To commemorate the 19-year anniversary of the Notorious B.I.G.'s passing last week, production partners Chi Duly and Mick joined forces to honor the late MC with Ready to Boom, which mashes up Biggie rhymes with Metro Boomin instrumentals, yielding Frankenstein creations like a chopped-and-screwed a capella over Drake and Future’s “Jumpman.” "We thought it would be cool to remix Biggie with a very contemporary vibe and kind of trap him out a little bit," Mick told High Snobiety. "We wanted to introduce him to a new audience so they can appreciate his genius, too."
On its own, it’s innocuous cut-and-paste, altogether non-threatening to a fallen rapper’s titanic legacy, a pebble to a throne. But as the distance grows between March 9, 1997 and the present, it's a reminder that as the glory of the past dims, the culture moves forward, the audience shifts in demographics, and the sound advances. The responsibility to sustain and extol Biggie’s legacy lies in the hands of the gatekeepers and rap godfathers who witnessed his ascent and fall in real-time, to celebrate his life and his work and continuously trace and emphasize the profound effect he’s continued to have on hip-hop culture.
One way of doing that is by reintroducing his music to the next generation, to pass off a legacy to the hands of younger minds to maintain his relevance and emphasize his influence. Some MCs do it by citing his rhymes in theirs (Jay Z, for one); others reupholster his tracks and put a creative spin on them, without compromising veracity; artists like Puff Daddy and Lil’ Kim still brand their songs by shouting him out and name-checking him in their rhymes. (Just last week, Kim dropped the borough anthem “I Did It for Brooklyn” where she raps, “Big named me Queen Bee, he did it for Brooklyn.” Never forget that Big is to thank for bringing Kim to us.)
The responsibility to sustain and extol Biggie’s legacy lies in the hands of the gatekeepers and rap godfathers who witnessed his ascent and fall in real-time, to celebrate his life and his work and continuously trace and emphasize the profound effect he’s continued to have on hip-hop culture.
And then there’s the tried and true mash-up, which has its merits when wrapped in a concept that makes a freestanding work of art from more than one source, preexisting or new. In that vein, it’s well intentioned to conjoin beats from the hottest producer du jour with a capellas approaching two decades old as a means of doing that. It offers a different, albeit amusing, angle, one that intends to show how durable Biggie’s flow and style can be in a glossy-trap context.
But it also has a consequence. What made Big such an enigmatic, important figure was his style, his perspective, his meter, his persona, all of which embodied the sound of the mid-'90s, when hip-hop culture graduated from the golden age and entered the Shiny Suit era and invaded the mainstream. And when you extract his vocals from that time frame, when his presence carried so much power, you disassociate him from the sound he helped pioneer, and in turn can diminish its importance. Would Biggie have worked with Metro Boomin if he were alive today? Who’s to say. But it’s clear that pairing his vocals, presumably recorded over boom-bap beats, distracts from what made them viable in the first place. It’s why original demos and unreleased freestyles hold so much weight in an age where cultural currency is often measured by rate of output.
This is an issue that speaks to a greater problem in posthumous music, one that’s had deleterious effects on how we remember an artist. When you peel away vocals from the masters and reproduce them for contemporary times, it can lessen their value and importance to the era from whence they came. And it isn’t about being a “purist”: matching the BPMs of a vocal track and beat is one thing, but completely reconfiguring an a capella to original music is, more times than not, a betrayal to artistry.
Look at Biggie’s forgettable Born Again, buoyed by saving grace single “Dead Wrong” featuring Eminem, or worse, Duets: The Final Chapter, a bloated, wholly overblown rejiggering of classic verses slotted next to bars from a spate of artists, some he never even knew. It’s simply arrogant to produce an album for a rapper who carried a double-disc CD almost entirely on his own and stuff it with almost 40 guest appearances across 22 tracks, one of which featured Korn.
Oftentimes, what starts out as an homage reveals itself to be a cash cow, and greed can play a terribly unfortunate role in protecting and furthering the legacy of an artist. I’ve witnessed it firsthand. In 2012, I was approached to speak with Blackground Records about a posthumous Aaliyah album. It was genuinely exciting to think that there was a trove of material ready for release, until it was revealed that it was only “fragments” that “contemporary artists” would build around. And the moment the switch flicked was when, an hour after publishing a story stating that Drake and Noah “40” Shebib would not be co-executive producing the album, something I was directly told, I received an urgent call from that same source saying, in fact, they would be. Who wouldn’t be participating: Timbaland and Missy Elliott, as well as Aaliyah’s brother, who publicly stated he would not be supporting the project.
If a musician recorded material that they approved of prior to their death, then release it. Otherwise, exercise restraint, and let the music, and artist, rest in peace.
It reeked of avarice. To release music against the family and close friends of an artist’s wishes, and to instead enlist fanboys who spent their teen years idolizing a singer they never had the chance to meet, doesn't show the best intentions for an artist's legacy. It’s disrespectful, not just to those who knew her, or her fans, but to Aaliyah, and everything she worked so hard to achieve and create in her short lifetime. The same could be said for Michael Jackson, whose somewhat-good 2014 album Xscape was met with disdain from longtime producer Quincy Jones. “They're trying to make money,” he said at the time, “and I understand it. Everybody's after money, the estate, the lawyers. It's about money." And his opinion mattered, too.
Profit is a dominant factor, but it’s the public’s insatiable need for more that keeps this cycle spinning. We are just as at fault as the executives who greenlight these albums. And it's damaging to how the public's perspective of an artist in hindsight. Amy Winehouse’s Lioness: Hidden Treasures, for example, lives up to her name to a point. Original versions of "Tears Dry" and "Wake Up Alone" are voluptuous alternatives to originals, but then there's “Between the Cheats,” clearly recorded at a difficult time in her life, when her voice was ragged and rusted. The public shouldn't have heard it, her legacy didn't deserve it, and it should have never left the studio without her approval.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and some post-mortem releases have merit. Much of Tupac Shakur's material following his passing in 1996 has been respectful to his artistry (a personal favorite is "Thugz Mansion (Acoustic Version)," which is, frankly, impossible to deny), and it actually sounds like music he would have wanted to make. Big L's The Big Picture and Chinx's Welcome to JFK merely emphasized their potential; Big Pun's Endangered Species compilation cemented his legacy as one of the greatest lyricists to ever live; and J Dilla's The Shining was a testament to his abilities as a dexterous MC and producer.
What those releases have in common, though, is that the artists themselves oversaw much of the material put out in the wake of their deaths. To skew that vision is artistically criminal; a musician doesn't become property of the public once they pass.
Mashups are a minor subset of that, but they still have an effect on how both the public views their bodies of work and how their legacy is shaped, particularly when musician is no longer alive to encourage free use of their material (like with Jay Z's The Black Album, the album that spawned a million more). Consent is one of, if not the most, important aspects of human interrelations. If a musician recorded material that they approved of prior to their death, then release it. Otherwise, exercise restraint, and let the music, and artist, rest in peace.