Hip-hop hagiography: why Biggie and Tupac refuse to go away
More than 15 years after their violent deaths, Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur have lost none of their power and influence
This story never seems to end. Even now, more than 15 years since they were killed six months apart in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the ballad of Biggie and Tupac continues to be played. You’d think we would have run out of interest or found other pop-culture figures to mythologise, but the men born Christopher Wallace and Tupac Shakur are still highlighted like no others.
There are many other rappers who met violent deaths, yet no one has seen fit to eulogise Big L, Soulja Slim or Proof in the same way. You won’t find makeshift shrines containing posters of any of the latter three on the Tallaght bypass, as is the case with Tupac. It is one of countless pieces of graffiti or homage to him around the world.
You can understand why the pair still command interest. They were hip-hop’s most prominent figures during that crazy period in the 1990s when a spat between different groups of rappers on both coasts of the US defined the genre.
It was a time when hip-hop dominated the pop-culture dialogue and Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. were the men, supposedly poles apart, who were driving the momentum. You picked a side and you were in one camp or the other: you were down with Pac or you were down with Biggie.
Each was a hugely appealing, charismatic star who came with a dozen aliases. Tupac was the tormented poet and sensitive thug, the Bob Marley of hip-hop, the rebel with many causes. Biggie Smalls was one of the best rappers to ever grab a microphone, the big-boned man with a glitzy feeling for a great hook. There are, though, very few legacy icons to or about Biggie; he didn’t have the same face for the camera.
Since their violent murders, a small industry has popped up to tease out every aspect in the intriguing story of two slain rappers. There are Greg Kading’s Murder Rap and Randall Sullivan’s LAbyrinth books, both about the investigations into the killings. There’s also Ronin Ro’s Have Gun Will Travel, a spectacular look at the mad, sinister and dark world of Tupac’s Death Row Records label and its former chief executive, Suge Knight.
Every conceivable angle has been covered, uncovered and covered again. A month rarely goes by without some rap tune referencing one or both. You’ve even had US president Barack Obama riffing on them at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ dinner-dance. What is left to cover?