family, music, screen

Juicy Boléro

Game pain; guns; Maurice Ravel vs Biggie Smalls; Whiplash, Giorgio Moroder


EARLY evening recently. The annoying son comes into the kitchen with something on his mind. 

He says, Do you know what’s the worst pain I’ve had in my life? Literally the worst ever?

Falling off your skateboard and breaking your arm?

He shakes his head.

Cracking your head open when you were five?


Chicken pox? You had it very bad.

The response is still negative.

switch track and mentally run through the emotional hurtings – family bereavements; the people who were close in his life, then drifted away, or simply vanished; big disappointments with friends; the cat dying. Or something more left-field perhaps: the time the Annoying Son missed out on a donut at work experience, or when the broadband went on the blink for 36 hours!

I’m wondering where we’re going with this. How much therapy will be required to get over the ‘worst pain ever’, as dinner’s almost ready, and I’m starving. 

See here, he says, opening up a video on his phone. Now, this really hurt. Watch and you’ll understand immediately. 

There are two edits of the film. This describes the long version. It starts with a rubbish bin in the middle distance at a local playground. I recognise the playground from long afternoons years ago. You can see a brick wall behind the bin. Out of shot there are green railings either side, and through them the pavement and the busy road beyond where the cars hurtle past all day. I can hear traffic and some indistinct muttering. One voice, maybe, two voices. But it’s not clear what they’re saying yet. 

It is a scene of urban banality, like an establishing shot in a Michael Haneke film. What human suffering are we about to witness? And what is it about the pitch black bin with its gaping mouth? 

Fortunately this isn’t Michael Haneke. The film speeds up suddenly. The muttering voices grow louder and more audible. It’s the annoying son, plus a friend. The friend says, Ready; The Annoying Son says, I’m going to do it, you know, as the camera jerks slightly and an object sails into view. It’s an empty Coke bottle, spinning through the air, heading for the rubbish bin. 

I understand now. The game is to get the bottle into the receptacle. A tough ask from this distance? But it’s an excellent throw. The bottle dips towards the bin and rattles into its slot mouth. A bloody hole in one. The boy’s a genius.

And then it all goes wrong. The bottle has second thoughts, still rattling round the crowded entrance, then falling back out again, and plonk, down onto the asphalt floor. 
It’s over. Groan. So close. So near. So disappointed. 
So you understand now, says The Annoying Son, when I say it hurt? He’s smiling. I mean so much pain, yeah? Basically, I threw that bottle really well, and it should’ve gone in, right?
I nod in agreement and turn back to the cooking.
I should’ve known from his initial tone that this wasn’t regular suffering. This is game pain. An epic fail, one for the scrapbook from the idler years. Because that is what you do when all the decades are still stacked up ahead and yet to happen, you turn ordinary moments like binning the rubbish into a distracting game. And you film it. 
I made a shorter version, says The Annoying Son. It’s got slowmo and sound effects. Look, I’ll show you. 
A Coke Bottle is About to Get Binned
video place holder

I think back to a weekend over the summer, when father and son took a trip to a field in England. We were off-grid at a vast woodland site in a humdrum lowland countryside half way between two large cities. We had to get a cab to the woodland site from the hotel, dead early on a Sunday morning. First down along an A road under a grey sky, then a B road to a lane, and another lane, and finally up a bumpy track of loose shingle then dried mud, into a pine forest, to a clearing with huts and fifty or sixty young men dressed as soldiers. 

The young men were getting ready to play Airsoft, to go into the woods and shoot at each other all day. Airsoft is a sport in which participants kill opponents with replica firearms that fire non-metallic bullets – or pellets. Airsoft originated in Japan but is now a global phenomenon, with numerous companies manufacturing Airsoft-specific weapons, Airsoft clothing and Airsoft field accessories. The game can be played indoors, in large sheds, but mostly combat occurs outside, in sprawling rural locations, hidden away in the forest. Airsoft game-plays range from close quarter combat to skirmishes, to military simulations, law enforcement training drills, and real life adaptations of popular shoot ‘em up computer games. Airsoft participants tend to be young and male. 

I stood in the woodland enclosure, watching the young men in combat gear prepping their armoury for battle, and the obvious, inevitable thoughts bobbed up inside: is this what a crisis in masculinity looks like? 

