CLASSIC CHAZ: Standing in the Shadow of Fallen Giants
NOTE: I originally wrote this at the end of February 2009. I was working in a Virgin Megastore at the time and, because of both the Biggie biopic Notorious and the never-ending string of Hip-Hop memorials, found myself discussing rap deaths on a daily basis. Now that it’s February again, it seemed fitting to start the month off with this discussion. This is only slightly changed from how it originally appeared on my Tumblr, but those are just mere corrections of spelling/grammar/bad writing.
Since “The Message,” the subject of death has often interjected itself as the most polarizing but popular party guest in the Hip-Hop lexicon. Whether a cautionary mention, braggadocios write-off or absurd glorification, it exists as the point of reference that every artist and listener can relate to. If taken literally, as some of the genre’s most vocal critics love to do, the music contains a record of thousands upon thousands of homicides, genocides and suicides that most listeners accept as (gee whiz) as aspect of the art and aren’t particularly phased by it. But along with the nameless body counts, you have those who deaths remain focal points for very different reasons.
While rap had lost plenty of pioneers and artists throughout its first twenty-five years, a select few became almost canonized by their passing. Scott la Rock of Boogie Down Productions is often seen as the first of this phenomenon, and the mid-90s had the passings of 2Pac and Biggie that signaled a defining moment for the genre’s place within American culture. But even in the wake of rappers dying at a pace currently only rivaled by professional wrestlers, February particularly stands out as the cruelest month of unfortunate losses. From J Dilla, who succumbed to lupus as his popularity was peaking, to Professor X, who died shortly before a planned and eventually successful X-Clan reunion, the shortest month has often ended with the burning out of some of the genre’s brightest rising stars.
Last weekend marks a decade since the passing of Big L. One-time Children of the Corn member, L developed a large cult following in the late 90s from his charismatic punchlines and vivid storytelling. Songs like “Ebonics,” a simple concept executed to perfection, “No Endz No Skinz,” where L’s penchant for punchline-after-punchline songwriting provides jaw-dropping moments build upon each other as to not peak too quickly and draw the listener in further and “Put It On” where L’s delivery compliments a series of perfectly constructed multiples to the point where the rhyme arch seems almost effortless as if any syllable would have been the first written garnered him the attention and respect from all rap audiences. While his death was the result of mistaken identity, his legacy begs the question of a misplaced one.
The same goes for Big Pun, who passed almost exactly one year after L. One of the largest artists to touch the mic, Pun’s best remembered for striking the perfect balance of, to use terms of the time, “jiggy” and “lyricism” with songs like “Still Not a Player” and arguably the greatest two bars in the genre in “Twinz ‘98.” (“Dead in the middle of Little Italy / little did we know that we riddled some middle-men who didn’t do diddly,” and that was ONE TAKE) While both were mourned and are still memorialized by their contemporaries and those they’ve influenced, they’re often left off of “Greatest Rappers of All Time” lists despite having just as much recorded material as staple Biggie Smalls.
While many attribute this to label politics or Pun’s nationality, I feel the real difference is that Biggie got the chance to make Ready to Die, which will always be a go-to cornerstone of the genre. It’s the definitive testament to how great he was, and remains a realized vision of what he was capable of doing. He got the chance to make his masterpiece and although he was taken far too soon, his legacy isn’t as haunted by what-ifs.
Pun and, to an arguably greater extent, L never got the chance to make their masterpiece. Pun had all the talent, but his addiction to food and circle of enablers (leaving him, at one point, 900 lbs.) created an impossible filter of limitations that stopped him from really reaching his potential. While he still could murder a song he recorded in a booth laying on a mattress (“Leatherface”) and did indeed lose 100 lbs. trying to live, he never got to make that flawless full-length in an era where legends were made by “flawless full-lengths.”
The same goes for L who, if the sessions that became The Big Picture are any indication, was right on the cusp of changing the rap world. He had the charisma, look, style, sound, and writing ability of a champion but was murdered unexpectedly. Had a full album of “Ebonics” been realized, rap would be in a much different place for at least the early part of the last decade.
Basically, B.I.G. came out the gate with something iconic and refined to the point of perfection. As good as Capital Punishment and Lifestylez ov da Poor and Dangerouz are, they came from artists who hadn’t quite peaked yet and, by the somewhat unfair comparison of what could have been, are the reason why they are often denied G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) status.
So as another February draws to a close, and another tribute get made, at the end of the day it should be what these artists DID achieve, rather than what others remember them for, that should be celebrated. Will we ever get a Big L biopic? Or a Big Pun action figure? Probably not. Did they have a cutting-room floor full of acapellas allowing for a new generation of posthumous collaborations with artists who didn’t know who they were while they were alive? Thankfully, no. What they did leave were some of the greatest rap performances ever committed to wax, and that’s all an MC should ever hope for.
So until next time…let’s agree to agree!
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