Notorious B.I.G.: Modern Day Griot What is a Griot?

Notorious B.I.G.: Modern Day Griot by Khalif ‘Ras’ Williams
What is a Griot?
A griot (English pronunciation: /ˈ ɡri.oʊ/, French pronunciation: [ɡʁi.o], with a silent t) or jeli (djeli or djéli
in French spelling) is a West African poet, praise singer, and wandering musician, considered a
repository of oral tradition. As such, they are sometimes also called bards. According to Paul Oliver
in his book Savannah Syncopators, "Though [the griot] has to know many traditional songs without
error, he must also have the ability to extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the
passing scene. His wit can be devastating and his knowledge of local history formidable." Although
they are popularly known as 'praise singers', griots may also use their vocal expertise for gossip,
satire, or political comment.
Griots today live in many parts of West Africa, including Mali, the Gambia, Guinea, Western Sahara
and Senegal, and are present among the Mande peoples (Mandinka, Malinké, Bambara, etc.),
Fulɓe (Fula), Hausa, Songhai, Tukulóor, Wolof, Serer, Mossi, Dagomba, Mauritanian Arabs and
many other smaller groups. The word may derive from the French transliteration "guiriot" of the
Portuguese word "criado," which in turn means "servant."
On this day May 21st, 1973 Christopher George Latore Wallace was born in Brooklyn N.Y. This
editorial is written in celebration of one of my favorite emcees of all time, Biggie 1. Notorious B.I.G.
exploded upon on the scene with his debut solo track Party and Bullshit in 1993. For New York
youth Ready to Die was THE album that told of the true story of the untamed chaotic cauldron of
tension, poverty, corruption and crime New York was in the 1980’s and early 90’s. The generation
Biggie took his name Biggie Smalls from Calvin Lockhart’s Character of the same name n the 1975 film Lets’ Do It
Again starring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. Big couldn’t use it as his stage name due to another little known mc trade
marking the name before he could.
Biggie was born into was that of what I dub Hip Hop’s, “Golden Age Babies” aka Generation X 2.
This generation saw the last of pre Crack Era New York and lived NYC’s transition into Hell on
Earth during the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history. Biggie’s rhymes on Things Done Changed, is
a snapshot of how peaceful life used to be before crack came to town. He also speaks of a time
when one could have a fist fight instead of a gun fight and live to fight another day. This track in my
opinion helps to seal his place in history as one of the great story tellers or in this case a
griot/historians of our generation:
Remember back in the days, when niggaz had waves
Gazelle shades and corn braids
Pitchin' pennies, honeys had the high top jellies
Shootin' Skelly, motherfuckers was all friendly
Loungin' at the barbecues, drinkin' brews
With the neighborhood crews, hangin' on the avenues
Turn your pagers to nineteen ninety three
Niggaz is gettin' smoked G, believe me
Talk slick, you get your neck slit quick
'Cause real street niggaz ain't havin' that shit
Totin' techs for rep, smokin' blunts in the project
Hallways, shootin' dice all day
Wait for niggaz to step up on some fightin' shit
We get hype and shit and start lightin' shit
So step away with your fist fight ways
Motherfucker, this ain't back in the days
But you don't hear me though
No more cocoa leavio, one, two, three
One, two, three, all of this to me is a mystery
I hear you motherfuckers talk about it
My generation.
But I stay seein' bodies with the motherfuckin' chalk around it
And I'm down with the shit too
For the stupid motherfuckers wanna try to use Kung-Fu
Instead of a Mac-10 he tried scrappin'
Slugs in his back and that's what the fuck happens
When you sleep on the street
Little motherfuckers with heat want
To leave a nigga six feet deep
And we comin' to the wake
To make sure the cryin' and commotion
Ain't a motherfuckin' fake
Back in the days, our parents used to take care of us
Look at 'em now, they even fuckin' scared of us
Callin' the city for help because they can't maintain
Damn, shit done changed
If I wasn't in the rap game
I'd probably have a key knee deep in the crack game
Because the streets is a short stop
Either you're slingin' crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot
Shit, it's hard being young from the slums
Eatin' five cent gums, not knowin' where your meals comin' from
And now the shit's gettin' crazier and major
Kids younger than me, they got the Sky Grand Pagers
Goin' outta town, blowin' up
Six months later all the dead bodies showin' up
It make me wanna grab the nine and the shottie
But I gotta go identify the body
Damn, what happened to the summertime cookouts?
Every time I turn around, a nigga gettin' took out
Shit, my momma got cancer in her breast
Don't ask me why I'm motherfuckin' stressed, things done changed
As a result of what he witnessed and as a participant in facilitating the drug habits of his neighbors,
he chose as an artist to articulate the acute capacity for self destruction the African American male
is capable of simply because of an intergenerational enforcement of poverty on the black family by
the continuing legacy of racism and classism embedded in American society. What also informs
this behavior is the unresolved psychosis that lingers as a result of the legacy of enslavement
which still plagues people of African descent. 3 Big in his lyrical narratives chose to make himself an
active participant or to tell a story in third person depending on the narrative other times he would
apply his genius to convincingly playing multiple characters as in his incredible track Gimme the
Loot off of his debut album Ready to Die.