Or could the hyper-masculinised military regalia, the fine-detail choreography of trading bullets, be a consummate instance of the male gender at its most performative? 

An Airsoft Gun
a replica gun

What about the homo-erotics of young men playing with guns in a densely wooded area? Is this about sublimated desire – testosterone on fire? I’d expected to smell the hormones when we got to the drop off point; that the cumulative man sweat would knock me sideways. But in reality the combatants are well groomed and spruce. It’s the insects that thicken the air.

There’s a total absence of women, except for the mums dropping off from four by fours. I wonder if the Annoying Son notices. But now is not the time to ask. Even the smallest glimmer of scepticism would be off key. This was his big thing this summer. And didn’t come cheap. I hold back at the edges and watch the young men load up. There is a lot of ritual: the laying out and hooking on of gas canisters and ammunition belts, the smoke grenades and the green jungle netting. I notice that Desert Storm camo dominates. This predilection for sandy beige and khaki in a north European theatre of combat, suggests style comes before utility, making the outfits somehow less troubling, more like a costume, and borderline camp. 

When I tell people of my son’s hobby, although they listen politely, the surprise is visible in their eyes. That four letter word: guns. What is the mental health situation of these young men who gather in the woods each weekend to bear arms – is that what people worry about with Airsoft? Are these Columbines or Breiviks in the making?

I prefer to think of the replica guns, the uniform, the wrappings and trappings, as simply the equipment that comes with the game – like a football strip, golf club, or javelin. But then I would think this, I’m the parent. 

A Set of Sockballs - Hours of Fun

The analysis of games, the slant used by cultural studies to unbox or dissect play, can get a little bogged down in subtextual motivation, when the main driver is staring us in the face: Airsoft is recreational escapism, the seeking out of temporary oblivion through absence with leave. It’s a game. And it’s fun. And men, especially young men, are good at fun. Yes, they are.

Every night at my place, the annoying son takes off his socks for bed, but rarely just drops them straight into the laundry. Where’s the entertainment in that? Instead, each sock gets rolled up into a sockball and lobbed at the wash bag from across the room. 

There are so many ways to get your sockball in the sack. You can do a straight pitch. You can bounce the rolled-up sock in off the wall. Or try a rim shot, using the chest of drawers for a backboard. Some nights the socks are tossed over the head, facing away from the target. Or lobbed through the legs, up and down over the bed. He sometimes sends the second sockball chasing the first one through the air, in pursuit of an exquisite cannon shot into the bag. Or makes it deflect off the light shade. And then other times the sock is crossed over for me steer onwards with a head, knee, hipshake or angled backhand. 

There’s always games. If not socks or Coke bottles, then it’s jumping out unexpectedly and giving someone a heart attack, or jokes, or face pulling, or tricks and strange silly voices, or racing a friend to the front door ‘to break the world record’. 

Whenever the annoying son heads off out, I stand by on the balcony for our leave-taking ritual. He looks up knowing I’ll be waiting. Not to wave, but to fix him in the sights of my imaginary 44 calibre revolver. (J says it’s a 44 calibre revolver. I don’t know about these things.)  So, I line him up and fire; and he returns the gesture by pretending to be shot. He does it like in a cartoon: boom, splatter. And then he waves and turns and walks away. One day I guess we will stop doing this.

Rituals, playing games, repeatedly throwing things for the sake of throwing them, with no ulterior purpose or complex motive; retreading the same joke, because the joke is so funny, and you don’t mind killing it anyway, as there’s sure to be another one soon. Doing the same things again and again. 

Sometimes repetition is all we want. (Why must it always be new?) How many times do we order the same lunch, return to familiar places on holiday, walk the exact same route to work? The line of desire, following the quick and familiar, can be hard to resist. We embrace repetition as a comfort. Or at least we do when it suits us. 

There are other scenarios, however, when we are less comfortable with repetition; when duplicating the same experience, again and again, is considered a problem, revealing a troubled fixation perhaps, or a harmful addiction.

