Notorious BIG 2016

The Notorious B.I.G. & 9/11: Radio Censorship, Illuminati Conspiracy Theories and Everything In Between

September 11 unleashed shockwaves still felt today: endless war, security theater and flag pins. But far down the list is a long-forgotten casualty: 16 years after the World Trade Center fell, the post-9/11 edit of The Notorious B.I.G.’s anthem “Juicy” remains neutered in the music catalogs of most American radio stations.

The original lyrics:

Remember Rappin' Duke? Duh-ha, duh-ha/
You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far
Now I'm in the limelight, 'cause I rhyme tight/
Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade

Today, radio listeners still hear 1.5 seconds of eerie silence where the last rhyme once rang.

In the era of Spotify and iTunes, the ongoing censorship has slipped past the radars of many Biggie fans since the original is available so readily via streaming. But for a sub-set of listeners, the edit has become an obsession. Among 9/11 truthers, it fuels conspiracy theories that Biggie predicted the attack – or perhaps even helped plan it. For the rapper’s devotees, the edit fuels recriminations and frustration. Psychologists even posit that it may be warping our historical memory.

Discovering how the lyric was cut – and why that edit persists – requires delving into the past. America’s war on terror may have begun on September 11, 2001, but the roots of this mystery lead to a snowy morning 24 years ago.

At 12:18 pm on February 26, 1993, a rented Ford Econoline carrying a 1,200-pound bomb exploded in the parking garage below the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The blast killed six people, including a pregnant woman, and tore a 100-foot-deep crater in the garage. The attackers were Islamic radicals inspired by Omar Abdel-Rahman, an influential Egyptian sheikh who had recently moved to the United States.

Historians now consider the bombing the first salvo in a two-decade (and counting) global jihadist offensive against the West. But at the time, most Americans viewed the World Trade Center attack as an isolated incident, and even New Yorkers’ attention soon drifted to more pressing issues – rampant crime, racial tensions and squeegee men.

A few miles away in Brooklyn, Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace was rising through the city’s hip-hop underground. He was well placed to observe the 1993 bombing and its aftermath. Smoke from the World Trade Center was visible from Fulton Street in his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where he later shot parts of the “Juicy” music video.

Bedford-Stuyvesant was also home to several mosques and a growing community of African-American converts to Islam. In 1988, Masjid At-Taqwa, a mosque popular with African-American converts, coordinated with police to eject dealers from a dozen local crack dens. Congregants armed with knives and pistols operated 24-hour anti-drug patrols. Biggie, who had started dealing crack at 15 in the neighborhood before committing to rap, was likely aware of this community. One of the conspirators in the 1993 attack was a middle-aged African-American convert named Clement Rodney Hampton-El, a medical technician and former mujahid in Afghanistan.

In August 1994, Biggie released “Juicy,” the first single on his debut album Ready to Die. In the opening verse, Biggie dropped the “blow up like the World Trade” line. But despite his closeness to the events, there is no indication that Wallace intended to make a statement on geopolitical events.

“Those lines contain a metaphor, which compares seemingly different ideas to create one powerful image/idea,” explains Rap Genius contributor “TANSTAFFL” in a notation painfully deliberate even for the site. “Getting paid + blowing up like the world trade = an image of money expanding rapidly.”

It was, simply, a great rhyme. 

While Biggie’s second, posthumous album Life After Death would go diamond in the U.S., “Juicy” was initially just a modest success, peaking at No. 27 on the Hot 100 in Nov. 1994. Did the reference to a recent deadly terror attack stir consternation?

“No,” says DJ Enuff, a longtime disc jockey for New York’s Hot 97 station. Enuff, who was born Ephram Lopez, worked for Biggie as his road disc jockey in the 1990s and is now, due to his long tenure, the station’s unofficial historian. “Nobody cared about it. It didn’t mean anything.”

Just three years after his debut single, Biggie was murdered in Los Angeles in 1997; his songbook became rap canon and he achieved cultural immortality. The “Juicy” lyric remained untouched until Sept. 11, 2001.

After the attacks, media companies erupted in a riot of self-censorship. Marvel edited trailers for Spider-Man, slated for release in May 2002, and removed a scene of Peter Parker trapping a helicopter between the towers with a web. Rockstar Games delayed the release of Grand Theft Auto III, which takes place in a fictional version of New York, in part to remove a mission involving terrorists.

Radio stations around the country, meanwhile, scrambled to purge their catalogs of potentially triggering songs. Clear Channel Communications, which later rebranded as iHeartMedia, famously circulated a list of 150 tracks that it suggested its 1,170 radio stations nationwide consider not playing, from understandable choices such as Gap Band’s “You Dropped A Bomb on Me” to more puzzling recommendations like Cat Stevens' "Peace Train." (Clear Channel later blamed the list on an overzealous regional executive.)

Hot 97’s offices sat just a mile from Ground Zero. The station halted music programming for several days and piped in live news reports instead. Tracy Cloherty, the vice president for Hot 97 programming, doesn’t remember who brought “Juicy” to her attention, but the decision was quick. Lightning had struck twice. “Blow up like the World Trade” in the song had to go.

“As far as I can remember that is the only song that we had more of a sensitivity to,” says Cloherty, who left the station in 2005 and is now vice president of talent and music programming at BET.

For the moment, the decision made plenty of sense. A 2002 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine surveyed Manhattan residents living south of 110th Street and found that 7.5 percent suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder in the weeks after the attack. (The figure for those living south of Canal Street, close to Ground Zero, was 20 percent.)

From their vantage point in the West Village, Hot 97 employees watched the grim rescue, recovery and cleanup efforts for months. DJ Enuff remembers unanimous agreement among the station’s disc jockeys.

