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R.I.P.? Not rapper B.I.G.

The musician's career continues with a new duets album, featuring a cut with reggae legend Bob Marley. In life, the two never met.

October 03, 2005|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

"Hold Ya Head," a new song pairing Notorious B.I.G., who was shot to death in 1997, and reggae icon Bob Marley, who died in 1981, is the latest beyond-the-grave collaboration to push the limits of musical repurposing. The track electronically unites two performers who never so much as shook hands during their lifetimes, much less spent time together in a recording studio.

"It used to be that when an artist died, his career was over," said Nelson George, author of "Hip Hop America." "That's not true anymore."

Released last week on the AOL Music site and as a promo track for radio DJs, "Hold Ya Head" will be included on "The Notorious B.I.G. Duets: The Final Chapter," a new collection overseen by the rapper's friend, mentor and now tireless B.I.G. proselytizer, Sean "Diddy" Combs.

"To me, the record is eerie and ironic and really moving," Combs said by phone from New York, where he was laying down some rap vocals for "Duets." The album features several unreleased Biggie recordings and pairs him with Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, Nas and Ludacris, among others.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 04, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Rap duet -- An article in Monday's Calendar about rap duets said that the Tupac Shakur-Notorious B.I.G. duet "Runnin' (Dyin' to Live)" was on the album "Loyal to the Game." It was on the album "Tupac Resurrection."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 05, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 85 words Type of Material: Correction
Rap duets -- An article about rap duets in Monday's Calendar section said Natalie Cole's 1991 duet with her late father, Nat King Cole, was nominated for a Grammy Award and sold 10 million copies. The song actually won two Grammys, but it was her album "Unforgettable, With Love" that sold 10 million copies, not the "Unforgettable" single. The article also referred to Frank Sinatra as being deceased when his album "Duets 2" was recorded. The album was released in 1994; Sinatra died in 1998.

In "Hold Ya Head," as in several of his most famous songs, B.I.G. contemplates suicide as well as his own demise by unnatural causes. The single's chorus -- the "duet" aspect -- is a repurposed sample from Marley's 1976 protest song, "Johnny Was": "Woman hold her head and cry/ 'Cause her son had been shot down in the street and died."

For most rap fans, it will be impossible to ignore the real-life parallel: Biggie (real name: Christopher Wallace) was in a car parked outside of Los Angeles' Petersen Automotive Museum in 1997 when he was slain.

Combs isn't expecting rap fans to be shocked at this beyond-the-grave collaboration.

"It's not like it's Bob Marley and Britney Spears, you know what I'm saying?" Combs said. "It's Bob Marley and Biggie! You could picture them in the studio smoking together."

But not everyone is so sure.

Roger Steffens, a reggae authority and coauthor of "Bob Marley and the Wailers: The Definitive Discography," doubts that the collaboration would have sat well with the Jamaican singer.

"Bob reflected the Rastafarian beliefs that you don't harm anyone," he said. "I don't know that Biggie, who really had a reputation as a thug, would be the kind of person Bob would have wanted to be associated with."

(For his part, Combs said he cleared the licensing agreement for the "Johnny Was" sample with the singer's brothers, Stephen and Damian Marley, and received the family's explicit approval.)

"Unforgettable," Natalie Cole's 1991 duet with her late father, Nat King Cole, is recognized as the first posthumous pop collaboration to grab mainstream attention; it earned a Grammy nomination and sold more than 10 million copies. But "Hold Ya Head's" more direct antecedent is the 2004 Tupac Shakur-Notorious B.I.G. duet single, "Runnin' (Dyin' to Live)" -- the first major hip-hop remix sonically juxtaposing two deceased artists into a single song. The album it appears on, Shakur's "Loyal to the Game," debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart last year.

"They put Biggie and Tupac together because they're great artists -- they didn't do it because they're deceased artists," Combs observed. "When it's two people who aren't here, you can't force the vocals to have chemistry. It has to mesh together."

"Hip Hop" author George says Combs' efforts need to be considered within the larger context of hip-hop, which has a rich history of appropriating sounds, manipulating voices and using technology in unexpected ways.

"Hip-hop has always been a postmodern art form, a collage music," George said. "With hip-hop -- as with modern technology -- the past is not the past anymore. So nobody who's ever made a record is immune to being sampled in a hip-hop record."

Shakur, who was killed in Las Vegas in 1996, has sold more records from the grave than in life. His posthumous albums, made up of tracks from a seemingly bottomless trove of unreleased material, have sold more than 8 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Combs admits to modeling the "B.I.G. Duets" album on Frank Sinatra's "Duets 2," which electronically paired the deceased crooner with various artists. But the recent commercial successes of two posthumous B.I.G. tracks motivated him to get the project off the ground.

"When 50 Cent first came out, he took Biggie's vocals [on 'The Realest N---as'] and then Ashanti took Biggie's vocals [on 'Unfoolish'] and to see the success they had?" Combs said. "Those were both [from] No. 1 records."

According to Combs, "Duets" will expend the last of Wallace's previously unheard material. "That," he said, "is why it's called 'The Final Chapter.' "

As George sees it, these hip-hop duets from beyond the grave should be recognized for what they really are: a sincere form of admiration.

"Hip-hop culture is very adventurous and unsentimental," he said. "We revere our artists. We treat the tracks as sacrosanct. And that spills over to where we want to keep creating so we can keep the artists in the mix."

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