A long time ago, in another life, I wrote about pornography, and there were so many established truths about the phenomenon to hack through to gain some perspective. A widely-held assumption was that representations of consenting adults having sex might cause harm.That repeated exposure to such materials may lead to a detour from the pursuit of pleasure, down into a baleful spiral of compulsivity, where viewers chase an ever elusive sense of completion – to compensate, perhaps, for an assumed Freudian lack. 

The possibility that people repeat something simply because it is pleasurable is, for some critics, too ordinary to be true. 

LP Cover for Ravel's Boléro

There are several traditions, styles and departures in music where repetition is valued or predominates as the core process, formal discipline, or aesthetic goal. From old to experimental, from classical Japanese and Hindustani music; through sufi to gamelan to La Monte Young and the systems compositions of Steve Reich or Philip Glass; to more recently with krautrock, shoegaze, drone or dark ambient –  to go round and round isn’t viewed as suspect, compulsive, or a cultural dead end.

Maurice Ravel’s Boléro (1928), is a simple orchestral piece that gains power and presence through repetition. In The Rest is Noise, a musical history of the twentieth century, Alex Ross describes Ravel as taking ‘the aesthetic of repetition to the extreme: for fifteen minutes the orchestra hammers away at a theme in the key of C.’

Boléro was one of Ravel’s last compositions. The composer expected the experimental piece to be roughly treated by critics and shunned by audiences. But it turned out a success and has largely endured as a popular classic for nearly one hundred years. Boléro was the inspiration for a romantic 1930s Hollywood comedy with Carole Lombard, but also an oblique influence on film director Kurosawa’s epic, multi-dimensional Rashomon. 

In recent decades a new boost to the cross-over fame for Ravel’s Boléro came as part of the Olympic legacy of ice dancers Torvill and Dean (or Tortilla and Dean as my spell check prefers). Long before Strictly Come Dancing, a nation of Brits swooned at the sight of two weirdly dressed ice skaters feigning an all-consuming amorous passion on ice, as they made their way to a perfect score and the gold medal at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics of 1984. They even named a square in the skaters’ hometown of Nottingham, Bolero Square. 

A few years before, Dudley Moore and Bo Derek had cosmic Californian sex to Boléro in the film comedy 10 (1979) – the idea being, perhaps, that there’s something about a repeated musical rhythm with crescendo that makes fucking better than ever.

Bo Derek in 10
‘She thinks she’s Bo Derek, wear her hair in a twist’ (…more from Jay Z later)

In the case of Ravel’s short classic (and, coming later, Juicy by Biggie Smalls) repetition takes the place of the conventional structure of musical development. And yet through repetition another kind of development occurs

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was a pioneer of ‘proto-minimalist repetition’ (Ross): a slow working classical artist who sat on the fence dividing, or joining, traditional musical styles and emerging forms of expression and composition. This duality of old and new has been identified as reflecting the different backgrounds of Ravel’s parents and the spirit of the composer’s childhood. (How we love biography for its ready-made narrative clues and solutions.) 

Maurice Ravel at the Piano
Ravel at the piano, thinking about hip-hop

Ravel was born in rural France, close to Biarritz and the Spanish border. The composer’s mother was a free-thinking Basque who sang folk songs from the old country to her infant child. Ravel’s Swiss father, who was an engineer and inventor, worked on early prototypes in the emerging field of automobile technology. Ravel’s music is said to combine strands of the rustic with threads of futurism, an intertwining of the ancient pastoral with the mechanised urban future. Ross positions Ravel as both classic, but also subtly revolutionary: ‘renewing the language of music without disturbing the peace.’ 

Ravel had a simple plan for Boléro, hitting upon a straightforward, insistent melodic theme and then, in his words, ‘[to] repeat it a number of times without any development.’ He considered the new piece ‘an experiment in a very special and limited direction… of orchestral tissue without music.’

Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
you daft punk

Ravel described the rhythm of Boléro as inspired by the machines of his father’s factory – this was the music of the future. On Daft Punk’s album Random Access Memories (2013), the track ‘Giorgio by Moroder’ features an extended voiceover by the composer and producer Giorgio Moroder, as he tells listeners the tale of his early adventures in rhythm.

