Table of Contents
2. Rap as an U.S. American Genre
3. The Negotiation and Conceptualization of Death in Ready to Die
3.1. The Inevitable and Omnipresent Death
3.2. Hyper-Masculinity, Sex and Death
3.3. Death and Fortunes
3.4. Death and the Nostalgic Past
3.5. Suicide and the Self
5. Works Cited
Six Million Ways to Die - The conceptualization of (Black) Death in 1990s Gangster Rap
Rap and Hip Hop culture were created through gang culture however; they are considered a vital part of Black cultural production and self-conceptualization. In the following article, death, often perceived as the ultimate equalizer, will be investigated. Notorious B.I.G.’s first album Ready to Die will serve as a matter of analysis. The overarching question of this article is how death is conceptualized in the economically disadvantaged, Black, and urban communities and which concepts are attached to death. This article will cover gender aspects as well as economical aspects, hedonism, hyper-masculinity, suicide, terror, and memory.
Generally, death is considered the ultimate equalizer. Outside novels death defies our imagination and terrifies our sense of identity (cf. Stewart 1984, 3), however, “[…] dying is by nature the one inevitable fictional matter in prose fiction” and there is “no vocabulary native to it” (Stewart 1984, 4). Death cannot be illustrated (cf. Hart Nibbrig 1995, 9) because by its very nature the concept of ‘death’ is empty (cf. Hart Nibbrig 1995, 18) and “[…], quant à la mort, nul ne la connaît” (Menahem 1988, 29). Thus, death is often central to storytelling as an event but also as a narrative (cf. Friedman 1995, 5). While some scholars argue that “[…], sans le langage, cette mort-là n’existe pas“ (Menahem 1988, 29), a very strong case could be made that human beings and their cultures created the concept of death by their rituals, traditions and reactions towards a deceased body. Alan Friedman observes that “[w]e seem to tame, control, order, evade, attain, summon and dismiss death in as many ways,[…], as there are cultures and people, and thereby define death as it defines us” (1995, 1). If death was treated as a cultural realization, works related to death would vary massively as the lines which define our lives might also define how we approach death. While the subjectivity of death can already be found in romantic writings (cf. Volkmer-Burwitz 1987, 153), Sharon Holland argues that especially in more recent works the subjectivity of death plays a larger role. With remarks to Taussig, Holland writes that the “[s]pace of death is important in the creation of meaning and consciousness […] (2000, 4) and extends the concept of spatiality by adding race as relevant category. According to her, race is an important category for the topic of death as “the subjectivity of death allows marginalized peoples to speak about the unspoken […] (2000, 4/5). Death as a concept is rather paradoxical as “death is the great equalizer” (Holland 2000, 5/6) but it also creates a new division, namely the one “between ‘us’ and ‘them’” (Holland 2000, 1). Death becomes even more paradoxical when taking into account that we are all equal in death but not every death is treated equally.
In this paper, a very special cultural realization of death and dying will be looked at. The concept of spatiality will not only be limited to its geographical notion but also to its social while still keeping the category of race relevant. Dying and death are often considered crisis- autobiographies (cf. Volkmer-Burwitz 154). Due to the focalizing point of an autobiography, it would be useful to have an individual speaking and as Christian L. Hart Nibbrig argues it is easier for music to portray death (cf. 303). Notorious B.I.G., a rapper, unites all the above mentioned aspects (race, spatiality, genre and social standing) and is predestinated for an analysis of how death is approached in his works. Additionally, Notorious B.I.G. had a global commercial impact on the mid 1990s music scene with his first album Ready to Die. Coincidentally, Christopher Wallace died before his second album Life after Death was released in 1997. As these two titles already imply, death seems to be a major impact factor and topic in the Afro-American artist community of the 1990s. Even though “posthumous writings gather a fetishised value […]” (Tambling 2001, 7)1 due to the illusion of crossing the bridge between the dead and the living, Wallace’s first album will be the matter of analysis. It is the aim of this paper to ascribe specific traits to death as portrayed in Wallace’s music. It is very likely that those traits represent a unique combination of Wallace’s social, geographical and ethnic belonging. While the focus of prior analyses was often set on the question of “[h]ow can death be descripted by language due to its foreigness, its otherness” (Schleifer 1990, 203), the question of this paper will be: How is death negotiated and conceptualized in this very particular community and which concepts are attached to it?
