Golden Era: 20th Anniversary of The Notorious B.I.G’s Ready To Die

We here at South Shore Ave are gassing up the DeLorean & taking you back to the musical Golden Era of 90’s music to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of one of the Greatest Times in Hip Hop history. On September 13, 1994, right in the middle of the Golden Age of 90s Hip Hop, Bad Boy Records officially dropped the debut album The Notorious BIG “Ready To Die“. This album went on to become one of the most iconic and influential albums of the genre, simultaneously making Bad Boy an industry super power and launching Biggie into superduperstar status. As we celebrate the anniversary of Ready To Die, with the help of my friend Shawn Adonis, we break down the top four songs from the album. If you don’t know, now you know….

UNBELIEVABLE

Breeze through in the Q-45 by my side, lyrical high / and those that rushes my clutches get put on crutches / get smoke like dutches from the master / hate to blast ya but I have to / you see I smoke a lot, your life is played out like Kwamé / and them fu**ing polka dots…

Cee: I don’t wanna add any more hyperbole to this song as great as it is already, but I could have honestly quoted the whole first verse of the song. When Biggie’s name was buzzing back in the summer of ’93 with his Party and Bullshit track, as much as I liked him and all the remixes he was on (i.e. see Mary J. Blige’s Real Love remix), I would have never thought he would have reached the lyrical levels that he brought to the song. I’ll admit, I just didn’t see the other levels coming. Before anything else that was released from him off of Ready To Die, this was actually the first cut I heard from the album. You can tell the difference in his voice from this song compared to the previously released tracks. It always sounded like he was yelling &/or too hyped up when he was rapping, as great as the songs were.

On “Unbelievable”, he appeared to be more relaxed, the confidence in his abilities had fully grown, & the swagger was completely swollen. But the lyrics….the lyrics….the lyrics though. In retrospect, what he did to that DJ Premier beat almost wasn’t fair. How he set up the metaphors (i.e.Breeze through in the Q-45 by my side…”), intersects the humor (i.e.Wear boxers so my dick can breathe“), ended the remaining potential of rappers careers (i.e. The Kwamé shot), this wasn’t just lyrical gymnastics, it was a verbal P90X session. Again, I’m only speaking about the first verse. Do you know how difficult it was to stand out like that lyrically in ’94 when people like Nas, Snoop, Jeru, Redman, Wu-Tang, Scarface, Keith Murray, Buckshot & everyone else were roaming the streets? And yet, he was so ridiculously talented that he made major room at the table anyway. The song title actually says it all to be honest.

Shawn: Very well said Cee. I’ve gotta say, you brought up some very interesting points that I’ve never really considered. And that I fully intend to steal like a burglar, while I head to the nearest barber shop to pass them off as my own original & enlightened thoughts so that I can be showered with praise.

I had heard a few tracks from Mr. Biggie Smalls before hearing “Unbelievable”, but they never captivated me enough to really keep my attention. The hyped up yelling flow that you mentioned just didn’t do anything for me, but this song changed all of that.  Just like you Cal, this was also the first track that I heard from Ready to Die. It was back in the days before you could go online and hear any song you wanted with the click of a mouse.  If you wanted to make yourself a hip hop mixtape (which back then was actually literally a tape), you had to sit by the radio with your fingers hovering over the ‘play’ & ‘record’ buttons waiting to hear something that was worthy to make the cut, and you were afraid to leave the room, cause as soon as you did, that’s when they’d play a song you wanted.  As soon as I heard that Primo beat come in, I started recording with the quickness.  After trying to figure out who “Sticky Smalls” was (I can’t be the only one who thought, and still thinks, that the hook sounds like he’s saying “Sticky, Sticky, Sticky Smalls is the illest”…. Perhaps this was some intentional brilliance that I just wasn’t cool enough to understand.  Why not just emphasize the B?). I heard him spit that first bar and I knew I made a wise recording decision.

