one day. He said how he thought the ending of “Niggas Bleed” had him rolling, because he didn’t see the surprise ending coming. “I forgot how funny son was” he said. “Yeah, me too” I replied. He really was a funny guy.
R.I.P Big Poppa.
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