To commemorate Memorial Day we looked at five deaths that monumentally impacted the Hip Hop landscape.
Hip Hop has had its fair share of tragedy over the years. The number of genre defining deaths in the space vary depending on whom you ask, but one thing remains clear: the impact of their passing was widely felt and difficult to get over for both fans as well as artists and media. So, on this Memorial Day, we wish to honor their passing, as all were incredibly important to this music that has come to add deeply to our lives.
These five deaths were incredibly important when they happened and they remain just as poignant today. Some of them remain unsolved, while others were tragic because of the drug that killed them. Regardless of circumstance, however, all of them were key emcees that left an indelible mark on the now billion-dollar Hip Hop industry. And they will be remembered, always.
In this Hip Hop age, the lynchpin has ended up being one Tupac Shakur, and it’s interesting how rap has rallied to his memory. ‘Pac was a legendary figure in his own time, with his life being a torrent of events swirling improbably in all directions. While 2Pac was never a follower by any stretch of the imagination, several attempts on his life and one very peculiar Atlanta shooting of two off duty police officers created a mystique around him that could not be diminished. He was acquitted in that trial, where, in a bizarre turn of events, the Prosecution’s own witness admitted the cops initiated the incident, and stolen the gun out of an evidence locker. Still, it was after he got out of prison for the sexual assault of a fan and ended up on Death Row Records that the angry, distrustful, paranoid (at this point rightfully so) emcee was lashing out at anyone who he thought wronged him. The Quad studio shooting led to his beef with B.I.G, but it was his trying to get out of his deal with Death Row that may have really sealed his fate. Tupac was mortally wounded in Vegas on September 7, 1996, and even though he survived another seven days after he was shot, after he was pronounced dead the Hip Hop universe would never be the same. ‘Pac is now the patron saint of Hip Hop; its Che Guevera, and his cultural impact as an anti-police brutality, anti-establishment revolutionary now defines the spirit of our Hip Hop age.
Unlike ‘Pac, Biggie was lauded for his music when he was alive, not his outside-the-booth activities. The Bed-Stuy native was a superlative emcee, putting together deft storytelling with unparalleled creativity on the mic’. His style has yet to be duplicated, and while Tupac has had many an up-and-comer try to copy his vocal shifts and manic energy, none have come close to trying to do the same for the Notorious one. But, for all his skill in the booth and on stage, B.I.G. was a controversial figure that had many, many events of his own doing catch up with him. Whether it was his near escape at being raided by narcotics officers in North Carolina, releasing “Who Shot Ya” after knowing ‘Pac thought he was partially responsible for the Quad Studio shooting, or his tumultuous relationship with his wife Faith Evans because of his relations with Lil Kim among others, B.I.G was constantly stirring the pot. Still, no one deserved to die because of any of them, and when he was murdered in Los Angeles in 1997 it sent shockwaves throughout the entire Hip Hop world. B.I.G’s death marked the end of an era. Soon, we would see a shift away from the lyrical aesthetic that ruled the day. And, plausibly, that all could have begun right here.
Pimp C’s death from complications related to promethazine and codeine in conjunction with sleep apnea sent the entire industry reeling. Pimp C was a titan of Hip Hop as one half UGK, and one of the most respected people in the game. The almost exact same conditions also recently rose its ugly head with the death of A$AP Mob visionary, A$AP Yams. When Pimp was found in his hotel room on December 7, it shined a light on drug use in Hip Hop, and put on notice the entire Houston scene that Lean was helping their best along to an early demise. It also showed the entire Hip Hop community the devastating effects Lean could have on the system. Several other top-notch emcees have gone on to fight the purple devil including the likes of Lil Wayne, but its foothold in the genre remains despite its possibly grizzly aftermath.
Eazy E’s death came after battling HIV, which eventually developed in full-blown AIDS. At the time, even after Magic Johnson’s coming out as having the disease in 1990, AIDS was still a misunderstood disease with a serious stigma in Hip Hop. It was also still largely coupled with homosexuality, and the normative mythology of rap at the time simply couldn’t allow it to truly settle into their minds. Still, Eazy’s diagnosis elicited strong reactions from the community, and his subsequent death only a month after his diagnosis left the entire community in shambles. Eazy is and was a central figure in Hip Hop’s move toward independence. His Ruthless Records imprint isn’t just responsible for N.W.A., but also The D.O.C and Bone Thugs N’ Harmony. Not only that, though, but groups started to put out records talking about the disease. Who can forget the compilation album America Is Dying Slowly that featured the Wu-Tang Clan, 8 Ball & MJG, Goodie Mob and others? Even today that album stands as one of the most socially conscious recordings in Hip Hop’s history.
Although the veracity of Solar’s friendship has come into question in the years since Guru’s passing at the hands of cancer, nothing ill can ever be said of Guru and Gang Starr. He’s a beloved member of the Hip Hop canon, especially his take on conscious rap, a genre now mostly maligned and excommunicated to the very edge of the Hip Hop landscape. In his hands, and the hands of many others at the time, edutainment was a transcendent experience, as his Jazzmatazzexperiments enlivened a fusion of rap and jazz, and his classic cuts as Gang Starr with DJ Premier included Step In The Arena, Daily Operation, Hard To Earn and their most critically acclaimed collection Moment Of Truth. Moreover, Guru was a cult figure whose documents after his death have been shrouded in controversy, especially his letters demeaning his work with Premier. Almost all of Hip Hop at the time panned the letter as fake, and both DJ Scratch and Premier called out Solar for writing the letter himself. Still, Guru’s death by complications caused by cancer put a new focus on health in Hip Hop.