The Editorial staff at HipHopDX gathers to discuss the changes of Biggie Smalls between "Ready To Die" and "Life After Death," speculate his third solo album's sound, and honor one of Rap's greatest.
Despite losing the Notorious B.I.G. 15 years ago today, he's remained omnipresent in Hip Hop since the day he passed away. Rappers emulate him, tracks name-drop him, he's always there. But what was it about Biggie that keeps him in the conversation? Sure, we always make a note to mention our fallen Rap soldiers, but there's something about Big Poppa that makes him more of a presence than most. With only two major releases, Biggie left a footprint in Hip Hop larger than his Timbs and it's as prominent today as it was in 1997. The DX Editorial Staff reflects on Biggie's career, his two opuses (Ready To Die and Life After Death) and what life would be like if Biggie were still an active part of it.
Understanding The Impact Of Biggie Smalls On Hip Hop
Jake Paine: March 9, 2012 marks the 15-year anniversary of Biggie’s untimely death - a murder that is still unsolved. We wanted to use this opportunity to talk about what Biggie means to Hip Hop, us, and where his place is in the lineage of great emcees.
I want to introduce to you the staff: we’re joined by Kathy Iandoli (Music Editor), Steven J. Horowitz (News Editor) and Omar Burgess (Editor-At-Large). I’ll begin with you Kathy, you’re our Music Editor, why do you think it is that the Notorious B.I.G. is often called the greatest emcee of all-time?
Kathy Iandoli: I think, actually, the thing about Biggie is at the time when he came out and blew up, he was probably the greatest example of a rags-to-riches story that Hip Hop really had ever seen. He always had a level of cockiness to his rhymes, but you literally saw the tax bracket change in Biggie from one album [Ready To Die] to the next [Life After Death]. He just had this kind of style and swagger about him, and I think that for someone like Biggie, who remained lyrically consistent with and without money, I think that is one of those things that makes him probably the greatest that Hip Hop had seen at that time. I can refer back to when Nas made his money and people started saying he had nothing to rhyme about after that. Songs like “Oochie Wally” came out and people were just like, “Oh, you need to be struggling to actually add some bars.” Biggie didn’t have to do that, Biggie was on point whether his pockets were full or whether they weren’t. That level of consistency - the ability to still tap into something - whether you’re tapping into the party, or whether you're tapping into the struggle, or the streets or whatever it was, Biggie had these words attached to these dreams and aspirations where he was still questioning his own demise. He was still really actively trying to find the next level, whatever that was, and the fact that he could still do that even laying on a bed full of money shows just how consistent and prolific he really was.
Jake Paine: Omar, I’m going to put it to you, you’ve worked the last five years in video. Biggie was a prime example of the MTV generation. He was somewhere between [Dr. Dre's] The Chronic and [Wu-Tang Clan's] Wu-Tang Forever, when videos are what sold albums. How do you think visually, Biggie asserted a place as one of the greatest emcees of all-time?
Omar Burgess: I don’t think you get that boom period from the late-'90s to the early aughts without an artist like Biggie, with the huge Paul Hunter and Hype Williams videos. I think what we saw during that era of Biggie, Biggie definitely jumped off.
To piggyback on what Kathy was saying, it lent a visual element just to what Biggie was saying as far as having those huge aspirations. It really dates back to Life After Death too. It just added some weight to that consistency and you got to get a visual picture to the rhymes that so many of us fell in love with.
Jake Paine: We’ve talked musically and visually. Steven, I want to ask you from a news perspective. Obviously, I know you weren’t working professionally in the industry at the time Biggie was alive. But his stories are so interesting and on one hand, here he is in the same circles as Jay-Z and Nas, but on another he was a real champion of R.A. the Rugged Man and Sadat X was on the original, first intentioned demo version of Ready To Die. In so many of Biggie’s interviews he’d do Sway & Tech, but he’d also do Serena Altschul and Kurt Loder and the MTV stuff. From a day-to-day news perspective, how do you think Biggie in the headlines made him so charismatic?