No one can debate that Big was given a heater of a beat.  Back in those days Premier could have used a sample of himself passing a bowel movement, and as long as he mixed it right and added a baseline to it, it would be an instant classic.  But the “Unbelievable” beat stands out to me because it could have went either way depending on who laid down the verses over it, and the Notorious one’s style, flow, and energy is what made you take heed to the beat.  Any other rapper on that beat would have been like someone wearing a fly outfit with a beat up and bummy pair of sneakers.  It would have just ruined the whole thing.

What separated this song from others at that time, was that other rappers often used two bars to complete a thought, however, Biggie laced every bar with entirely new subject matter, and kept it up for line after insanely lyrical line. You hardly had a chance to process everything he was coming at you with.

And one last thing, that senseless unprovoked jab at Kwame was totally uncalled for. That poor bastard was probably somewhere plotting his comeback, when out of nowhere he was blindsided by the most relevant thing in rap saying he was now irrelevant.  I can’t help but to think that he was probably in a dark room somewhere pouring gasoline on his polka-dotted memorabilia, with tears streaming from his sleepy eyes.  To avoid the public backlash he was probably forced to change his identity……. which would have pretty much consisted of him dying that bleached swirl in his hair black.  Without that or the polka-dots, no one could have picked him out of a line up.

JUICY

It was all a dream / I used to read Word Up! magazine / Salt-N-Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine / Hanging’ pictures on the wall / Every Saturday Rap Attack, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl.

Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood / And it’s still all good / Uh… and if you don’t know, now you know, ni**a.”

Cee: It’s safe to say this is the most popular song Biggie ever made, right? I mean, we could make an honest case for that, can’t we? I don’t believe it was his best work, but it did its job, which was introducing him to the masses. And it worked in a major way. People can rip him all they want, but much praise goes out to Puff Daddy (I’m using his original name dammit!) for coming up with the idea of using Biggie’s talents over an old, classic 80s record. Sure, he almost ended up literally overkilling hip hop a few years later with that same “Just use the whole beat, don’t bother sampling it. No one will care!” formula, but for this song & some of the other Biggie songs & collabos down the line (i.e. Sky’s The Limit” and, I Love The Dough), it always worked to perfection. It was perfect actually. It allowed Biggie to stay street & gutter talking about his rags-to-riches story, but having the melodic nostalgia to play on major radio stations & still suck you in. In fact, the remakes Puffy created would bring new life to a whole new generation. Think about it Shawn, in 1994, what teenager even knew who the hell Mtume was?

To me, what made this song more of a classic than anything else is the video & the fact that it actually matches the lyrics. This is probably one of the more true to life videos we’ve seen, especially back then. It shows the progression from him hustling on the corner; getting arrested; his boys running after someone for doing something that violated crew standards; getting interviewed by the pool; his boys playing Street Fighter with either a Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis on a 50-inch screen while Big, Puff & from the looks of the older token white man sitting beside him, his accountant handling business on the money green leather couches. Shit, he even had his Moms in the video holding the Source Magazine with a smile on her face. This was almost as authentic as you can get. A feel good story that matched the wordplay letter for letter.

If this song drops in 2014, there would be girl-on-girl kissing in the pool while guys pour Peach Ciroc on them; everyone holding red cups sipping on that lean & blowing weed smoke into the camera; & the reporter would have dropped the mic, stripped down to her bra & thong, to then start twerking on Big to the point of muscle spasming. But in 1994, everyone just waved their hands in the air & partied by the pool. It was almost wholesome.

Sidenote: Did you ever look at a street light & wanna do pull ups on it too Shawn or was it just me?

Shawn: Most definitely Cal, not only did those pull ups and dips on the street lights make those guys look like ghetto superheroes to me (cause as I’m sure you remember, I had what one might describe as a stick figure physique back then), but it inspired me to climb lamp posts to get my strength up. Unfortunately, they’re 30 feet high around here, so my fear of death deterred me a bit.

