Still the illest: Biggie Smalls and the legacy of Ready To Die

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Biggie Smalls

Biggie Smalls

Twenty years on from one of hip-hops most monumental declarations, Getintothis’ Jimmy Coultas charts the birth and unbounded influence of Biggie’s grandest statement, Ready to Die.

September 13 is a big day in nineties hip hop. 1996 witnessed arguably the world’s most identifiable exponent of the art form pass away, Tupac Shakur shot down in his musical prime. Exactly two years earlier, a man who would forever be intertwined with him, and who would also suffer the same fate less than six months later, released his debut album Ready to Die.

That was Notorious BIG aka Biggie Smalls, and the album has since become one of the most important and cherished releases hip hop has ever witnessed. It’s managed to become not just a classic of its time but an iconic release that has delivered several life cycles in the ensuing two decades that have followed, standing tall as the calling card of a rapper with a legitimate claim to be the greatest to ever pick up a microphone.

It’s a record that, for Getintothis has been there throughout a lifelong love of music. A staple on the Walkman throughout the hip hop obsessed teens in the nineties, and ammunition used to help convince university friends there was skill in hip hop. It soundtracked after-parties during a raving heyday, and as a DJ it’s provided enough firepower to use in sets played across Liverpool and at festivals around the country. It’s quite easily in the top ten most important records of Getintothis’ life.

If we trace the backstory of the album somewhat, prior to its release in 1993, Smalls was hot property.  A scintillatingly acerbic if raw street emcee, his first outburst on wax was on the Who the Man soundtrack, rasping brilliantly throughout Party & Bullshit over the raucous boom bap of Easy Moe Bee’s beats. The same year he also dropped the fervently humorous Just Playing (Dreams), a languid riff on all the R&B singers he planned to bed which betrayed a ridiculous confidence for someone yet to release an album.

It was this street heat that then led to a hook up with mogul in the making Sean “Puffy” Combs, who after signing him to Uptown Records, then tasked him with the role of joining Craig Mack on his fledgling label Bad Boy that sprung from the ashes after he left his employers in acrimonious circumstances.

The original plan was for the two of them to form a double pronged attack, but that idea quickly got cast to the wayside as a consequence of one of the most beautiful mistakes, staged or otherwise, in hip hop history. Mack’s Flava in ya Ear was one of the standout club bangers of 1994, so Puffy made the thoroughly sensible decision to craft an all-star remix in the shape of a posse cut, roping in Queensbridge royalty LL Cool J and superstar in the making Busta Rhymes, who fresh from leaving Leaders of the New School brought with him his right hand man from new clique Flipmode Squad, Rampage the Last Boy Scout.

All this created the platform for Biggie to further announce himself alongside Mack as a force, but he went well beyond that. Showcasing a laconic side that was hitherto unseen, this was an early pointer to what would encapsulate of Biggie at his best, starting with the brilliantly witty homonym about “getting more butt than ashtrays”. He continued to deliver his lines with the drawl of a laid back veteran, the high point dropping one of the best putdowns in hip-hop history; “you’re mad cos my style you’re admiring, don’t be mad, UPS is hiring”.

This verse then appeared first, rendering everyone else’s efforts pretty much obsolete, as well as Mack’s career from that point as Bad Boy suddenly shifted the emphasis on to the clearly more talented rapper, hastily or as part of a well-constructed plan (we’ll never truly know). Mack has barely been heard since, particularly ironic considering the Mack rapped hook – “you won’t be around next year…

Now fully in the Bad Boy driving seat, Biggie’s undeniable lyrical prowess set the hype machine into overload for the album to be released. The template of him rapping over rugged boom bap beats, many of them from Easy Moe Bee, was, with a handful of exceptions, at the very heartbeat of the opus when it was finally released in September 1994.

It was Puffy’s vision that helped elevated the record, blending the charismatic genius which oozed from every rhyme with the same crossover appeal he had welded to Heavy D and Mary J Blige when working at Uptown. It’s what helped create Biggie as a finished product – nudging him away from the delivery from the nasal high-pitched effort on Party & Bullshit to the assured baritone that murdered Mack and hypothesied about those R&B singers – and the reason why the rapper’s career and this album would hit the pinnacle of hip hop circles.

