I remember it better than I remember most things these days. I remember, the first time I sat down to listen to The Notorious B.I.G.’s seminal debut album Ready To Die, being struck by the orchestral nature of its 22 year-old curator’s dark and powerful musings. This was not the vicious lo-fi electronic beats of West Coast gangsta rap or the smooth pedestrian grooves of G-funk; this was something different, something visionary in its blend of divine instrumentals with gritty tales of the Brooklyn streets. It’s this inherent quality which made Ready To Die the perfect case study to receive the ‘Re:Imagine’ treatment.
Revisiting timeless classics, the fantastic musicians over at Re:Imagine make use of a 16-piece orchestra of string, percussion, woodwind and brass instruments to resurrect past heroes with a classical twist. Opening with an emphatic rendition of ‘Things Done Changed’, the sounds that cannoned between the booming bassline of the baritone saxophone and the piercing shrill of the violin trio enveloped Ready To Die in a sheet of sound. With this constant interplay, there was an unbroken nature to the gig, as if you were sat at home listening to the album itself. But the intermittent brass solos reminded you that you had, in fact, left the house, with the mind-melting talent of the musicians on full display. A xylophone is probably the last instrument I would have associated with The Notorious B.I.G., but when it comes to life alongside ‘Big Poppa’, you’ll wonder why you never thought of it before.
While the orchestra provided the anthemic live backing, the three rappers – Johnny Voltik, Chima Anya, Simba BMagic – provided Biggie’s hypnotizing lyrics. Flowing in their enunciation but tight in their stage presence, the overlapping vocals relentlessly added to the gig’s already ready-to-burst atmosphere. Driving the show from start to finish, and jumping into the crowd on two separate occasions, the lyrics came naturally to the three rappers, as if they didn’t have to be practiced because they were so thoroughly ingrained. Add to that a female vocalist with a voice that could lift the roof off the O2 Academy and you’ve got yourself as close a rendition to the original album as you can possibly get.
Most modern hip hop, rap or R&B gigs have fallen into a repetitive and underwhelming strain: you pay for a ticket and then subject yourself to an hour and a half of your favourite artist rapping over a pre-recorded backing track. It’s a safe and uninspiring way to perform and listen to a genre which was born out of resistance to oppression and poverty. But Re:Imagine’s sound has breathed new life into the hip hop scene, and restoked the embers of rebellion. This is how hip hop should always sound: raw, organic, spontaneous, unpredictable, rapturous, live.
The gig had a more important purpose than simply providing entertainment for the crowd, however. It has been 21 years since Biggie was murdered in a drive-by shooting in LA on the 9th March 1997. But through projects like Re:Imagine, the legacy which Biggie carved out during his cut-short career continues to inspire artists and audiences alike. It was obvious in the emotionally charged performance of ‘Who Shot Ya?’. It was obvious in choral screams of “I live for the funk, I die for the funk.” But it was most obvious in the fact that a diverse range of people travelled from miles around to pack the O2 Academy and bear the brunt of the ridiculous prices (£5.20 for a can of Carlsberg!? #!*@ Me) to hear an album which, despite being released 24 years ago, is yet to gather dust.
In short, it was as if Biggie was born again on the sticky floors of some dingy dancefloor in Leeds. Biggie Biggie Biggie, can’t you see, orchestral instruments aren’t just for the Mozarts and the operas of this world; sometimes, they’re for the Detroit players, the hooligans in Brooklyn, the Biggie Smalls.
Image credit: Billboard