Part Two in a series on Hip Hop
In Part One, we covered the invention of hip hop in 1973, the first mainstream rap song in 1979, the diversification of hip hop, including “gangster rap” (See: N.W.A. and Ice-T), “battle rap,” (See: Run D.M.C.), and what I call “wholesome rap” (See: Hammer time). Today/tonight, we move into rap’s Golden Age: 1991-1997.
My goodness, just look at what this brief but brilliant period of hip hop gave us: the prime/peak years of A Tribe Called Quest, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and the Wu-Tang Clan. These years also gave us emerging artists like The Roots, Puff Daddy aka P-Diddy aka Sean Combs, Jay-Z, DMX, Eminem, and Nas. What a time to be alive. Too bad it couldn’t last forever (more on why in a moment).
But I’m going to make a break from pure chronology and just focus on two rappers here: Tupac Shakur and Christopher George Latore Wallace, aka Notorious B.I.G. So it’s not a true hip hop history of 1991-97, but we’ll be sure to hit the other great hip hop acts (Tribe, Dre, Snoop, et al.) in part three. This five-part selective hip hop history keeps drifting toward an eight-or-ten-part history, but I would like to get this done before 2016 starts, so I’m being as brief as possible.
Let’s get into the Golden Age and its two young stars!
Now give me fifty feet
Defeat is not my destiny, release me to the streets
And keep whatever’s left of me
Jealousy is misery, suffering is grief
Better be prepared when you cowards [expletive] wit me
I bust and flea, these [expletive] must be crazy what??
There ain’t no mercy mother[expletive] who can fade the Thugs
You thought it was but it wasn’t, now disappear
Bow down in the presence of a boss player.
– Tupac Shakur,
“2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” (1996)
Tupac Shakur is generally considered the greatest rapper of all-time. When we get to Part IV of our Hip Hop History, a ground-breaking definitive Top Ten List of the great rap beats of all time, it’s going to be tough narrowing down 2Pac jams. Just FYI.
There are four things you need to know about Pac.
First, Pac was a born pioneer.
Born in 1971 in East Harlem—just across the city from the birthplace of hip hop a couple years later—my man Pac was named after Peruvian revolutionary Tupac Amaru II. His mother was cleared of 150 charges of conspiracy against the U.S. as a black rights activist just a month before his birth. His grandfather was a high-ranking Black Panther, and his stepfather spent four years on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list during Pac’s school years. So this was not going to be a kid rapping about his “two hype feet” (you should still be ashamed, Hammer).
[Side Note #7: Other interesting 2Pac tidbits include his dating the daughter of a leading Communist activist and a year spent at a performing arts school in Baltimore, where he performed Shakespeare and starred in the ballet The Nutcracker.]
Pac’s family relocated to the West Coast in 1988 (when he was 17). One of his high school essays demonstrates the teen’s unique grasp of his history and potential in American society: “Our raps [are] not the sorry-story raps everyone is so tired of. They are about what happens in the real world. Our goal is [to] have people relate to our raps, making it easier to see what really is happening out there. Even more important, what we may do to better our world.”
You have to realize: rap was centered on the East Coast from its inception through its hero, Notorious B.I.G., who seemed to embody all things NYC and take it all to the next level. Pac’s move to the West Coast—even though NWA and other had begun to establish a major scene in L.A.—changed the script of hip hop in the Nineties.
Second, Pac rapped like a dying man.
From 1991-96, at the height of Rap’s Golden Age, Shakur began dropping albums at a still unbelievable rate—from the age of 19 to his death in Las Vegas at 25. Pac created 11 studio albums (four were released prior to his death and seven posthumously), 44 singles, 50 music videos, two live albums (both released after his death), and 11 compilation albums (all posthumously); he also appeared in seven movies and rapped on an additional 20 other albums before his death.
All this in five years, AND HE SPENT TWELVE OF THOSE MONTHS IN PRISON!!! How did he pull it all off? His final album The Don Kilmunaiti: The 7 Day Theory (released under the name Machiavelli after the famous work of the Sixteenth Century political philosopher) is illustrative of this six year period in Pac’s life: the entire album was created in seven days, three for Pac to write the lyrics and another four to record and produce them. My man was efficient.