This foresight, or widening eyes at the prospect of dollar signs, would help turn an obese giant into not only the best rapper of his generation, but also one of the most unlikely sexy symbols of the latter stages of the Twentieth century. Resolutely though, it was on the rapper’s own terms.

Take the R&B records. Big Poppa lifted the syrupy smooth Isley Brothers’ slow jam Between the Sheets for his overture towards the fairer sex, but it was already a sample made famous by A Tribe Called Quest’s hootie remix of Bonita Applebum (Biggie had enthused about rapping over “that tribe beat”), making it heresy to lambast it. It added a cap doffing gravitas to the record; this was Biggie in homage to Q-Tip, and nothing emboldened your b-boy credentials like paying dues to your peers.

And then there was Juicy. This was a record that may have been overtly more leaning towards crossover, again fashioning it round another eighties sex caveat in Mtume’s Juicy Fruit, but this time the familiar rags to riches story was played out with Biggie’s rise to prominence married to hip-hop’s own. The track has since become omnipresent across the planet, but even in the overplayed nature of it it’s hard to ever hate a record that contains so much positivity. The genre’s golden age custodians can’t lampoon a song with old school references numbering well into double figures – it’s no bad thing Marley Marl and Magic Mike are referenced on Juice FM in the daytime.

Singles wise it might have been all about the saccharine (One More Chance was also lifted but via a much more radio friendly remix), but one track was used as promo for the album, complete with video, that rode high on pure talent – Warning. Boasting a laconic Moe Bee loop, this was Biggie slipping knee-deep into the world of Mafioso rhymes with utter visceral genius, New York’s first overtly mainstream gangster rapper with some of the most ludicrously enjoyable wordplay to boot.

The storytelling is a joy to behold, weaving a familiar trope of king of the hill crack slinging with an aplomb well above any of his peers. There’s one of the most verbose examples of braggadocio known to man, with the stunning triplet “there’s gonna be a lot of slow singing and flower bringing if my burglar alarm starts ringing” taking centre stage among two verses which are crammed with quotables.

From the second he starts yawning in the crack of dawn he fires off more rewind moments than most rappers manage in their careers. It’s a track you can’t listen to without the hairs standing up on the back of the neck, and there isn’t a rapper alive, Rakim, KRS et al, who wouldn’t have been proud to have written it.

The other street records though were also as good, if not better, than any else delivered at that time. The beyond brilliant Gimme the Loot soundtracks the conversation of two stick up kids prior to a tussle with the law, with a gloriously intoxicating fusion of venom and humour. Biggie’s ease at switching between the song’s protagonists showcases his ability to weave instantly believable and vivid characters into his street tales, something that would develop even more on his sophomore offering Life after Death.

Album opener Things Done Changed is an expertly crafted hit of social commentary which blends the wider picture with Big’s own experience (also showcased to great effect on Everyday Struggle), lamenting his mother’s recently diagnosed breast cancer alongside the lack of options for young black males. The competitiveness that stands at the heart of The What showcases two rappers going each other in a friendly manner, the only track to feature anyone else rapping. Here Big and Method Man, another rapper hyped to oblivion in 1994 and turning out maybe his best career moment, would finish each other’s sentences in a record that is hip hop as a sport at its finest, evoking the block party era’s more playful tropes.

Humour remains a big part of the album too, rippling throughout One More Chance and the album’s piece de resistance, Unbelievable. Here Biggie lets rip over a bubbling DJ Premier beat to showcase his breath-taking acumen in a record that sizzles with lyrical prowess from start to finish. The track, and indeed the album’s mythology as a whole, would be embellished by the revelations at a later date from the producer of the speed with which Big’s rhymes were created, the rapper unfathomably laying down the vocals in a mere minutes.