The young Italian from a small village in the South Tyrol, despaired of ever breaking through in the music industry: ‘In the beginning, I wanted to do an album with the sounds of the 50s, the sounds of the 60s, of the 70s, and then have a sound of the future/And I said, “Wait a second… I know the synthesizer… Why don’t I use the synthesizer, which is the sound of the future?”/And I didn’t have any idea what to do but I knew I needed a click so we put a click on the 24 track…./I knew that it could be a sound of the future but I didn’t realise how much the impact would be.’

In 1977, Giorgio Moroder wrote and produced I Feel Love for Donna Summer. The word seminal is much used these days – as exhausted a descriptive as iconic. And yet, this iconic track proved to be very seminal indeed. (Seminal like Revolver, The Banana Album, Trans-Europe Express or What’s Going On?) 

Donna Summer, I Feel Love - Cover for Original Single
how we dressed in the 70s

Moroder’s electronic dance track is driven by a repetitive rhythmic motif – the Boléro of its time. According to David Bowie, on first hearing I Feel Love, the producer Brian Eno rushed around his recording studio declaring that this was it, no question – they were listening to the sound of the future. (And I Feel Love still sounds this way, after all these years – just like Concorde, or the early scenes in space in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey also continue to herald the future.) 

Boléro starts quietly and just keeps getting louder – ‘one very long, gradual crescendo’, said Ravel. The foundation of the piece is an unchanging repeated rhythm (same as I Feel Love) played on a snare drum. The first time I heard Boléro, as a young child, it  sounded like a military piece, a march into battle.  I remember I expected to hear cannon fire at the end of the piece. I still do. In fact I just checked again to remind myself that there isn’t any. But I guess the heavy timpani in the concluding parts is quite explosive.

A White Kitchen Sink
the kitchen sink Ravel didn’t use

On top of the repeating rhythm, Ravel plays with two melodies which alternate through the piece and vary in orchestration. The general trend however, through the ‘structure of unending crescendo’, from pianissimo (very soft) through to fortissimo (as loud as possible), is an accumulation of instruments, more and more, stacked higher and higher – where only the kitchen sink is held back in reserve.  

For Boléro’s debut, Ravel wished for the setting to be a factory –  to best reflect the mechanised style of the composition. But he had to settle for the Paris Opera. The first night was a great success. Apparently a woman in the audience was said to have shouted that Ravel was mad, and the composer agreed. In fact Ravel suggested that only this woman had ‘fully understood the work.’ 

In the next few years, the maestro Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini performed the piece on several occasions, popularising Boléro both sides of the Atlantic. This was a surprise, as Ravel had assumed that few orchestras would agree to play the composition. However the conductor and composer fell out over the correct running time. (Durations for Boléro vary widely, from a sluggish 18 minutes, or even longer, to a sprint at around twelve. Ravel preferred the piece to clock in at about 15 minutes.) Ravel felt that Toscanini played Boléro much too fast. On one occasion he indicated his annoyance by declining to receive applause from the audience at the end of a rendition. After the show, the composer and conductor argued backstage. Toscanini said he had to speed things up as it was ‘the only way to save the work’. To which Ravel shouted, ‘That’s not my tempo! 

Whiplash - Film Poster
hit me with your rhythm stick, hit me!

Barking That’s not my Tempo! could well be normal music parlance, but for anyone who’s seen the film Whiplash, it’s enough to make you quake.The recent film drama depicts a slow-turning battle of wits between a talented, ambitious, but desperately masochistic young jazz drummer, and his elite music school band leader, who is cruel and sadistic towards his students, especially those who show promise. 

J.K Simmons screams in Miles Teller's Face in Whiplash
not quite my tempo

Whiplash won an Oscar for actor J.K. Simmons in the role of the macho bully. A hermetic and tense study in a closed-world obsession, the story depicts a master and slave dynamic getting very messy. The bully is a perfectionist who loathes what he perceives as the degradation of high culture through society’s misplaced belief in fairness and equality. One bum note and he’s looking to decapitate the student with a cymbal. Chairs are thrown if anyone’s caught lagging – with their parents’ sexual persuasion and sexual fidelity publicly questioned and mocked. This is the film which turned that rather agreeable compliment ‘good job’ into a snark of poisonous contempt. The bully finds ’good’ and ’job’ to be the worst two words in the contemporary lexicon, the embodiment mediocre, a ruinous sap on excellence.

