Ready to Die at 20: How Christopher Wallace created hip-hop’s definitive crime epic
Harking back to a time when infamous street gang the Forty Thieves gripped Manhattan’s Five Points intersection and its adjoining neighborhoods in the early nineteenth century, New York City has been a backdrop for a wide variety of criminals and huge scope of criminality. From the five Mafia families that dominated the city’s organized crime for decades, to the rebellious youths of Bronx-born gang the Black Spades, NYC’s history is forever tied to the activities of these vivid and sometimes violent rogues, while the names of big-city kingpins like Al Capone, Frank Lucas, Dutch Schulz, and John Gotti will forever have a place in the worldwide pop culture lexicon.
The grit, glamour, and general “otherness” of unlawful activity has always caught the public’s imagination and nowhere is that more evident than the huge body of art and literature that crime has inspired. The prickly topics of murder, theft, and other indiscretions have proved irresistible subject matter for a wide-variety of writers, musicians, artists, and filmmakers, and across all mediums, the five boroughs have often provided a central backdrop—the bright lights and impossibly tall skyscrapers offering the perfect symbolism for the American dream so many criminals attempt to pull a chunk of.
Take the history of cinema, for example. No other American city has provided the same look, feel, or personality than New York—a diverse, sprawling 300-square-mile arena that has seen everything from organized crime epics The Godfather and Goodfellas, to uptown hoodlum joint Super Fly, botched robbery caper Dog Day Afternoon, and the unprincipled actions of the corporate raiders who once occupied Wall Street. Some are based on fact. Others are fictitious, and many, a hybrid of both. Regardless, NYC has proved irresistible for filmmakers eager to frame the inner workings of the criminal mind. Such is the city’s cinematic impact that it can leave an on-screen impression as potent as the personalities who populate it.
Twenty years ago (September 13, 1994) saw the release of another wholly cinematic piece inspired by New York, and like some of the classic work that came before, it blurred the lines of fact and fiction, offering a creative narrative that depicted Brooklyn’s tough Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood through the eyes of an ambitious young hustler. But rather than capturing the city on camera, it was a masterwork committed to tape. Writer, director, and star of the piece was twenty-two-year-old Bed-Stuy behemoth Christopher Wallace who, under the guise of alter ego Biggie Smalls aka the Notorious BIG, drew upon his experiences as a low-level street criminal and dreams of large-scale success to conceive the concept of his debut album Ready to Die, utilizing his vivid lyricism and peerless rap ability to execute his vision.
With rap music airing issues affecting the African American community in a manner that mainstream media was shying away from—as Public Enemy’s pioneering MC Chuck D had memorably suggested some five years previous to Ready to Die’s release, dubbing hip-hop “the black CNN”—Biggie’s tale voiced the plight of young Black men living in Brooklyn’s often-forgotten neighborhoods in a manner so uncompromising it sounded practically aired from behind enemy lines. Years of urban mismanagement and systematic racism had taken a vicious toll on Black communities all over America. Across the country, tensions boiled over as the L.A. Riots gripped the West Coast, highlighting the huge disconnect between Black youth and the country’s political hierarchy.
It was in this climate that Wallace spent his adolescents, submitting to the “everyday struggle” that seemed fated for someone born into his life circumstances. This would prove key to the worldview he laid out on Ready to Die with such clarity. Following its protagonist from the cradle to the grave, the album is epic in its scope, scale, and execution. Born to the sounds of Curtis Mayfield’s classic Super Fly soundtrack (released in 1972, the year of Wallace’s birth) and raised by dysfunctional parents during the development of hip-hop—which is depicted in a visceral three-and-a-half-minute opening skit appropriately titled “Intro”—the album goes on to depict Big’s rise from two-bit stick-up kid to the lofty heights of the criminal underworld and the violence that takes him there, eventually winding to a death of his own hand.
While there are plenty of breaks in the chaos for weed, women, and quality time for the friends who watch his back, Ready to Die is a raw, unflinching record; violent to the point of being uncomfortable. Yet like so many big screen anti-heroes, Big is a gripping character—his charm, exuberance, and sense of humor seemingly add odds with his stone-cold willingness to do terrible things if necessary. Wallace even went as far as to liken himself to his cinematic heroes, calling himself as “the black Frank Wright,” referring to the ruthless mob boss in maverick filmmaker Abel Ferrera’s urban classic King of New York.
