“Mika! Biggie’s Dead! He’s dead!”
“He was shot. He’s dead!”
My cousin was upset. I was tired.
When I got up a few hours later, I tried to process the news and only succeeded at making the obvious connection between Biggie’s murder and the murder of Tupac’s months earlier. My resolution for that day: buy Life After Death as soon as possible.
I’m currently teaching a class on cultural appropriation and figures like the Notorious BIG come up in our class conversations often. I point to Biggie and Tupac as evidence of how the hip hop culture is a fitting example of the tug between the “takeover” and the “crossover,” or the ideas of appropriation and assimilation. My students say that music and art belongs to everyone. How can you attribute an artistic practice to a culture, they ask. How can you say Elvis appropriated Rock and Roll when he simply took an existing form and made it better? My challenge is to remain neutral and many days I fail in doing so. But while this process frustrates me like nothing else I’ve ever taught before, it’s stretching me too.
I believe cultural appropriation exists, but when I look at what initiates a person into a culture, I have to reflect on my own relationship with hip hop and figures like Biggie. If I’m honest with myself, I can admit that at 18, when Biggie was murdered, I wasn’t a true hip hop head. I didn’t consume hip hop, live hip hop, and breathe hip hop like others I knew because I couldn’t. Not having cable and growing up in a rural environment, I couldn’t go to live performances and the closest I came to a cypher was when I saw two boys exchange rhymes in a heated fashion (it wasn’t a battle) on a school bus one afternoon. What I’d always had though was a love for music, and especially good beats. So while the beats Brand Nubian, Special Ed, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Yo Yo, and others played in the background of my youth, that’s where they stayed, in the background.
But there was something about Biggie.
Somethin’ bout Christopher Wallace made me buy Ready To Die twice. Once because I’d heard a song called Juicy and knew his flow over that Mtume beat was something so different that I had to hear more. And once again after that tape was stolen by kids in my high school parking lot who heard me pumping these lyrics every morning when I got to school:
I know how it feels to wake up fucked up.
Pockets broke as hell. Another rock to sell.
People look at you like you’s the user
Selling drugs to all the losers, mad buddah abuser
But they don’t know about the stress-filled days
Baby on the way. Mad bills to pay.
That’s why you drink tanguaray, so you can reminisce
And wish you wasn’t living so devilish.
Bastards stole my tape.
Biggie was the first hip hop artist whose lyrics encapsulated a moment of my life. To this day, when I hear Everyday Struggle or Me and My Bitch, as problematic as those lyrics are, I am taken back to a moment of my youth when the beat and the words meshed. I went beyond listening for beats, to listening for content. And from content I went to context. If I had to guess, it’s this journey from beats, to content, to context that marked my first steps into beginning to learn and appreciate and claim an influence from the hip hop culture.
Those were good times.
~I have spoken~