It is an oft-repeated hip hop axiom that when Biggie Smalls (a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G.) warned about “Mo Money” leading to “Mo Problems”, he was expressing some kind of prescient foresight. Indeed, in the decade since his death, his Junior Mafia crew has been ravaged by scandal, violence, prison and betrayal, even as it has continued to make money hand over fist.
Marrying this newfound largesse to long-hardened street codes of hyper-masculinity, tight-lipped anti-authoritarianism, and general thugishness has never been easy (either for them to portray or for us to watch), but it has become the standard pose for many in the business. Upon his “assassination” in March, 1997, Biggie was among the two or three leading lights in the hip hop scene.
A knight among knaves, the thick-voiced rapper was surrounded by a crew comprised of friends and collaborators, but no equals. Awash in money – worlds apart from the poverty-fed New York street life of their youth – he and his hangers-on had made it, had found an iron groove, and were determined to stick it out. Thing was, when he died so did the lynchpin in the whole scene. His followers, Diddy, Lil’ Kim, D-Roc, Mase, became hugely successful stars, but none had the spark of genius that made Biggie the giant that he was.
April Maiya’s Life After Death follows the fraught 10-year period following Biggie’s death, as his friends and collaborators struggled to overcome the loss of their leader, and to retain the dominance they had enjoyed while under his wing. Consisting almost entirely of home video footage, the film is extraordinarily intimate, if unavoidably artless. However, since it is essentially a 75-minute cobble of shaky amateur holiday snaps, many of which feature nothing more than a group of shirtless friends hanging out, chatting, vacationing, swimming, smoking dope, etc, it is also unavoidably boring.
Fueled by a lazy, offhand narration by Jamie Hector (of HBO’s The Wire), the film wanders about for what seems like ages before stumbling upon its raison d’être?, the messy aftermath of a 2001 shootout which saw several members of the crew indicted. From here on, the film is focused on celebrating D-Roc and Lil’ Kim – two of the most prominent artists in the scene – for their refusals to cooperate with police investigations. Their pathetic martyrdom (both were sent up to federal prisons for their steadfast silence in the face of questioning) is counterpoised against the “snitches” who sold them out by coming clean regarding the horrifically puerile gunfight at issue.
Indeed, the film concludes with a muffled, scratchy phone interview with D-Roc who, from his “honourable” prison cell, casts aspersions on various members of the crew for their probable cooperation with the police. There are a few sketchy allegations – none of which are at all surprising, mind you – that members of the crew had accepted deals from prosecutors sparing them lengthy bids if only they would place Lil’ Kim at the scene of the shooting.
Ultimately, we are expected to agree that yes, a few years in the penitentiary is far superior to cooperation with a police investigation. It seems that if you are one of those hip hop fans who find this all to be hopelessly ignorant bullshit, you will leave, as I did, deeply frustrated with the message – plain old propaganda, really, reminding viewers not to snitch – that this film puts forth. Luckily, the film is so desperately awful that it is unlikely many people will be exposed to it.
The extensive extras included on the DVD are composed of ever more home video footage (“Too Much Bacardi” is the title of one short), some live footage of Lil’ Kim post-pokey, and an interview with Jamie Hector.