14 years ago today, I said “fuck Hip-Hop.” I was 15 years old, and I had just been woken up by my Mom, who told me it sounded on the radio like something bad had just happened to a prominent Hip-Hop artist. I was still entering complete consciousness when the host uttered the words “We would like to send our condolences to the family of the Notorious B.I.G….” Immediately, a wave of anger, disgust and shame overtook me. Not again. Pac and now B.I.G.?
My Mom looked at me with sympathy. Hip-Hop wasn’t her generation, but she connected with the spirit of the music through its use of samples. She had exposed me to my first Hip-Hop through her vinyl purchases of Run DMC, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and the Fresh Prince. She liked Pac and Biggie, especially the former’s intellect, but couldn’t tolerate a lot of the misogyny prevalent on their albums. Even in her empathy, I could see some disconnect there. She had lived through the losses of musical giants like Hendrix, Gaye and others. But never from them killing each other out in the streets. This was not the Hip-Hop culture she had grown to love.
And was it still the Hip-Hop I loved? Originally, I had taken sides on regional grounds in the so-called “East-West” war. I still loved Pac’s music, but felt he had “betrayed” his origins by turning into a Westside rider and going at so many East Coast rappers. I was a huge B.I.G. fan as well; Ready to Die was one of the soundtracks that symbolized my “innocence lost” and arduous journey from naive adolescent to psuedo-independent teenager. In school, classmates and I would debate who was “right” in the feud and which side would come out the winner. Ironically, we almost never looked at it as who would win a street fight despite the threats included in some of the rhymes. Our debates always focused on who was the better emcee and who would come out on top through the release of better albums. At our core, we still believed this to be entertainment and competition like the old battles.
When Tupac died on September 13, 1996, it was a rainy day in northern New Jersey. I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe that Pac, who always seemed larger than life, was dead. No blaze of glory ending like the movies. No martyr sacrifice like some history revisionists try to claim. For all his potential as a transformative figure, he died slowly, ebbing away in a hospital bed riddled with bullets over a petty gang dispute. I mourned him for that tragedy as did all of Hip-Hop.
Biggie’s death was different. My sadness for Pac was replaced by anger. I thought Pac’s death was the wake-up call and something like that would never happen again. And yet here we were just six months later reliving pain from the nonsensical death of a another young, gifted and black young man. I listened to Ice-T try to play mediator on Hot 97 and assure us that people on the West Coast were not celebrating this death, all the while hearing from other people over there that many felt Biggie “deserved it.” I listened to Grandmaster Flash, one of the architects of this culture, break down and sob on the phone over what he deemed was the loss of the soul of Hip-Hop culture.
Was this the culture I wanted to commit my life to? One that destroys its brightest talents over bullshit? None of us pulled the physical triggers that silenced the lives of Pac and Biggie, but I felt Hip-Hop culture as a whole, from the journalists to radio stations and down to the fans, kept a fire lit that made this happen. Even their music itself sounded different. The song themes and albums titles (Ready to Die, Life After Death) all sounded like a surreal, sick joke. Our culture was not a savior, but another yoke that allowed us to reinforce the stereotypes and oppressions our forefathers fought against. I had had enough.
My “fuck Hip-Hop” phase lasted less than a week. Who was I kidding? You don’t abandon something you truly love…you fight for it. I had to be honest that our culture had been hi-jacked by a bunch of self-perpetuated bullshit, and that was the first step to fixing things. Over that next year, a lot of things happened in Hip-Hop. A few classics dropped in Aquemini and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Black Star dropped an excellent debut. Canibus and LL had a good battle without the extracurricular nonsense. The South got newfound national attention on the back of No Limit. Diddy, then known as Puff Daddy, became a star. Well, about that last point, I never said everything that happened was positive.
Today Hip-Hop is still my mistress. She’s loved and hurt me. March 9, 1997 is one of the more painful memories. Yet, the love has endured since I can remember. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.