The Closing of the American Ear

The late Christopher Wallace, who went by the names Biggie Smalls and the Notorious B.I.G., is represented on the Billboard roster of best-selling albums by Life After Death, which at this writing remains the third most popular recording in the country nine weeks after its release. "Hypnotize," the lead single from the two-disc package, is even more well-liked, holding steady in the number-two slot on the singles charts following a brief run in the pole position. Such popularity has led many industry observers to identify the work of B.I.G. as the music business's best hope for shaking out of the slump in which it's been mired since last year. And yet, if you ask the average Caucasian over the age of 25 what he thinks of the set, odds are extremely good that he'll tell you he hasn't heard it. Moreover, most men and women in this category are familiar with Wallace only because his death, on March 9 of gunshot wounds, made the front pages.

How can this be? After all, it wasn't that long ago that hit songs from across the stylistic map reached people of every color, creed and gender. Individuals might have had personal preferences--enjoying, say, rock more than soul--but they were exposed to a wide variety of sounds and had easy access to material of every description. Hence, a sizable percentage of listeners had eclectic tastes. It was not uncommon to thumb through record collections and find a country album beside a funk disc, a heavy-metal platter next to a rhythm-and-blues offering, a jazz effort juxtaposed with a reggae classic.

But not anymore. In 1997, more folks than ever pledge their allegiances to a single style and reject everything else with a virulence that's downright disturbing. The result is the "disco sucks" mentality that struck so many morons during the Seventies writ large. It doesn't take much detective work to find know-nothings who'll tell you that all C&W is stupid or that acoustic music is indefensibly bland or that hard rock as a whole is mere racket--and all too often, these opinions are accompanied by the most noxious stereotypes imaginable. If you dig hip-hop, you're a gangbanger or a crackhead. If you listen to electronic dance music, you're a faggot. And on and on and on.

There are plenty of reasons behind this state of affairs, and an equal number of culprits--including MTV, which no longer plays videos at times when most people can see them. But it's clear that radio has played a key role in depleting the population of well-rounded music fans. Whereas a substantial number of programmers at stations during the Sixties and Seventies prided themselves on broadcasting different styles and DJs were given the opportunity to engage in musical mixing and matching, today's outlets are tightly formatted in order to appeal as directly as possible to specific demographic groups. For example, the corporate suits at one signal may want to attract upper-income women between the ages of 18 and 34. To accomplish this goal, they'll finance surveys and focus groups in which test subjects that fit within the designated parameters are asked what sorts of songs they like most and least; then the power-wielders will design an overall approach that provides what the listeners they most covet say they want.

That sounds nice on the surface, but the effect of such micro-management is willful one-dimensionality--a station that does one thing, and one thing only. For that reason, someone who'd like to hear an assortment of music is forced to search the radio dial in the hopes of happening upon a pleasant surprise now and then. Only a relative few bother, however. The rest end up gravitating to the most familiar sonics they can find and staying there, or giving up on music altogether in favor of talk radio. No wonder sales are down--and bigotry about music is at an all-time high.

The various responses to the Notorious B.I.G. illustrate the repercussions such prejudices can have. Wallace got his first taste of fame in 1993, when he was heard on singles by Mary J. Blige ("Real Love" and "What's the 411") and dancehall-reggae figure Supercat ("Dolly My Baby"). But he made a much larger impact on the hip-hop scene with his debut long-player Ready to Die, a great-sounding but morally suspect collection of street tales that were as politically incorrect as they could be. "Gimme the Loot" and "Me & My Bitch" pretty much established his persona. In the former, he used his booming voice to boast about violence and mercenariness in extremely graphic terms ("For the bread and butter/I'll leave niggers in the gutter...When I bust my gat/Motherfuckers take dirt naps"); in the latter, a love song of sorts, he paid tribute to a woman who eventually died for him with lines like "When I met you I admit, my first thought was the trick/You looked so good, I'd suck on your daddy's dick" and "When the time's right, I beat you right." These words landed with an even greater wallop when coupled with Biggie's admission to interviewers that he had once been a drug dealer--and that he felt precious little guilt for having engaged in that occupation.  

