I was 13 when Notorious B.I.G. died, in 1997. I was playing a game of nine-ball with my friend. We were watching MTV. “King Nothing” by Metallica was playing when they broke in with the news. I had no idea who the man was, just that he was a rapper who got shot. Like that Tupac guy that was gunned down on the Las Vegas strip the year before. I asked my friend, who was a bit more into the hip hop scene, who he was. “He was a pretty good rapper,” was all he had for me.
A couple months later, my friend and I would disavow that short conversation ever happened. Even hinting we weren’t Biggie fans from the very beginning was social suicide. Before he died, rap was already cruising along, a star rising after Tupac’s death. After Biggie, MTV and the music industry marketed the emerging craze into a lifestyle supernova. Puff Daddy was everywhere, even in my white, suburban home. By the MTV Video Awards later that year, every teenager in America was hooked on hip hop and rap. Tossing posthumous accolades Biggie’s way during the awards was just icing on a very well planned marketing cake. The concept of the “rocker” was dead, and Biggie’s “gangsta” memory killed it.
It certainly wasn’t coincidence when my friends in the courtyard started talking about an esoteric rapping game Sony just released. Entitled PaRappa the Rapper, you milled about a cel-shaded town as a street-talking dog who visited his animal buddies and freestyled with them. In order to rap with PaRappa’s friends, you’d mash buttons in time to their “flow,” with the musical journey spanning numerous beat timings and styles. Rather than following the violent gangsta rap paradigm, PaRappa rapped an encouraging story of self confidence and self reliance, all the while demanding extremely good rhythm.
If anything, PaRappa the Rapper was gateway hip hop. The concept of letting a teenage kid wrap his digits around an album written by a former crack dealer in New York City was a foreign one to a lot of parents. But a dog singing songs to alligators was just so… Disney. How dangerous could rap be if it was delivered by a puppy in a cute hat?
And so flowed PaRappa. The little guy was my buddies’ key to cool, and the neighborhood copy roamed from house to house as we all sang along to catchy tunes rooted in a culture we were stealing from impoverished urbanites 2,500 miles away. The success of the first title not only made way for a sequel, it established the rhythm game genre and paved the way for games like Dance Dance Revolution.
But DDR isn’t without other roots. Bust a Groove found its way into the same circle of friends who introduced me to PaRappa. It was a year later, but our interest in the hip hop genre hadn’t lost any of its teenage intensity, and we enthusiastically ran to the Blockbuster a mile away to rent a communal copy of the game.
Rather than tapping buttons in syllabic timing, like PaRappa, Bust a Groove was based on the beat of the music. Avatars would assume different dance styles as players would tap a button combination in time with the music. Not strictly fast-paced hip hop, the game introduced my friends and me to house music. The tracks we liked, we’d crank throughout the house as two of us engaged in a dance battle would be shouting out the music’s time signature. One, two, three, four, X-Circle-Square, two, three, four. As a dancer’s momentum built up, he’d progressively dance better, flashing more elaborate moves. The break dancers would start spinning on their heads. The rave girl would … do whatever the hell it is rave girls do at raves. My parents would gather around the TV with us when we started getting really fired up, intrigued by this strange game that spurred us to more outbursts than Street Fighter II, yet didn’t involve spilling gallons of blood on the floor.
Imagine that. Games based on hip hop culture that don’t preach – or even make reference to – violence. When Bust a Groove and PaRappa the Rapper made their steps toward the mainstream, trying to sell the Thanatos of the hip hop culture just wasn’t in the equation. Rap and hip hop started as a positive outlet for underprivileged kids in big cities to express their angst, a concept any teenager can get his head around, no matter the subject matter. Sure, hip hop and its culture takes a lot of suburban kids out of their element, but it also gives them another outlet to cope with growing up.
Biggie’s death, no matter how tragic for his family, wasn’t in vain in the grand karmic scheme. The sad event pushed hip hop and rap into the headlines, opening a whole new world of opportunity for the genre to grow. In this way, he helped bring some joy to a group of friends huddled around a game he never had anything to do with. His influence has inspired an entire generation in a way few icons can. That alone guarantees his eternal life, deep in the minds of anyone connected to his music.
Joe Blancato is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist Magazine, in addition to being the Founder of waterthread.org.