[Side Note #8: Since Pac’s voice has appeared on roughly another 120 songs since his death, it’s hard to say whether Shakur was such a genius that he saw his early death coming and created enough lyrics that he could continue selling albums with folks like Elton John a decade later, or if he just has great marketing behind him. Either way, I don’t recommend the Elton John song.]
Third, Pac defined six rap genres/movements.
In inconspicuously titled biography Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson suggests that Jobs’s greatest contribution was not so much one thing, but his ability to be excellent in a number of parallel fields. Isaacson notes that Jobs made landscape-shifting contributions in seven separate industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, digital publishing, and retail stores.
Shakur is hip hop’s Steve Jobs. He had a core gift, but he applied it to a number of seemingly diverse aspects of music culture. Shakur was proficient in six of rap’s dialects (sub-languages): Gangster Rap, West Coast G-Funk, the Battle Rap (more on this in East vs West), the Slow Jam (see, most notably, “Changes” and “Hey Mama”), Socially Conscious Rap (that he is immortalized in a statue in Europe and South America makes this inarguable), and Pop Culture Integration (moving from rapping to producing to starring in films and remaining a general pop culture icon and household icon two decades later).
Fourth, Pac made rap RAP.
Can rap be imagined apart from Pac? Nope. His albums, his style, his following/label, and most importantly, his mythical stature (more on that in a moment) made him more of an undefeatable symbol than a mortal man. Simply put, Shakur made rap rap.
Since it’s hard to keep track of Pac’s albums—let alone his songs—I recommend simply picking up his 21-song, two-hour Greatest Hits, which first dropped in 1998. [Side Note #9: You might want to pick up the Clean Version, because the other one is, well, Explicit, with a capital E.] The best tracks are “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” (wherein the other of Amerikaz Most Wanted is a 24-year old Snoop Dogg,) “I Ain’t Mad at Cha,” “California Love” feat. Dr. Dre, and “Picture Me Rollin.”
That Pac did all of that he did by the age of 25 is astounding, even if he did most of his work from the grave. That is, unless Shakur is indeed living in South America with Elvis and Biggie Smalls, which I am legitimately not ruling out.
Now, who’s hot, who not?
Tell me who rock? Who sell out in the stores?
You tell me who flopped? Who copped the blue drop?
Who’s jewels got rocks? Who’s mostly Dolce down to the tube sock?
The same old [expletive]
Mase, you know, ain’t nothing change but my limp
Can’t stop till I see my name on a blimp
Guarantee a million sales pulling all the love
You don’t believe in Harlem World, [explicit], double up
We don’t play around, it’s a bet, lay it down
– Notorious BIG,
“Mo Money Mo Problems” (1997)
As mentioned, New York ran hip hop from 1973 to 1991, and possibly through ’96, depending on who you read. And all the East Coast rap seemed like a prelude to the emergence of its anointed one, Notorious BIG. Notorious, aka Biggie Smalls aka Big Poppa aka Frank White aka The King of New York aka Christopher George Latore Wallace was one thing if he was a million: BIG. He was larger than life in every possible way, including physical stature—an autopsy finally revealed 15 years after his death listed him at 6 foot 2, 395 pounds at the time of his death.
[Side Note #10: Big briefly attended George Westinghouse High School in Brooklyn, which was also attended by rappers Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, and DMX. Thank you, wikipedia.]
Like Pac, Notorious/Wallace began young, worked hard, and made it big in a hurry. He released his first of only two albums during his lifetime in 1994 (at age 22): Ready to Die, which was produced by Sean Combs and featured the hits “Juicy” and “Big Poppa.” After the colossal success of Tupac in LA from ’91-94, Ready to Die, according to Rolling Stone, “almost single-handedly shifted the focus back to East Coast rap.” Wallace then formed Junior MAFIA (Masters At Finding Intelligent Attitudes) and released Conspiracy the following year. Conspiracy, which included “Get Money” and “Player’s Anthem,” won most of the national Rap Album of the Year awards, presumably to Shakur’s shagrin.