Steven J. Horowitz: Well, I think if you look at the kind situations Biggie was in, it kind of painted a picture of who this guy really was. Like, anything that happened in his daily life ended up in his music. That’s part of what made him such a great lyricist and a great presence. The infamous car crash really sent reverberations through his career and the Hip Hop community. Everything from his emergence onto to the scene to his death, everything that he did seemed to be a milestone. This isn’t a guy who was on the cover of tabloids; Biggie was an unsung hero at the time who was just coming to terms with mainstream success. But I think in the Hip Hop community, he had such an influence on listeners and fans and even his peers, because this isn’t a guy who was gunning for the limelight, this is a guy who’s skills really pushed him into that space, and I don’t think he ever lost sight of that. Talking from a news perspective, he talked about the news, he didn’t really make it, and I think there’s a real humanness to that. There was no desire to be bigger than he was, and I think anyone can identify with that.
Biggie Smalls' Evolution Between Ready To Die And Life After Death
Jake Paine: Sure. Kathy, you made a really interesting point. You said Biggie was dope, and I’m paraphrasing, but you said [dope] with or without money. I’m curious, not so much for us all, because I know we might have our own opinions, but as Biggie is perceived, which do you think had more impact, the Biggie that was standing on the corner in the hoodie, or the Mafioso, Gucci sunglasses, top hat, Life After Death second-disc Biggie?
Kathy Iandoli: That’s a tough question. I think it depends on the fan, or the listener quite honestly. I could give my own opinion, but I think it’s two different sides, because to Hip Hop heads who had bigger aspirations and dreams and stuff, the Life After Death Biggie would directly appeal to that individual. He kept it “real” even when he technically didn’t have to, and that would appeal to that mainstream audience or anyone with the aspirations of anything huge, these grandiose dreams, or even the mafia mentality, that would appeal to those people. But I think the thing about Biggie that made him so dope was that we were in an era of Hip Hop where, with the exception of a dude like Craig Mack, it was kind of a bunch of pretty boys walking around, and Biggie came out there like “This is me, this is who I am. I’m clockin’ in at over 350 pounds, I don’t care what you say and I’m still the freshest dude on the block,” that was the other thing about Biggie, I think, that was pretty interesting. We had other guys like Biz Markie, we had The Fat Boys, we had obviously- rest in peace- "overweight lover" Heavy D, but those guys were from a different generation of Hip Hop. When Biggie came out, he kind of set the tone like “I’m the biggest dude on the block and all the women still want me,” you know what I mean, like “girls used to diss me, now they write letters ‘cause they miss me,” but it’s like he’s saying that his money helped him become more attractive, but he still didn’t care. He really set the precedent for dudes like Rick Ross and [Big] Pun and Fat Joe and now Action Bronson, where these guys are like “Look at me, I’m still sexy.” That kind of confidence came out through his rhymes from day one. So I think that if we’re going to talk about lyrically, which was the doper of the two, and you’re taking to the “purest essence of Hip Hop” or however you want to flip it, I would say the first album, Ready To Die, because it brought a whole new perspective to people who listen with their ears and eyes. He changed the face of Hip Hop literally, and I think that that was something a lot of rappers tried to accomplish, but in kind of a slapstick way if you think about it. Biggie was serious, Biggie was like, “I wear Coogi sweaters and Kangols and I will take your girlfriend gladly.” He had that confidence about him from day one, and that was the thing that was pretty cool. With or without the money, he still had that consistency like, “Yeah, I have some money in my pocket now, they want me now, but even when I have more money, they’re still going to want me too.” In a roundabout way to get to your original question, personally, I think it’s the first album, but the second album, like Omar said, was just a continuation of that.
Jake Paine: Well I’m going to ask this, Steven, interestingly enough when Ready To Die came out, it’s a year removed from [Jay-Z's] Reasonable Doubt and it’s a year removed from [Snoop Dogg's] Doggystyle - That’s an approximation, but it’s smack dab in the middle, and you can kind of hear it on the records. You take a joint like “Gimme The Loot” which is just raw Gangsta Rap - “Unbelievable” has that quality too, and then there’s the bigger, lush productions that veer into pop rap that are still very lyrical. I mean that with the utmost respect. Do you think that transformation, Steven, happened on Ready To Die and then just kind of actualized by Life After Death?
