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?
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.
Biggie was also true to his background. He was the teenage drug dealer who did jail time and sought to glamorise that hard-knock life, with tales of both the high-life rewards and the gangsta bragging that had to be done to keep your place on the street.
For all that, Biggie was cautious, a man who thought before he shot, whereas Tupac was wild, untethered, impulsive and carefree. The former created a New York in his work through a grid of small details, whereas the latter was the big-picture dude, the well-read rapper who always sought to join up the dots and wanted his music to be about the world.
Their paths crossed, too. A fan of Biggie’s track Party and Bullshit, Tupac introduced himself after watching Biggie play in Maryland. In turn, Biggie introduced Tupac to various New York hustlers including such hoods as Haitian Jack.
When Weiss and McGarvey dissect the lyrics, you get a fresh approach to previously aired perceptions. Of course, sites such as Rap Genius have elevated the breakdown of rap lyrics to a new art, but the authors go into an ambitious dissection of these tracks and try to place lives and stories within the context of those works.
The book also looks at topics such as their presence in movies (Tupac wins this bout with appearances in films such as Poetic Justice, alongside Janet Jackson, and Above the Rim, though Notorious, George Tillman jnr’s film about Biggie, is probably better than both), critical reception, literary influences and legacy (Pac is the one who ended up in the US Library of Congress, with the lyrics to Dear Mama joining Public Enemy and Grandmaster Flash in that august establishment).
Like two rappers collaborating on a track, Weiss and McGarvey trade licks and details about the rappers’ styles, words, messages, lives and afterlives like pros. Their level of research comes across on nearly every page and the fact that they’re unearthing new details and painting new pictures of a story that everyone thought had already run its course is commendable. If you think you’ve heard it all about these two rappers, here are some facts, stories and insights you’ve probably not come across before now. As the authors make plain, the music ensures that the legacies and hagiographies endure.
2pac vs. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Rap’s Greatest Battle, by Jeff Weiss and Evan McGarvey, is published by Voyageur Press