Wallace’s third album dropped two weeks after his death (more on that in a moment): Life After Death (1997), feat. dope jams “Hyponitze” and “Mo Money Mo Problems.” Between ’94-97, Notorious did a number of collaborations during this time as well—most notably with Michael Jackson, Puff, Jay, Shaquille O’Neal (seriously), and one of my all-time favorite groups, Bone Thugs ‘N Harmony.
So pretend it’s 1996 and hit pause for me. On the West Coast, Tupac has released a handful of bestselling albums and is showing no signs of slowing down. On the East Coast, Biggie has his third CD ready to drop and has already inherited the mantle of ‘best rapper ever.’ What could possibly go wrong?
This was rap’s golden age, to be sure, and most folk forget that Pac and Big were close friends this whole time. They hung out constantly whenever they were on each other’s coast and often spoke of making albums together—except that their contracts with Death Row (Pac) and Bad Boy (Big) forebode it, considering themselves business rivals.
So what happened?
East versus West, or, The Beginning of the End
Here’s a rough timeline of the Tupac-Biggie feud, with some help from Shea Serrano’s aforementioned masterpiece, The Rap Year Book (2015).
Early 1993: Pac and Big meet while Shakur is filming Poetic Justice, and the two become nearly inseparable friends.
Nov. 1994: Tupac gets shot (but is only marginally wounded, apparently) outside Biggie and Puff Daddy’s recording studio in New York.
Feb. 1995: Biggie’s song “Who Shot Ya” suggests a member of his entourage was responsible for Shakur’s shooting, even though he claims the song was written and recorded months before the incident. Riiiight.
Apr. 1995: During Tupac’s nine-month span in prison (he earlier spent three months there), he gives an interview to Vibe and agrees Biggie & Co. were likely responsible for the shooting.
Oct. 1995: Tupac gets out of prison and signs with Death Row, who had just released Dr. Dre’s The Chronic in ’92 and Snoop’s Doggystyle in ’93. (This is around the time Pac and Dre collaborate on “California Love.”)
Mar. 1996: Tupac and Biggie’s respective entourages get in a verbal altercation at the Soul Train Awards and a gun is pulled but not fired.
May 1996: Tupac releases “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” with a music video that includes a rapper imitating Notorious meeting with a rapper imitating Puff Daddy, talking about how they’ll be the star rappers once Tupac is dead.
Jun. 1996: In “Hit ‘Em Up,” Tupac suggests that he had sexual relations with Biggie’s wife and that Biggie copied his style AND that Biggie has a large forehead.
Oct. 1996: Tupac is shot five times in a Las Vegas drive-by following a Mike Tyson boxing match. Shakur survives six days in a medically induced coma at the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada before dying. No one is charged in the murder; Shakur is 25 at the time of his death.
Mar. 1997: Biggie is shot four times in a Los Angeles drive-by and dies within hours at nearby Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. No one is charged in the murder; Wallace is 24 at the time of his death.
[Side Note #11: In a dose of tragic irony, Biggie & Co. were, at the time of the shooting, listening to their song “Going Back to Cali” where Notorious and Puff Daddy joke about how they’ll probably get shot if they go back to Cali.]
[Side Note #12: In a double dose of tragic irony, the bulletproof car Wallace had ordered arrived in NYC about the same time. ]
Now what do we make of all this? It’s sad that Pac and Biggie had only a few good years to make culture-shaping music, and downright tragic that both saw only a quarter-century on God’s earth. For rap, they changed everything—and in a sense, they even changed the most brutal side. There is still a good measure of rapping about violence and murder in the post East-West feud era, but it’s mostly Ja Rule yelling “It’s Muuuhdaaah” to a bunch of teenage pop fans in suburban basketball arenas. [Side Note #13: I hear Ja Rule is available for kids’ birthday parties and community functions, now that his rap career and the Fast and Furious septrilogy is a wrap.] Thankfully, it seems like rappers nowadays have agreed to stop killing each other, after both sides of the country lost their icon after just a few good years.
In the progression of hip hop history, everything has to be counted Pre Pac-&-Biggie or Post P&B. And most of the rappers that have followed have combined elements of both’s style and presence. Rap has changed a lot in the last 20 years.
We’ll talk about that next time… on Hip Hop History.