Steven J. Horowitz: Well, I think it’s important to note how very different those two albums are. Ready To Die is a naturally street record because Biggie was coming from the streets. There’s Easy Mo Bee production, there’s [DJ Premier] production; these are raw boom bap beats, and I think Biggie really wanted to stay true to that. From what we’ve heard [Diddy] and the people who worked on the album, he was very adamant about maintaining his creation and not giving into Puff. We all know what happened with “Juicy,” that was the Pop record because Puff needed to sell X amount of records, and Biggie had to swallow his pride. When it came time to transform for Life After Death, I think this is something few artists are able to accomplish. I mean, he made the complete transformation from guy from the streets, as Kathy was noting, and he became this larger than life figure. The shiny suit era was ushered in with songs like, what’s a good example, “Hypnotize” is a prime example. “Mo Money Mo Problems,” all those kind of songs. Here’s a guy who was willing to take his career to the next level. He never turned his back on his actual lyrical content or abilities. He’s still rapping about the same stuff. He’s still rapping in these extremely intricate flows with these grand double entendres, which are not things you’re hearing on mainstream radio at the time. He managed to create this album that had these records, but also had something like “Kick in the Door” or “Ten Crack Commandments,” these are songs that show he never lost touch with who he was. Because of that, I think he was able to become this figure who was bigger than himself, but at the same time, that self was still intact. I think that really is a testament to how he kind of ushered his career to the next level.
Jake Paine: I want to take that idea and you mentioned like a “run” Steven. Omar, from your perspective, you look at three years and what three years means in Hip Hop and you know, it’s a fast ticking clock in this industry. You look at what somebody like Jay-Z did between The Blueprint and The Black Album, which was a reign, you know. Or even Tupac between Above The Rim and his own death. Can you put into perspective just how much Big accomplished between 1994 and the first three months of ’97, which was his time?
Omar Burgess: If you go back and look at it historically, the transformation was, in that time period, he kind of ushered out one era and ushered in a new era. I think all of us have alluded to Ready To Die as your quintessential New York, sample-based, boom bap, heavy metaphoric lyricism-type album. Then you look at Life After Death, you see in between that run that we’re talking about, that remix to “One More Chance” comes out, things get kind of smoothed out. Then you go right into the bling-bling or the Cristal-poppin’ era, or whatever you want to call it, but that in and of itself is a feat. If you historically go back and look at lots of artists catalogues, you don’t really see them being able to make that transition between two different eras. It seems like the game changes at these five to eight year markers, and he’s right in the middle of one, yet dominant in both.
What Would Biggie Smalls' Third Solo Album Have Sounded Like?
Jake Paine: You know, I hate that question, that people ask each other, which is “What would Big, or Tupac or Eazy-E or Big L, what would their music sound like today?” It’s just too much a leap to wonder. What I’m curious about, especially what we’ve been talking about over the last 10 minutes- and I can start with you, Steven - what do you think Big’s third album would have sounded like?
Steven J. Horowitz: Well, as you mentioned, I think it’s quite difficult to predict what it would have sounded like. I mean, would Biggie have sounded like Rick Ross? Would he have been like an Action Bronson? Would he have been able to continue this mainstream ascent? Would he be the Jay-Z of now? I mean, there are a lot of questions that come to mind when you think of what someone would have been able to accomplish having seen where they’re coming from. I mean, who’s to say if his relationship with Diddy would be intact today, and you know, Diddy played a huge influence on the sound, especially with the second album. He could have ended up like Mary J. Blige who was under Puff’s wing and now she’s doing her own thing, she reunited for that Love & Life album but that was really it. Maybe he would have taken different chances, maybe he would have become someone like a Sadat X or even like a Heavy D and maintained a low profile. Maybe he would have become an actor. I mean, there are so many possibilities of what he could have done, but I think because of where he was, and even to talk about the possibilities of what he would have been able to accomplish, that really speaks to what he did accomplish in his life. We’re able to look at X amount of years that he was in the game, and I think we can be content knowing that there was room for growth, and that’s really all you can say when you’re trying to imagine what this third album would kind of be.
