Illustration Credit: Zachary Schomburg
Excerpt from The Man on High—Essays on skateboarding, hip-hop, poetry and The Notorious B.I.G.
“Since his first album, Jay-Z has simplified his intricate rhyme style: his lyrics have been less tightly constructed and less descriptive—an approach that appeals to mainstream fans, who buy hip-hop for the beats, not the words. He explains by affecting the pinched voice of a casual, presumably white listener: “I’m from West Motherfuck. I don’t know what they’re talking about. But the music is good.”
–Kelefa Sanneh, from his August 20, 2001 The New Yorker article “Gettin’ Paid—Jay-Z, criminal culture, and the rise of corporate rap”
I began my college education in August 2001, the same year Kelefa Sanneh’s above article on Jay-Z came out. One month before 9/11 and four years after my favorite rapper The Notorious B.I.G.’s death in 1997. Like most college freshman, I didn’t actually need to be in college, as I already knew everything there was to know about the world entire. I went anyway, though, to the University of Nevada-Reno and Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado and the University College Cork in Cork, Ireland, then, after a sojourn in California for several months, eventually back to the University of Nevada-Reno, where I graduated in 2005 with an English degree. Restless, I moved around because I didn’t know what I wanted, sure, but also because I somehow instinctively knew that if I figured it out I still wouldn’t be able to accept it. I was passive-aggressive and anxious; spoiled but, if questioned, insistent on my own self-reliance.
Having first become a fan my senior year of high school, Biggie was one of my main constants during this period of my life and in hindsight that fixation of mine made me different, an outsider. The early 00’s was the Internet, countless new songs by countless new artists, all instantly downloadable. The fact that five-six-seven-eight years after his murder I still counted B.I.G. as my favorite musical artist seemed to go against the streaming- and-iTunes-exclusive grain.
Yet what I was learning by listening to Biggie over and over during that time period is how voice impacts culture both artistically and racially. Jay-Z’s 2001 point re: music vs. lyrics is no doubt an accurate one; the sounds and beats one hears in a hip-hop song are often its most immediately sticky element, and it’s easy to listen for catchiness alone. (It’d be curious to get Jay-Z’s take on this in 2017, sixteen years after he uttered the above quote. Now a business mogul and industry unto himself, I wonder if he still feels the same way.) Such first listen, best listen strategies, though, will take you only so far in a Biggie song—what’s going on behind the rapper isn’t as important as what’s coming from his month. There’s a glorious duality of fact and fiction there, an assemblage of scenes invented and actual. Writing about Biggie’s work in her essay “Poetry and the Metaphysical I,” poet Dorothea Lasky writes, “A listener can never pin down his I, with its overwhelming arrogance and simultaneous vulnerability and the sheer power of his hate and love of his reader/listener” and I fully agree with this contention of Lasky’s.
Whether he’s within the guise of the black Frank White, Big Poppa or Biggie Smalls, though, what The Notorious B.I.G. is also rapping about in many of his songs are notions of race and class. As a white male from the middle class, the hate Lasky mentions is sometimes centered in Biggie’s songs at me—not me personally, but the collective me that I represent based on my skin color and socioeconomic background.
In a chapter entitled “Fear of a White Planet,” one that mostly concerns itself with the popularity of Eminem, S. Craig Watkins writes in 2005’s Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement that “[f]or much of its history hip hop has defied the racial and class boundaries that shape life in America . . . The social changes wrought by hip hop were part of an all-important makeover in youth and American pop culture that generated deafening debates about the state of the movement and what it revealed about the state of race in America.” Since it’s ascendance on pop culture’s center stage, hip hop has allowed people from all walks of life different vantage and viewpoints, illuminating for every listener states of being and living that they could not access otherwise. Hip hop is the ultimate unifier, teasing out commonalities between people that they didn’t realize they had prior to pressing play. A lasting makeover, hip hop irrevocably changes perceptions and opinions.
Conversely, in 1999 Ice Cube voiced his own take on the prospect of white audiences listening to black hip hop performers, then attempting to pretend they understand those performers’ existence on any fundamental level: “It’s kinda like being at the zoo. You can look into that world, but you don’t have to touch it. It’s safe.” Cube’s statement directly dovetails with one that author John Leland gave in a 1992 Newsweek cover feature entitled “Rap and Race” wherein Leland states “Rap is locating white insecurity about race—and black insecurity about class-and selling it back as entertainment. As a tidy projection of the messy fears people live under, rap gives its white audience a chance to explore-or ignore-them.”
They jury’s still out, and will be for some time, maybe forever, but so many years later Watkins, Ice Cube and Leland are each right in their own individualized ways. For every wall hip hop breaks down, another one is possibly erected, with, from listener to listener, stereotypes and misrepresentations standing side-by-side insights and racial, cultural, socioeconomic illumination.
In 2001, five years after his death, I started listening to Biggie all the time because A) due to his ineluctable flow, he was skateboarding’s favorite rapper, his songs blasted in myriad skate videos and skate parks and skateboarding is something that I’ve been doing since I was 14, something I know better than nearly everything else and B) as an aspiring poet, what I heard while listening to his lyrics captured my interests poetically; in my specific case at least, Jay-Z’s early-career rhyming simplifications would have turned me as a listener off rather than on. Biggie’s raps are irreducible in his songs. They possess a staying power that rewards study and multiple listens.
