Recently, as I’ve been walking and riding around the border between Bushwick and Bed-Stuy I’ve been struck with the amount of Notorious BIG that has been playing all around me. Growing up on St. James Place, Christopher Wallace would frequent the stoops and street-corners a stone’s throw from some of my own frequent haunts. And although the knowledge of this has been somewhat in the back on my mind, I’ve been reminded of it more recently as the frequency of his lyrics have been filling the burgeoning summer air. This is not to say that my current proximity to Wallace’s boyhood somehow connects us spiritually. But the rapidness with which Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Clinton Hill are changing and becoming more gentrified has given me more pause to consider the ways in which Biggie’s music still resonates with the spirit of the neighborhood.
I don’t really have a fully flushed out theory concerning Biggie’s current relevance, but I know it’s there. A timelessness of Brooklyn is imbued in Small’s lyrics: one of struggle and eventual triumph, heartbreak and doubt, perseverance and violence. One of the songs that I most frequently hear and that currently gives me the most pause is Juicy. In some ways this song epitomizes the struggle that drove Wallace’s voice. Even in its opening spoken word into, Biggie damns all the people that brought him down or else doubted his passion. But even before the first verse starts, he says “But it’s all good…” as if not only to dismiss those that held him back, but also as a way of appreciating the past for brining him to the heights of his stardom. The narrative in Juicy Wallace was born “opposite a winner / remembering when I used to eat sardines for dinner,” but quickly becomes a person “living life without fear / putting five karats in my baby girls ear.”
But this common rags to riches narrative that pervades of lot of mid-90s rap is not really what keeps Biggies voice strong along Dekalb Ave where I bike almost everyday. Part of this narrative involves a hope and an openness that rarely seems fitting for a hard voice from the inner city. Wallace’s willingness to expose personal flaws, doubts, combined with the introspective knowledge of performing the “stereotype(s) of black male misunderstood,” mark him as a unique voice that is still needed within Brooklyn. That introspection is something that I feel is missing within the Bushwick just to my north. Although a frequent conversation about the current state of artists housing within the neighborhood involves gentrification, displacement, and wealth inequity, a willingness to talk about self-implication and culpability seems to sour most.
Though this self-reflectivity doesn’t dwell on what went wrong, or brood on voices from a former era can cloud the judgement and the progress of an individual (or community). Though hardships are acknowledged, Wallace shrugs off the problems of the past through reiterating “But it’s all good” throughout the track. Though this acquiescence is in some part due to Biggie’s fame, the dismissal can also be attributed to Big’s desire to look at the now in favor of living in the past. In this way, the neighborhood – or those like myself that have recently moved to the area – seem so captivated and stunted by the rapid change they’ve noticed – reflecting on what used to be more than what is happening now.
Again, I don’t know if this is why I think hear Biggie more now that I have in recent years, but I think that his music – particularly Juicy rings out link an anthem for the neighborhood to consider what’s currently at stake in the seemingly inevitable change to come. As I’ve been hearing Wallace’s baritone rhymes bounce from the trunks of car stereo systems, I’ve been thinking of the way Rebecca Solnit describes listening to country music while driving her car in the desert. Being present in the landscape and place of an artists past radically changes the ways one relates to their music. The visuals of their lyrics come to life before your eyes, the metaphors become more tangible, their lamentations more felt. As I hear the bass line from Get Money coming from the windows of the houses along Gates Ave, I can’t help but think of the ways in which Biggie’s music still paves the changing streets of this neighborhood.