The recent anniversary of Big Pun’s death had me thinking about a few things, but I was busy with some other pieces and only recently remembered to begin writing my thoughts down.
I think Big Pun was a very talented rapper. His debut album Capital Punishment still sounds good today; it is a frustrating reminder of a hardcore-bordering-on-commercial NYC sound that people either abandoned, forgot how to recreate, or simply cannot adapt to suit the sensibilities of today’s listeners. He had a knack for stringing together combinations of words that less skilled rappers could never make flow. He did a respectable job of emulating Kool G Rap’s style and adding his idiosyncrasies. That “dead in the middle of Little Italy…” stretch is clearly a great moment in multi-syllabic rhyming. He is the only Puerto Rican emcee who is regularly mentioned as being among the greatest of all time.
A few things trouble me about Big Pun’s critical reception and legacy, though.
1. As I have noted, Big Pun was a good emulator of Kool G Rap’s style, but he didn’t improve upon those techniques and he wasn’t nearly as good of a writer.
Kool G Rap wrote verses filled with menace, rage, and novelistic detail; Big Pun wrote verses that were heavy on wordplay but pretty light on substance. And yet, as time continues, I feel that Big Pun is gradually gaining the kind of wide acclaim and notoriety that Kool G Rap has only secured among die-hard east coast old schoolers. Big Pun’s commercial success and untimely death have undoubtedly played apart in this. But if we judge musical output by itself, Big Pun doesn’t deserve to be mentioned ahead of Kool G Rap in any discussion of great or influential emcees. Ever.
2. Big Pun’s overdependence on multisyllabic rhymes has probably negatively influenced a generation of younger rappers.
One of the more annoying trends of the past decade or so has been the emergence of rappers who pen mixtapes comprised of contrived, poorly executed, borderline nonsensical multisyllabic rhymes. Big Pun, whose most memorable trait is his nonstop barrage of “multis,” is continually mentioned as an all-time great, in spite of his unimpressive discography1 and his derivative style. Although some of his rapid-fire bursts are impressively coherent, there are others that rely too much on adhering to the multi-syllabic rhyming technique at the expense of every other stylistic and artistic consideration. But discussions of Big Pun’s music —occurring mostly in close proximity to the anniversary of his death in early February— are universally laudatory. Look no further than the self-titled debut from Slaughterhouse for evidence that high- profile rappers who cite Big Pun as an influence are detrimentally obsessed with multi-syllabic rhyming.
3. Big Pun’s legacy has been negatively impacted by an unnecessary emphasis on his ethnicity.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a big deal that Big Pun was the first Puerto Rican solo emcee to gain both commercial success and be praised as a lyricist. I have no doubt that his ascension was a welcome and inspiring development for members of an ethnic group that was heavily involved in the music from its earliest days but became increasingly underrepresented once rap became more popular and lucrative.2
However, Pun’s early success3 has resulted in him becoming the sole token historical representative of all Puerto Rican emcees, to the extent that his legacy eclipses the accomplishments of all of his fellow boricua brethren combined.4 He was nice but not that nice; being so highly regarded that your legacy actually assists the erasure of your ethnic group from the historical record is a dubious distinction at best.
More importantly, Big Pun’s ethnicity isn’t actually pertinent to a discussion of his skills. There is not a distinctly Puerto Rican way to rap well. Big Pun occasionally incorporated Spanish terminology and references to Puerto Rican culture and identity in his rhymes, but his skills, like those of anyone else, are not ethno-specific.5 I remember reading an interview in the late 90s where he stated that he did not want to be remembered as a great Puerto Rican emcee, but as an emcee, period. That’s how he should be assessed and discussed, ideally. Granted, we live in an unideal world and concepts of race and ethnicity will probably forever creep into discussions where they don’t belong, but I feel that overemphasizing Big Pun’s ethnicity diminishes his individual achievements6 while further obscuring the contributions of Puerto Ricans to hip hop music and the art of emceeing in particular.
This are not issues directly related to the man himself, but the way that his legacy is handled. I don’t hate the guy or his music, and I’m not mad that he is honored, but I feel that the discussion that surrounds his music is problematic, for the reasons I have noted. What says you, the reader? — Thun
- Only his debut album is even worth revisiting. [↩]
- Raquel Rivera’s New York Ricans From The Hip Hop Zone discusses this process and numerous other issues related to Puerto Rican identity and hip hop. [↩]
- Pun is often credited, by way of his own lyrical boasts, as being the first Latino rapper to release an album that was certified platinum, but technically he’s only the first soloist, since Prince Markie Dee received a platinum plaque as a member of the Fat Boys. Cypress Hill also beat him by several years. [↩]
- Pioneering Puerto Rican emcees, just off the top of my head: Tito from the Fearless Four, Prince Whipper Whip and Rubie Dee from the Fantastic Five, Prince Markie Dee of the Fat Boys, Rammelzee, The Mean Machine, Spanish Fly and The Terrible Two, Charlie Rock from The Fantasy 3, and The Real Roxanne. That’s a pretty significant early presence in hip hop, which doesn’t even take DJs or producers into consideration. It isn’t often discussed. These artists don’t deserve to be swept under the rug. There are talented emcees of Puerto Rican descent that are worthy of mention in every other era of rap, as well. [↩]
- I am not suggesting that ethnicity is never relevant when discussing an artist and his work, I am just protesting a sustained inappropriate emphasis on ethnicity in discussions of artistic matters. [↩]
- In certain contexts, his ethnicity is brought up to overstate his importance and/or talent, too, for what it’s worth. [↩]