Biggie Smalls: Life or Death

It has become an annual ritual. Every year around March 9, the rap world honors the late Christopher Wallace, better known as the Notorious B.I.G. But are we celebrating Biggie’s life, or his death?

This year, that question is more relevant than ever. On the tenth anniversary of his murder several rap mags and other music publications have marked the occasion with splashy covers and heartfelt stories. Mick Boogie and Mister Cee have compiled mixtape tributes. Numerous websites offer stories explaining why many consider Biggie the best MC of all time. And on March 6, Bad Boy Records released the Notorious B.I.G.’s Greatest Hits.

Christopher Wallace was born on May 21, 1972. In two months, he would have been 35 years old. But that seems of little interest to us. Instead, we use March 9, 1997, the day he was shot down in a hail of bullets, to commemorate one of the greatest MCs who ever lived. It marks the moment when he transformed from an amazing artist into a martyr, a symbol of unrealized potential. We can’t get over the fact that he’s dead, so we use his demise to mourn what we have lost.

One would imagine that journalists and rap industry veterans would act responsibly and choose Biggie’s birthday as a more appropriate time. Aren’t they concerned with the image of Notorious B.I.G.’s as a ghostly figure that haunts us every year, instead of a great man who once blessed the world with his music?

Perhaps Biggie would have enjoyed the sick joke we play by honoring his death day. On his classic 1994 debut Ready to Die, he metaphorically blasted himself on the album’s final track, “Suicidal Thoughts.” That disc went platinum, and its many singles sold enormously well. But Biggie didn’t become a multi-platinum superstar until after he was assassinated in Las Vegas, just before the release of Life After Death on March 25, 1997. The tragedy seemingly helped make the album one of the biggest-selling rap recordings of all time. If some weren’t convinced that Biggie was the best when he was alive, many were won over by his murder.

Then there’s Tupac Shakur, Biggie’s onetime rival and another frequent candidate in the “greatest of all time” sweepstakes. Last fall, two months after his death day on September 13, Amaru Entertainment released Pac’s Life. No disrespect to his mother, Afeni Shakur, but how ironic is that?

Other icons that are no longer with us draw tributes on their birthdays. Bob Marley’s February 6 birthday, for example, was commemorated with concerts and parties around the world. Unfortunately, hip-hop is locked in a death culture. Our artists claim invulnerability by cutting down rivals with taunts and bullets, and then offer their own to the society that made and eventually annihilated them. They’re like suicide bombers who make videotape confessions before detonating themselves.

In this toxic environment, Biggie and Tupac made the ultimate sacrifice. We refuse to deal with the violence we create, so we venerate the two men whose outsized legends seemingly make all the crap worthwhile. After all, if they talked about killing people and subsequently died as heroes, then the bloody rap world we’re stuck in will eventually redeem us, too.

Next year, instead of reminding ourselves of Notorious B.I.G’s senseless murder, we should honor his life and make May 21 a date for our annual celebrations. It would not only be a more appropriate way to remember this musical and cultural giant, but it would also be a first step towards combating the negative elements that are killing hip-hop culture.