Rap Culture: How did it's definers mark society?
'Pac and Biggie remain two of the most popular music artists of all time...'
Jonny Garwood | 6 March 2016

A little over 19 years ago, on the 13th of September 1996, one of America’s most popular hip-hop artists of all time, Tupac Shakur, was mysteriously murdered in a drive-by shooting on one of Las Vegas’ busiest boulevards. In March 1997, whilst waiting at an LA stoplight, Brooklyn rapper, the Notorious B.I.G, was killed in similar circumstances. Both murders remain unsolved. However, in the present day, Pac and Biggie remain two of the most popular music artists of all time, according to YouTube and Spotify hits along with many other domains of online public media. The two were not only influential in the music industry; for instance, 2Pac was a leading activist for the rights of African-Americans in the 1990s. Biggie was also influential in his own right, having been brought up in a far-from-wealthy district of Brooklyn, and being thrown out of his home by his stepfather, only to spend his teenage life selling drugs. Biggie Smalls was the voice of reason for young teenagers in his situation, giving hope that anyone can live a rags-to-riches story. As influential as they are, how did the two shape rap-culture today; and how did they provoke the changes which led to a fairer, more ambitious American society? To further that narrative, would rap-culture, or society, be any different had the two never been murdered so young?

The question as to what shaped one of the biggest names in rap culture was somewhat answered in the songs that were heard belting out of the speakers in The House of Blues, to precede the infamous Hit Em’ Up of June 1996.As the unpredictable figure enters the scene, a concealed voice announces: “Inside the most criminal prison of America… If you think there’s no justice… think again.” A song which taunted Shakur’s arch-rival, the song speaks its message in its own right, as expletive-filled and as harmful as it may be. Tupac grew up without a father, having had relatives such as his mother, Afeni, being members of the Black Panther group, a black rights society. It was in his DNA; his songs gave a message. Even with the most violent, morally corrupt lyrics as those of Hit Em’ Up, classics such as Changes, Dear Mama and California Love called out to a sense of belonging within the listener, which they can personally refer to within the song. Indeed, this was similar in the way in which Shakur challenged American justice through songs such as Ambitionz az a Ridah, testing the morals of the American police regarding his treatment as a black person. Marginalisation, poverty; angst and a sense of powerlessness from his message can be converted into a sense of personal empowerment. This is one of the chief reasons why Shakur has been compared to famous influential figures such as Nelson Mandela.

To visualise the scene of modern America, where police shootings are rife; where the unarmed are shot, such as in the case of Michael Brown or in Ferguson, for no apparent reason other than their skin colour. How did a troubled man who had spent the majority of his adult life in prison, where he wrote Ambitionz az a Ridah, one of his most authoritative hits, influence the tone of racism in the US? Whether or not Shakur influenced the discriminate scene, he still empowered listeners to rise up and never give in; particularly blacks through their treatment by American police, one of the main ways in which he inspired close friend Mike Tyson and later Eminem. Biggie himself gave a clearer, less violent message. Wallace wanted power in his life, telling listeners from his own situation that one can have whatever they like as long as they are dedicated.

If the two had never died, would their message be any clearer? Would modern hip-hop be different? Both would likely be two of the biggest entertainers today. Still, the likes of N.W.A never continued past their sell-by-dates, whilst the rap scene would likely be less Drake-driven pop, less-nonsense Lil’ Wayne and more reality, alike Kendrick Lamar. Biggie would likely still be a massive hip-hop brand, although Pac may have followed suit in the footsteps of LL Cool J and Will Smith from rapping to acting, considering the path he took towards the end of his career. Still, Biggie and Pac’s impact on society can never be forgotten.

 

Original illustration by Lucy Higgins

James Routledge 2016