I always like to be honest and frank with people. It’s the way I was raised. That's not to say I’m cold and unfeeling. I have a soul and to those close loved ones, I show it. Same comes to my tastes in music and the albums I hold up as personal classics. Some are instant. You just know from that first moment you’re gonna cherish this album until the day you take that last breath. Some take time to reach that status of personal classic. That’s how I view Biggie’s Ready To Die.
Back in the early 90’s, I was a serious kid who loved the sounds of A Tribe Called Quest, Black Moon, Erick Sermon and the Wu-Tang Clan. I liked my music in all forms, but it had to be honest. Tribe made me think, Black Moon got me hyped, Erick showed me the P-Funk, and Wu brought the ruckus. I wasn’t really down with any smooth shit. You wouldn't get me bumping R&B back then. It was wack to my teenage self.
I’d been reading about Biggie Smalls in the magazines. He was a big dude. He seemed real hood, a grimy dude who had a bugged look. I felt sure he’d be making the kind of music I wanted to bump. Hardcore rap was dangerous and alluring. He appeared to tick those boxes. I heard his first official single “Party & Bullshit” on the “Who’s The Man?” soundtrack. It blew my mind. It was such a big song. It had an ill beat and Biggie ripped it. He was funny, street and charismatic with a dope flow. I had high hopes. I wanted to hear a full length album. If that song was the benchmark then I was sold. In the run up to '94 and his debut album, Ready to Die, Biggie appeared on several joints for a variety of artists. He was making a name for himself, or more importantly, his management was.
I was getting amped for the release. I’d seen the adverts in The Source. The artwork and design was impressive to my young eyes. It was building the excitement I was feeling. I was desperate to own a copy of Ready To Die. I felt so sure it was going to be a personal classic of the instant kind. How could it not be? I was well learned in the rap fan world with an ear for quality and sense of pride that I knew a banger from a dud. Biggie wouldn’t let me down. Sadly, on my first impression he did. "One More Chance," "Juicy," and "Big Poppa" were the offending songs to my ears. The disappointment was real to the 14 year old me. I was mortified that someone as raw as Big had ‘pop radio records’ on his album. As I sit back now as a 36 year old man, I understand it more. For the album to sell to a mainstream audience sometimes you have to hook them in with a sound that’s smoother and less jarring to the senses. In those 3 songs you have that. Each is lyrically strong. I can’t front on that. Biggie had a serious knack for captivating his listener with his distinct voice and approach. I guess my young ears weren’t ready for such things. For me, I wanted the Biggie Smalls of “Gimmie The Loot”. The way he flipped it so you thought it was 2 MC’s can only be described as incredible. It captivated me.
For months, I skipped past the tracks that offended me, I denied their existence. That only changed because one day my mum asked me about the album with the cute baby on the cover. She’d seen it in my room and thought it was a great picture. I listened to many albums with her over my teenage years. She loved Gang Starr and others. She knew samples as well which was so cool to me. We had that kind of bond. This presented me with a difficult situation. Mum didn’t skip songs. She wanted to hear the full body of work. No exceptions.
We sat down and I pressed play. I avoided those 3 ‘pop records’ for months. I had to confront my enemies head on. I braced for impact. I watched intently while she listened. I searched for the signs of enjoyment or displeasure that she expressed in the past. She was into it, there was no doubt. She told me that it was like a journey on record, from a painful beginning to a sad and untimely death. She broke it down. It exposed the struggle of being a product of an unforgiving environment. It was also a glimpse of the high times that success and riches can bring. I remember her telling me it was storytelling. Mum always said that albums are an extension of the artist. It’s their chance to tell us a vivid story, to give us insight into a wider world. After that, I looked at Ready to Die differently. It finally made sense. I treated it like a book. I would go back to read over and over.
So on this march 9th, dig it out your collection and hit play. Let the music breath. Don't skip tracks. Pay your respects to Big Poppa.