But Biggie Smalls was not Christopher Wallace. While Ready to Die displays Big’s life as often bleak and offers little in terms of moral ambiguity, Chris was not rotten to the core (as is made clear by Cheo Hodari Coker’s excellent biography Unbelievable: The Life, Death and Aftermath of the Notorious B.I.G.). Raised by his mother Voletta Wallace, an iron-willed mother who as a young woman emigrated to New York from Jamaica in the hope of cornering off her own section of the American dream—her son enjoyed unconditional love of a woman who undoubtedly shielded him from the hazards that dwelled right outside their Fulton Street door. Still, as a teenager, Christopher became jaded by the education system and frustrated by teachers who couldn’t properly engage his intelligence. He was also bedazzled by nice things and the local hustlers who loitered Bed-Stuy’s corners offered the means to make a living. At seventeen years old, Wallace became a high school dropout, and before the music industry became his savior, he had always run up a not insignificant rap sheet. In 1989, he received five years’ probation for weapons charges and would later spend nine months behind bars after being arrested in North Carolina for dealing crack cocaine with no means of making bail.
Voletta may not have been able to totally shelter her only child from the allure of the hustle, but her influence—coupled with the timely intervention of a hungry, young music executive Sean “Puffy” Combs who instantly recognized the superstar potential of the deep-voiced amateur rapper—probably saved Christopher from being totally consumed by a unlawful existence (and undoubtedly more prison time). However, performing under his Biggie Smalls guise allowed Wallace to inhabit a character that would allow him to ponder what might have been. The Voletta Wallace who worked tirelessly to both educate herself and provide for her son is not Biggie Smalls’ mother. That much is clear on that famed intro track, which features a heated domestic dispute between Big’s parents that highlights the difficult nature of his upbringing. The mother is portrayed as an unhinged, irresponsible young mother—a world away from the strong woman whose sternness cast fear on the local young ruffians who sometimes hung with her son.
So “Intro” isn’t an accurate depiction of Wallace’s childhood, but rather an early indication that Biggie Smalls’ story is not a totally autobiographical. Voletta herself has spoken on numerous occasions of the real Christopher versus his alter ego in her laudable work on keeping her son’s legacy alive in the years since his untimely death in 1997. Still, had Wallace not been afforded the opportunity to lay his vision on wax, there’s every chance he would have lived it out on the streets, and, such is the stated presentation of the album, it cuts to a greater truth.
In that way, it’s a comparable piece to director Gordon Parls Jr.’s Super Fly, and it’s fitting that the movie plays such a prominent role in beginning of the Ready to Die narrative. The rugged tale follows the vivaciously dressed hustler Youngblood Priest (played spectacularly by Ron O’Neal), a Harlem cocaine dealer attempting to flee the drug business with his girlfriend Georgia (Shelia Frazier). Like Ready to Die, the movie’s storyline is essentially a work of fiction, yet when Priest’s partner Eddie spells out the desperate nature of his attempts to break free from the world of crime, it highlights the plight facing the many Priests in New York. “You got this fantasy in your head of getting out of the life and setting that other world on its head,” says Eddie in a speech that Big affiliate Jay-Z would jack years later to open his own cinematic depiction of his early life, American Gangster. “What the fuck are you gonna do except hustle?”
Parks’s intended the film to paint a bleak view of the New York drug trade (and the Mayfield soundtrack that Big samples is one of the greatest and most definitive socially conscious records of all time). The hustle and flow of uptown is drained of all its gloss. Hardened characters are broken down—damaged irreparably. Priest, however, does achieve his goal of escaping New York, via some sharp thinking and an elaborate plot that boxes in the White authority figures keen on keeping him in Harlem for their own means. Unlike Priest, there is no happy ending for Smalls, who fulfils the album’s title by taking his own life in the final seconds of the record.
Biggie Smalls may have been ready to die, but for Christopher Wallace it was the start of his creative birth, and exhibit A in the widely held argument that he is the greatest rapper who ever picked up a mic—not only is Ready to Die one of the greatest rap albums of all time, it’s also one of the greatest rapped albums of all time.
The album title, however, would prove prophetic. Wallace was murdered at just twenty-four years of age, but he never seemed that young. A hulking behemoth of a man, often decked out in the dapper fashion of his grandfather’s era, he left behind an eternally lasting image—an image he largely created over the course of his debut album’s formation. As the hip-hop generation has reached middle age, he has always remained their Big Poppa.
Ready to Die started all that.
Responses from Facebook
Leave a Response