Biggie Smalls
I used to read Word Up! magazine

Juicy was the lead single for the debut album Ready to Die,  by the multi-aliased rap artist Notorious B.I.G, Biggie, or Biggie Smalls. It came out in August 1994. As with Boléro, Juicy gains impact through repetition. 

Juicy contains a hefty sampling of Juicy Fruit, a funk song from 1983 written by James Mtume and perfumed by his group Mtume.* There is a chorus and some variation of instrumentation, but the backing beat is largely unchanging throughout, with the track achieving presence and weight through both the repetition of the sample and the piling up of words: it is the brilliance of Biggie’s verbals that gives Juicy its fibre. 

Smalls was a skilful, nimble, natural born lyricist. His reputation continues to be sky high 20 years later. This is due in part no doubt to his early death – he wasn’t detained long enough on this planet to run out of puff. The long careers of Nas, Eminem, Jay Z, Q Tip or Mos Def, illustrate what it sounds like when a word artist starts to flag and lose their flow. 

Polls, TV shows and magazines from XXL to The Source to Rolling Stone have repeatedly ranked Biggie the best hip-hop artist, MC, or rap lyricist of all time, and the ‘greatest rapper that ever lived’.

A cursory skim of the Juicy word sheet reveals a verbal dexterity, a tightness of rhymes and layering of vowel sounds to go alongside Smalls’ vivid storytelling and relaxed delivery. 

Juicy chronicles the boy Wallace’s rise from obscurity to fame, incarnated as hip-hop legend Biggie Smalls. The verse lines flow back and forth through a stream of words detailing and contrasting the childhood years of poverty for a Brooklyn family just about scraping by (We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us/ No heat, wonder why Christmas missed us), with the current moneyed lifestyle of lavish, careless excess (50-inch screen, money green leather sofa / Got two rides, a limousine with a chauffeur). The young Christopher Wallace is seen dreaming of making it one day as a singer, listing the early influences that spoke to him in his ‘one-room shack’ – from Salt-N-Pepa to Heavy D and Marley Marl; while later, an older Christopher enrols as a drug dealer (just tryin’ to make some money to feed my daughter).

The switch to hip-hop phenomenon is therefore a two-step transition – out of childhood poverty, but also escaping the dangerous lifestyle of a street hustler. But is the break for real, and is it for keeps?

The Notorious B.I.G
get a grip, mother…

Christopher Wallace was the only child of Jamaican immigrant parents. He was raised in Brooklyn by his schoolteacher mother. Wallace’s father was absent from the home and money was always tight. Although he briefly attended a private middle school as a stand-out student, Wallace started dealing drugs at 12. He switched to the same Brooklyn high school attended by Jay Z and Busta Rhymes, but dropped out aged 17 – when he went full time as a dealer. He was in prison in North Carolina for nine months for dealing crack cocaine aged 19.

Juicy is plainly very different to Ravel’s Boléro, not least in the fact that there’s a chorus. A rather wafty chorus at that. A non-grounded, aspirational exhortation to be yourself and follow that dream. (You know very well who you are/ Don’t let ’em hold you down, reach for the stars) This pillowy, radio-friendly refrain is in one stroke a betrayal of Wallace’s gritty urban story, but also serves as a necessary counterpoint or break,  a release from the stark auto-biographical realism. On the warm summer breeze of an abstract feel-good sentiment, we all get to float up together. 

But the meat and flavour of Juicy lives in the verses, with the clustering of words, the heaping on and contrasting of scenarios, ideas and meanings: from bad to good, minor to major, cash-strapped to moneyed, indigent to superabundant (Birthdays was the worse days/ Now we drink champagne when we’re thirst-ay).

There is a small-time innocence about Biggie’s spoils of the good life. Even when you account for the fact that it was 1994, that consumer durables have come a long way in two decades, there’s a distinct modesty about Biggie’s kit list: ‘Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis/ When I was dead broke, man, I couldn’t picture this.’ Compare this with the soaring opulence of the current era, the ‘excess is just my character’ Maybach culture of Rick Ross (My garage is flawless, under a hundred thou’ ain’t allowed). Or the billionaire tendencies of Jay Z, where he no longer goes shopping, he just buys the store. Maybe Kanye West’s luxury fleet on Otis (Watch the Throne) could be the new bench mark, where he doesn’t own just the one Benz, but an ‘other Benz’, and then an ‘other, other Benz’ – this third one simply deployed to confuse the paparazzi. Meanwhile Biggie confesses to running up a large phone bill (No need to worry, my accountant handles that). 

