Tupac (and Biggie) back

The 1990s remains disputed territory. You can see the old wounds reopening as Meek Mill’s “Tupac Back” winds its way through the Internet, generating immediate claims for the greatness of the Notorious B.I.G. (Maino’s “Biggie Is Back”) and Big Pun (Joell Ortiz’ “Big Pun Is Back”). It’s partly a by-product of modern-day blog rap, and how rappers both famous and anonymous will rework any song that resonates longer than a week or two, sometimes opportunistically, often as a subtle form of criticism. Years ago, rappers would have leaped on instrumentals of those hits for drop a manic freestyle during the Wake Up Show, Friday Night Flavas, or some other radio mix show.

Still, it’s not all fun and games. In his column for issue 46 of Wax Poetics, editor-in-chief Andres Torres writes:

“We couldn’t be renegade all day, every day. Because renegade is what kept us a nice niche music like jazz music. …

“However much I value that renegade period of hip-hop, the golden era that cats from my generation use as a high-water mark for the culture, it’s extremely shortsighted to think that it could have remained like that forever. When we were going renegade, just digging for crazy samples, hoodie and Timbo’d up, rhyming in a cipher with abandon, forgoing hooks, melody, or any thoughts about anyone outside our little circle, we were setting ourselves on the same course that jazz music has found itself on. Though many older heads lament the rise of the ‘shiny-suit era’ and accuse Puff of killing ‘real’ hip-hop, the case can be made that he was really just saving it from becoming jazz. A great music that once captivated a generation of listeners in their youth, only to become an antiquated form of art music taught in universities, sanctioned by and made for an elite group – a music that lost touch with the people.”

In its decade-long existence, Wax Poetics has worked heroically to give intellectual due to the stars of jazz’s last culture war, the middlemen stuck in between the out-there free paradigm and the Preservation Hall revivalists. But apparently its charity only extends so far. Guys who can keep the funk and make good sample material for Marc Mac and Madlib deserve validation, as well as anyone prescient enough to have used stark Afrocentric imagery for a collectible album cover. Nerdy and classically-inspired loft jazz players need not apply.

This dubiously generous thinking reads as myopic as Ken Burns’ controversial Jazz miniseries and its dogged focus on the glory years of middlebrow swing. But that’s really a tangent for Torres’ main thesis that hip-hop in the early 1990s was hopelessly underground, nurtured by the likes of Pete Rock and Large Professor, guys who for all their talents couldn’t land a mainstream hit. It took Diddy’s genius idea of converting hip-hop’s Horatio Alger narrative into hypercapitalism and conspicuous “jiggy” consumption run amok for the genre to reach its full potential.

Just as it was at the time, the West Coast renaissance, as well as the emergence of the Dirty South, has been carefully scrubbed out of this narrative. Shortly after the release of Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, I remember watching Vinnie from Naughty By Nature claim on MTV that Biggie “saved hip-hop.” Today, the debate centers on whether Diddy saved hip-hop or actually “killed it,” as Torres writes. His strenuous defense for the former perspective completely omits much of the activity going on in the genre at the time. Worse, he tries to paint jazz in the same triumphalist terms that have arguably done more to destroy hip-hop — from artists being stuck in major label red tape for years because they can’t learn to make a platinum-certified ringtone to fans losing attention in recordings a week after they’ve been downloaded, resulting in industry-low catalog sales — than anything Biggie, Tupac or Diddy did.

The Tupac and Biggie wars, and by extension the East Coast-West Coast beef, represented an epic struggle for the culture’s soul, and I’m not going to rehash its particulars here. But it’s interesting how Rick Ross and Co.’s latest swagger-jack move (see Ross’ “MC Hammer” and “B.M.F. (Blowing Money Fast)”) only leads to deeper fault lines that still tremble after all these years. Whether its jealous remarks by the Rotten Apple’s mixtape horde or distortions from the crate digging dons at Wax Poetics, New York will never let us forget that it sits at the head of the table, even if history paints a more complex picture.

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