Today, March 9, marks 25 years since the murder of the Notorious B.I.G., the Brooklyn-bred rap icon.
His assassination is forever linked with the murder of Tupac Shakur, a friend-turned-foe who was killed just months earlier.
Growing up watching news stories and specials about the beef between Biggie and Tupac, the takeaway always seemed to be that this was a conflict that could have been avoided if only these two men had known how to de-escalate their anger. That narrative was helpful to any racist looking to condemn the perceived ills of Black culture.
Only as an adult am I discovering, with the help of some new narratives, that the story of Biggie and Tupac’s deaths is more the story of a media failure than it is the story of a personal feud.
And the sins media committed in the lead-up to Biggie’s death are still being committed today — perhaps, more egregiously.
In the early to mid-’90s, TV news, magazines, newspapers and radio stations all helped fuel the intense rivalry between Biggie and Tupac because it drew eyeballs. It was a slow-motion train wreck with an outcome — premature death — so predictable that both men spoke of it in their music endlessly. But media — both legacy media and budding nontraditional platforms like hip-hop radio stations — helped fan the flames that ultimately consumed two men in their mid-20s.
The parallels to today are obvious.
Today, it’s not just terrestrial radio and TV stations that obsessively cover artists’ conflicts. They’ve become the old guard and given way to YouTube channels, podcasts and blogs — like TMZ or The Shade Room or VladTV or DJ Akademiks — that capitalize on conflicts with posts they can share more quickly than ever before.
The platforms these outlets use to share news — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, for example — rely on engagement to make money. And posting things that trigger anger or fear is the most effective way to garner reactions from users.
It’s a point New York Mayor Eric Adams made rather clumsily last month.
Adults’ profiting off of conflict and violence between young people isn’t merely a hip-hop problem, and it certainly wasn’t a problem unique to Biggie and Tupac. It’s a problem in media across the board and a problem exacerbated today by social media.