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. 1 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 2 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 4 Big in this line is fighting the historical desecration of the black male image. 5 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 gangs. 6 Please see the documentary The Larry Davis Story by Troy Reed for more info. 7 His cadence and vocal inflection was compared to that of an improvisational Jazz Artist by Professor Todd Boyd. 3 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 [Hook] 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. 8 A true story referenced in the biopic done on his life.
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