The genius of Big lay in his ability to be brief yet descriptive in his attention to detail when
discussing different topics all while being incredibly funny, charming and exuding the masculine
bravado some men only wish to have. Big also took his physical stature as a big and tall man at 6
feet 4inches and over 275 pounds to recreate his fans impression of what sexy is. He made it so
no matter how dark or fat a black man was he can still “feel” himself and get others to feel and love
him too.
In the Documentary Notorious BIG: Bigger Than Life USC professor Dr. Todd Boyd gives us some
perspective on how Biggie took what other people would perceive as negative 4 and turned it into a
positive, putting it out there that he was a "heartthrob never, black and ugly as ever" yet still stayed
"Coogi down to the socks."
In The Intro of Ready to Die, Big is in a conversation with his man and their planning to rob the
train they were riding on the NYC Subway. This was something rooted in fact during the late 80’s
and early 90’s New York City at that time had hundreds of home grown gangs crews and cliques 5
from all boroughs making names for themselves through their criminal exploits. These gangs made
the evening news regularly like The Decepts, Low Lifes, Autobots, and many others. Big not only
gave shouts to many of them in the liner notes of his first album but he told stories that match the
crimes committed not only by himself but by some of the most notorious young thugs and hustlers
in New York City history. These gangs were kids we went to junior high and high school with. So
Big knew some of them. New York was very much like the movie,
City of God as far as how young the players were in the drug game,
the sheer brutality of how they killed and assaulted. As it has been
documented some of these youth even worked for police as drug
dealers and in some cases robbed drug dealers for the police and
then resell the drugs they stole for police officers like in the
infamous Larry Davis Case 6.
I choose to compare Biggie to Donald Goines because of his ability
to lyrically interpret the laws of the concrete jungle and expose the
harsh no-holds barred cruelty of the streets. The visual acuity of his
multi-layered baritone flow and cadence 7 made his voice as
Read my Incisions with Precision Presents: U Mean I’m Not for more info and Dr Joy De Gruy’s works on Post
Traumatic Slave Syndrome
Big in this line is fighting the historical desecration of the black male image.
This is before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani would instate a “quality of life” initiative that would devastate these home grown
gangs by imprisoning and killing them. This would facilitate a rise in police killings of young black males and people of
color in NYC and also create a power vacuum in the streets that would leave the NYC streets wide open for California
gangs like the Crips and Bloods to set up shop becoming an even deadlier scourge on the city than home grown
6 Please see the documentary The Larry Davis Story by Troy Reed for more info.
His cadence and vocal inflection was compared to that of an improvisational Jazz Artist by Professor Todd Boyd.
instantly recognizable as the Blast Master KRS One. The concepts of his tracks ran the gamut of
experience from the tragic like Me and My Bitch to the reasons why people hustle like Every Day
Struggle. In Every Day Struggle, Big brings the humanity of a hustler into question as he the states
that hustlers themselves don’t wish to be a menace to society but how the forced poverty. The
disenfranchisement created by the daily African American experience and how an inability to
adequately care for your child can breed cold hearted predators. These are predators we blame for
a circumstance they were born into, in most cases intergenerational with very few options to leave
the abject poverty and despair behind. It is this quandary that forces the choices of these children
that group fast and die young. The internal pain one can only anesthetize with brew and blunts:
"Everyday Struggle" verse 1
I don't wanna live no mo'
Sometimes I hear death knocking at my front do'
I'm living everyday like a hustle
Another drug to juggle, another day another struggle
I know how it feels to wake up fucked up
Pockets broke as hell, another rock to sell
People look at you like you're the user
Selling drugs to all the losers mad Buddha abuser
But they don't know about the stress-filled day
Baby on the way mad bills to pay
That's why you drink Tanqueray
So you can reminisce and wish
You wasn't living so devilish s-shit
I remember I was just like you
Smoking blunts with my crew
Flipping oldies 62's
'Cause G-E-D was it B-I-G, I got P-A-I-D
That's why my mom hates me
She was forced to kick me out, no doubt
Then I figured out Nick's went for twenty down south
Packed up my tools for my raw power move
Glock nineteen for casket and flower moves
Four drunks trying to stop my flow
And what they don't know will show on the autopsy
Went to see papi, to cop me a brick
Asked for some consignment and he wasn't trying to hear it
Smoking mad Newports 'cause I'm doing court for an assault
That I caught in Bridge Port, New York
Catch me if you can like the ginger bread man
You better have your gat in hand
'Cause man
I don't wanna live no mo'
Sometimes I hear death knocking in my front do'
I'm living everyday like a hustle
Another drug to juggle, another day another struggle
In an interview a few years ago rapper/actor Will Smith said Big’s first album could be used as a
psychological study into the psychopathology of the black male personality. In that statement Will
Smith was alluding to Big’s ability to lyrically capture how one must strip all semblance of morality
and decency in order to commit crimes on a regular basis and deal with the mental scars of the
sins one has to perpetrate against one own people by selling drugs and or robbing and pillaging
people one grew up with. He was able to show the moral internal struggle making daily decisions to
be a parasite on one’s own community then to be able to face your mother at night who assumed
you went to school that day. He also had to give her a semblance of normalcy by lying about your
own whereabouts so one isn’t caught by their parents.