After having highlighted the strong connection to the body2, the topic’s spatial component will be looked at. Before starting the analysis of Ready to Die, rap music as a genre has to be contextualized. In the following section, it will be argued for and shown that rap and Hip-Hip are natively American (read as: U.S. American) forms of expression and went from there into the world. Furthermore, the benefitting economic, social and, political factors which ultimately enabled rap music and musicians to express their thoughts and make them available to a large-scale audience will be connected to the temporal and spatial arrangements. After having this done, Ready to Die will be placed in the history of rap music. This history of rap will be followed by the actual analysis of the album with special regards to the research question stated above. The album features five major attributes/traits of death which will be investigated in the respective sections. Those five areas partly reflect Hip-Hip typical themes, such as wealth/commercialization but also gender discourses (hyper-masculinity and sexual encounters), constant insecurity (terror?) or self-reflectivity, the past, regret and suicide.
In the last part of this paper, the findings will be compiled and contrasted with general notions of rap music before being embedded into the academic discussion. Lastly, the findings will be discussed aiming at generating new questions and opening up new fields for further research regarding the image of death in contemporary cultural products.
2. Rap as an U.S. American Genre
The history of rap and Hip Hop cannot be told without the influences of Rock, Jazz and Disco Music3. The structures and resources which enabled Black Disco Music and later Pop Music were mainly provided by labels which have already been successful in the 1960s.
“Until the 70s, the recording industry wasn’t really viewed as part of corporate America. During the rebellious 60s it had opened its doors to dopehead guitarists and bands advocating free love and left-wing ideology […]. Ironically, the profits from the rock revolution music and the expanding market it created, made small labels bigger and led to a consolidation of power within the business” (George 1998, 3)
In the post Martin Luther King phase, the Black Urban Professional came into being and also became relevant as an actor at the market (cf. George 1998, 1/2). The rising influence and economic resources of Afro-Americans should play a larger role in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Disco Music was wrenched through the mills of economic utilization and became part of mainstream culture by the late 1970s. Even though Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper ’ s Delight was not the first Rap track, it was the first one which reached national (and later international) recognition and success in 1979 (cf. Verlan/Loh 2000, 40). Sugarhill Gang was a group from New York City, namely the Bronx, and so the “origin myth” of rap being created in New York came into being (cf. Terkourafi 2010, 4). Even though it cannot be ultimately clarified where Rap was created, it can be stated that Rap is a traditionally Black genre, grew out of ghetto culture (cf. Krims 2000, 157) and most likely started as a version of party music in the 1970s4 (cf. Terkourafi 2010, 3). In the 1980s, Hip Hop with all its elements (break dancing, graffiti art, DJing and MCing) became a trend in America (cf. Verlan/Loh 2000, 41) and became part of the pop industry. While this mainstream activity officially marked what is widely referred to as the ‘Old School’ period5, the hype did not last long and found its end already in the mid-1980s (cf. Verlan/Loh 2000, 42). Rap had to reinvent itself and did so by changing the thematic focus of the songs, away from parties and gaiety to ghetto reality. One of the first artists to follow that thematic but also artistic paradigm change was Gradmaster Flash with The Message in 1982 (cf. Verlan/Loh 2000, 41). In the mid-1980s multiple social, economic and cultural facets came together and enabled Black ghetto and later gangster music. One of the cultural icons hitting the market in 1984/85 was certainly Michael Jordan who opened up a consumer culture for the Afro-American youth (cf. Dyson 1996, 58). According to Dyson, “Black youth learn to want to ‘live large’, to emulate capitalism’s excesses on their own turf. This force drives some Black youth to rob or kill in order to realize their economic goals” (ibid.). Simultaneously, multiple groups (i.e. NWA, Beastie Boys or Public Enemy) started producing rap songs on their own terms and structures, such as labels and production studios. Due to the commercial success of those independent labels, a fight for market power between the well-established and newly upcoming companies broke out (cf. Verlan/Loh 2000, 42/43). One of the major advantages of the upcoming groups and labels was that they had politically radical and rebellious ideas being promoted on their records