May 21st, 2012 would have marked the 40th birthday of Christopher Wallace, AKA the Notorious B.I.G. – AKA Biggie, AKA Frank White had he not been shot under mysterious circumstances after the Soul Train Awards in 1997. Biggie was already one of the greatest rappers / musicians of all time at his death, and his legacy has been cemented in the form of multi-platinum albums, documentaries and various other awards and homages over the years.
Of course, you can find retro-spectives of all of that in various music magazines across the web or at your local hair salon. What I am struck by on this birthday is this: Where would a 40-year old Biggie Smalls fit in today’s highly political, highly activist, highly commerical Rap and Hip-Hop community? My guess is, not at all.
Allow me to put this into context. When Christopher Wallace was killed on March 9th, 1997, we were half way through the Clinton administration, the economy was booming in a way that even African Americans had not experienced since the end of World War II. The nation was relatively secure (the first World Trade bombing had a relatively low loss of life and Oklahoma City was tragic but distant from most Americans) and politics was the last thing on the mind of most of Biggie’s pop rap contemporaries. The music was a reflection of the times that many of us were living in. For much of Black America the 90’s were about Parties and Bullsh*t … and that was a good thing.
Just a few years later however, the nation changed. The 9-11 terror attacks on Washington, D.C. and New York altered music, and America’s perspective on itself and the world. Oddly enough 9-11 didn’t politicize Hip-Hop in America, it helped mainstream it. By the early 2000’s Biggie would’ve been hitting his late 20’s and going head to head with Southern rappers, mid-western rappers, and a whole slew of White and Latino rappers for the audience’s ears. Hollywood was grabbing rappers and Hip-Hop stars right and left for bit parts in action movies, sitcoms and romantic comedies.
By the mid to late 2000’s Biggie would’ve been in his mid 30’s, the music industry was taking a hit as new technology made full-fledged ‘albums’ almost obsolete, and rappers had to diversity their craft in order to stay successful and profitable in this brave new world. If you look at most of Notorious B.I.G.’s contemporaries from the 90’s, L.L. Cool Jay, Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Peppa, Foxy and Nas in the Firm, Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes and even super – producers like Teddy Riley and Diddy, they took one of two routes over the last 10 years: they went mainstream or behind the scenes. Somehow I don’t see how an aging Christopher Wallace would have fit into either camp.
The pretty rappers went to Hollywood. Queen Latifah, LL Cool Jay, members of the Wu-Tang Clan, Busta Rhymes and even side-shows like Ja-Rule and DMX spent the early 2000’s making movies and situation comedies. One day we woke up and Snoop Dogg was on the Muppet’s Christmas. Method Man and Redman didn’t only have a movie, but a sitcom as well.
But try as I might, I just can’t imagine tuning in to a Thursday night 9:30 NBC show called “The Notorious D.A.D.” starring Christopher Wallace and his stay at home wife Faith Evans as they raise 3 rambunctious orphans left at their doorstep in the pilot.
His other contemporaries either slipped behind the scenes or went public and mainstream and political all at the same time. In the last 15 years Teddy Riley has moved from New Jack Swing era beats to producing K-Pop bands and making money hand over fist. Jay-Z, Common and Diddy have become political movers and shakers, hobnobbing with Obama, putting up “Vote or Die” campaigns, working with the United Nations and essentially acting their ages.
But again, I have trouble seeing Biggie shaking hands with Jimmy Buffet, or hobnobbing with U.N. officials, or doing push-ups with Michelle Obama on some lame late night talk show.
Biggie was a smart guy, he’d done well in school, the drug game and the rap game. But, it’s hard to imagine how he would have fit into the changing world of Hip-Hop over the last 10 to 15 years. He always struck me as a bit rougher around the edges than some of the other rappers at the time; even Ice-T always had a flair for the dramatic that made his move into movies and television predictable. But not Biggie; I always imagine that while his friends moved into their 30’s and 3 piece suits, Hollywood studios and lunches with Donald Trump, Notorious would’ve been like Marlo Stanfield at the end of the Wire. Having fought so hard to make it to the top, only to find himself out of place in this new Hip-Hop world. I think he would have eventually seen the world around him and retired to some estate to live off his royalties like he dreamed up in Juicy – or the terrible alternative: he would’ve kept trying to stay in the game and sullied his legacy.
Nobody wants to still be rapping at 40 years old. In fact if you’re still spitting beats at that age you’re more likely to get clowned than go platinum. And, yet, of the likely life and career paths that I can see for the Notorious B.I.G. had he not been killed 15 years ago, always leads back to an early retirement or rapping for too long. I doubt he would have become a super-producer. I can’t imagine he’d make his way into Hollywood or the small screen. There’s no way he’d have sold out and gone the gospel route.
The Brooklyn Don would’ve chafed under the blaring lights and dull speeches of the political and social movements that enveloped many of his friends. If he were alive today I think we’d be thinking more about what he was, and what he did than who he turned out to be at 40. Some of the greatest American musicians of our generation were taken away too soon: Kurt Kobain, Left-Eye, Tupac, Big Punisher, Big L, Aaliyah just to name a few. And some perhaps were spared the pain of inevitably falling from their incredible perch of musical and professional excellence. Time is not always a boon to rappers, and as sad as it may be to admit, in a way we might be lucky that we lost Biggie when we did, because it’s hard to imagine that he or his unique flow could have stood the test of time until 40.
This article originally appeared online at Politic365.com.