Jake Paine: Yeah, well Kathy, for you as a music editor, what do you, musically, what do you think the album would have sounded like?
Kathy Iandoli: I think it would’ve sounded terrible. It would have to be terrible before it would get amazing again, in my opinion. I think he would have to do an album where everyone would be mad at him. He was getting to the point of mainstream, not to point of the Puffy status, but I think he would have had to have had that one super, super, syrupy, Pop Hip Hop album that everyone would roll their eyes with before he’d have a comeback and prove to everyone that he’s still got it. Because that’s the one thing about Biggie that I think that maybe people are afraid to tiptoe into: people loved Big, but if “Mo Money Mo Problems” was on Puff’s album, everyone would have hated it. I think that’s something that Hip Hop feels really guilty about and refuses to accept, but if any one of Biggie’s songs had ended up on Puffy’s album, they would have been like “This is trash. I hate Diddy, I hate everything about it,” you know what I mean? The fact that it came from somebody that everyone had an emotional connection to made it dope, but you know, he’d have to go through his- like Jay-Z’s is “Hey Papi” and ["I.Z.Z.O."] era before he would come back around, in my opinion. I think it would have been a super-duper mainstream album, even more so than Life After Death. I think that Hip Hop purists would be really pissed at it, and I think they would make it like the “Oochie Wally” of the time period. Then he would come with a fourth album that would shut everybody down.
Because I don’t think he had any plans of stopping that assent, and you can only get so far before you hit the ceiling that is the dividing like between Hip Hop and Hip Pop, and I think that now, in the landscape of Hip Hop presently, it would have been a different story. You know, there are so many things that are still being considered Hip Pop, very loosely considered Hip Hop. I mean look at like Nicki Minaj, you know, people are just rapping on Pop tracks, I mean it’s like totally reckless now. But there’s room for it, there’s room for everything. But if Big dropped another record in like ’98, and came with this like super-duper pop album, where everybody at this point in time wanted to choke out Puffy for what he was doing to Hip Hop, Biggie would have been part of the problem, not the solution at that time. I think that if you were to carry his entire career, those couple of years, and carry it 10 years ahead, or even 15 years ahead, and then dropped it again, it would be more acceptable. But if we’re considering that third album at the time period that Big was alive, or had he lived after ’97, no, people wouldn’t like it. Hip Hop purists wouldn’t like it. Maybe everyday suburban kids would be bumping it, but from a Hip Hop point of view, no, people would be really mad at him. But I definitely think he would have come back around the fourth album and been like “No, I still got it.” He would have pulled a total Nas, pulled a Jay-Z, you know, I mean you can always take it to another level and say he would like pull a 50 Cent, and he was just like “Oh I’m done, I’ll catch you guys later,” but I don’t think people would have been pleased with the third album, Hip Hop purists at least wouldn’t be.
Jake Paine: Hip Hop is tough like that. I mean, especially post-Rakim, [Big Daddy] Kane and [KRS-One], it’s very hard to get three albums that the fans and the critics consecutively all get behind, and I think we’ve seen that with Jay-Z, we’ve seen that with Nas, we’ve seen that with 50, you know we even saw that to some extent with Tupac and Snoop, and it would have been hard I think you’re absolutely right. I’m always curious, Steven I think you’d mentioned the point of who Big was working with, and I think Big, like Jay, is very successful at keeping two different pots on the stove, and working towards a new sound. We’ve laughed a little at Diddy, I think he and Puff made a really interesting sound for its time. But also he stayed true to the Diggin’ In The Crates, the Gang Starr sound, the Easy Mo Bee sound, and all of that stuff and he always was able to juggle it. But on another note, I want to ask you guys a question: truly, there’s two Big albums, and then there’s Junior M.A.F.I.A. and then there’s been some posthumous releases [like Born Again]. But unlike [J] Dilla, and unlike Tupac and unlike Big L with what we see on iTunes and whatnot, Big had, you know, what you heard is what largely what he’s made, it’s not like there’s a ton of reels of unheard Biggie verses. I want to ask you guys- I can start with you Omar - how much do you think that has contributed to Biggie’s immortal legacy, that there isn’t half-assed material that he didn’t want to come out, coming out every year in front of your face with modern rappers rapping with it, you know what I mean?