Now, I know that what I’m about to say is going to be considered the highest form of Hip Hop blasphemy known to man, and that the ground may open up and swallow me whole as soon as I finish typing this……..but…….. I’ve never really liked Juicy. * insert Gasp here *

Ok, now don’t get me wrong, I definitely understand the allure of the song and why so many people like it.  How can you not enjoy the story of a young downtrodden kid from the hood, single parent home, mother that struggled to put food on the table, took to the streets to make money, experienced the ups and downs of hustling, went to prison, pursued music to finally become one of the top rappers in the game, living a lavish life and finally being able to take care of his Mom.  I get it completely.  It’s just not my cup of tea musically.  So let me defend my opinion here.

First of all, like you said Cal, this wasn’t Big’s most lyrical contribution to the Album, and back then I was a lyrical fiend, I would live for those “I can’t believe he said that, I have to rewind it 30 times” moments, and this song had zero of these moments.  Secondly, that beat never did anything for me.  It was so simple, so boring.  I’ve never been tempted to so much as nod my head to, or even tap my foot to this song. When it comes on in the club, that’s my cue to take a trip to the bathroom. When it comes on the radio, that’s when I switch to the news station to get caught up on current events.  It’s one of those songs that you hear once and that’s enough.

It’s a great story that would make a great movie (which ironically was poorly casted years later, and made a mediocre movie at best), and like you said Cal it made a great video.  Sure, parts of it that looked cool to me back then, look a bit cornier and outdated now, but that’s only because people took this video’s blueprint and improved upon it throughout the years, which is why all the classics look a bit corny.  From what I remember too, this was the first video of that era where a rapper stepped out that “grimey” persona, and made it look cool to throw on some linens and hard-bottoms.  In a rap climate where Wu Tang, Nas, Boot Camp, and others made sure they were dressed in clothes that would make them “fit the description” of a perpetrator,  Biggie made it look cool to be classy.

Even though we only got little glimpses of it in this video, how cool were Puff’s diddy bop scenes? We had no idea at the time that Puff’s smooth two step/shoulder jerk/arm wave/neck bob/spin-around dance moves would end up playing Robin to Biggie’s Batman in his future videos and performances.  Or who would have imagined back then that this shirtless dancing champagne sipper would become one of the biggest music moguls in history?

By the way, not only did I not know who Mtume was in 1994, I don’t  know who they are in 2014 either.  But thanks to my pal Google, I’m fully caught up now.  Those dudes look disco-rific.  And sadly a lot of people would hear the original song today and think they stole Biggie’s ‘Juicy‘ beat.

Hey….um…. that 2014 version of the video you described, would you happen to have a link to that video that I could check out for some….. Uh…. research?

Cee: I’m sure we can find that version on Youtube somewhere. ***Searching***

BIG POPPA

“To all the ladies in the place with style and grace / Allow me to lace these lyrical douches in your bushes / Who rocks grooves and make moves with all the mommies / The back of the club sipping Moet is where you’ll find me / The back of the club, mackin’ hoes, my crew’s behind me / Mad question asking, blunt passing, music blasting / But I just can’t quit/Because one of these honeys Biggie gots to creep with”

“I love it when they call me Big Poppa / Throw your hands in the air if you’s a true playa”

Cee: This song is the blueprint and the reason why Rick Ross can take his shirt off, let his tatted man boobs swing freely into the air today & nobody bats an eye. In Hip Hop, The Fat Boys made being big funny and comical as well as stereotypical. I mean, we understood they were fat, but did they really have to talk about their love of food & gorge on pizzas in interviews too? Even as a little kid, I never took them seriously. Heavy D made the big man dynamic into something cool and fun. Not only were his songs on par with some of the best Hip Hop & R&B material during the late 80s & early 90s, but he kept up with everyone & them some on the dance floor in the era where you danced until you sweat through your clothes. He wore the suits, had his dancers behind him doing all the innovative dance moves (one of his dancers Trouble T. Roy died unfortunately during an accident at one of his shows, and was forever remembered on the T.R.O.Y classic by Pete Rock & CL Smooth), and even introduced Monifah to the game. I will never, ever be mad at him for that one.  With that said, as great as he was, he never gave off the image to women that they wanted to get with him. They wanted to party with him, and maybe afterwards give him a great big hug when the night was done.

