It’s been a while time since I've hit the keyboard for Daily Beat, but I couldn't have picked a better occasion to come back because 20 years ago today, The Notorious B.I.G. released his debut album, Ready To Die. When people talk about the pantheon of hip-hop’s greatest rappers, you’re almost guaranteed to find Biggie on everyone’s list, and there's a reason for that. Upon its release, Ready To Die set the entire hip-hop world ablaze and helped revive the east coast hip-hop scene. But before we get into why this record is so great, let’s take a trip back in time to the early 90’s.
As most of you hopefully know, hip-hop was born in the South Bronx in 1973. Since then, New York had always held the distinction of being the center of the hip-hop universe. This all changed in 1992 when Dr. Dre released his debut solo venture, The Chronic. The album’s distinct production style and provocative lyrics made it a hit. But more importantly, The Chronic’s success made Los Angles the new epicenter of hip-hop. The g-funk style that Dr. Dre pioneered produced a slew of imitators, which caused gangsta rap to dominate hip-hop radio airwaves. While there were still east coat rappers such as De Le Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Gang Starr who experienced a great amount of success, it was nothing compared to the mainstream recognition that Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and other west coast gangsta rappers were getting. The emergence of Suge Knight and Death Row Records made west coast hip-hop a cash cow. In April of 1994, Nas released Illmatic, but despite its universal critical acclaim, Illmatic still wasn't able to gain the same traction as The Chronic. East coast hip-hop was still looking for a breakout record to make New York relevant again, and that's what it got on September 13th, 1994.
Before the release of Ready To Die, The Notorious B.I.G. had already made a name for himself with his debut single “Party & Bullshit.” With the marketing savvy of his producer and head of Bad Boy Records, Puffy, Biggie was well on his well to the top. He just needed a solid debut album to solidify his rise. Ready To Die proved to be that and much more. Much like Illmatic, Ready To Die was the perfect blend of dope beats and great lyricism. Unlike The Chronic, which relied heavily on beats that sampled funk, Ready To Die had a more soulful and jazzy sound that was the trademark of east coast hip-hop. The album featured several producers, but the one who had his fingerprints all over it was the great Easy Mo Bee. Easy Mo Bee produced six of the 17 tracks on Ready To Die including “Machine Gun Funk.” Of course no great east coast hip-hop album is complete without a contribution from DJ Premier, who produced my personal favorite track on the album, “Unbelievable.” If you watch the movie Notorious, the film depicts Puffy as the one who produced the beat for Ready To Die’s most famous track “Juicy.” However, Pete Rock claims that the man now known as Diddy stole the beat from him (a claim I believe since Puffy has a tendency to give himself more credit that he really deserves). With beats from the likes of Easy Mo Bee, Primo, and (maybe) Pete Rock, it’s easy to see how Ready To Die caught the ear of hip-hop fans. But a record isn’t complete without lyrics. Biggie is typically associated with his Big Poppa persona. When you see a picture of him, you often see him in a nice suit with a hat and cane in hand surrounded by several beautiful women: a portrait of black masculinity. Even though many of his lyrics feed into the Big Poppa persona, Ready To Die showcases a side of Biggie Smalls that seemed to be forgotten sometimes. In “Things Done Changed” he laments about how the neighborhood where he grew up has been ravished by drugs and violence. In “Everyday Struggle” he talks about the hardships of trying to survive daily life in the inner city. “Me & Bitch” serves a tribute to a loyal girlfriend. “Suicidal Thoughts” journeys into the mind of a man who seeks a way out of his shitty life. And of course Biggie’s best song, “Juicy” tells the simple tale of a man who went from rags to riches. It’s songs like these that solidify his claim to being one of the greatest MC’s to ever hold a mic.
Once Ready To Die came out, The Notorious B.I.G. became hip-hop’s hottest commodity. The record’s success brought east coast hip-hop back into prominence, and in turn, intensified the east vs. west war. Bad Boy was now the premier hip-hop label in the east and was put into direct competition with Death Row. Once Death Row signed Biggie’s friend-turned-rival 2Pac, each label had a star to rally around. Unfortunately, the rivalry grew so intense that it claimed both Biggie and Pac’s lives. However, for me Ready To Die’s legacy lies in more than just the album itself. It is a testament to the time in which it was created. In my opinion, 1993 and 1994 are the years in which hip-hop was at its absolute best. Enter the Stage (36 Chambers), Enter da Stage, 93 Til Infinity, Midnight Marauders, Doggystyle, Resurrection, Illmatic, Southernplayalisticcadillacmusik, and Ready To Die were all released within this two-year period. Apart from good kid, m.A.A.d city, I can’t think of another classic hip-hop album released within the last two years. Looking back at that era makes me think of Biggie’s immortal words: it was all a dream.
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