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“Like the Memory of My Nigga Biggie”

By Mark Anthony Neal |with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014.

By the fall of 1994, I was an official Hip-Hop snob.  If Primo, Ali Shaheed or Pete Rock hadn’t blessed it—with their curation of the Hard Bop grooves of my daddy’s generation—I wasn’t much interested; such was the case with Ready to Die.  

To be clear, it’s not that I was unaware of The Notorious B.I.G.—there were star-turns throughout 1993 on Heavy D’s “A Bunch of Nigga” (Blue Funk) and on the remix to Super Cat’s “Dolly My Baby” (with Mary J Blige singing the hook). I wasn’t trying to pay much attention, though, I’d be lying if I said I ever turned the radio dial when “Juicy” came on.

It all changed when I heard the remix to label-mate Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear.” There might be some debate about who stole the show the most from Mack’s own track; Busta Rhymes launched his solo career with his cameo and LL pulled Hip-hop’s version of a hail-Mary pass, but that Biggie verse, though: “you’re mad cause my style you’re admiring | don’t be mad UPS is hiring.”

I can remember my first sit down with Ready to Die, driving through the streets of Fredonia in the blue Integra.   Wasn’t swayed much by the nihilism that Cornel West had convinced me just a year earlier in Race Matters that I should be checking for.  And to be sure, there were some real head-nodding moments, that took me back to the click-clack on New York City subways—a piece of sonic nostalgia for someone who would never again live in that city.  

But the moment for me, was the skit that closes “Warning”—a song that begins with the classic line “who the fuck is this, paging me at 5:46 in the mornin’”--and ends with two knuckleheads comparing the infrared dots on their foreheads. The subsequent shooting deaths of the characters—who in about 45 seconds had established themselves as the Laurel and Hardy of Hip-hop—was an afterthought, to what may be the most darkly comic moment in all of Hip-Hop.  And that’s the Biggie that found my heart.

The genius of Ready to Die, was less the production or Biggie’s lyrical flow, but the way he balanced hubris with self-deprecation  (“Heart throb never, Black and ugly as ever. However, I stay Coogi down to the socks”); kept saying to myself, “this is a funny mothafucka.”  And indeed it was his sense of humor that endeared him to so many—thinking about that scene in Puffy’s “Can’t Hold Me Down,” where Biggie plays straight man to Eddie Griffin.  

Whereas everyone could acknowledge the genius that peers like Nas and Tupac embodied, Biggie always seemed the dude that you would have wanted to chill with, regardless of whether he was the “King of New York" or not. In the end Ready to Die was like taking a trip to the barbershop with Biggie, to waste an hour or two talking shit—and laughing your ass off.

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities.  He is also host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. Follow him on Twitter.

“Like the Memory of My Nigga Biggie”

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