Here’s where Biggie changed things. You know how you can speak things into existence? Meaning that if you keep making affirmations to groups of people after a while, the affirmation starts to become believable. Well, with songs like these and “One More Chance” (both the original & the Remix) off the album, Biggie gave the affirmation that he was a ladies man & gave all big boys a chance to prove they can also play the field. You kept seeing it in his videos. He started moving differently, performing in concerts in dress shirts, slacks & suits. He started looking more like the head of a crime family instead of a rapper. The bigger his star power got, the hotter the music got, the more women just started flocking to him. A year after this album dropped, this dude was married to one of the most popular R&B artists in the game on his own label (Faith Evans), & had a mistress on the side that we all pretty much knew wasn’t a real secret (Lil’ Kim). He converted this supposed weakness into strength and power.

The allure of power. It can make you look more appealing than you really are, funnier to your peers than you can ever imagine, and look more appealing than you really are. There’s a reason why I wrote that twice….it’s because it’s true. Some of your favorite athletes & entertainers are not the best looking guys, let’s face facts here. Also, the fact is, Biggie was not an appealing looking guy. Heavy-set, heavy-tongued, labored breathing when he spoke, & had an eye that was lazier than the least motivated couch potato. Not only did he know that, he effin’ told us this & rapped it so ridiculously most times, that it no longer became a focus. He turned his rap skills into a persona and his persona into superstardom. This song is living proof. Even in the video, he’s leaving with two chicks. I know it’s only a video & they said “Cut!” when he walked offscreen, but the images from that & the lyrics he spat made you think that this was at least possible to believe.

Most importantly, Big Poppa is a classic anthem that can still rock radio and clubs in 2014. The flow, cockiness & swagger was ahead of its time. Throw in The Isley Brothers Between the Sheets sampling, he raised the bar for “I’m gonna take you home. Here’s why and you’re gonna love it” records & almost made it mandatory for rappers to have at least one record on their album like this if they wanted to go major. All this from a  man who self-described himself as black and ugly.

One more thing: In the video, is there any reason why he couldn’t be in the whirlpool with the video chicks too? Puffy’s in the thing with all these woman wearing next to nothing, pouring champagne, basically about to get it in….. & Biggie’s rapping outside the lip of the pool like he’s providing them elevator music. The song’s called Big Poppa, shouldn’t he reap the benefits 100%? Instead he only got 80% like a work dental plan. Smh.

Shawn: You hit the nail on the obese head there my brotha. Big rapped with an arrogance and confidence that made it seem like if you were a woman, and weren’t craving him in all of his big, black, fat glory….then there was something wrong with you.  But something tells me, if he were Chris Wallace the grocery clerk, he may not have had that affect on the ladies.  It’s amazing how money and power seem to sexify a man in a woman’s eyes.  But then again who knows. They say he was a really charming dude, so maybe he would have dropped a line like, “Would you like paper, plastic, or latex?”, and he would still have the women fighting over his large physique.  

I’ve never really been a huge fan of these cassanova tracks, where rappers act like their lives are a never-ending Axe commercial.  But Big Poppa had to be the best of its genre, not only offering you ladies-man braggadocio, but clever wordplay such as: 

“Really honey listen I’m askin / most of the fellas think they be mackin’ / but they be actin’ / who they attractin’ with that line what’s your name what’s your sign / soon as he buy that wine I just creep up from behind…” 

Gotta respect a man that lets another dude buy the drinks before he comes in and snatches the woman right from under him, and quite aggressively too.  In the video Biggie moved the dude aside by palming his face like Kareem Abdul Jabbar.  Talk about adding insult to injury. I hope that dude went home after that. There’s no respectable way to dance and try look cool in the club after another man no-look passes your face. 

I have one question: Who was that chick that played the main love interested related too???  She had to be the director’s sister or something, cause she straight up looked like snaggle puss in the face.  Not only is she not the prettiest chick in the video, she wasn’t even the prettiest of the three people in that scene with her, Big and Busta.  I mean, maybe she had a killer body, but you couldn’t really tell cause they didn’t pan down.  Didn’t this chick look like Ludacris from the “Word of Mouf” album cover?  Google that pic and tell me that’s not the same person. 

