24 February 2012

#97: The Notorious B.I.G. - Juicy (Pete Rock Remix)

The Notorious B.I.G. - Juicy (Pete Rock Remix)
from the "Juicy" Single 12", 1994

There are rappers who had more technical acumen than Biggie Smalls, who put together more complex rhyme schemes and could speed up their raps into frantic tougne twisters. But no one ever rapped slow as well as Big did--giving us a chance to really hear every word, syllable and inflection, with a flow that sounded like water over the beat.

I didn't really listen to hip-hop in high school, and so I missed Ready to Die when it dropped, much to my detriment. While lots of rappers had spun stories of crime, coming up off the streets, and making it to the big time, no one had ever done it the way Big did--wrapping his life story in to his own experiences as a rap fan.* "Juicy" is remarkable not for the boasts or stories of excess (and the video, while brilliant on its own terms, does the glitz and glamour of a West Coast video somewhat clumsily), but because he grows up through hip-hop. For a guy's whose life was about as different from mine as possible, I feel like I knew exactly how he felt about his relationship with pop music the moment I first heard this song, because like me, he leaned on the experience of being a fan to get him through the worst of it.

And speaking of the worst of it, while I think that authenticity is a poor criteria for evaluating art, it's hard to deny that this line...

Born sinner, the opposite of a winner/
Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner

...is the most poignantly bad-ass moment in hip-hop lyric history.

But if you really want to know what's so tremendous about this song, look no further than this video, where Pete Rock (who came up with the original beat) participates in a discussion panel about his work. Check out 37 seconds in, where Rock and all these other well-known producers start to groove on the beat. A line of hip-hop royalty, bobbing their heads uncontrollably, captured by the song. Anything so good that it makes the guy who made it lose his shit is worth your time.

Critics and the internet intelligencia are divided on the relative merits of the "original" mix versus the Pete Rock "remix" (although, as Pete tells it, the "remix" was actually his original demo for the track, while Puffy bit the sample--Mtume's "Juicy Friut" for the album version). I'm certainly not going to go to the mattresses for the remix, but I'm partial to the thump and snare of Pete's version. Puffy's is probably more true to the sample, but it also sounds vaguely dated to me--not in an especially bad way, but lush, in a very particular early 1990s way. Pete's drums are, as always, timeless, and mesh even more seamlessly with Big's delivery than original. And it just sounds more New York.

And if you don't know, now you know.

*Yes, I know "Juicy" isn't the first song tell this sort of story. KRS-One's 1993 banger "Outta Here" does something similar (and KRS's personal story is even more deeply connected with hip-hop than Biggie's because KRS helped to create the core sound and vocabulary of gangsta rap), and Common's "I Used to Love H.E.R." came out around the same time. But while both are great songs, neither really captures the joy of "Juicy"--the pure happiness of Big's story of turning hip-hop into a new life ("Birthdays was the worst days/now we drink champagne 'cause we thirsty").


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