Have you ever waited for a book to arrive, and it feels like you have waited almost your entire life for it? Well, I’m having that moment with the recent arrival of Justin Tinsley’s “It Was All a Dream.” Anyone who knows me knows I am an absolute die-hard Biggie Smalls stan. My hip hop tastes and preferences are perpetually stuck between 1993-1998 and I truly believe Biggie Smalls is the illest. Tinsley’s new tome has arrived just in time to give me a detailed exploration of one of the greatest rappers to ever pick up a mic.
I am a fan of the genre of hip hop memoirs and biographies. Even if they leave me with more questions than they answer, I am always curious as to the often humble beginnings of a star or their analysis of their connection to their respective city, urban blight, violence, access to resources, and the music industry. “It Was All a Dream” addresses these areas of interest and so much more. This deeply and extensively researched biography interviews so many different types of people who were in Biggie’s magnanimous orbit, especially those who knew and loved Biggie.
Biggie grew up in Brooklyn during the height of the Reagan era’s disinvestment in urban centers, public education, and Black neighborhoods, to start. Tinsley meticulously lays out the backdrop of one of hip hop’s greatest rappers who emerged despite New York City’s and America’s war on drugs and mass incarceration.
It is hard to believe the man who gave the world a small but deep foundation of lyrical masterpieces died at the young age of 24 years old. The son of a teacher and Jamaican immigrant was influenced deeply by the myriad of Black ethnics around him. I listened to Biggie incessantly while writing my book “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream.” Similar to Tinsley, I was fascinated by the intersection of Black cultures in how we shape our opinions, identity, and passions.
“It Was All a Dream” contextualizes Biggie and in doing so, contextualizes and validates so many of us…as lovers of rap music living in a nation that rarely loves us back. Tinsley not only introduced us to so many new aspects of Biggie’s life, he did so while interrogating the complex music industry of the 1990s.
There are few books I classify as “must-reads,” but if you care about Black people, cities, music, culture, and/or the late great Christopher Wallace, this is mandatory reading for you. Reading this book made me long for what could have been from this incredible artist; luckily Tinsley has captured much of his lightning on the page, and for that I am grateful. “It Was All a Dream” is available online and in stores now.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream,” and the co-host of the podcast FAQ-NYC