RHYME OR REASON?

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The Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. Christopher Wallace, was living large. Life was sweet, good, like something out of a song. Here he was, all 6 ft. 3 in. and 300-some pounds of him, grown up and successful. Back in the day, he had been just another fat kid, a no-account who couldn't get girls, couldn't finish high school, slinging crack for near nothing on a street corner in Brooklyn. Then he discovered gangsta rap. His first album, Ready to Die, sold more than a million copies, and his follow-up, Life After Death, scheduled to drop on March 25, was the talk of the rap world. Wallace had already landed the cover of the hip-hop magazine the Source, and he was set to have lunch with TIME's pop music critic in a week. Now here he was at a star-studded party in L.A. that Vibe magazine was hosting to celebrate the Soul Train Music Awards on March 9. Actor Wesley Snipes was there. Singer Seal was there. Wallace was floating on good vibes. It was like a song.

But it was a gangsta rap song. More than 1,700 people crowded into the Peterson Automotive Museum, where the party was being held, and the crush was too much. Around midnight the fire marshal ordered the festivities shut down. Wallace went to his truck. A friend took the wheel of the GMC Suburban, and the rapper got into the passenger seat (he didn't have a driver's license). Moments after they left the parking lot, according to witnesses, a lone gunman in a passing car fired several shots from a 9-mm handgun through the passenger side of the vehicle, hitting the 24-year-old rapper. He died on the way to the hospital.

Wait. Haven't we heard this story before? Is this the remix? It was just six months ago that Tupac Shakur, one of the West Coast's most charismatic and popular gangsta rappers, was slain in a similar drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. Now Wallace, one of the East Coast's biggest rap stars, is dead too. Like Shakur, Biggie had foretold his own demise. On the dirgelike song You're Nobody, from his forthcoming CD, he raps, "You're nobody/ Till somebody kills you."

Indeed, in the wake of Wallace's death, as with Shakur's, records bearing his name sold out in stores nationwide; the new CD is expected to be a hot seller. Americans have long been drawn to the symbiosis between criminal life and pop culture--from Frank Sinatra and his alleged mobster pals to the success of the Godfather saga, which is scheduled for an anniversary re-release this week, to the fact that John Gotti's daughter has a new novel out. In the case of gangsta rap, however, the music, though often purchased by suburban whites, is primarily identified with a segment of society, young black males, that is particularly ravaged by crime. Is gangsta mythologizing for people already living under the gun a form of release or cultural imprisonment?

Some rappers are calling for introspection. Says Warren G, whose record company, fearing for his safety, postponed the promotional tour for his new album Take a Look over Your Shoulder: "This has gone too far. It's making us look like animals." Says rapper Ahmir of the progressive Philadelphia hip-hop band the Roots: "I thought Tupac's death was a wake-up call. I guess we hit the snooze button." Adds Wyclef of the socially conscious hip-hop band the Fugees: "We all need to chill out for a second and step back. It's just entertainment, after all."

Others are calling for an end to gangsta rap. After Shakur's murder, Minister Conrad Muhammad of the Nation of Islam held a hip-hop summit in Harlem to encourage nonviolence. Now he wants to go further. "There needs to be one more murder," he says. "Gangsta rap needs to be murdered. [It] is absolutely genocidal. [It] holds out no hope. The lyrics can become like drugs, almost like a narcotic in a young person's life. We need rap. It's a critical vehicle for youth to express themselves. But the negativity is destroying what these young rappers have built."

Rap started as a form of verbal jousting--good-natured wordplay. Gangsta rap, with its themes of low riding and thuggery, raised the stakes. Now, a record-label president says, "a lot of the people who are the new players are coming from the drug trade or gang-related backgrounds. I myself have had death threats."

Violence, even the threat of it, seems to feed on itself. In 1994 Shakur was shot outside a New York City recording studio being used by Wallace and Sean "Puffy" Combs, the head of Wallace's record label, Bad Boy Entertainment. Shakur survived and accused Wallace and Combs of being involved in the attack. In 1995 Suge Knight, the controversial head of Los Angeles-based Death Row Records (now serving nine years in prison for violating probation on an assault conviction), lured Shakur to his label in part by playing up the tensions between East Coast rappers (like Wallace) and West Coast rappers (like Shakur). Later, when Shakur signed with Death Row, he released a single that threatened the Bad Boy rappers with violent retaliation and bragged that he had slept with Wallace's wife, the singer Faith Evans (something she denies).

Although there are officially no suspects in Shakur's murder, police say they have identified a member of the Crips gang who they believe is responsible. Because Death Row has links to the Bloods street gang--bitter rivals of the Crips--and because Bad Boy rappers had hired Crips as bodyguards during their West Coast visits, some observers speculate that the Wallace murder involved revenge by the Bloods on behalf of Shakur. But sources tell TIME that the L.A.P.D. is focusing its investigation on the same group of Crips that Bad Boy used as bodyguards.

Inside the hip-hop community, paranoia is running at high levels and all kinds of rumors are flying. Several of Wallace's friends claim that he told them fbi agents were trailing him on his trip from New York City to Los Angeles. (The FBI office in New York would not confirm or deny this.) The alleged FBI presence has some seeing conspiracy. Mutulu Shakur, ex-husband of Tupac Shakur's mother, says the FBI is trying to create a "rift" between East Coast and West Coast rappers. "Whether we accept it or not, the rap groups are a movement," says Mutulu, who is serving a 60-year sentence in a federal prison in Atlanta for his role in an armored-car robbery in 1981. "The wrath of the government has come to descend on the rap industry."

Wallace's music was often based on such themes--intrigue, gangland camaraderie, killers' lying in wait. On his new album he even raps about being monitored by the feds. But while in interviews he proudly touted his felonious past, his lyrics sometimes betrayed a loathing for the lawless life-style. On the song Somebody's Gotta Die from his new CD, he hunts down a rival only to discover, as he shoots the man, that his victim is holding a child. (Wallace had two children of his own.) The rapper once told Peter Spirer, director of the new hip-hop documentary Rhyme & Reason, that "the hardest thing I ever had to overcome is really just making the transition from being a street hustling nigger to, like, a star." Friends say Wallace only rapped about violence to make enough money to leave it all behind. Says Lance Rivera, a close friend of Wallace's: "He said he wanted to move his family down to Atlanta, build them a house there and write a book."

An advance copy of Life After Death shows Wallace was developing as a performer, but despite several winning songs, there's still an unhealthy amount of thuggery. A record-industry executive who knew him asks, "Why must artists still pimp the idea that life is an ugly reality? It's time to give people dreams back. [Wallace] had moved on, out of the drug dealing. The images he was conveying were still rooted in the ghetto. He wasn't showing his fans that there is another life."

Tavis Smiley, a cultural commentator and author of a collection of political essays, Hard Left, is worried about the effect Wallace's slaying will have on young rap fans: "The value of life is decreasing by the minute right in front of their eyes." Says Preston Williams, 21, a hip-hop fan and student at Howard University: "If these guys are getting killed over music, then it's the dumbest thing that I've experienced in my whole life. If these famous guys can die, who is to say that I won't be next?" Hopefully, gangsta rap fans will move on and grow up. In his way, that's what Biggie was trying to do.