Hip-hop's ten most impactful deaths
Today marks the anniversary of the day that the world lost the greatest rapper of all time. Christopher Wallace's untimely death on March 9, 1997, had a significant impact on the rap game. If Biggie had lived, for instance, his presence would have essentially erased the need for Jay-Z. Unstoppable as it was, Jay-Z's breakout single "Hard Knock Life" was lent gravitas by the invocation of the recently (very recently) deceased Biggie Smalls. Say what you want, Jay-Z stepped in to fill a void when we were all hurting.
Biggie's passing also paved the way for Puffy to sell twenty million copies of "I'll Be Missing You" worldwide. Bad Boy's most successful year was the year preceding Biggie's death. But within one year, Britney, Christina and Justin ruled the charts, and Puffy was forced to diversify and create the blueprint of multiple revenue streams (clothing lines, fragrances, restaurants, etc.) to keep his empire afloat.
Many rappers (ahem, Master P) followed suit. To this day, invoking Biggie's themes and world outlook are still big (no pun intended) business. Nasir Jones notwithstanding, nobody cares that Jay's best lines are borrowed from Biggie. Thinking about Big made us reflect on other iconic members of the hip-hop nation that we've lost over the years. Click through for a rundown of the top ten most impactful deaths in hip-hop.
10. Proof of D12
In April 2006, the cold streets of Detroit claimed Proof, Eminem's longtime friend and member of the group D12. He was gunned down in a Detroit nightclub after a fight. This was shocking but not surprising, as dudes fall victim to "'hood shit" all the time. The shocking part was that, after the level of success he achieved with D12, Proof would still be in the 'hood like that. Those close to him attributed it to how real he kept it. Too real, it seems. Eminem stopped rapping for three years as a result.
09. Big Pun
The first Latin rapper to score a number one single on the pop charts and the first one to truly be considered dope, Big Pun ate himself to death at the turn of the millennium. There is nothing funny about this. The documentary Still Not a Player details the life of a gifted young man abused most of his life by his father, who battled depression and even became an abuser himself -- all the while becoming legendary for one of the most incendiary flows in history. He left behind a (broke) family and an invigorated Fat Joe, who legitimized Murder Inc. as a hit factory, bolstered Lil' Jon's first album's sales, and went on to teach the whole world to "Lean Back." Ask yourself: Would this have happened if Pun had not passed?
It took the death of Guru last year for people to realize that, without a lot of fanfare, Gangstarr was the most prolific rap group since Run DMC, and the music is classic! It's really sad that it took the loss of life to finally get Gangstarr sixty minutes on NYC's Hot 97 in the form of a spontaneous tribute (which is incredible) by DJ Mr. Cee. His death signaled a sea change among rap fans back to rap without gimmicky hooks and R&B singers. Before his collapse into a coma in 2010, Guru had been active in 2009 seeking to legitimize himself apart from Gangstarr, which he presumably saw as mostly DJ Premier's legacy. He was screaming for the respect he deserves as a legend in this game. Only time will tell, but finally, in death, he may get it.
07. J Dilla
The producer for Slum Village, ATCQ, the Roots, Common and others, Dilla labored in relative obscurity. His futuristic production was aped by Kanye West for pop stardom, and everybody has a Dilla T-shirt. But five years after his untimely death due to complications from lupus, Dilla is more totem than touchstone. His legacy is the kind of thing "cool guys" refer to. Only in death has Dilla begun to get his due as one of hip-hop's greatest producers. Let's hope the focus goes back to music and not branding. In the meantime, thankfully, his music is still here, and you can listen to it for yourself.
06. Jam Master Jay
Jam Master Jay, the legendary DJ for hip-hop's greatest rap group, Run DMC, was senselessly gunned down in October 2002. Jay's personal style became the look for the group and inspired hip-hop dress, making shell-toe Adidas iconic. JMJ created the uniform for this rap shit, and his attitude informed Run's rhymes. His murder in a Queens, New York, recording studio is still unsolved. His death was perfectly timed to aid in the street cred and ascension of one Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, whom Jay had mentored early in his career. Did Jay's death help 50? It certainly didn't hurt him. Besides that, he was also one of the best live-show DJs ever.
05. DJ Screw
Famous for his notoriously slowed-down mixed tapes and a purple drink he championed called "syrup," DJ Screw was a Houston legend long before he died in 2000. When Screw did die from a lethal combination of codeine (syrup's #1 ingredient) and other drugs, his "Chopped & Screwed" style of music became a galvanizing force for Southern rap. Not long after his death, LIl' Flip, Chamilllionaire, Paul Wall and countless other Texas rap acts rose to prominence -- initially on goodwill generated by Screw's passing. The entire South united and started getting on each other's records...and the rest is history.
04. Eazy E
Eazy's death is a big deal for what it did not do. When Eric "Eazy E" Wright, founder of Ruthless Records, capo of the "world's most dangerous group," N.W.A., died of AIDS in 1995, it did not make people realize that AIDS is not just a "gay disease." It did not serve as a wake-up call for folks to get tested. And unfortunately, it was not seen as an opportunity to examine sexual habits and taboos in and around the music industry. Eazy E was just some cat who died of AIDS. It's chilling to consider that in an industry rife with rumors about homosexuality and groupie love that no one even dares to ask how Eazy got AIDS. Consider his death for a moment, and the fact that by dying he conceded victory in his feud with Dr. Dre, leaving Dre to concentrate on developing his newest protegé, a white version of Eazy: Eminem.
Tupac was more or less begged to be killed at nearly every turn. He pissed off a lot of people with a lot of money in a small amount of time. So who killed Tupac? Who would have motive? Hard to say. Lord knows he had no shortage of enemies. He publicly disrespected everybody from Bob Dole and C. Delores Tucker to Quincy Jones, Spike Lee and the Hughes Brothers. And when he died in September 1996, he effectively neutered the idea of "West Coast rap" (that and a couple of bad Westside Connection albums, or maybe just Mack 10 in general) and cleared the way for the shiny corporate sheen that rap music was already romancing. With Tupac gone, "corporation x" was free to finance somebody like Lil' Bow Wow to sell cookies for them without fear that "something might pop off." We miss you, 'Pac.
02. Scott La Rock
Scott La Rock was one half of Boogie Down Productions with KRS-One. Scott did little things that "hip-hop fans" don't care about: He was one of the first dudes to sample James Brown extensively, and he used those beats to produce one of the most violent, misanthropic, misogynistic and insular records in the history of rap: Criminal Minded (see: "The P Is free," "Criminal Minded" and "9MM Go Bang"). La Rock was gunned down in the Bronx in 1987, and his death spurred KRS-One to change his approach. Eschewing thuggery, he became "The Teacher" full-time, and his subsequent albums became college-radio favorites, allowing KRS to hit the lecture tour and to put an intelligent face to this emerging form of music. Rap was able to cross over, because in the early days, when pundits postulated, people could point to rappers like KRS-One.
01. Notorious B.I.G.
Biggie's death was totally unexpected. Totally. For six months, rappers were afraid to travel, and hip-hop grew up and started paying bodyguards and taking the business of protecting themselves and their wealth seriously. More than that, Biggie was a star, a somebody. He died on the eve of his comeback single's debut at number one on the Billboard charts, with two little children and everything to look forward to. You have to admit, that ups the tragedy ante. Biggie took with him an attitude and an era, a feeling. When Biggie died, this rap shit just lost its luster for a lot of people, and we've yet to see that luster come back.
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