WORLDS: Ready To Die and Juice
The best storytellers create worlds that stretch beyond scripts, pages, or video game rendering.
The other day, I was randomly watching a Sopranos clip on YouTube, and saw a commenter speculating on their hopes for how one of the show’s subplots turned out after the last season. I was struck by the idea that they were thinking that deeply for a TV character. There are Reddits and message boards filled with people speculating on what happened to Sopranos characters afterward. Earlier this year there were stories about how Sopranos characters would react to coronavirus, and another about who they’d vote for.
Our collective curiosity 13 years later reflects Sopranos writer David Chase and his team’s top-tier storytelling. In theory, a story ends with the script — or when things abruptly fade to Black. But that’s not the case in our minds. The best storytellers create worlds that stretch beyond scripts, pages, or video game rendering. They incite fan fiction, commentary, and inspire other stories.
The comment inspired me to think about great storytelling from (of course) a hip-hop slant. Enter WORLDS, a series where I’ll pay homage to some of the most immersive experiences in hip-hop. There’s so much power in starting with a blank slate and coming up with something that enthralls our imagination.
I’m starting off with Tupac and Biggie. They’re forever bonded in rap by tragedy, but it’s important to note that their art paralleled in so many ways. At one point Tupac even accused Biggie of stealing the concept of Ready To Die from him. I don’t think it was thievery as much as them having the same story to tell.
No matter where you were, if you were a young Black American living in underserved neighborhoods, you had the same experience in the throes of the crack era. Your slang and fashion may have been different, but so many poor people were living the same life by the hands of the same system that cared for none of them and forced them into survival mode. The same is true today as it was in the early ‘90s when both Biggie and Tupac immortalized themselves with their work. That deep relation is probably why they were such good friends — and maybe why their needless fallout affected each other so deeply.
Both men are master world-makers. One could find parallels in any two of their albums, but their storytelling most cross-sects in Ready To Die and the hood classic movie Juice, two very New York stories. Both explore two kids coming of age and clamoring for purpose and identity in a world devised to brutalize them out of both. Both Tupac’s iconic character Bishop and the character Biggie narrated on Ready To Die were wronged by systemic racism, and carried rightful resentment for society. They were have-nots in a city where people had to take something to have something. Detached from any sense of proximity to the American dream sold to them on TV, they set out on wayward searches for fleeting glory, lashing out at whoever was in their path. Bishop’s story especially, with his father being sexually assaulted in prison, demonstrated the generational effects of hypermasculinity and sexual assault.
Ernest Dickerson (the writer-director of Juice), and Biggie invited us to worlds we can’t stop thinking about and revisiting. We can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if Q didn’t lose his grasp of Bishop on the roof. I’m sure listeners in ‘94 wondered whether the character they had followed for 17 tracks was really dead. They compelled us by nailing so many aspects of good storytelling.
The first mark of world-building is immersion. The depth of a story’s backdrop expands a story into a world. Once you have readers or listeners wondering what lies around the corner, you’ve got them. Both Ready to Die and Juice capture portraits of the “old New York” worthy of time capsules. Diddy set Ready To Die apart from the competition with cinematic skits and interludes that (mostly) work as the connective tissue between songs, forming a loose concept album following Biggie in the “Everyday Struggle.” Juice is a gritty glimpse of the early ‘90s, from Bishop’s 40 belows and parts in the flat-tops to a Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad-scored soundtrack. (and EPMD made a cameo) it was undeniable that you were watching a world reflected in its — and vice versa. They engaged the undeniably hip-hop backdrop through Q’s DJ dreams, and the unpredictability of New York through tension.
In Juice, the four-man crew made a simple move to get cigarettes and walked into a robbery that a friend was committing — that they could have been a part of. Ready To Die began with a gripping “life before your eyes” montage that included Biggie’s character robbing a train. The sound effects and convincing voice acting made listeners like they were hearing a recording of a movie scene. These robberies immediately immersed both filmgoers and music fans into a high stakes world.
The robberies also served as a foil to offer insight into both Bishop and Biggie’s psyche. Robbery is a predominant theme of Ready To Die. As KRS-One famously noted, the perception was that “Brooklyn keeps on takin’ it,” and the character Biggie created was one of them. His train robbery made way for “Gimme The Loot,” a track where Big geniously rapped in two different pitches and told a tale of a robbery duo so ruthless they were robbing pregnant women.
One of the main reasons that the song is widely palatable (besides American bloodlust) was Biggie’s crude comedy and the interplay between his characters. If he would have performed the song “solo” with straight menace, it wouldn’t have been as memorable. With “Gimme The Loot” he demonstrated another aspect of world-building: compelling character.
Juice tugged at multiple emotions in one of it’s most impactful scenes. You can see the sadness in Bishop’s eyes when he saw the news that his friend Blizzard, who committed the robbery had been killed by cops. That despair fused with anger as he stared out the window at a random robbery and surmised, “we ain’t sh*t,” which started an argument that led to a classic monologue where he told his friends they had to be “ready to stand up, throw down, and die” for respect, of “juice.” It’s no surprise that the title of both men’s work are uttered so close to each other in his monologue.
Bishop’s furious search for purpose was the fulcrum of Juice, as it was for Biggie in Ready To Die. Their stories are deeply American: Everything in their worlds revolved around their search for identity through the power of their guns. In the grand scheme of America, they were two more Black youth nudged toward being statistics by civic negligence, but with their guns, they were all-powerful. Biggie began a song about his suicidal urges with a glock put “to your headpiece.” As Bishop aimed a gun at his scared friend Steele he told him, “this is what it’s all about. See how scared you are?”
But both Bishop and Biggie were just as scared. Nathan McCall’s classic coming of age book Makes Me Wanna Holler explored how kids in his native Virginia (like everywhere else) viewed being seen as a “crazy nigga” as the ultimate sign of respect — because they had no other sense of value. Bishop reflects that self-destructive affirmation in one of his final scenes, telling his former friend Q the following:
“You know what? Last time you [called me crazy], I was kinda trippin', right? But now, you're right. I am crazy. And you know what else? I don't give a fuck. I don't give a fuck about you. I don't give a fuck about Steel. I don't give a *fuck* about Raheem, either. I don't give a fuck about myself. Look, I ain't shit. And you less of a man than me, so as soon as I figure you ain't gon be shit, *pow*! So be it.”
Seemingly days later in the film, Bishop was dead, on a mission to kill Q and be the last man standing until he slipped off a roof and Q couldn’t bring him back up. It was recently divulged that in an alternate ending, Bishop dies by suicide by letting go of Q after hearing police sirens (purportedly in fear of sharing his father’s plight in jail). That ending would have more closely paralleled the standard edition of Ready To Die, where Biggie shot himself after going down a laundry list of his misdeeds and lamenting “all my life, I been considered as the worst.” Both “Suicidal Thoughts” and Juice’s ultimate scene carried so much tension because of the journey we had been on with both characters. Their descent was inevitable but was still well-crafted enough to keep intrigued. Again, that’s a sign of toptier world-building.
The creators and performers of both projects created complex characters who told necessary, nuanced stories. Skeptics of Gangsta Rap often flatten the genre into depictions of mindless violence, but demonstrate the corrupted humanity that. Similarly, Juice told a fascinating story of a goodhearted, abandoned kid being swallowed up by homicidal urges, and Tupac’s brilliant action struck the right chords like Big’s jaunting, baritone delivery. Both of these pieces demonstrate that it’s the world who makes us who we are — or who we think we’re supposed to be to survive.
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