If he were writing today, presumably Smalls would look to scale up the luxury. But only so far. There is a tension in Juicy concerning the artist’s relationship to accumulation vs authenticity. Juicy is a celebration of how good it has got, in contrast to when it used to be so bad. (Born sinner, the opposite of a winner/ remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner) The baubles and trimmings of wealth, endearingly out of date though they might be, gain their allure in part through the contrast with the bad times that came before – the poverty; the plight of being a nobody; the stress of dealing drugs in the shadows of a street corner (damn right I like the life I live/‘Cause I went from negative to positive/And it’s all… good).

Line of Lyrics from Juicy by Biggie Smalls

In reality, Wallace was reluctant to give up on his day job selling crack to embrace his new career as a music artist (I never thought it could happen, this rappin’ stuff/ I was too used to packin’ gats and stuff). Regardless of how strongly he aspired to a hip-hop career, one bright day, and had done since early childhood (way back when I had the red and black lumberjack/ with the hat to match), Smalls needed to be strong-armed into the studio by rap impresario Sean Combs, ‘Puff Daddy’.

Red and Black Hip-Hop Lumberjack Hat
with the hat to match

‘The hardest thing I ever had to overcome,’ said Wallace in an interview at the time of Juicy’s release, ‘is really just making the transition from being a street hustling n—-r to, like, a star.’ 

For Smalls to make it for real as an artist, he had to stop being so real. But keeping it real is part of the expectation of the genre. From Wallace’s street life stems the artist’s aura of authenticity. And this aura matters.** 

The more Biggie’s career as a performer ‘blows up’ (Now I’m in the limelight cause I rhyme tight), the further from the street he travels. There’s a bind in the storytelling in Juicy: as he praises his new-found wealth, the creative success, with the ascending fame and adoration it brings forth, his previous life as the poor hustler becomes more essential than ever, as both a compelling, contrasting backstory, but also the driver for change. And in this way Biggie’s old life proves to be inescapable. So is it really so straightforward as negative to positive? 

The way that Wallace negotiated a route around the dilemma of plausibility versus upswing, was through finding and embracing his rap avatar, Biggie Smalls. While the persona of the Notorious B.I.G. can sing about Biggie Smalls hustling, Christopher Wallace can get on with living his new, padded lifestyle. 

In Nick Broomfield’s film documentary Biggie & Tupac (2002), Smalls’ mother, Voletta Wallace, describes the Notorious B.I.G. and Biggie Smalls as personas separate from Christopher Wallace, her son. In discussing Juicy, and its litany of childhood privation, she observes ‘To me, that’s a part of an alter-ego. That’s the rags to riches person that he wants to sing about. In all my son’s life there was not one single second when I didn’t have food on my table’. 

In this rags to riches chronicle of a journey from the ghetto to a music bizz boardroom, talking ‘mo’ bucks’, money becomes the story itself, and not merely something to boast about as proof of arrival.

Juicy is a compelling, almost-documentary narrative of surviving and succeeding in the face of the limited life choices for a working class black male in a post-industrial landscape, where 60s political optimism had long since withered (‘Either you’re slingin crack rock’ sings Biggie, ‘or you got a wicked jump shot‘).

Ready to Die - LP Cover

The cover for Smalls’ debut album features the provoking image of an African-American toddler, looking cute and innocent, but also vulnerable and adrift in a luminous white infinity background.Typed out underneath is the album’s title, with its stark predicted story arc for an Afro-American male’s new life – Ready to Die

At the time of release, hip-hop magazine XXL described the LP as a ‘grim depiction of urban hopelessness’. Several tracks narrate the daily routine of drug dealing: the bagging, moving and selling of product; as well as the precarious nature of the life: friends getting shot, the jailing of peers, and the death of a girlfriend. Smalls admitted to feeling depressed while recording the album. In contrast to the sunshine of Juicy, or the bouncy erotics on follow-up single Big Poppa, tracks like Warning and Things Done Changed are painted in darker hues, dank with a disquieting anxiety and paranoia (Damn,what happened to the summertime cookouts?/ Every time I turn around a n…a gettin’ took out).

