The Cinematic Version of B.I.G.
By C.S Lozie
When Biggie says, “and everything you get, ya gotta work haaard for it,” I hear not only the word “hard”, I hear the way he drags it out in his big full bodied chest, and I hear the way it lands on this guy’s neck.
I know a guy.
He listens to Biggie the same way people listen to the Agha Khan lectures or the audiobook version of Rich Dad Poor Dad. He listens to Biggie like Biggie was the voice that came down from a deep dark nothingness and said to the world “let there be light” and also the voice that answered “And there was light.” To him, Biggie is both the maker and the made, the judge and the accused.
I used to live with the guy.
He works a well paid 8am-8pm job. As opposed to Biggie who swore that he could never stand a 9-5 job in an office, this guy is an office guy. Every morning, as he took a quick shower and put on some collared shirt, and tied his patterned tie, he hit every consonant in Biggie’s punchlines like he was beating his brain into order. Like he was explaining to himself why the bed wasn’t as attractive as it looked, or why it was only right that he had to do this separation ritual from his baby boy that he loved with his whole heart. In fact, since we are on the topic, I think Biggie has something to do with how much this man ended up loving his baby boy. Anyway, this guy…he didn’t drink coffee to manage his focus, he listened to Biggie.
When Biggie says, “and everything you get, ya gotta work haaard for it,” I hear not only the word “hard”, I hear the way he drags it out in his big full bodied chest, and I hear the way it lands on this guy’s neck. It’s both pressure and release to him. Yes, the work is going to be hard but no, he isn’t alone on these streets. Biggie is with him, and biggie left him the manual. Because to this guy, the corporate world was just like the streets. After all, Biggie says it: “what happens on that corner happens on every corner.”
No one was shooting guns but employers were firing. Colleagues may not be plotting to sleep with your wife, but sometimes they were scheming to take your position, taking you away from being able to afford the standard of life you want for your family. The guy was often worried about having enough to take care of everyone around him. Both him and Biggie share the idea that the man can only say he is a man when he has dependents. I hear the pressure on Things Done Change when Biggie says “My mother got cancer in her breast/don’t ask me why I’m muthafuckin stressed” The verse ends with a tender confession delivered on a note of resentment against nobody in particular and everybody anywhere. For Biggie and the guy, lack of money is what makes you lose the love around you. For both of them, making money was making love.
Let’s talk about Nicky Santoro for a moment.
You know, you've got the wrong impression about me. I think in all fairness, I should explain to you exactly what it is that I do. For instance tomorrow morning I'll get up nice and early, take a walk down over to the bank and... walk in and see and, uh... if you don't have my money for me, I'll... crack your fuckin' head wide open in front of everybody in the bank. And just about the time that I'm comin' out of jail, hopefully, you'll be coming out of your coma. And guess what? I'll split your fuckin' head open again. 'Cause I'm fuckin' stupid. I don't give a fuck about jail. That's my business. That's what I do. And you know what YOU do, don't we, Charlie? You fuck people out of money and get away with it.
- Nicky Santoro speech in Casino
Nicky Santoro is a man looking out for what he is owed, nothing more. He is the main character in the Martin Scorsese directed film, Casino. He killed anyone he saw as a threat, and one time, squeezed a guy’s head because the man was withholding information he needed to get money he was owed. Nicky was also a loving father and devoted husband—attending his son’s presentations and baseball games. This complex character, is Nicky Santoro: A mixture of violence and tenderness. A threat to all who threatened him and a dramatic lover to anyone who didn't.
And why the fuck are we talking about Nicky Santoro?
Well, first of all, Biggie asks us to. In You’re Nobody Until Somebody Kills You, Biggie calls himself the hip-hop version of “Nicky Tarantino”. It’s a conflation of Nicky Santoro (the character) and Quentin Tarantino (the director). It goes back to what I said in the beginning, Biggie saw himself as both the player and the maker of plays. He wanted to observe and be observed. Which leads to the second point: You cannot grapple with Biggie if you do not grapple with his first album Ready to Die and you cannot grapple fully with Ready to Die if you do not grapple with the cinematic quality of the entire production. I mean, in Machine Gun Funk, Biggie took out the word for police and put in the sound of a siren, making sure his audience had some gaps to fill. On the song Ready to Die,he gives us these three series of two words (couplets) that keep us both in dialogue with ourselves and with him. He says “Your face” and I think “what happened to my face?” Then he says “my feet” and I’m thinking “what happened to his feet?” And he goes “They meet” And of course I go “shit”.
But it’s not only in flow and rhymes that we hear the cinema, it’s in the content of this long stream of consciousness. A lot of times people want to talk about what kind of morality the album teaches, but do you ask that a diary teaches a lesson or tells the truth? In the documentary Biggie: The Life of Notorious B.I.G, Diddy says Biggie was telling us tales of his life and telling us to deal with it. And for Puff ? His job was giving us the right beats so we danced to it. The basic story of Ready to Die is that of a Black child born in a world where he tries to survive and in the end, finds his mode of survival so disgusting he thinks of killing himself. In reality, the character speaking in Ready To Die is a mixture of who Biggie is and who he could be if he didn’t work so hard not to be him. He makes it clear that if he was that character, he also wouldn’t be the man behind the mic with something to live for. He paints the picture of his future if he were walking straight ahead on the tiles that had been laid out for him by his environment. He is a director and his camera is his own real life eyes; Footage has been stored as memory and he edits with the pen on his page. Jay Z calls him Hitchcock with the way he made songs into movies, “they was kind of disturbing but they had purpose in meaning.”
Biggie had that cinematic vision for his music, that’s why he calls himself “Nicky Tarantino”, he is both the actor and the director. The protagonist in violent movies and the teller of violent stories conflated into one big “black, mothafuckin’ gangsta killin', muthafuckin' black mafia ass, chronic smokin', Oreo cookie eatin', pickle juice drinkin’ Chicken gristle eatin', biscuit suckin', V8 juice drinkin', Slim Fast blendin' black greasy muthafucka”
And finally, there’s a last reason we are talking about Nicky Santoro.
No matter how big a guy might be, Nicky would take him on. You beat Nicky with fists, he comes back with a bat. You beat him with a knife, he comes back with a gun. And if you beat him with a gun, you better kill him, because he'll keep comin' back and back until one of you is dead.
- Sam Rothstein on Nicky
Biggie was a big black man in America, born during the mess of the 80’s crack obsession. It was hard to be a self respecting black person in the United States at the time. So for a big black man to build a courage and a confidence big enough to believe in survival, he was resisting the flow of American life which at that time, was systematically opposed to black survival. It took some resistance to breathe easy because it seemed like you were born and expected to die, not survive. And so it is paradoxical—not ironic— that a man who speaks of the violence also has so many lyrics begging niggas to reach for the stars, begging niggas to refuse beef, begging niggas to spread love cuz it’s the Brooklyn way. In the documentary, Nas made a great point:
That’s why I get it. That’s why I see the guy waking up at 6am everyday, taking his shower and putting on his collared shirts and patterned ties while listening to Biggie’s voice. Because even though he might not be able to change the streets, he can change his mind. Even though it’s easy to think you’re Ready to Die by the first 10 minutes of the album, you listen some more and get to Suicidal Thoughts on the same album and think, am I really? And that’s just Biggie, asking if you can afford the path you’re on; giving you thoughts to deal with and dance to.