Gangs, crews, posses and cliques are like the military in that they strip one of their own egoistic
self-centered personality and replaces it with a mentality that works towards the financial growth
and power of the gang. That is part of the meaning behind being beaten in and also being put to
the test by “putting in work”. This is the same tactic that the military use when one goes through
boot camp. The verbal abuse is meant to strip you of your self centered ego and once through
physical training and mental conditioning that goal is accomplished. They replace it with a group
mentality that operates on command as an expert trained killer to go where the President
commands and follow his superiors’ orders. Documentary programs like American Gangster on
BET and Gangland on the History Channel report about the hierarchy and social organization of
the gang. They interview experts in order to expose what the society dubs dumb criminals in
organizations that are well organized and compared to fortune 500 companies in figurative terms
like Mc Donald’s of Crack etc.
The Notorious B.I.G captured almost every angle of hood life for a young black male of the times.
Ready to Die is a literal time capsule of pre-Giuliani, pre-World Trade Center terrorist attack New
York City. It is a New York seems like a distant era for those now caught in the cross fire of West
Coast gangs transported to an unprepared New York landscape. He speaks of the old New York
when one could where blue or red clothes without the possibility of being shot. Or when bandanas
were worn s a part of ones attire not because they represented a set.
By his second album Life After Death, Big shed his street
corner hustler mentality, went back to basics and came with a
double album that was one of the most diverse and well
compiled Hip Hop albums ever recorded. In this album he took
his you can take the man out the hood but you can’t take the
hood out the man. He told stories from the point of view or a
young Brooklynite who was now as a result of success having
more “high end” experiences with women and the debauchery
that comes behind closed doors in the skit before Nasty Boy.
That skit kind of lets you know that the people most at the
bottom strive to be like in high society are just as and in some
cases even more debased in their habits and rituals than any person in the hood.
Life After Death also dealt with the issue of trying to tackle death threats and maneuver a world
which is hazardous to your health as well as maintain the persona that the regular calls threatening
your life weren’t having an affect on your psyche. It also tackled issues of how money changes
relationships between friends and family in Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems. What’s Beef addressed
issues he was having with other artists and how he overstood the nature of beef to be. It was
hauntingly descriptive and telling especially after how he met his own end.
Niggas Bleed really was an undercover ode to the situation with Pac. He was letting people know
he is not scared of anyone simply because we’re ALL human when it is said and done and we all
meet the same finality of death in this life. Big to me in his actions kept his peace in the situation for
such an extended period of time taking the more mature route to try and get past the situation than
Pac did taunting and harassing him publicly and in his art. Big in this song made clear his silence
wasn’t because of fear but because of his own resolve in his innocence as far as the Quad City
shooting of Tupac was concerned.
Sky’s the Limit was the track that told his story from childhood to his graduation to street education
the streets to his coming of age as a man in this his ode to success. This track was an homage to
his graduation from a youth that was Ready to Die to one was grew up was mature and looking
forward to life as a father and business man. It is one of my favorite songs on the album because it
was so revealing and so personal in his first person narrative style. Big in this sang and many of his
story driven tracks is on par with Slick Rick in his greatness as a Hip Hop aural historian and griot.
Though Big was touted as a pariah by the news and media at times I know two people both who
worked at Bad Boy Records in the 1990’s and both knew Big and both told me personally he was a
gentle giant, very laid back and funny as hell. He was also not the man to mess with either. Like
the proverbial Gemini he was he had two sides to his personality something that ALL people have.
That is the good and the bad side. Along with those two sides come many facets for those two
mediums of expression of the personality. Big chose to let it all hang out from the depression in
Suicidal Thoughts to the fun of success in Hypnotize. Big let us into his private world and exposed
parts of himself many would not be brave enough to let others see. He also taught the world
NEVER to judge a book by its cover because you may be overlooking a diamond in the rough.
I am sure that teacher that told Big he would be nothing but a Garbage Man 8 never thought such a
brilliant mind he could not only run a drug business but he also had a brilliant artist in his midst who
very early in his career could write a volume of lyrical material in his head never putting a pen to
pad. Something many up and coming rap artists try to emulate for the accolades that comes along
with that talent for artists like Jay-Z and Kanye West who are exceptional at it. Some rappers are
naturally gifted at it and there are many others who do it but really need to pick up a pen because
of the lack of quality and coherence of their rhymes. Big was an innovator of lyrical style and very
brave and revealing in his lyrical content. Beyond all the things Big was he was most importantly a
consummate Hip Hopper and to take himself from the harsh place of his origins to the top of the
Rap Game as one of it’s and music’s most celebrated lyricists makes him a Non Domesticated
Thinker. Happy Birth Day Big Poppa and most of all thanks for telling the story of those who
seldom get a chance to have theirs told.
A true story referenced in the biopic done on his life.