Wednesday, March 10, 2010

March 9, 1997: Where Were You The Day Hip Hop Died?

Where were you when you heard that Biggie had passed?

I was in an airport. It was a Monday morning March 10, 1997, and I was returning home after having spent a lovely Sunday shopping and enjoying some time off with my wife. It was before the age of knowing everything instantly, so without access to a TV, I was blissfully unaware of what had happened two nights earlier. I had spent that particular Saturday night having dinner with old friends in a beautiful restaurant, laughing, swapping old stories and enjoying life. I was 28 years old with a bright future, life was good.

In preparation for the trip home, I did what I always did before boarding a long flight. I grabbed a Wall Street Journal for serious news and a USA Today for the dumbed down version of things. When I opened the USA Today and saw the headline my heart sank. Disbelief doesn't begin to describe my reaction. I felt like someone had just thrown a brick through the bubble I was living in -- whacking me in the head, shattering my world view and signalling that the age of carefree living had come to an end. Flash backs from six months earlier came into view, as I remembered my cavalier attitude towards Tupac's shooting. I didn't think for a moment that he wouldn't walk out of that Las Vegas hospital, ranting incoherently about Thug Life on his way to the nearest studio to exact verbal revenge on his would-be assassins. But reality had finally set in, Tupac was gone and now so was Biggie. I did a lot of thinking on that plane ride. It is one that I will never forget.

Oh yeah, the airport I was in...LAX. To this day, that place still creeps me out. Where most people only see sunshine and palm trees, I see dark, ominous clouds. I can't help but picture a remorseless killer roaming free, bragging about having just murdered rap's favorite son. Hip Hop as we knew it was dead. Not at the hands of government regulators or dried up consumer interest. Nope, the culture had eaten itself alive, overdosed on violence and stupidity. We all saw it coming and not only did we do nothing about it, we practically encouraged it; fanning the fires of the bi-coastal beef with detached bemusement.

Even though hip hop's demise was predictable and not truly deserving of pity, I nonetheless mourned the loss with gusto. I thought back to my junior high days, memorizing the words to "Rappers' Delight". To the first time I heard Rakim rap "My Melody", to Run-DMC's "Raising Hell" tour, and to whole parties singing along a cappella to Snoop & Dre's "G Thang". I thought about high school free-style sessions, the Native Tongues & De La Soul's "Daisy Age" and heated late-night debates over who was better between KRS One and Big Daddy Kane. Good times, all gone too soon.

Of course hip hop did sputter and lurch forward and eventually recover. Jay-Z assumed the role of King Of NY and Nas came into his own. The two would start their own beef then famously squash it, no doubt spooked by the knowledge that words can indeed kill. Marshall Mathers emerged as Eminem, Diddy became a mogul, the South took off and then took over. A new generation of emcees emerged to carry the torch: Kanye, Weezy, Luda, Lupe, Drake, the beat goes on. But March 9th still haunts us; an indelible reminder that life is fleeting, that evil lurks in the shadows, and that we all have to play a part in protecting and nurturing the things that we love.