And like any great classic that lore is enhanced elsewhere. There was the ‘did they didn’t they’ rumours that encircled about what really happened when Biggie slipped into the booth with Lil Kim to record the Fuck Me Skit, a claim Kim remains tight-lipped about to this date. Then there is the creative process that fuelled it.

Biggie had been inspired by the first two albums released on Death Row Records, Dr Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle (Lil Ghetto Boy from the former is sampled on Things Done Changed), to the point where Ready to Die was the effort to create a masterpiece that stood up to them. A story from start to finish that ends with his birth and the paranoia soaked suicide– it mirrors the Beatles/Beach Boys’ creative rivalry of the sixties, though with distinctly different outcomes for these diametrically opposed musical genres.

Even the choice of cover art would cause ripples, the iconic image of a baby with afro on a plain white background used by Wu Tang rappers Raekwon and Ghostface Killah as justification that Biggie was biting the style of Nas, the rapper behind 1994’s other classic hip hop debut Illmatic.

It led to a brief beef between Big and the Wu emcees which Ghostface would later attribute to competitiveness in hip hop. Much like football fans more often than not only booing good players, hip hop battles were rarely against weak targets, and the seemingly unneeded ire from two immaculate heavyweights can’t be viewed as anything other than a compliment.

That ill feeling was spread with much greater alacrity with Death Row. That record label had posited an arcane grip on mainstream hip hop in the previous two years, and was clearly sufficiently threatened by Bad Boy for Suge Knight to utter his infamous attack on Puffy at the 1995 Soul Train awards, and fuelled 2Pac’s post prison paranoia which would really cause the East Coast West Coast beef to engulf at a greater level. It’s safe to say Suge wasn’t scared Mack and Bad Boy’s other high-profile signing, Total, were the main threats, and for all the alleged involvement in crimes levelled at Bad Boy, competitiveness was undoubtedly at the heart of it.

The influence had a much more positive creative impact elsewhere. For all the posturing of Rae and Ghost, Nas himself was mirroring the Ready to Die blueprint as he flew from Illmatic’s minimal beats and rhymes wonder to the more lavishly produced crime raps of his sophomore effort It Was Written. Jay-Z’s spent his career aping Biggie’s approach and lyrics, whilst every rotund rapper from Big Pun to Rick Ross has betrayed their influence at differing junctures within their own career (although you can see the influence of Heavy D, the original overweight lover and former Combs colleague, in Biggie).

For all its charm, Ready To Die isn’t a flawless album. It’s lacking ever so slightly on the production side, with only the beats for Warning and Unbelievable truly world-class offerings, and has nowhere near enough sonic variation when compared to the true totems of the genre, Illmatic and The Chronic joined by Public Enemy’s jaw dropping It Takes a Nation of Millions .

It is however a flawless example of hip hop talent. This is a rapper who has everything in his armour; the rapid fire wit to put down any competitor, the story telling savvy to paint the most vivid of pictures, lyrical dexterity in spades. And then the voice; that nasal Brooklyn husk is arguably the finest phonetically the genre has ever produced, allayed to arguably the wickedest flow it’s ever heard. There are plenty of rappers who have said more important things, but hardly any who have sounded this good or have said it so well.

It was also brilliantly human, with Big’s paranoia and insecurity ensuring there was a depth to the exuberance, and a more rounded and less glamourised view of the drug dealing stereotype which defined the release. The sinisterly dark undercurrent that sits in Suicidal Thoughts epitomises this, is a gloriously macabre way to close off the album, managing to not only creatively finalise the release but heighten his fallibility.

From this point onwards Biggie was virtually flawless, dropping a slew of killer singles, destroying every other rapper on every other posse cut or collaboration he appeared on, and even making the distinctly average Junior Mafia essential every time he showed up. Life After Death, posthumously released after tragedy stuck, may have been bloated into a double release as was the custom at the time, but there’s considerable more killer in it than filler, standing true as one of the best hip hop albums of the late nineties.

But none of these came close to the excitement packed into the close to seventy minutes on Ready to Die. Nearly 20 years later one constant still remains true; “Biggie Smalls is the illest”.

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