“It was hell yeah,” he told me. “There wasn’t even a fight.”

The edit was made, a 1.5-second pockmark was inserted, and engineers filed it away in the station’s Music Master library.

In 2011, Nathan Slavik was managing editor of hip-hop blog DJBooth and living in Los Angeles when he hit his limit. A decade had passed since the attacks, and yet when he listened to the song in his car on Power 106, the song was still clipped. He decided to take a stand.

Slavik began doing research on Google for a short piece. He was floored by what he found. On YouTube comment pages, message boards and 9/11 truther sites, he found a warren of conspiracy theories that boiled down to one of two arguments: a) Biggie was a prophet of Nostradamus-like proportions, or b) he helped plan 9/11, which may have led to his murder, not by hip-hop rivals, but shadowy government forces tying up loose ends years before the attack occurred. A few lonely netizens, meanwhile, raced up and down comment pages trying to extinguish these rumors, to little effect.

“I had the idea to write about that in the back of my head for little while, but after I stumbled across the conspiracy theories I knew I had to,” Slavik told me.

In his ensuing 2011 article – “9/11, Biggie & History’s Only Case of Retroactive Censorship” – Slavik argued that “it’s time to blow up once again.”

“I say enough is enough,” he wrote. “I'm not sure what the original censorship was supposed to accomplish, besides protecting outlets from angry calls from misinformed people who completely overreact, but it's time to restore a classic to its original form in the name of free speech and hip-hop.”

But while the story enjoyed strong traffic, Slavik did not hear from any programming managers. At Hot 97, “Juicy” remained edited.

I had long pondered the song’s case. As a high school student in Brooklyn, I was driving my family car on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway when I first heard the edit after 9/11. On that elevated highway, with a clear view of neutered lower Manhattan, the choice made sense. But as the years wore on, I waited and waited for the lyric’s restoration. Those 1.5 seconds of silence were a minor tragedy every time I heard them, like a faulty firecracker or skunked beer.

I visited Hot 97’s offices in February to ask DJ Enuff about “Juicy.”

“I think the edit’s still in there!” he cried. I told him it was. “That’s the crazy part. It’s 2017, and it’s still there.”

We walked around the office, talking to program managers and disc jockeys. They were all surprised to learn that the edit had lived on.

Chris Walter/WireImage
Notorious B.I.G. photographed in 1995. 

“Once you put something in the system, it lives in the system,” Enuff told me. He promised to bring up the lyric at the next programming meeting. Maybe it was time, he added, to restore the song. But when Hot 97 DJ Megan Ryte's Notorious B.I.G. tribute mix dropped on March 9, the 20th anniversary of his death, she sampled “Juicy,” and there it was: silence. The edited version remains in Hot 97's catalog.

On YouTube, as fans flocked to listen to “Juicy” on the anniversary of Wallace’s death, the conspiracies, like perennial tulip bulbs, flowered again on cue.

“Did he know?”

“Biggie knew too much and that's why they offed him. God bless all who are awake enough to understand.?”

“[H]e died at 1997 and 9/11 happened at 2001 how the hell did he know about world trade?!?” illuminati confirmed?”

Who cares?

Cloherty, the former Hot 97 station manager, told me that she hadn’t realized the radio edit persisted since she only listens to the song on the album itself. She has no qualms.

“I don’t think it’s something with the passage of time, given the scope of the tragedy, something we’ll ever feel comfortable referring to,” she told me.

I asked DJ Enuff what Biggie might think if he were alive today.

“Biggie has heart,” DJ Enuff told me. “I think Biggie would have been okay with our decision.”

Something has been lost, nonetheless. Pop culture helps us remember. Pop culture can even correct and enliven memories we’ve forgotten.

After 9/11, William Hirst, a professor of psychology at the New School, surveyed Americans four times during the decade after 9/11. A year after the attack, just 60 percent of respondents remembered that President George W. Bush had been at a Florida elementary school when the towers were hit.

But in 2004, Michael Moore released his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, which used footage of Bush sitting in the classroom, perplexed, reading along with students a copy of The Pet Goat for roughly seven minutes after Chief of Staff Andy Card informed him of the attack. Three months later, Hirst surveyed his participants again; 85 percent now remembered this detail.

If disc jockeys restore the line “blow up like the World Trade” to “Juicy” while adding a contextual note, Hirst’s research suggests that remembrance of the 1993 attack might be similarly boosted – and conspiracy theories quashed.

“We build memorials to ensure that we never forget horrible events,” Hirst told me, pointing to the massive eight-acre waterfall, plaza and museum at Ground Zero. “I’m not sure why this reminder is somehow problematic.”

The players associated with the 1993 attack are disappearing. Clement Rodney Hampton-El, the lone American-born conspirator, died in 2014. Omar Abdel-Rahman, also known as the “Blind Sheikh,” died in a North Carolina prison in February 2017. His controversial lawyer, Lynne Stewart, died in March 2017.

Some degree of forgetting ought to be in our counter-terrorism arsenal: placing tragedies at an arm’s length and observing them with as much sobriety and distance as we can muster, and letting go. “Juicy” captures a moment in history when terrorism did not terrify us. It wasn’t that Biggie was naïve or lived in an age of innocence. The year that he released “Juicy” nearly 1,600 New Yorkers were murdered, roughly five times the city's homicide toll last year. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was a thing that happened. It was a bad thing, but there were many bad things.

Restoring the original radio edit of “Juicy” won’t heal post-9/11 wounds. But it might help us heed the advice Biggie dispenses at the song’s outset: “Get a grip, motherf---er.”