On The Record: The Notorious B.I.G., “Ready to Die”

The 2020 Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame nominees have been announced. This year’s list features the Notorious B.I.G., Whitney Houston, Pat Benatar, Dave Matthews Band, Depeche Mode, the Doobie Brothers, Judas Priest, Kraftwerk, MC5, Motörhead, Nine Inch Nails, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Todd Rundgren, Soundgarden, T. Rex, and Thin Lizzy. Let the opinions fly.
I’ve never been to the hall. I’ve known a handful of people over the years who have had a hand in supporting the institution, either as contributors to their various programs or as fans heading to see what it was all about. Personally, I’ve never felt it worthy enough to travel to the relative ghost town that is Cleveland, I’ve spent plenty of time on the chilly shores of Lake Erie as it is. People don’t go to Cleveland because they want to, they go because they’re obligated by something or someone. Put bluntly, nothing about Cleveland screams “rock n’ roll”. (For their 25th anniversary in 2009, the hall hosted a massive concert event in…New York City.)

In addition, the rock n’ roll hall foundation has only been around since the early 80s, a miniscule amount of time in comparison with the history of music. With only one nomination season per year, it will take decades to induct everyone who truly deserves a place in the hall.

Clearly, I have many of my own qualms with the rock hall, most of them revolving around the idea that it doesn’t seem possible to boil rock n’ roll down to a building of photos and plaques. I’m also significantly put off at the lack of women on the list. It’s true that rock n’ roll has been male dominated for decades, but there’s more than a few female artists who have been eligible for years.

There’s a lot of things I am when it comes to the rock n’ roll: opinionated, passionate, and dedicated. But one thing I am not is a purist, and it’s why I think the Notorious B.I.G fully deserves this nomination, and I hope to see him inducted next year.

Purists will wail that Biggie Smalls is a far stretch from what many might consider “rock n’ roll”, and it’s true that he’s not famous for any ripping guitar solos or heart stopping drum fills, but the minute you attempt to shove rock n’ roll into a box of definitions is the minute it isn’t rock n’ roll anymore.

   Ready to Die, Biggie’s debut record, was released in September of 1994, meaning this is the very first year he’s been eligible for the rock hall. (The rules state that 25 years must have passed since the release of a nominee’s first single or album.) The Brooklyn native was only 22 at the time, and a mere 3 years away from his murder.

His tracks are smoother than smooth. Rhythmically, it doesn’t get better than this. He exercises an impressive level of control over his lyrics that sits on top of his added sound effects, and occasional guitar and horn riffs. If you enjoyed Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!, or even Gary Clark Jr.’s This Land, look no further than Ready to Die for their original influence.

Most rock fans agree, even the purists, that rock n’ roll is about attitude — a way of living life with your heart on your sleeve and presenting yourself full force — and also about telling your story with everything you’ve got. Biggie does this.

He sets the scene of Brooklyn in the 90’s so well. It’s like he’s driving us around in his car and telling us about the street corners and alleys that go by. Ready to Die is a representation of life, complete with arguments, apologies, family memories, friendships, crime, girlfriends, and his music.

You could say it’s about sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.

It’s jazz, rock, hip-hop, and rap, all rolled into one brilliant portrait of what it’s like to be from and of the streets of Brooklyn. His diction is crystal clear — there’s no mistaking the words he says. It’s honest and in your face.

“If I wasn’t in the rap game, I’d probably have a key knee-deep in the crack game. Because the streets is a short stop, either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot,” he says on “Things Done Changed”. He never sugar coats the thug lifestyle. Things are hard, day in and day out, and yet it’s with his music that Biggie is able to express what the streets of Brooklyn look and sound like.

“You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far

Now I’m in the limelight ’cause I rhyme tight,” he raps on ”Juicy”.

Maybe it’s my bias for all things Brooklyn that makes me such a staunch supporter for Biggie’s rock hall induction, or maybe I just really want to upset the purists. Isn’t that what rock n’ roll is really about? Pissing off the establishment and breaking boundaries? What’s more rock n’ roll than bending the rules? The Notorious B.I.G. proved that you can come from anywhere and change the game around you.