I hear what you’re saying Cee about that hot tub scene, they got Biggie up there rapping, steam from the hot tub probably got him dripping sweat under that leather jersey, leather sticking to his skin, all uncomfortable.  They couldn’t even invite a brotha to roll up his pant legs and let his feet dangle in the water, with the hot water bubbles massaging his feet?  Honestly, it’s only cause Big played it so cool, making it look like he gets so much ass, that it didn’t even phase him to let his peoples enjoy moments like that.  Most men, myself included, would have taken a running start into a canon ball in that tub.  But I guess that’s what separates Big Poppa from the rest.

It’s all good Baby Baabeehh…..

THE WHAT ft. Method Man

“(Assume the position) / Stop, look and listen / I spit on your grave then I grab my Charles Dickens, bitch” – Method Man

Shawn: Cal my good man, the first time I heard Method Man, my favorite rapper at the time, spit that line, I thought my head was going to explode into my Wu Tang scully (actually, I was never cool enough to have a Wu Tang scully, and by the time I finally had two pennies to rub together and bought a Wu Tang t-shirt, it shrunk after one wash and was unwearable. Very traumatizing. I try to repress those painful memories). Not that it was necessarily the best line in the song, cause Meth and Big went back and forth with with so many hot lines that to borrow (steal) your phrase from earlier, I could have quoted the entire song, but something about this line stood out from the rest for me.

For the only feature on Ready to Die, Biggie employed the services of one of the games most captivating characters, the most recognizable member of the famed Wu Tang Clan, the “M-e-t-h-o-d Man”. Remember Cee, back then features happened about as rarely as a solar eclipse. Nowadays, rappers are feature whores, hopping on tracks with every other rapper, every time the wind changes direction.  It’s so bad now, that some rappers have more songs featuring other artists than they even have by themselves, and truth be told, it’s because a lot of them aren’t talented enough to hold your attention for a whole 3 minutes.  Some songs have so many different people featured on them, that by the time the song is over, you don’t remember who the song originally belonged to. But this wasn’t the case with “The What“. They were two rappers in their prime that could have easily commanded an entire song by themselves. What they offered their listeners was a rare gift.  Back then, cross-crew collabos were so rare that when you heard that two rappers you liked were hopping on a track together, you were actually excited, cause you knew you were in for some musical magic that probably wouldn’t be repeated any time soon by the pairing, if ever.

This song was very necessary for the album, it struck a balance between songs that real hip hop head’s would love (most men), and the more commercial snoozefest tracks like ‘Juicy’ that catered to a different demographic (mostly women, and we know that men like what women like).

I’m sure that Big spitting that opening line about throwing “Shield’s on the dick” was probably the last time a rapper claimed to use anything but Magnums, wouldn’t you say?  These days every rapper claims to be packing an Anaconda.  You have dudes that are 5’2″, 100 pounds, looking like they haven’t gone through puberty, yet claiming to be suffering from Ron Jeremy syndrome (I may have dated myself with that reference, and inadvertently revealed to my parents that those nights that I said I was watching “wrestling” in the basement, the blonde and brunette weren’t Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper) .  And then of course, in the next bar they use the word “magnum” as a double entendre in reference to a handgun. Man, hip hop is depressingly predictable these days.

