There are two versions of Kanye West’s breakout single, “Through the Wire,” with two subtle but crucial differences between them. In the original, Kanye references having been treated for injuries from his October 2002 car crash “in the same hospital where B.I.G. and 2Pac died,” referring to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. In fact, the Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac died in different states — 2Pac at University Medical Center of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas, B.I.G. at Cedars-Sinai six months later — but lore is lore, and the notion that these two legendary rivals supposedly died at the same hospital offers a deceptively rich irony. Alas. In the updated version of “Through the Wire,” Kanye revises his near-death-experience line to say “in the same hospital where Biggie Smalls died.” That’s the version of the song you’re most likely to hear today — the one specifically updated to correct the historical record.
The Notorious B.I.G. died on March 9, 1997 — that’s 20 years ago on Thursday. Many lifelong rap fans know this date by heart, if for no other reason than because Canibus immortalized it on “2nd Round K.O.,” his classic dis record aimed at LL Cool J. Dis records are one of hip-hop’s great and unique traditions, and most classic dis records include at least one critical hit that keeps ringing long after the song cuts out. The most scathing insult on “2nd Round K.O.” is a response to LL Cool J’s claim on “4, 3, 2, 1” to be the “greatest of all time.” Defending the late Notorious B.I.G.’s honor, Canibus rapped, “The greatest rapper of all time died on March 9!” It’s hip-hop’s version of Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” For nearly a couple of decades now, the lyric has impressed itself upon my basic, instant-recall level of knowledge of human events, achieving a strange prominence alongside Pearl Harbor and 9/11 — at least in my head.
There’s a VladTV interview in which the legendary Harlem gangster Pee Wee Kirkland briefly talks about how hip-hop has always functioned as an alternative historical record. For better and worse, rappers have developed an entire genre of music where they can relitigate and, well, remix history to celebrate their own milestones, their own heroes, and their own martyrs. Jadakiss’s biggest solo record, “Why?,” with its ’02 Oscars critique on behalf of Denzel Washington and Halle Berry and its “Bush did 9/11” trutherism, is a Kindle sample of A Black People’s History of the United States. One of Nas’s biggest records is “I Can,” the most adorably sloppy and wrongheaded account of the African diaspora that I’ve heard in my life; a record that was so ubiquitous (despite how corny it is) that I suppose it ultimately damaged the AP History scores of hundreds of thousands of American children. At least Canibus got the date right. Does the College Board acknowledge Christopher Wallace? Do they know where he died, and when? I do. Kanye and Canibus taught me that much. For the life of me, though, I’ll always have trouble remembering that 2Pac died on September 13.