The Notorious B.I.G’s Ready To Die 20 Years Later, The Best Of All Worlds (Food For Thought)
Twenty years ago today (September 13, 1994), The Notorious B.I.G and Bad Boy Records released Ready To Die, one (and many argue the best) of the two handfuls of incredible debut albums introduced in 1994. A long hot summer after Nas’ Illmatic, with Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) prominently in the rear-view mirror of the consciousness, Biggie Smalls added to the famed trifecta of the 12 months of possibly the finest Hip-Hop music ever made—especially from New York City.
Remembering Ready To Die is easy, as the album’s impact and resonance still burns strong against time. However, this consideration is always difficult. Just months before the controversial tipping point: the 1995 Source Awards, Biggie’s LP is sadly lumped into a painful part of the Hip-Hop story. Moreover, the skill, ability, and perfect artistic balance of the works changed drastically by 1997’s Life After Death. Even the 1995 Junior M.A.F.I.A release, Conspiracy, showed a very different Biggie on the microphone than his Mister Cee-executive produced debut.
At its core Ready To Die is a B-Boy’s album. With often underplayed groundwork done by Pete Rock, the album—boasting production from DJ Premier, Easy Mo Bee, Lord Finesse, and even Lord Digga, in large part was made for Heads. The artist apparently cited as the biggest influence of the 20 years to follow was hugely inspired by Gang Starr, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G Rap, masters of conversational, clever depictions of life in the music-driven streets.
“Juicy,” released five weeks prior, combined the do or die attitudes of hustling to feed Big’s daughter with his feverish connection with Rap music through Kid Capri mixtapes, Rappin’ Duke, and his Word Up subscription. “Machine Gun Funk,” the song B.I.G allegedly wanted as his first look, is lyrical Gangsta Rap—in the vein of Just-Ice, Geto Boys, and the aforementioned Live And Let Die-era Kool G Rap & DJ Polo. In one verse, Biggie could make you sympathize for the fat kid on food stamps growing up in Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn, and in the next verse, he could reach in your purse right there on Fulton Street.
Dichotomy is a B.I.G part of what makes Ready To Die (and the life of Christopher Wallace) so magnificent. It’s constant duality, balanced in the equilibrium of dope music. Part of Biggie’s slant, from his “Suicidal Thoughts,” to his brutality on “Gimme The Loot” had more in common with artists like Ganksta Nip, Seagram, and Schoolly D. In other moments, such as “Unbelievable,” and the title track showed Christopher Wallace as an introspective wordsmith, not unlike Guru, Large Professor, or CL Smooth. The flow was never sacrificed for the message, but the premise of a song never yielded to the presentation. It always met in the middle, somewhat effortlessly—to the listener, anyway. The overall take-away was a bad guy who was just so loved: a Black Tony Soprano, a likable antihero who had justifiable reason to cause so much pain.
The MCs in Biggie’s ear as he honed his flow between the DJ 50 Grand demo tape and inking a deal with Bad Boy can be forever speculated. After all, Biggie ran with everybody from onetime George Westinghouse classmates Jay Z and Busta Rhymes, to R.A. The Rugged Man and Shyheim The Rugged Child, to Heavy D and Pharoahe Monch. However, musically, Ready To Die owes its Pop sensibilities to Dr. Dre and The Chronic. It’s not a popular opinion to credit Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs as a master producer. Like Horace Grant, he was surrounded by champions (his Hitmen) in the studio—and sometimes seems to have just been a credit monger, who twisted a knob or two to claim finishing touches on masterpieces. However, would “Juicy” have been a crossover hit if the original Pete Rock version was circulated to radio and video? If the G-Funk influenced “Big Poppa” is withheld from the album, is Ready To Die more akin to O.C.’s Word…Life than the one with its seat near the head of the table as “Rap’s greatest album”? Puffy watched the success of his would-be nemesis Death Row Records. More than studying Suge Knight’s moves, as the legend often brings to focus, Puff studied Dr. Dre. Looking at The Chronic and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle, Dre was able to win over mainstream America and Heads with a little thing called melody. Whether or not Heads grew up with Leon Haywood LPs in the house, they could fall in with the basslines of “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang.” With or without the P-Funk deep inside them, “Let Me Ride” and “What’s My Name?” spoke to bodies in motion, or kids rollin’, whether it was a ’64 Chevy, or a Chevy Silverado pickup. There was a chorus, a melody, and a Berry Gordy-like package that was a grand slam off the bat in the studio.
Puff watched that, and applied it to his star protege while leaving Uptown Records. The production on Ready To Die owes a lot to Dr. Dre, and the nod is there from the “Intro” into “Things Done Changed.” The singles, which no Head can deny, are students of this formula. Biggie’s contemporaries, such as Big L, Common, and Redman would have coveted the crossover opportunities that Ready To Die afforded the pride of St. James Place. In these huge moments, these grand audience inclusions, Big never wavered or dumbed down his own approach. Like Punk bands striking Pop hits (The Clash, The Ramones, Blondie), Biggie used the melody supplied by Puff to reach new frontiers.
An overweight sex symbol (who was more of a rough-neck with the ladies than Heavy D’s persona ever was), B.I.G was a drug-dealin’, gun-totin’, herb-smokin’ B-boy. A storyteller Gangsta Rapper, B.I.G put his life on records—from his mother’s battle with cancer to his stress and depression, with a touch of Hemmingway-esque embellishment (Ms. Violetta Wallace insists things were never quite as bad as “Juicy” leads Heads to believe). Ready To Die is in fact a line in the sand, of what was there, and what was coming.
With just three months left in 1994, Ready To Die greatly influenced projects ranging from Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt lead-in to Raekwon’s “Purple Tape.” With the grit of the latter, and the polish of the former, Biggie’s four-time platinum album (which only sold approximately 50,000 copies its first week) created a kaleidoscope of opportunities for MCs, and gave major labels the faith to get behind them. From Keith Murray to AZ, Big Pun to Cam’ron, Biggie blazed a number of trails, with guideposts included.
Moments in time make for great art. In his pre-Ready To Die days, a decoy Uptown Records hopeful, Biggie Smalls was never as star-ready. A vicious MC, Notorious B.I.G could have had a career not unlike so many, given his ability to move the crowd and provide street-tested wisdom with wit. After Ready To Die, the street-corner poet, the hustler-MC gave way to a mafiaso Biggie Smalls. Still skilled, as his 1995-1997 catalog suggests, Biggie changed, like New York changed, like Hip-Hop changed. It was impossible for a platinum star, later involved in very real beef, to be smokin’ weed and shooting dice in Bed-Stuy with Premo, Group Home, Panchi, Mister Cee, and D-Roc anymore. There were tours to do, Hype Williams videos to shoot, and star-studded sessions at Daddy’s House in Times Square, more than D&D in the Garment District.
Ready To Die is the crossroads of Hip-Hop, of The Notorious B.I.G.’s life, and certainly of his career. Hip-Hop’s Horatio Algers bridged the gap between the music of the streets, and the cinematic representation of Rap in the media. He gave hope to the ugly, the poor, the skilled artists (in any medium) who did not fit the build of what the suits thought it took to be a star. Biggie Smalls’ debut album birthed a hero, a savior, and no matter what side of the culture, the music, or the politics you fall on, the ultimate dichotomy.
Twenty years later, Heads still have a lot to love, learn, and listen to.