As bold as these claims were, they didn't cause much of a stir among the masses, in large part because Ready to Die, like most rap, was ghettoized by the mainstream media. Although the CD was a smash with teens into the gangsta thang, it remained virtually invisible outside the hardcore hip-hop community. But because of Wallace's death and its proximity to the murder of Tupac Shakur the previous year, Life After Death was considerably more difficult to ignore, even for music journalists who seldom paid attention to hip-hop. A case in point was Anthony DeCurtis, a Rolling Stone writer who is most comfortable writing laudatory pieces about groups like Counting Crows. In his review of Biggie's sophomore turn, he gave little indication that he was familiar with the artist in question or rap in general, but he gave it four stars anyhow. Other rock scribes were equally effusive, but the cautious tenor of their prose made it clear that they'd rather die themselves than actually listen to the damned thing again. As for more middlebrow commentators, they were all but unanimous in their contention that B.I.G. got what he deserved--the live-by-the-sword-die-by-the-sword theory--and used his slaying as an excuse to criticize the entire hip-hop genre for its negative influence on America's youth.

A more objective listen suggests that both of these viewpoints are suspect. Because of the efforts of a slew of gifted producers, including DJ Premier, Easy Mo Bee, Mobb Depp's Havoc and Sean "Puffy" Combs, the man most responsible for Biggie's stardom, Life After Death is extremely listenable and exhibits an impressive sweep: Especially noteworthy from a purely musical perspective are the funky "I Love the Dough," the sassy "Another" (a pornographic duet with jailbait Lil' Kim), the smooch ballad "Fucking You Tonight" (crooned mainly by R. Kelly), the unexpectedly soulful "Playa Hater," and the macabre "Niggers Bleed."

Of course, Biggie's raps on these tracks are an acquired taste. His tone is certainly meaty, but it's also a bit mushy and phlegmatic; at times he sounds like Chicago Cubs sportscaster Harry Caray. His subject matter, meanwhile, is little different from that displayed on Ready to Die. He continues to be casually misogynistic, and his glorification of the thug life is still, at its base, adolescent. He might have developed into a deeper thinker had he gotten the chance, but Life After Death proves that he wasn't there yet; even the much ballyhooed "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Kills You)" is clotted with couplets such as, "The kids, the dog/Everybody dyin'/No lyin'." Anyone who pretends to the contrary is merely indulging in sentimentality for a dead man who generally shunned that emotion himself.

By the same token, the Notorious B.I.G. does not epitomize rap; the style has grown too large for such a generalization. Hip-hop has existed for around two decades now, and in that time, its evolution has been extraordinarily vigorous. Sure, there are plenty of hardcore types who operate in the Biggie tradition, and many of them--like the Wu-Tang Clan, whose own double album, Wu-Tang Forever is set to drop in June--are hugely popular. But there are also party types such as DJ Kool and Sir Mix-A-Lot; jazzier sorts like A Tribe Called Quest; hybrids along the lines of the Fugees; creatively ambitious sorts typified by DJ Shadow; and uncategorizable aberrations such as Dr. Octagon. In other words, hip-hop is every bit as diverse as rock, an umbrella term large enough to cover everyone from Jewel to Marilyn Manson. And those who don't realize this are suffering from either ignorance or racism--and often both.

No one could credibly claim that all hip-hop is good. In fact, Combs, recording under the moniker Puff Daddy, has made two of the lamest singles in recent memory: "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," in which he rapes Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" (as important a song to rap as "Like a Rolling Stone" is to rock), and "I'll Be Missing You," an alleged tribute to B.I.G. that finds Combs mumbling to the tune of the Police's "Every Breath You Take" as Wallace's wife, Faith Evans, warbles in the background. The weaknesses inherent in this last number might be excusable under the circumstances were not the entire enterprise so obviously an attempt by Combs and Evans (who was separated from Wallace at the time of his death) to pimp Biggie for a little more cash. After all, the video to the cut is relentlessly focused on Combs (B.I.G. is seen only once, in a photograph at the end of the clip), and the lyrics are the worst kind of Hallmark homilies. When Puff Daddy talks about seeing his friend in heaven someday, it's hard not to think of the Ready to Die song "Suicidal Thoughts," in which Biggie spat, "When I die, I want to go to hell/I'm a piece of shit, it ain't hard to fuckin' tell."  

Even so, it's as unfair to dismiss hip-hop on the basis of one or two subpar tunes as it is to declare jazz worthless because of Kenny G or to dismiss country on the basis of Billy Ray Cyrus. There's value in every kind of music, and learning about as much of it as possible can be a mind-expanding experience that can help enhance understanding and ease the very sort of intolerance that is growing at such an upsetting rate in American society.

It's naive to think that this situation would change substantially if only people would look beyond their own musical backyards. Then again, if those barriers were broken down, who knows how many others would fall?

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