Omar Burgess: Right. I think that that helped a lot. There’s kind of the caveat that Puff owned a good percentage of Big’s publishing at the time of his death, and I don’t know if you can necessarily separate that business aspect and wonder how much of that material wasn’t put out just because Puff owned the rights and he could. That’s not to tarnish the legacy or anything, that’s just fact.
Jake Paine: Yeah, I actually want to piggyback that for a second, last month in [January], DX staff writer Paul W. Arnold did an interview with Erick Sermon, and Erick Sermon like a lot of people was in a position, he says, where Big was brought to him. You know I think we all forget that Big had a career, a professional Rap career before Bad Boy, you know when he was running in Heavy D’s circles, and he was rolling with Tupac and he was down with M.O.P. and Organized Konfusion and all this different stuff. It’s another one of those “what would a Big album today sound like” questions, it’s a total hypothetical. But say that Big signed with a Hit Squad [Records] or a Def Squad [Records] or you know, one of those fledgling labels at the time, do you think we would be having this conversation right now? I’ll start with you Kathy…
Kathy Iandoli: Um, yes and no. I don’t know, he could have gone in a different lane had he continued along that track. I mean we’re learning now as Hip Hop progresses and as it gets older, you know, there are different tracks that artists- not tracks like songs, but you know, lanes- that artists can continue on in certain careers, and Puff brought him into a whole new dimension. But I think if he continued with like a Hit Squad, or a crew like that, he could have very well sustained a rap career where he would have been on peoples’ top-five lists, but not necessarily the dude that’s always on the radio.
Jake Paine: An emcee’s emcee.
Kathy Iandoli: An emcee’s emcee, precisely. I think he would have gone in that direction, but, you know, when you look ahead, it’s hard to see, because you have somebody like Jay-Z who many argue would have never been given a shot had Big been alive. But Jay-Z is that guy who put the stick in the mud when it came to the dividing lines of Hip Hop like, “do you want to make money off of this or don’t you? Let me know now, I’ll wait.” You know, like, that’s what Jay-Z did for Hip Hop and if Big were still alive, regardless of which crew he decided to roll with, it’s hard to determine what would have been the proper direction, or what would have been the inevitable direction that he would go in if Jay-Z didn’t exist. If you were to put Big into the Jay-Z generation of Hip Hop and gave him direction to roll with the Hit Squad, yeah he probably would have run in that Raekwon, Jadakiss, emcee’s emcee direction, unless he really buddied up with someone like Jay-Z again and is Kanye [West]. We don’t know, imagine if Watch the Throne was Biggie and Jay-Z.
Jake Paine: Yeah. I mean, there were so many talks that were- and I hate always mentioning Biggie and Tupac in the same sentences- but like, there are so many “what-ifs” to the reported plans that they had the end of their careers for different albums, collaborations, labels, projects, you know, it is crazy to think about.
Kathy Iandoli: Yeah, for somebody like 'Pac, like, 'Pac was a poet’s emcee. You know, it’s interesting because, you know, even though he had stuff like “I Get Around” and his whole early days in Digital Underground, I think 'Pac would have become more and more insular. He would have lived in his head even more so than he did when we had him in our everyday presence, whereas I think Big would have been the exact opposite. So, 'Pac would have really become one of those artists that totally lived inside of his head and just became “that dude,” while Big might have been the one who kept going in the opposite direction, and I would have been curious to see how that would have looked together, because to be quite honest, if they had continued with each of their personalities and then linked up, that would have looked like Outkast would look now. You’ve got Andre 3000, totally on a different planet, you’ve got Big Boi, you know, on his pimp game and then you put the two together and everyone’s like scratching their heads: tt’s still dope, but you’re still like, how are you two friends? You know?
Jake Paine: That’s real. Well, I want to- as we start to close- I just want to ask, because I do want to keep this conversation positive, and I think we have. But that was such an impactful day in Hip Hop, I mean, it was six months after losing Tupac, within two years of losing Eazy-E and it just seemed like rappers were just dying left and right. I want to ask you guys, I know we’re all a little bit younger- and Steven I’ll begin with you- what do you remember from March 9, 1997?
