I have to admit I was really happy to see Melissa Harris-Perry acknowledge the legacy of Notorious B.I.G. on her show today – I didn’t realize it’s been 15 years since he was murdered, it doesn’t seem that long ago to me. I remember clearly the shock and grief that I and every other Brooklynite I know felt when we heard the news of Biggie’s death. He had become the soundtrack of our borough and when he was killed it felt for a little while that the music had died. Eventually the torch was picked up by Nas, Jay-Z and others……
A lot of B.I.G.’s music concerned the drug trade and his career as a drug dealer. He recounts this history in Juicy - one of his earliest hits:
Yeah, this album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me
I’d never amount to nothin’, to all the people that lived above the
buildings that I was hustlin’ in front of that called the police on
me when I was just tryin’ to make some money to feed my daughters,
and all the niggaz in the struggle, you know what I’m sayin’?
I never thought it could happen, this rappin’ stuff
I was too used to packin’ gats and stuff
Now honies play me close like butter played toast
From the Mississippi down to the east coast
Condos in Queens, indo for weeks
Sold out seats to hear Biggie Smalls speak
Livin’ life without fear
Puttin’ 5 karats in my baby girl’s ears
Lunches, brunches, interviews by the pool
Considered a fool ’cause I dropped out of high school
Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood
And it’s still all good
In “Drug Dealer”, KRS-One makes the point that historically profits from crime have eased the path for many upwardly mobile Americans:
Drug dealer, understand historical fact
Every race got ahead from selling drugs except Black
We are under attack here’s another cold fact
In the 30s and 40s the drug dealer wasn’t Black
They were Jewish, Italian, Irish, Polish etc., etcetera
Now in the 90s their lives are a lot better
The rise of hip-hop came at a time when the U.S. music industry was in transition. New technologies brought unanticipated changes—affecting record sales and profits. Hip-hop provided a much needed boost to an ailing industry with its new sounds, creativity, and energy. The commercial success of hip-hop correspondingly provided economic opportunities for marginalized black men at a time when other employment options were becoming scarce. One group well positioned to seize the opportunities hip-hop provided for financial reward was ghetto entrepreneurs (aka drug dealers). Ironically, some of the most successful and well-known hip-hop moguls were involved in the illicit drug economy early in life. Many leveraged the proceeds from illegal drugs to finance their start in the music industry.
This path, followed by Russell Simmons, Jay-Z, Master P, Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Eazy-E, Suge Knight, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, and countless others, has led generations of hip-hop fans throughout America to believe that if you are smart and lucky, selling drugs can be a step towards establishing a successful music career.
The Wu-Tang Clan succinctly summed up the prevailing value in the United States, when they proclaimed in their mega-hit “C.R.E.A.M.”, “Cash Rules Everything Around Me, Get the Money, Dollar, Dollar Bills Y’all.” The commercially successful genre known as gangster rap celebrates the purported lifestyle of the drug dealer with its promise of quick financial gain and easy sexual conquests. However, it’s worth noting that aside from the prevalence of guns, the sentiments and attitudes reflected in gangster rap are very similar to the values and behavior that have prevailed on Wall Street over the past three decades.
“Greed is good,” has been the dominant ethos of mainstream financiers who made billions selling toxic products to unwitting customers who became addicted to the financial “high” of increasing profits and cheap borrowed money, no matter how risky. Unlike the titans of Wall Street who were rescued from the consequences of their follies by the federal government and successfully avoided prosecution, today’s rappers are increasingly caught in a trap partly of their own making. Establishing one’s criminal bona fides has become a prerequisite for legitimacy as a gangster rapper, and artists vie to exceed each other in verbal boasts of flouting the law. Prosecutors have become creative at using the lyrics of gangster rappers as evidence of criminal activity, leading to several high-profile prosecutions.
In reality, the life of the average street drug dealer is often harsh, dangerous, and financially unrewarding. This reality is well-described in “Last Dayz” by Onyx. Beginning with a line borrowed from the 1993 film Menace II Society – I’m America’s nightmare, young black and just don’t give a fuck – the track describes a life of zero options, crime and violence. There are messages of suicide – thinking of taking my own life, might as well – and violent ends – and I’ll probably bite the bullet cause I live by the gun. For me one of the best songs that describes the sorrow and loss associated with the gangster lifestyle is So Many Tears by Tupac:
The opportunity to earn big money as a street-level drug dealer is almost as elusive for most black and Latino men as making it into professional sports. Several studies suggest the average street drug dealer earns slightly more than minimum wage and receives no extras for the safety hazards associated with the job (e.g., gunshots, beat-downs, theft), or compensation if hurt or arrested.3 Guns are not a vicarious thrill but a fact of life—the number-one cause of death for young black men, especially those involved in drug-related activities. Nor is going to prison just tough-guy talk but a general eventuality, since one in four black men will do time at some point in their lives, usually while young. I have to admit that like President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder I am a huge fan of The Wire . I think David Simon got it right when he penned the memorable scene between Bodie and McNulty talking about his career as a street level dealer in Baltimore:
It is often difficult to fully appreciate the impact of hip-hop on our culture. Some of the influences are obvious – in language and fashion and advertising. Other impacts are so obscure that when they are revealed you’re left dumbstruck – that’s how I felt when I watched the following exchange between Florida legislators on the Melissa Harris-Perry show:
In some ways it gives me hope to know that even middle-aged white Florida legislators are tuned in to hip hop culture enough to quote Jay-Z lyrics. I’d feel a lot better if that knowledge translated into supporting public policies that actually benefit the young men for whom the drug trade is not a path to prosperity but merely a path to the penitentiary.