and those sell better than tracks solely produced for commercial success (cf. Toop 1999, 183/184). The social criticism uttered by groups from the mid 80s and their successors was one of the reasons why, until this very day, scholars claim that Hip-Hip cannot be separated from its political and social implications which depend on the artist’s geographical, political and social environment (cf. Stemmler/Skrandies 2007, 10). Despite the power of social criticism and its function as the Black version of CNN as Chuck D phrased it6, rap music was losing its main focus around 1987 (cf. Toop 1999, 201) and multiple genre comprehensive projects were started (cf. Toop 1999, 202). By the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, Rap was pending between commerce, politics, reality, and the possibility for marginalized to speak (cf. Toop 1999, 215). Dyson proceeds by stating that by 1991, the rules of Hip Hop were changing and opened up a way for sexual hedonism and the glamorization of violence (cf. 1996, 167). In 19927, the song Copkiller by Ice-T’s band Body Count sparked a controversy concerning violence, decay of values, and the distribution of illegitimate thoughts in media and society alike8. While rappers utilized violence to be heard, media used violence as a justification to delegitimize any criticism uttered by rappers (cf. Verlan/Loh 2000, 52). Others draw comparisons to Ragtime, Jazz or Rock’n’Roll by stating that Hip Hop was marginalized and blamed for provoking bad behavior (cf. Terkourafi 2010, 3). All those instances created a picture of Hip Hop being in a terrible crisis due to its hyper- sexism, commercialization, homophobia, and its “distorted, antisocial, self-destructive, and violent portraits of black masculinity” (Rose 2008, 1/2). Tricia Rose attests that Hip-Hop “has increasingly become a playground for black gangsters, pimps and hoes” (ibid.).While some artists, such as KRS-ONE, responded with a discourse on violence from within (cf. Toop 1999, 226), the arguably biggest rivalry in Hip-Hop arose in the early 1990s. The East-West- Coast rivalry not just created “regional affiliation” and “[…] a culture of being true to the local, of telling how it is” (Cramer/Hallett 2010, 256) but also ended deadly for its two main protagonists: Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. The later analyzed album was created within the context of this rivalry and is strongly affected by Hip-Hop typical themes, such as violence, competition and a documentation of the every-day life (cf. Wiegel 2010, 93/77). Nonetheless, innate to Hip-Hip culture is a constant negotiation of what Hip-Hip is (cf. Terkourafi 2010, 3/4) as it, even after the 1990s, continues to move between the lines of conscious rap, commerce9, gangster and underground (cf. ibid.). To pick up the initial question, it can be said that without any doubt rap comes from America10 (cf. Loh/Güngör 2002, 91).
3. The Negotiation and Conceptualization of Death in Ready to Die
As stated above, the album contains five different themes related to death. In the following sections, each of those themes and its realization in the album will be analyzed and embedded into the historical, academic and artistic context. Notorious B.I.G.’s album can be seen as a stereotypical album in many respects. While in the mid 1980s death was used to point out social injustices, the 90s gangster rap promoted “murder and death” as “badges of honor in the streets” (Vallee 2013, 342).
1 Sharon Holland adds that “as the body marks space equally in death and life, it becomes the bridge between the way others see us and the way we see ourselves” (2000, 175/176)
2 “In Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, the primary defintion of the word body is ‘corpse’” (Holland 2000, 175)
3 Tricia Rose argues that rap is closely related to “premodern oral traditions” while Hip-Hop follows the footsteps of previous black musical styles such as Jazz, Blues, and Southern Soul Music (Rose 1994, 21/185).
4 On the contrary, Schaub argues that rap was already by the late 1970s an “aestethic response of parts of the African-American youth to social and racist oppression” (Schaub 2008, 247).
5 The time from 1974-1980 (cf. Strick 2008, 265ll.)
6 Chuck D’s idea was that art and Rap were able to create a counter-voice to mainstream media and transport a Black urban view into mainstream society (cf. Verlan/Loh 2000, 49).
7 In 1992, dancehall/reggae musician Cutty Ranks released a song called A Who Seh Me Dun. It contains the later countless times sampled line “6 million ways to die, choose one” which also provided the title for this article.
8 Sullivan points out that those who discuss rap music in public (i.e. politicians) have barely any knowledge about it (cf. 2003, 607/608)
9 Flores states that “many businesses and corporations have turned to utilize hip-hop to turn a profit” (2012).
10 They even go a step further by claiming that there is no such thing as German rap but only rap in German (cf. Loh/Güngor 2002, 91).