Steven J. Horowitz: Um, it’s strange because I think I grew up in the MTV generation, so a lot of my memories of these breaking stories came through MTV. I absolutely remember seeing Kurt Loder with a ”breaking news brief” about him being shot and killed and it’s extremely impactful. It sent reverberations. I think even in the aftermath, like, it was just very difficult to accept that this guy who was just beginning to reach his mainstream potential was completely snatched. I mean, in reference to the particular day, I can’t say that I remember every detail, it was obviously affecting. Biggie is my favorite emcee, I love him, so obviously it had a profound effect. But I think it’s the aftermath of what happens that sticks with me the most. Seeing the street in Brooklyn with people lined up down the street, seeing pictures of Voletta Wallace and Lil’ Kim and Mary J. Blige at the funeral, they were just very heartbreaking things to watch. It’s something that’s burned in everyone’s minds.
Jake Paine: I very well remember, I was in junior-high [school] at the time and I think it was one of those situations, my mom- who’s in her sixties, is always telling me Hip Hop news through the morning like [Live With Regis & Kathie Lee] circuit and I don’t think it’d quite hit that- but she told me and then I was on the way to school and I was listening to [106.7] WAMO, which is the now defunct Hip Hop station in Pittsburgh, and it just shocked me. I remember that entire day, and to be really real, like, I’m of that era when it felt like it was a choice, sort of like 10 years ago it was a choice, “do you ride with Nas, or do you ride with Jay-Z?” And you listen to both, but you play favorites. Tupac is my favorite rapper of all-time, but I hold Biggie in the highest regard, and that moment was just like, “this is far too real.” Here I am only as an early teenager, but I thought, “what in the hell is there to be excited about in Hip Hop now? Tha Dogg Pound?” I didn’t even know that Wu was going to make another album at that point. It just felt empty. I just remember that day, what about you, Omar?
Omar Burgess: It was a mixed bag for me, because being on the West Coast, we heard about the whole Peterson Auto Museum thing, and I don’t want to say there was a collective sense of guilt, but if you’re a serious Hip Hop head, you don’t want one of the titans of the game to kind of like go out on your watch so to speak, so that was a pretty heavy thing. And I really remember the media coverage. Just I guess to kind of date myself and to show how much the media landscape has changed, I was like a junior in high school, so at that time Biggie was on the cover of your Sources and your VIBEs. I originally heard the news on the radio, I think it was either the KMEL affiliate that you could find Sway & Tech from The Wakeup Show on, or Power 106, I can’t remember which of the two. But just that kind of collective “what the fuck” when you found out it wasn’t like a prank or anything, you know like you said, it was too real. So yeah, we heard about it on the radio and then you just kind of got these shock-waves from your MTV update with I guess Kurt Loder or whatever. It was this kind of somber vibe and especially out here, it was this kind of confusion, because everybody liked Biggie - liked that energy. I think he said at the end of Life After Death he’s like “you gotta love me” so as much as we roll for 'Pac on the West Coast, it was that “how do you even process this?” type of feeling.
Jake Paine: And I mean he’d just made that record “Going Back to Cali” which was so eerie, whether you heard it before or after, it was just so prophetic, ironic - I don’t know how to look at it, but it was the fact that he made an entire record about his comfort in going across the country, only where he died. That was just a crazy, crazy time. What about you, Kathy?
