Albums You Must Own Number 16 – Ready to Die by Notorious B.I.G.
Now if one album and one artist symbolises the so called “Golden Age of Hip Hop” then if has to be Ready To Die by Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls, aka Biggie aka Big Poppa who was actually Christopher Wallace.
Now the above seems like a big statement, you could argue Tupac, Dre, Wu-Tang etc etc and they were all truly brilliant, however this 1994 release just felt like a seminal piece and is potentially one of the main reasons that Hip Hop really crossed over. It bridged the gap between being real and credible for real hip hop head with excellently produced tracks using RnB licks to make it a commercial success.
Now it wasn’t without its detractors. The usual reaction from white middle class music press that didn’t get the point of such “angry” and “provocative” lyrics started to scaremonger as their highly educated white offspring listened to tracks about guns, drugs and prostitutes. The mere fact the scaremongers were out spread the fire even more quickly and helped to create a phenomenon. It is difficult to capture the emotion and feeling that the Biggie machine created, lets just say, it was big. Whilst NWA opened the doors to “Gangsta Rap” Biggie blew open the walls.
The main thing that the critics missed on the whole album was that Biggie wasn’t in fact glorifying thug life, he was actually sending messages out there. Yes drug dealing and playing the streets can bring local props and the trappings you would expect, he also makes it very clear how stressful it can be and the repercussions. All the way through to him outlining his suicidal thoughts and the fact he knows death is not only an option but somewhat inevitable (even more so in his follow-up album Life After Death).
Ready to Die genuinely feels to be autobiographical or at least a great story. Obviously in this golden age the art of sampling in Hip Hop was rife, hence the amazing production capabilities demonstrated by Puffy leading the vision of the album and its release to market. He led the commercial bias on certain tracks and the brains behind releasing the tracks in the way they were. He was of course supported by the likes of Hip Hop heavyweights DJ Premier and Easy Mo Bee. It was recorded in the legendary Hit Factory and now defunct D&D Studios one of the most prolific urban and dance outfits in the game.
Before going on to the album tracks what made this special was a massive cocktail of ingredients that just worked. We had gone through the whole West Coast, p funk, g funk era and East Coast needed an answer. Ready To Die was that response. It had the musical components that was expected of Hp Hop at this point. It had the strong beats that Hip Hop fans demanded. It had a storyline that spoke of Biggies life from the early years, living and surviving on the streets as a criminal and his emergence from that scene. It was the perfect reposte.
There were a few newer versions of the album, but the original 1994 release is the one to get. In later versions some samples were removed and as a result the tracks changed, if you have that version, you have been cheated.
So the album kicked off when the debut track Juicy was released. Even from the whispered intro of “fuck all you hoes” you knew this was different. The angry yet accessible raps from Biggie helped us reminisce with hark backs to our youth whilst also boasting about how little Biggie is setting the record straight against those that said he wouldn’t be anything. This is a track that hadn’t been produced before. I can’t remember any Hip Hop track that has, then or even now, delivered such explosive lyrics and about such controversial topics and packaged them up in such an accessible and commercial way, whilst still making it credible. Even now, Juicy feels current and the production is hot. Even if some of the references are probably missed by today’s grime loving generation.
Unlike most album intros, this was over three minutes long. The usual skip was not an option here as the Puffy produced intro set the scene of what was about to come. Neat beats were the order of the day here
2. Things Done Changed
This is the first musical track of the album. It charts the evolution of how the streets have changed since Biggies birth and how he has developed his own game. Some people claim that the track represents how the flood of crack on to the streets changed the hood in to warzones.
3.Gimme The Loot
This was a real highlight track showing all the skills of Easy Mo Bee. However, it had a real harder edge. Relying less on samples but utilising big beats and quality hooks, Biggie really shone on this track.
4. Machine Gun Funk
Another Easy Mo Bee produced track, which Biggie is quoted as saying was his favourite track. Essentially it compares a life of crime to his life in rhyme. This track contains an uncleared sample which is removed from newer versions of Ready to Die.
Using the sample from Walk on By by Isaac Hayes this is another tracked that Easy Mo Bee produced. A bit like Gimme the Loot it contains a rapped conversation between Biggie and himself.
6. Ready to Die
The title track was produced by Easy Mo Bee and probably shows the direction Biggie and Ready to Die the album was going in, before Puffy used his influence.
7.One More Chance
One More Chance was one of the singles released from the album. It showcased the more commercial side of the album, despite having pretty explicit sexual references in it. It is believed that this is tracking the success of Biggie’s conquests between the sheets.
8. Fuck Me (Interlude)
Now this is an interlude not to be listened to around elderly relatives or those of a sensitive disposition. The content really doesn’t need explaining thanks to the title. Yes it is that explicit, but it isn’t out of place.. It plays a part in the story that Ready To Die tells.
9. The What
The What was another rougher track but one of my favourites on the album. Easy Mo Bee really caught the grimy East Side feel of the moment in The What. This whole sentiment was helped in no short measure by the featuring of Method Man from Wu-Tang. His raspy delivery was one of the most distinctive in the game at the time and really complimented Biggie. I would have loved to have heard more of the two collaborating.
No need for any more explanation. As mentioned earlier in this article, this is simply one of the best Hip Hop tracks of all time.
11. Everyday Struggle
This album uses a narrative to collate the life of a drug kingpin, highlighting the ups and downs, whilst also demonstrating the trademark disregard that Biggie seems to hold on himself.
12. Me and My Bitch
Maybe due to the title and its connotations, but I feel Me And My Bitch is one of the most under rated tracks on the album. Its production and the lyrics with Biggies delivery are so on point it hurts.
13. Big Poppa
Another one of Biggie’s sexually laden tracks and voted by critics as the Best Solo Rap Performance Ever. This is the second release from the album and contains many lyrics boasting about his sexual prowess. One of my favourite lines is “Believe me sweetie, I got enough to feed the needy”
This is the most autobiographical track on the album and plots the rundown of Biggies life, stretching all the way back to birth.
15. Friend of Mine
This track unveils why Biggie has a particularly poor opinion of women. It tells us how he was cheated on and that experience scarred him, with him vowing he would only use them for sex.
The amazing production on Unbelievable is by the unbelievably gifted legend that is DJ Premier. The beats are trademark and is a real glimpse in to what underground Hip Hop was like in the day. Its testament that this sits as an equal alongside the commercial elements of the album.
17. Suicidal Thoughts
This track really shouts out Biggie’s apparent self-loathing. It has all the usual aspects of rap music at the time guns, weed and girls. However, it completely bucks the trend and ends in Biggie shooting himself to end the album, something never captured before.
Ready to Die and Biggie were and in my mind still are, two of the best things to ever happen in Hip Hop. Its some 19 years since Biggie’s death and it makes me wonder if he was still here, what would he have done in that time, where would Hip Hop have been and what would have happened to Tupac?
All that should be put to one side though. If you don’t have this, then shame on you. Get it now, play it over and over and memorise the lyrics and in the words of the great man himself
“It was all a dream, I used to read word-up magazine, Salt n Pepa and Heavy D in the limousine……”