Sixteen years later, though, what keeps me listening to Big is not only the above—it’s also that through the rapper I realized my own racial and class-based advantages. Although they posited openings, Biggie’s songs themselves didn’t directly impart this knowledge to me. Rather, my listening to them simply ran parallel to my own entrance into adulthood, my own open knowledge regarding the many varieties of luck I was born into.
At the same time, however, I can’t extricate what Biggie rapped about—trials and tribulations that I will never have to face —and my own racial and socioeconomic self-awareness. His music taught and teaches me who we are isn’t necessarily who we can be, and that continually checking oneself—especially, being a straight white male from the middle class, my own personal self—for error, bias and, yes, conscious and unconscious privilege is a continual necessity, today, tomorrow.
At the beginning of his 2007 book Know What I Mean? —Reflections on Hip Hop Michael Eric Dyson states:
“It’s true that many white folk have admired our culture and interpreted it through the lens of their experience. Many whites have loved and identified with black culture while maintaining intellectual distortions, avoidances and obstructions. Some outside the race think that if they study the culture and learn from its artists and thinkers, they are qualified to interpret and analyze black culture. I don’t disagree with that conclusion. Color can’t be the basis for analyzing culture because some of the best insight on black folk has come from white brothers and sisters. Conversely, some of the most leaden and unimaginative interpretations of black life have come from black fold.
So I’m not saying that non-black fold can’t understand and interpret black culture. But there is something to be said for the dynamics of power, where nonblacks have been afforded the privilege to interpret and—given the racial politics of the nation—to legitimate or decertify black vernacular and classical culture in ways that have been denied to black folk. So it’s not simply a question of the mastery of a set of ideas associated with the interpretation or appraisal of black life and art. It’s also about the power to shape a lens through which this culture is interpreted, and is seen as legitimate, or viable, or desirable, or real, by the dominant culture. That is at stake as well.
I’ve thought about those paragraphs a lot this year, the 20th anniversary of Biggie’s death, thinking about a rapper who, beyond an innate curiosity about the way the world works and doesn’t work, I share absolutely nothing in common with. Dyson, is right, of course, and the lens through which I view The Notorious B.I.G. is only one of many; by no means is it more viable or dominant than anyone else’s. My particular scope is further prismed by my age, race, class, hometown, and artistic aspirations.
When, writing in Rolling Stone earlier this year about the continued relevance of Life After Death, The Daily Show writer Kashana Cauley imparts that “On Life After Death Biggie made practically every song feel like a party. Even darker moments, like “Long Kiss Goodnight” and “My Downfall” had beats that sounded like the happy pings that go off when you’re playing a video game well,” I can fully, on a first-hand basis, concur, even if my own interest in those songs lies in their lyrics as much as their beats. And later in the essay when Cauley declares that “listening to [Life After Death] today, 20 years after it came out, it sounds deeply political, more of a treatise on the physical threats against the black body and the assault that’s common against it in this era, in which Black Lives Matter has rightly called attention to black people’s struggle to avoid being unlawfully killed,” I can also concur—but this is when my own analyzing and opining doesn’t matter in the slightest and all I can do is listen.
In a 2015 Paris Review Daily interview, author Paul Beatty and publisher and editor Chris Jackson broached the subject of, across racial lines, commonality and difference, with Jackson asking Beatty, “Do you think white writers write about race in the same way that black writers do?” and Beatty responding:
I think they do. Maybe not explicitly. I’m trying to think of a book—but almost anything will do, really—think of whatever’s number fifteen on the best-seller list now, written by a white writer. It has nothing to do with blackness or Asianness or Latinoness, or whatever. I think that’s as much a comment on race as anything else, whether the writer realizes it or not. And the problem is we don’t think about it like that. We just think they’re writing about the common experience, we think it’s just the way the world is.
CJ: And the white writers themselves are not self-aware.
PB: They don’t have to be. It doesn’t matter. I realize it…
Like Dyson’s “power to shape a lens” statements in Know What I Mean? —Reflections on Hip Hop, Beatty’s answers here are something I’ve had on repeat in my head recently—vis-à-vis writing, sure, but also simply in terms of living. My common experience is the only one that I have, but that doesn’t mean that I should take it for granted, as in so many ways it is exceptionally uncommon. Day in, day out, remembering that can be a challenge; it’s easier to simply believe that’s “just the way the world is,” that everyone lives the same way I do, with the same opportunities. But to accept such a falsehood is to accept so many other falsehoods, each thinly or broadly insidious. Far better to remember than forget.
Eighteen years old in 2001 and thirty-three as of this writing, I don’t skateboard quite as much as I used to and I don’t listen to Biggie everyday like I once did. In different ways both have suffused into who I am, my way of being and seeing the world. I’m still growing up, which isn’t to say I’ve grown up. I make mistakes, try to learn from them. I’m still learning, listening and learning.
The author of the full-length poetry collection THIS LAST TIME WILL BE THE FIRST (Burnside Review, 2014), recent work by Jeff Alessandrelli appears/is forthcoming in Witness, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly and The American Poetry Review. Excerpted from a larger piece, Jeff’s above essay is taken from his volume The Man on High—Essays on skateboarding, hip-hop, poetry and The Notorious B.I.G., to be released by Eyewear Publishing this November.
Additionally, Jeff also directs the vinyl record-only poetry press Fonograf Editions; in 2016 Fonograf put out albums by Eileen Myles and Rae Armantrout and in 2017 it’ll put out albums by Alice Notley and Harmony Holiday.