Kathy Iandoli: Being in the tri-state area when he died, it was kind of crazy. I was a senior in high school, and I believe I was on spring break and you know it was weird, because Eazy-E died of AIDS - not that you see that coming, but you know that there is a direct cause to that effect. 'Pac, who like you [Jake], is one of my favorite emcees of all-time, 'Pac had a tendency to run his mouth, and as you know, he died. Big wasn’t as vocal about his anger on things, he wasn’t very shit-talky, he dropped a couple of hints against 'Pac on certain songs. But he wasn’t that dude and when he died it was a total shock. Not that I expected Tupac to die, but it’s one of those things when you know that somebody is running their mouth on a number of things, and you’re a conspiracy theorist and you definitely distrust vocalizing things way too much, you can kind of understand why something like that happened. Not that you agree with it at all, but you can understand how that happened. With somebody like Big, he really didn’t do anything, he really kept a low profile and stuff like that. People loved him coast to coast. When he passed away, I took it really hard because it was a scary time for Hip Hop, it was like we were under fire. You know, I remember that VIBE cover, I believe it was the Kevin Powell story where it was side-by-side, Biggie and 'Pac, it was a gold cover, I still have it. And it was a scary cover because it was like “Hip Hop Under Fire,” it was an announcement of a war. Like, it was Hip Hop’s own version of a 9/11- and I’m not trying to make light of a 9/11, please don’t get me wrong- but it was that type of thing on a lesser scale where you’re like “Wow, we’re really at war right now, musically. The block is hot, the two archetypes from coast to coast have now died, what’s next? What the hell is going to happen now?” For somebody like myself who was old enough to kind of let it really sink in and see what was happening and be such a diehard fan of Hip Hop for years and years and years, I was scared. I was going to college in like three months, and I was thinking to myself, “As an adult now, going into the next stage of my life, where Hip Hop had shaped me so much in the years prior, what’s going to happen now?” And I knew early on that I was planning on a career in some capacity in music focusing in on Hip Hop. Like, I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do, you know, and I didn’t know what was going on at the time. I first heard on Hot 97, I don’t know if it was Angie Martinez who gave the news, but then I watched the rest of the footage on MTV when Kurt Loder announced it during the MTV News Break, and I believe I was on my spring break in high school. I wanted to go to his funeral, but at the same time it was another one of those scary things like what happens if there’s a shootout there? You get scared, you don’t know what to do. Big always performed in [New] Jersey - I’m from Jersey- and he would show up at these little clubs that we would go to as teenagers, like he was just there. He was part of my everyday experience, so when that happened, the city shut down. In a way that I don’t think it ever has on a Hip Hop level to date. It was just a really, really, really sad time, and I remember like it was yesterday. I remember it more so than Tupac, and even though Tupac was my favorite, I thought Tupac was going to live. He had those seven days in the hospital and it was like, he’s going to come out and he’s going to sit there and talk his junk and talk about, you know, first it was what, “six shots couldn’t --“
Jake Paine: Five
Kathy Iandoli: Five. Yeah. He’s going to come back out and be like “see how immortal I am?” You know, there’s still a weird part of me that thinks 'Pac is alive anyway, but you knew Biggie passed, it was like, your representative for New York rap was gone and- yeah it was pretty heartbreaking. It was a sad day.
Jake Paine: In 10 words or less, do you think the Notorious B.I.G.’s murder will ever be solved? Steven…
Steven J. Horowitz: I don’t think so, based on what we’ve already gotten.
Omar Burgess: No, ‘cause the LAPD is the most corrupt police department ever.
Kathy Iandoli: No, because some things are better left unsaid.
Jake Paine: Yeah, I don’t know. Just to chime in with some of the skeletons in the closet from the early ‘90s that are starting to come out, I have faith. I interviewed Voletta Wallace what feels like 10 years ago, but it was more like seven, and I feel like that woman deserves justice. And I feel like we all do. I hear what all you guys are saying, and my cynical side errs on that, but, you know, I would love the truth to come to the light.
Last question, I do want to end on a high note, and we started talking about why Big is often perceived as the greatest emcee in Hip Hop history. Whether it’s a video, some of it’s parts, like an album, a song, an interview, what is your favorite Big moment? I’ll go in the order we started, Kathy, what’s your favorite Biggie moment and why?
Kathy Iandoli: My favorite Biggie moment…oh god, this is going to take long.... Okay, let me try to shorten this up. One of my favorite Big moments is the “One More Chance” video. I just love the song, but I also love how he had all of my favorite female R&B singers at the time, you know Aaliyah was in there, rest in peace. That’s one of my favorite Big moments. Favorite Big track is “Story To Tell.” Favorite Big video is “Sky's The Limit.” I still can’t watch that video with crying and crying, I’m a girl, I’m allowed to say that so I don’t have to hear a pause. I cry my eyes out when I see “Sky's The Limit” because I see a child. Big was somebody’s son, you know, he was somebody’s brother, somebody’s friend, and when you see them played as little kids, you see that he really didn’t have a chance to live a full life. So yeah, those are my three favorite Big moments, and not that crying over a video is a favorite moment, but it’s a great video. But yeah, those are my three.
