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
Well, what about the music? This is where American music writers Jeff Weiss and Evan McGarvey come into the picture. In their new book they have left the conspiracy theorists to their grassy knolls and have concentrated instead on the work of ’Pac and Big Poppa on wax. It’s also, strangely, an angle few others have concentrated on to this extent. Instead of parsing the music, everyone else has tried to work out who was the dude in the bow-tie who popped Biggie in LA in 1997.
The music remains key because everything came from there. The pair may have released just a handful of albums while they were alive – one in the case of Biggie with three posthumous albums; four for Tupac, with seven-and-counting increasingly terrible and pointless posthumous releases – but they unlock everything else.
Those gruff soundtracks about inner-city lives poked and prodded universal themes. When Biggie and Tupac rhymed about their ’hoods, kids worldwide could nod their heads and find a link in those narratives to their own environments.
What was good for Cali and NYC also worked in Dublin or Wexford. Irish rapper Maverick Sabre, for example, recalls being blown away as a young teenager when he heard Tupac for the first time. “He was from a totally different background to me, grew up in a totally different world on the other side of the world and was still able to connect with me through certain things he said in the lyrics.”
Born within 12 months and 20 miles of each other, the pair represented completely different states of mind. Biggie was the Big Apple through and through, a rapper who once wrote a song about California (Going Back To Cali) from the viewpoint of a homesick Big Apple native.
Tupac, on the other hand, found a better canvas for his work out west in California. The legend has it that the then 17-year-old landed in the golden state after a cross-country bus ride with just $5 and four chicken wings in his pocket.
Yet, as the authors point out, there were as many similarities as differences between them. Both rappers sought to bring their backgrounds and environments to the fore when they turned to music.
After starting out as a backing dancer for Digital Underground, Tupac, the son of Black Panther activists, wrote about the violence, poverty, racism and hardship his peers encountered in inner-city US. Hard-hitting tracks such as Brenda’s Got a Baby were inspired by a newspaper story about a 12-year-old girl who became pregnant by her older cousin.