Cee: Before I jump on this song, I wanna pour out a lil’ liquor for the career of producer Easy Mo Bee. Seriously speaking, this dude had a major hand musically for the first two projects for Bad Boy Records. I’ll never, ever take anything away from the talents of Biggie or Craig Mack, but think of how different life would be for those guys coming into the game without his production. I actually forgot just how much work he did for these guys. From “Party & Bullshit” to Flava in Ya Ear (AND the Remix!) to Get Down, I mean, I especially remember just how hot those records were back then. Shit, the “Flava in Ya Ear Remix” still shuts down parties now. By all accounts this is supposed to be one of the greatest albums that ever came across the Hip Hop genre & this man literally produced 1/3 of all the songs on it.  A third! Yet, by the time this album (and to a lesser extent, Craig Mack’s album) exploded, Biggie was a superstar, Puff was a superstar, Craig Mack was at his peak of screaming “Haaaa buoy!” everywhere with his Philly Afro-cutting ass, but where was Easy Mo Bee’s name in flashing neon lights??? Poor dude got left at the docks with his knapsack & suitcase while the party boat departed without him. He’s been properly credited for his work on “Gimme the Loot”, “Machine Gun Funk”, “Warning” (undisputed classic), and the album title track (Ready to Die), so I’m hoping he was properly paid for his services, however, I still can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. He’s THE forgotten entity off this classic & one of the most overlooked producers in hip hop history. I mean Shawn, did you know that he even produced this?!?!?!

Outside of DJ Premier with “Unbelievable”, Easy Mo Bee quite possibly produced the hottest beat on Ready to Die with “The What”. It might sound simple, but it’s a perfect combination of eerie and funkiness.  Also, if you’re gonna bring someone like Method Man in the studio to rap, wouldn’t it be to something like this? This beat was made for him. In fact, Easy Mo Bee created the perfect backdrop for both these rappers to come out with their best lyrics. If this was a boxing match, it would have been Method Man in a split decision, IF Biggie didn’t drop that last verse to make it a solid draw. Both guys are firing haymakers in this song, but these bars right here….

“I used to do stick ups, cause hoes is irritating like the **hiccups** / Excuse me, flows just grow through me / Like trees to branches / cliffs to avalanches / It’s the praying mantis….”

…..it showed another example of Biggie as the brightest of stars. Back in 1994, before Tical came out, Method Man was arguably the hottest rapper in hip hop. If he featured on your song, you had to perform first because once he got on, you had to do like those safe sex commercials & wrap it up. Nobody cared about you after he performed. Just sing the hook & get the hell out of Dodge. Make no mistake about it, Method Man came for the jugular here. So for Biggie not to only fight that off buzzsaw, but to drop lyrics like the ones I just quoted with almost effortless flair, it should have shown anyone who wasn’t aware that he was going to be major. And he was. By the beginning of ’95, he was the biggest hip hop star alive. You couldn’t touch him. The only ones that was on his stratosphere lyrically &/or star power-wise was Nas, Meth (and Wu Tang as a whole), Snoop & probably Tupac before he got shot and went to jail. He was not only the King of New York, but was basically the King of everything. Like Nas with Illmatic, he dropped a Mona Lisa. Unlike Nas, he eventually changed the game from how we looked to what we wore & what liquor to drink.

Looking back at it now, my generation was so spoiled because we had such groundbreaking legends from the rappers to producers who were creating at such a high level that we almost took it for granted. Almost. As a huge lover of music, I kind of wish that today’s generation experienced what mine did because we got fed. If hip hop was a restaurant, it was a five-star restaurant in the mid-90s. We were eating filet mignon & caviar, & washing it down with some Autumn Reisling wine and champagne often. As the times went along, the prices got more expensive and some of the superb dishes that we got to eat were taken off the menu. Now in 2014, a five-star meal mostly consists of spaghetti and meatballs with Allen’s Apple juice, & it’s being eaten up by everyone under the age of 25. I don’t want to knock it & say it’s not a good meal, but the palate of my generation was forever affected. Some of us decided to close our eyes and dig in, while others decided to try different restaurants altogether. And some like myself, want to try these new dishes, but when I look back at albums like Ready to Die & remember how well off I was, I end up walking out of the establishment shaking my head. Maybe that makes me a snob. Maybe so…. & it might be better that way. Damn, I hope I didn’t make you get hungry…..  

 

Cal Cee // South Shore Ave

To subscribe to The Baseline Blog, click onto the Follow button. Very special thanks to Shawn Adonis for his contributions to this posting.

6 thoughts on “Golden Era: 20th Anniversary of The Notorious B.I.G’s Ready To Die

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