Jake Paine: Omar, what’s your favorite Biggie Smalls moment?
Omar Burgess: Um, man the title of the song ["Things Done Changed"] is escaping me now, but just him saying “it’s hard eating five-cent gums, growing up in the slums, not knowin’ where your meal’s comin’ from.” For anyone who’s remotely lived that life, that bar resonates so much, because that’s, I think hood is kind of an overused phrase, but that is as hood as it gets: the hard-ass, cheap five-cent Dubble Bubble. That encapsulates so much without even having to say it.
Jake Paine: Yeah. What about you, Steven?
Steven J. Horowitz: Um, I mean, again, Biggie is my favorite rapper so it’s hard to pick a certain moment. But I usually say this when I’m referring to artists and how I know that they have a song that sort of transcends the song itself, and that if it still gives you chills after listening to it, you know, the first 50 times. I listened to two songs on Ready To Die today, “Me and My B*tch” and “Suicidal Thoughts,” and I think those are two of the most, how to put it, visceral songs that he’s ever created. Even if he’s writing from a character’s perspective, there is such a human element to it. At the end of “Me and My B*tch” when he says “And when I find ‘em they life is to an end, they killed my best friend,” I just get chills every time. It’s just so real, even if it isn’t a situation that didn’t happen in real life. And “Suicidal Thoughts” obviously is just a bizarre Hip Hop moment. Here’s a guy who’s writing his suicide note to Puff at, you know, four in the morning on the phone, he’s completely lost in his own mental space and it’s just, he conveys that hopelessness in such a stark way. Again, chills, the gun shot at the end... The risks this guy was taking with his music, it was just, I think it embodied who he was: he wasn’t afraid to embrace a concept or to execute it.
Jake Paine: Word, yeah. It’s crazy, I feel that Ready To Die is far too personal to ever be called a concept album. But when you think of, you know, all the Hip Hop “concept albums” that have come especially recently, Ready To Die is as good as any, because it tells a complete story, and the way it’s sequenced is as good as any. “Suicidal Thoughts” is a powerful last call- and produced by Lord Finesse.
I have to say my favorite Biggie moment, interestingly enough more than any of his albums, what I’ve played by far is the Mister Cee Best Of Biggie mixtape which I still think - even though it’s more of a mixtape by today’s standards, than the early ‘90s mixing and scratching mixtape - it’s one of the greatest compilations of pre-Bad Boy Biggie you can have. I’m 28 years old, I was too young and I was living too far away to be a part of that whole New York movement in ’92 and ’93, but to go back and hear that, especially when I was a teenager at a time when you didn’t have YouTube and Grooveshark and Spotify to access this music, that tape changed my life, and that has really allowed me to see why Biggie might be, might be the greatest emcee ever. So I love that and I encourage everyone who’s never heard that to check it out. All of the “Best Of” [mixtape] series that Mister Cee did - Redman, Jay-Z, Mobb Deep and Biggie - they’re all phenomenal, but Biggie is remarkable. And I know Mister Cee’s legacy has been challenged a little bit with headlines last year, but what that man and what Easy Mo Bee and what Puff and what Premier and so many people did for Big, you can see all of their blood, sweat and tears in the final product.
So that’s it for me, and I would encourage all of DX listeners listen to Biggie today, check out joints you’ve heard. Listen to the favorites, stuff you haven’t, you know, I think that’s what Big and every artist wants of us, and it’s something we should be doing everyday. But fifteen years ago from the last breaths of somebody, it’s as good a time as any. And I want to thank Kathy, Steven and Omar, along with our dedicated engineer for today’s roundtable, Mike Sheehan, this has been great and we look forward to talking with you guys on the next one. Thank you.
Follow the HipHopDX staff on Twitter (@Citizen__Paine), (@Kath3000), (@FourFingerRings) and (@SPeriod)