Remembering Biggie, 19 Years Later: Things Done Changed

The Notorious B.I.G. was murdered on March 9th, 1997. Nineteen years ago. It’s been two decades since he last roamed the streets of Brooklyn. Gentrification has drastically changed the look and racial dynamic of his native borough, especially in the Bedford Stuyvesant section that he once occupied. Median rent prices in Brooklyn have risen to $3,112 a month, up 77% from 2000. The rising prices have led many to follow the lead of Brooklyn-born producer Dre Dollasz and leave the city altogether.

There has been one positive change since the ‘90s: the violent crime rate has dropped 71% since 1993.  Many of the residents who now roam Bed Stuy, Williamsburg, and other hipsterized locales wouldn’t have dared set foot in the 1990s “Bed Stuy do-or-die” jungle that Biggie chronicled in his music. I say this not to shame them, but when I see paintings of his cold semi-scowl in expensive coffee shops, I wonder how much connection newer Brooklyn residents truly feel with the rap icon.

Twenty-six-year-old lifelong Bushwick resident and multi-talented artist Civil Justus has the same concerns. He believes that Biggie has “become like a mascot” for gentrifiers “who don’t know anything else about Brooklyn. All they know about Brooklyn is Biggie so they just throw him around to try and ‘rep’.”

Justus recalls “hipsters” down the block from him creating a Biggie mural a couple years ago, but he says he didn’t respect their intentions. Justus recalls the mural’s creation as an “inauthentic” scene that resembled an “after-school special” to him. He admits that he didn’t interact with those painters, so he doesn’t know how much they actually listen to Biggie’s music.

They very well could be informed fans of “the Black Frank White,” but Justus hasn’t taken a chance to find out. He notes that they haven’t made much effort to interact with him either. This disconnect is typical of the awkward, prickly atmosphere that the mass influx of new residents has triggered in the borough. It seems neither natives or gentrifiers are particularly fond of interacting with each other, relying on 311 complaints to do the job.

Justus, a rapper/producer/filmmaker, is one of many native Brooklynites who identifies closely with Biggie and his art. As a young minority struggling to make a living in Brooklyn, Justus says Ready to Die particularly resonates with him and fuels his artistic passions.

“You feel the rawness and the anger [in his voice] and just can’t help but get amped,” Justus says of Biggie’s debut album. “I listen to Biggie in an effort to hold on to the memories of what Brooklyn was.”

It’s interesting that Justus and many other native Brooklynites cling to Biggie’s music as a reminder of Brooklyn’s gritty past, while incoming tenants and business owners are using his visage and phrases as iconography for a “new” Brooklyn. New residents may feel that they’re paying tribute to an area legend, whereas many Brooklynites are aggravated by the romanticization of an icon of one of the roughest periods in Brooklyn’s history – especially when the era was in part sustained by civic negligence.  

Justus notes a cruel irony in the title of Biggie’s song “Things Done Changed”. Indeed, Biggie has several tracks with titles and lyrics ripe for unfortunate re-interpretations in light of Brooklyn’s  “urban revitalization.”

“Spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way” is a favorite of many borough residents. The phrase prominently lines the bricks of the “Brooklyn Love Building” in Fort Greene. The phrase can be found on t-shirts, in bars, and in other artwork throughout the borough.

Instagram/ @SpreadArtNYC

Instagram/ @SpreadArtNYC

The phrase comes from “Juicy,” perhaps hip-hop’s quintessential song about upward mobility. On the track, Biggie raps about going from “negative to positive,” and using rap as a springboard to financial success for him and his crew. The song’s first verse concludes with “call the crib, same number, same hood, it’s all good.”

For so many struggling Brooklyn natives, conquering their pitfalls–including rapidly increasing housing prices–may mean leaving their crib, hood, and Brooklyn behind. This is the reason why it agitates Justus to see gentrifiers champion “the Brooklyn Way” that he feels they have no concept of–in the midst of pricing out lifelong residents.

Justus contends that the sensibilities and culture of Brooklyn that Biggie represented still remains “wherever us organic Brooklynites exist, even if it’s just a block or two here and there.” He notes that it’s important for lifelong residents to “really hold on to our culture and keep the stories going. We also have to keep telling our stories and stop letting the gentrifiers tell the narrative.”

Perhaps a productive dialogue between new tenants and Brooklyn natives could begin to forge a middle ground, where gentrifiers can take in those stories and relay an accurate narrative to future generations. Even if that never becomes the case though, the essence of Biggie’s message will live on through Brooklyn’s natives—wherever they are.

“The message [of ‘Juicy’] still stands,” Justus says. “The drive for us to come up is always going to be there. That’s what Brooklyn is about. We still trying to go ‘from negative to positive.’ The negative now just includes gentrification.”

Andre Gee