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Posted by Robert
Rap News Network
5/8/2004 8:43:38 AM

Tags and topics realted to this article include Notorious B.I.G..

It was 1997, the rap world had been turned upside down, and writer Cheo Hodari Coker was wracked with frustration.

Coker was one of the most well-connected rap journalists in the nation. That's why The Los Angeles Times had hired him to cover hip- hop, he said - then he discovered he couldn't cover it the way he felt it needed to be done.

The hottest rapper in the world, Tupac Shakur, had been murdered months before. Now the other giant, Biggie Smalls - Notorious B.I.G., born Christopher Wallace - had been gunned down, just hours after Coker had finished a series of interviews with him.

Worst of all, it was all being reported as just more crazy dead rappers in the mainstream media.

I worked in Southern California then, and Coker confided his frustration with the Times when we'd see each other at concerts. He couldn't write the stories he wanted to - he felt the Times still didn't consider it a serious genre - yet he was prohibited from freelancing the stories elsewhere.

Coker's frustration now seems justified. Events unfolding in rap and society in the '80s and '90s changed the face of music to this day, from Eazy E's forming of Ruthless Records to the L.A. riots to Eazy E's death from AIDS. Snoop Doggy Dogg (as he was then known), Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and others continued to change the world of rap and terrorize the mainstream as they did it.

It's one thing to intellectualize from afar what the fury in rap lyrics meant; it was a whole other experience to be in a roaring crowd at a small L.A. club, with Ice Cube onstage raging through F-- Tha Police, the audience screaming along with bottled-up anger.

It was a turbulent time. Now, seven years later, Coker has delivered the story he needed to tell. Unbelievable: The Life, Death and Afterlife of The Notorious B.I.G. is one of the best books written about the genre: history from someone who was there.

Obviously, Biggie's death is covered. More important, his life is covered. Coker manages to put Biggie's music and street life in context with what happened before and after his death. Because of a superb series of sit-down interviews he had with Biggie - at his home, at poolside in hotels, in his unguarded moments just hours before he died - Coker is able to put a real person inside the body that much of the public saw as just an angry black man.

He manages to make Sha- kur a real person as well. It makes for the first book full of palpable tension as both young men - creative, bold, dynamic, confused - veer, seemingly unstoppably, toward their fate, not quite understanding the forces they were setting in motion.

Coker's love for the music does give him blinders sometimes. Death Row Records owner Suge Knight signed a woman to his label and rented a house from her father - who just happened to be the prosecutor who struck a plea bargain in Knight's criminal case. Coker dismisses this conflict of interest (to put it mildly) as media nitpicking in the wake of Shakur's death.

But he also can see the other side, including the incomprehensibility of the deadly East Coast/West Coast rapper feud.

Coker writes: "The beef between coasts didn't make any sense, either socially or financially. Never did. Imagine if, during the heyday of the '60s soul movement, there was friction between Motown and Stax, with all of Detroit pitted against Memphis, with the Four Tops and Sam and Dave coming to blows, with Marvin Gaye bragging that he slept with Wilson Pickett's wife . . . it was understood that each label broke new ground for the other.

"People who grew up on Stevie Wonder eventually discovered Isaac Hayes. Everybody made money, and the music was unforgettable. With hip-hop, egos seemed so fragile and success seems so fleeting that both must be carefully guarded and jealously defended."

Coker is in a unique position. As a reporter, he knew Biggie. As a journalist, he worked closely with Times reporter Chuck Phillips

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