Robert Christgau of The Village Voice observed that ‘Big’s … music makes the thug life sound scary… When he considers suicide, I not only take him at his word, I actively hope he finds another way.’ Ready to Die feels like the blues talking. But there is also the broader cross-cultural hopelessness of a young adult’s existential dread. Smalls confessed that death was always on his mind, and as the album ends its lead narrator commits suicide. (When I die, fuck it I wanna go to hell/ Cause I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fuckin’ tell… Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion/ I know my mother wished she got a fuckin’ abortion.)

But while Ready to Die reflects a specific time, place and situation, with a searing, nihilist state of mind, the mood selection is also a matter of aesthetics. Darkness and tragedy feel weighty and, arguably, are easier to do than funny. Ingmar Bergman filmed little comedy, but a sackful of melancholy tales.

Sad is a reliable fast track to profound with hard times valued as more artistically meaningful. And yet good times can be captivating. If only artists addressed them more often.The celebration of life is a neglected strand in music – to find the means and the lyrics to express not just the desire for change, escape and transcendence, but to communicate the sheer euphoria of a happy landing. 

Kanye West - Touch the Sky - original single cover
up in the spot lookin’ extra fly

In Touch the Sky, on Late Registration, Kanye West sings with delight at how golden and out of sight his life has become. The song dates back to the early years of his recording career (before West had blown up into a global phenomenon of genius proportions, or, if you prefer, a laughing stock), when the memories of not getting anywhere, slowly, for so long, were still fresh and raw (the door was closed/I couldn’t work the lox [locks]). West remembers well the cost of everything (Damn, them new loafers hurt my pocket) and the indignity of having only enough wallet to split the buffet at KFC for a romantic night out. 

But look at him now, ‘a hip-hop legend’, on ‘top of the world, baby’, with a life so wonderful he wonders if he actually passed on that time he crashed his car: ‘I swear I died in an accident because this must be heaven.’

There is an innocent gratitude and joy at the turn of events in Touch the Sky. A similarly celebratory tone runs through Juicy, like a seam of wellbeing.

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 ear

Lunches, brunches, interviews by the pool

Considered a fool ’cause I dropped out of high school.

A Picture of Heaven - a Blue and White Sky
this must be heaven
Hip-hop was a dream and an outlet for Wallace. But also a conduit, one that went from being the artist’s escape hatch to a lethal trap. In March 1997, Christopher Wallace was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles following an awards ceremony. The killer was not identified or apprehended and Wallace’s murder remains unsolved. He was 24 at the time of his death. Sixteen days after he passed away, Wallace’s second album was released as originally planned. The album’s title is Life after Death.
Wallace’s killing has been linked to the earlier death of Tupac Shakur – as allegedly the fierce rivalry between the East and West coast hip-hop scenes reached a homicidal crescendo. 
The gangster life Smalls feared for the risk and high body count, was also the realm that launched him towards another place – a paradise of escape, wealth and good living. Only in time did Smalls discover how the danger could not  simply be brushed away, like dirt off his shoulder – that the danger had in fact trailed him to the new world.
A Studio Microphone


*It can still shock at times to love a hip hop song and only later hear the source songs  sampled and realise how much has been borrowed. It causes a re-evaluation, but not necessarily a downgrade – more like a recognition and rethink on how influence works, the creativity in the sourcing and production, but also in the mixing and matching and the manipulation of text and sounds. 

** To be authentic and telling a ‘true story’ means a lot in the rap community and to mainstream media – even better if you were shot at; and best of all if you have the scars to prove it. Alternatively, you could be like Rick Ross and make a lot of stuff up. It’s risky gambit though. When word got out that Ross wasn’t an ex gangster, but actually an ex prison officer – the wrong man on the wrong side of the bars – his hip-hop image took a pounding. But why must the hip-hop lyrics be straight life writing, what’s so wrong with making it up and being a good story teller? We don’t expect Raymond Chandler to have kissed all those dames and slugged all those villains he wrote about.