The death of rapper Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls, is not only chilling and tragic, but also deeply symbolic. The deaths of popular icons often reflect the flaws or excesses of their generations. The fates of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrision were representative of the pitfalls of a drug culture; Kurt Cobain's suicide exemplified the nihilistic and selfdestructive elements of the so-called Generation X. Biggie's slaying, especially because it was so closely preceded by the death of Tupac Shakur, is indicative of a hip-hop culture that is too often obsessed with mindless violence and senseless killings.
Tupac's demise in Las Vegas six months ago was supposed to have a cathartic effect on the rap world. In the wake of his death, it seemed that the East Coast-West Coast beef might be squashed. When Quincy Jones addressed Prof. Dwight Andrews' class on black music several weeks ago, he claimed that Tupac's death was forcing a critical reexamination of gangsta posturing in rap music. Reports from the recent Soul Train Music Awards claimed that a new harmony had reigned. The next night, a drive-by shooting ended Biggie's life.
The deaths of these two rap kingpins were followed by an outpouring of grief and anguish throughout the hip-hop community. Yet, Biggie's death evokes more than sadness; his passing also brings about a detached numbness and cynical resignation. Word of another fatal shooting will not seem quite as shocking.
The two killings seem especially poignant, and perhaps related, due to the hostility between the two artists. The rivalry between Biggie and Tupac began after Tupac was shot in a hold-up in New York City in 1994. Tupac accused Biggie of setting him up, an accusation which the rotund rapper denied. The personal antagonism flared into opposition between New York record label Bad Boy Entertainment and the Los Angeles based Death Row Records, and then into a feud between artists representing each coast. The (white) press has been quick to attribute the two slayings to the East Coast-West Coast rap feud, but we really don't know who killed either rapper--or why. Tupac's slaying may have been gang-related; the attack against Biggie may have been in retaliation for events for which he was not responsible.
These lyrics of both rappers seem eerily prescient in the wake of their murders. Both men were obsessed with death. Tupac repeatedly stated in interviews and on his records that he believed that he would die early. His last album, released posthumously under the alias Makaveli, features bitter and furious death threats aimed at New York rappers, including Biggie Smalls. Biggie also indicated that he feared and perhaps expected an early death. His first album was titled "Ready to Die;" his second album, "Life After Death," will be released March 25, and its cover art features the Notorious B.I.G. standing next to a representation of his own tombstone.
Do rap lyrics merely reflect violence and vendettas, or can they intensify feuds and provoke retaliation? The question of whether art imitates life or life imitates art becomes hopelessly confused. Both Tupac and Biggie presented a glorified caricature of the gangsta lifestyle, boasting of slaying opponents in a hail of gunfire. Yet, their criminal bravado was not merely an act; they each accumulated long rap sheets and spent time in prison.
Biggie's songs used to the lifeblood of any hip-hop gathering. From the party anthem "Big Poppa" to the menacing "Who Shot Ya?" his music was always a crowd pleaser. But listening to Biggie's catchy rhymes about violence, money, blunts, women and designer clothes frequently leads to gloomy retrospection. Listening to so-called gangsta rap music now not only evokes memories of the recent slayings of rappers but also provokes a more significant contemplation of the thousands of young black men who are cut down in their prime every year.
The deaths of Biggie and Tupac have made wanton murder seem more real even to those who are removed from the mayhem of the streets. But the question: "When will the killing stop?" remains impossible to answer.
David W. Brown's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.