Tuesday, September 4, 2007

No. 133: Ready To Die

Band: The Notorious B.I.G.
Album: Ready To Die
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: "Ready To Die" is probably the seminal East Coast rap record and arguably the seminal rap record of the 90s. It's a street documentary and it is not for the faint of heart.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Again, it's not for the faint of heart. Where N.W.A. (and the subsequent albums by Dre, Eazy E and Ice Cube) were gangster rap, B.I.G.'s East Coast rap stripped a lot of the bounce out of it. There are interludes of a woman achieving orgasm and gun shots, well, everywhere. Also, "Ready To Die" is the record that introduced us to Puffy.
Best song: It's probably overplayed, but "Big Poppa" is a great sex jam. Also, "Who Shot Ya?" is the classic street life polemic. "Juicy" has an old school feel to it and it's fantastic.
Worst song: I'm not in love with "Machine Gun Funk."
Is it awesome?: Yes.

"Ready To Die" is striking. That's the best adjective I can apply to it. It's striking. If you're not used to a record wherein "shit," "nigga" and some form of "fuck" is used in every line, you're in for a shock.

And that's what gangster rap is, on some level, it's purpose is to shock. While the street life of Christopher Wallace is filled with weed, violence and sex, it makes for interesting storytelling (the essence of story is conflict) and his flow is nearly unmatched.

Battle raps like "The What" (featuring Method Man) and "Unbelievable" and threat songs like "The Warning" (sampling the classic Isaac Hayes track "Walk on By") pepper the street life narratives ("Respect," "Friend of Mine," "Things Done Changed") and introspective soul-searching ("Ready To Die," "Everyday Struggle").


I was recently reading Barack Obama's second book, "The Audacity Of Hope." Obama devotes a portion of the book to the struggling black community and how much white America contributes to the struggles of the black community.

Obama certainly attributes a great deal of the problems in the black community to racism; I think anyone who says that racism is a thing of the past in America is surely fooling him or herself. Racism exists and will likely exist until the end of time. Obama suggests many problems are institutional and not entirely hard to fix, but to act like they don't exist is stupid.

Obama writes that a lot of the problems in the inner city community are those of access in regards to racism. Giant pork barrel projects that give jobs to low-skilled workers tend to favor places like West Virginia (not a lot of black people) or Wyoming (also not a lot of black people). In addition, inner city schools often get screwed by a lack of funding, which hurts children.

However, Obama doesn't dismiss the cultural aspect of the black community. He says the institutional racism inherent in our system (my words, not his) lead to a lot of black youth feeling disaffected with the way America works. Because of our nation's history, there aren't a ton of black role models to look up to and the way out of a lot of lower-class communities remains in entertainment or crime.

(Obama worked as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side in the 80s, so he knows a fair amount about the inner city black community, by the way. )

Rap music reflects that in a lot of ways. Sometime in the '80s, black music went from corresponding with white music, topic-wise (white and black dance bands wanted to party, black and white rock bands wanted to have sex and do drugs, all color folk singers just wanted peace and freedom) to being a reflection of Reagan-era policies of "screw poor people" (no matter the color). Black people, understandably, saw the establishment as ignoring -- if not blatantly hurting -- them and wondered where the New Deal or Great Society program for Black America was coming. It never did and I don't know that it ever will.

I imagine some of this switch came from Curtis Mayfield's fantastic urban storytelling of "Superfly," (which B.I.G. samples on the intro to this album, building off the record's message) but I think more of it came from Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" (an album sorely missed on this list for its influence). The title track is a stark contrast from the popular "Rapper's Delight" in that "The Message" recounted the various problems affecting urban American in the late 70s: homelessness ("Crazy lady, livin in a bag"), prostitution ("She went to the city and got so so so ditty/She had to get a pimp, she couldn't make it on her own"), economic hardships ("Got a bum education, double-digit inflation"), bad education (My son said daddy I don't wanna go to school/Cause the teachers a jerk, he must think I'm a fool") and, of course, the violence inherent in that poverty:

Youll admire all the number book takers
Thugs, pimps, pushers and the big money makers
Driving big cars, spending twenties and tens
And you wanna grow up to be just like them
Smugglers, scrambles, burglars, gamblers
Pickpockets, peddlers and even panhandlers

(The funny thing is, of course, that none of that stuff has really changed. I guess that's politics for you.)

Anyway, gangster rap came to glorify this environment at some point. It stopped being a call for change, but rather a sad look at what is. Eventually, this turned into a love affair with this world, the "jungle" Grandmaster Flash recounted. "Ready To Die" is basically the pinnacle of this. While West Coast rap was as much about having fun as it was about violence, East Coast rap is and was harder, because the East Coast is harder. The superhero narrative of the "gangster" like B.I.G. makes for great lyrics. It also serves two purposes in the commercial vein:

  1. White suburban kids are fascinated, in the same way they're fascinated with Martin Scorsese movies, because they're frenetic and different from their way of life

  2. Black inner city youths see their world reflected in a way that it hadn't been before

The second point is one to keep in mind, because in the '80s, there weren't a lot of TV showing urban black America in any semblance of a realistic light. There was "The Cosby Show." There was "Good Times," which was the TV version of "Rapper's Delight," all chubby guys dancing and sassy waitresses.

So, what now? Violence sells, no doubt. Rap music continually gets lewder and lewder. I don't have a problem with this; White culture is as lewd most of the time. Plus, white kids buy black music (not to mention the fact that white people control the record labels marketing this music), so the lines aren't really there between black and white.

Certainly, gangster rap doesn't sell in the same way it used to. While rappers like T.I. and 50 Cent dot the charts, sex romps tend to be more popular with Akon, Fergie and the like controlling the charts.

(Personally, I don't care if music gets more or less sexual. Sex is a pretty natural thing and the first amendment protects speech. I'm nothing if not a free speech absolutist. In a capitalist society, if you don't like a product, don't buy it.)

Still, the records exist. The issue is helping alleviate the problems in urban America so that gangster rap is looked at the same way mafia movies, Westerns and war movies are: Entertaining, but totally detached from reality.


To be honest, I prefer "Life After Death" to "Ready To Die" as far as B.I.G.'s records are concerned. The production is smoother, his flow is better and while the double record is tough to swallow, the songs are better.

No comments: