For the rare few that get to experience it…fame is fleeting. A hit single, or random guest spot on the reality TV show of the moment gives a few fame mongers their 10 minutes before they slip back into mediocrity. Some, like Amy Winehouse, wither and self-destruct tragically under the white hot supernova of celebrity, while an elite group of others ride the ups and downs of fame most of their adult lives…think Tom Cruise or music phenoms like Madonna.
Then there are the very very select few for whom fame extends… even grows… into their deaths. In life they were celebrities, but in death Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jimmy Hendrix, Elvis… more recently Michael Jackson, they’ve become iconic.
Included on that eclectic list are Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls. The two men, former friends turned bitter rivals murdered at their creative peaks within 6 months of each other, are now linked in death in the minds of millions of fans much as they were in life.
Jeffrey Ogbar, professor of history and Associate Dean of the Humanities at the University of Connecticut, has researched the impact both men had during their lives and the sway that they both continue to have in death. “If they had been marginal figures at the time of their deaths this wouldn’t have happened,” said Ogbar, author of Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap. “But because they were the two biggest figures in the industry at the time, it made them attractive figures for canonization as hip hop icons.
The numbers tell the tale. Both men were included on a list by Bloomberg of artists with the most posthumous record sales, a list that includes James Brown, Ray Charles, John Lennon and Kurt Cobain. Since Biggie’s death on March 9, 1997 the artist has had a two posthumous albums (three if you count the double-disc “Ready To Die” set completed during his life but released 15 days after his murder.) That album was certified Diamond in 2000 by the Recording Industry of America, selling in excess of 10 million units.
The posthumous output of Shakur, murdered in September 1996, has bordered on prolific. To date the rapper has had more albums released after death (nine) than were released when he was alive (five), no doubt fueling much of the half-hearted speculation that he must be alive somewhere still churning out new material. An attestment to his influence, Shakur’s seminal piece “Dear Mama” was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2010.
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