When you grow up in Brooklyn, you learn the neighborhood boundaries by bus route. I rode the B41 in up and down Flatbush Avenue at my leisure. My other stalwart, the B44, drove almost the entire length of Brooklyn, starting from Sheepshead Bay — an area that separates mainland BK from Coney Island — all the way to not-yet-hip Williamsburg. Anything past Fulton Street in the late ’90s was literally referred to as the jungle in my ‘hood. Mind you, I grew up in East Flatbush, which is not exactly known for peaceful suburban qualities. But Do-or-Die Bed-Stuy, which was just past Fulton and the neighborhood that the late rapper the Notorious B.I.G. repped his entire short career, was the land of savages.
I always tell people that Brooklyn is the most segregated place in America. Every neighborhood is specific: Brighton Beach is Russian, Greenpoint is Polish, Flatbush is West Indian, but it touches Midwood, which is largely Hasidic. Before Brooklyn became a buzzword, it was never hard to tell when someone had missed their stop on the train. I’ll always remember stepping into Bed-Stuy for the first time at around 10 years old. My mother was taking us to a church somewhere much further north from where we lived. I couldn’t believe my eyes: Everything was crumbling, yet the brownstones were beautiful. I felt everyone staring at us. When we went into the train station, I was sure that we were going to be devoured by the same gang of dudes from Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video. I did a rolling montage of every train station murder scene from all the movies I watched on Channel 11 on Saturday afternoons. I was going to die because my mother wanted to pray instead of watch Death Wish. And we still had to make a return trip — if we didn’t die the first time, we were giving them another chance.
That memory is still so embedded in me that when I moved to Bed-Stuy as an adult 15 years later, I recognized the Chinese food spot where a group of dudes gathered and stared at us as we waited for the bus home. I stared them down, too, until we were safely pulling away sure that they would rob us. In Brooklyn, it’s best to boast that you fear nobody from any hood. But back in the ’90s, the hierarchies of violence were ever-present and the tales made their way down the avenues. You hear that on Biggie’s “Gimme The Loot,” a song so unrepentant that even the explicit version has censored lyrics. Trading lyrical barbs with himself — before there was Drake (Featuring Drake), there was B.I.G. (Featuring B.I.G.) — he raps like a crazed Robin Hood, gearing to strip the block of everything: “I wouldn’t give a fuck if you’re pregnant/ Give me the baby rings, and the No. 1 Mom pendant.”
As babies of the ’70s and ’80s, we are the lost children of a generation that had almost been wiped out when crack and guns changed the structure of so many black families. When Ready to Die dropped, I was in the third grade and being bussed every day to a white neighborhood to attend school. I knew his hits from the radio and hearing them played from cars — a tradition in Brooklyn that, 20 years later, still hasn’t ceased. When I listened to the album, I absorbed his precise storytelling. He espoused the desperation of a mad bunch of kids who had inherited guns and drugs and had no real guidance in the world outside of our neighborhood boundaries. We were born to immigrants, and in trying to break out in a new place, we rebelled. It’s why “Everyday Struggle” is one of my favorites. Big’s lyrics may be memoir-like, but he is also narrating the story of the young community. Our parents had never experienced the type of racism and open classism that we did being young in America. Even worse, we were vicious — poverty and a youthful sense of immortality will do that to you. There was no internet to distract us. If you wanted action, you were in the streets and if you wanted money you were there on time. There was no weekly allowance. The kind of violence Biggie talked about — fear of betrayal, rumored threats from rivals, a hit to your girlfriend — was stuff I heard about all the time.
He goes deeper into the idea of “[knowing] how it feels/ To wake up fucked up” on “Suicidal Thoughts.” We know he thinks about death from “Struggle,” that he doesn’t want to live; the meditation on why he feels like he doesn’t belong on “Thoughts” come from a place of emotional honesty that you would never expect from the guy who made “Big Poppa.” “When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell/ ’Cuz I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fuckin’ tell” is no brag. To close out an album where tons of blood is shed, and plenty of women are played, with a bleak song of remorse for things he had to do because of poverty is part of his power.
It seems at odds with the confidence he exudes on “Who Shot Ya” or “Warning,” but every day in the hood is different. You rotate between wins and losses, and the emotional crashes fit with the magnitude of your conditions. “Unbelievable,” with its odd R. Kelly sample, is another standout because it illustrates how Biggie found success by his own design. As he compares rapping to the violence of drug dealing, you hear how the hustle was translated in his mind. So many are lost to the streets, but those who make it out have to believe in themselves in a way that’s almost maniacal — “ain’t no amateurs here.” Even the skits radiate authenticity. It’s pretty gross to hear him getting a blowjob from Lil’ Kim, but the “I’ve never done this before” line feels hilariously real. It’s one of the oldest and most misogynist jokes, but this was before Kim “put lips to the shit like a real bitch,” and girls in Brooklyn to pretended to be virgins with every guy.
“Juicy” gets played so often in clubs that we roll our eyes, but we forget it is one of the only bright songs on a very dark album. Classic as it is, it also feels out of place. Biggie was telling the tales of being caged by poverty, and how it suffocated him: “I never thought it could happen this rappin’ stuff/ I was too used to packin’ gats and stuff.” That may sound dramatic, but when your whole world is your block, little seems possible. His flippant attitude about the “rappin’ stuff” comes from years of knowing that what glitters is usually not gold for a black male in America. I know that feeling well. It’s why, years later, I commuted one hour every morning to school on the Upper East Side. I was chasing a payday, even then, to get myself out, too.
As an adult, I look back and think that the isolation was what truly depressed us. We were so attached to our corners that we never really explored the city we lived in. In high school, my best friend lived on Halsey and Nostrand in Bed-Stuy. When I would come home and tell my neighborhood friends about hanging out at her house after school, they would ask if I had a death wish. Even my friend would tell me that she never went up past Gates Avenue, a street six blocks from her corner and, in 2014, one that’s becoming increasingly more gentrified into “hip Brooklyn.”
When I moved to Bed-Stuy, everybody from my old hood thought I was nuts. This was two years ago, long after the trickling in of white people who were being priced out of Williamsburg and Bushwick. Never mind telling them about the coffee shops and little blonde babies that are slowly gobbling up every neighborhood in their path.
I often stand on the train platform at Nostrand and wonder how Biggie would feel seeing white people all over the A train. I always specifically think about his opinion because he was the kind of guy I was scared of. When I listen to Ready to Die, I feel a nostalgia for the way we were, but I also remember that I would never have actually wanted to run into Biggie in 1994. He was authentic to the terror we brought upon ourselves in our despair. Every lyric reminds me of the madness of trying to thrive in that time. He was already a teen by the time I was born, but it was still long before Brooklyn became the New Manhattan.
A lot of us have moved, and now this borough seems to almost be foreign to its natives. I walk around lost in my hometown, even though I enjoy getting Stumptown from my corner. I just worry so much about our story. Biggie was taken from us way too early, but by that time he had gone a long way from St James Place. I enjoy the flash of his second and final album Life After Death, but I always feel emotionally tied to the almost-goth quality of Ready to Die. I’ve since tattooed “BK BS” on my elbows as an honor to him. He reminds me that it was bullshit what we were going through, but it was definitively ours. We lived a life that had a capacity to destroy us as quickly, but our pride in survival was always strong. Years later, I realized that I had gone way past Gates Avenue that day and survived. Their struggle was just like mine, and B.I.G. never lets me forget.