March marks the month the world lost two of the most influential artists of the 1990s: The Notorious B.I.G. and Selena. This year marked the 25th anniversary of remembering the life of Biggie and the 27th anniversary of honoring Selena’s memory. Both artists continue to influence hip-hop and Latin music today despite their tragic deaths early in their careers.
Before he was known as The Notorious B.I.G., Christopher Wallace spent his early years in Brooklyn. Wallace was raised solely by his mother, Voletta Wallace, who had immigrated to New York from Jamaica. During his early years, Wallace hustled to alleviate the financial burdens of himself and his family, which eventually led to his imprisonment at the age of 17. In spite of his troubles, Biggie became a neighborhood sensation among residents of the Bedford-Stuyvesant area, who enjoyed the first freestyle performances of the future King of New York. His popularity eventually grew within Brooklyn, earning him the attention of The Source magazine, creating the possibility of a musical career. Producers like Sean “Puffy” Combs also discovered recordings of Biggie’s early tapes, leading to the creation of Bad Boy Records in 1992.
“Ready to Die,” Biggie’s debut album, came out in 1994, just a month after the release of “Juicy,” his first single. “Ready to Die” was certified gold within two months of release, before going quadruple-platinum by 1996. For many, “Ready to Die” marked the comeback of East Coast hip-hop after the boom of West Coast artists like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, and Tupac. Songs like “Big Poppa” and “Hypnotize” became radio hits that earned Biggie attention throughout hip-hop communities.
Although many of his hits were radio-friendly, Biggie did not shy away from the gangsta rap that reflected his early years before becoming the King of New York. Songs like “Everday Struggle,” “Machine Gun Funk,” and “Suicidal Thoughts” highlighted the realities of many poverty-stricken neighborhoods like Brooklyn that often struggled with crime and drug use. For Biggie, rap became a way to voice his issues while also being vulnerable in the public’s eyes. Lines like “I’m livin’ everyday like a hustle. Another drug to juggle. Another day, another struggle,” emphasize how the burdens of poverty can lead to desperate actions in underserved communities. Despite vocalizing the harsh realities of urban life, Biggie also highlighted the positives of hard work and success. His hit “Sky’s the Limit” highlights a journey from failure to success with lines like “Stay far from timid, only make moves when your heart’s in it, and live the phrase ‘Sky’s the limit.’” Today, Biggie’s legacy continues, with widespread appreciation of his accomplishments earning him a posthumous spot in the Rock Hall of Fame in 2020, as well as recognition from artists like Jay-Z, Eminem, Kanye, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar.
Selena Quintanilla Perez, also known as the “Queen of Tejano Music,” revolutionized the Latin pop genre by combining pop and rock with cumbia, mariachi, and Tejano rhythms. Even 27 years after her passing, fans worldwide continue to pay tribute to the Tejano artist’s legendary legacy.
A third-generation Mexican American, Selena Quintanilla Pérez did not grow up speaking Spanish. Similar to Biggie, she faced financial struggles that led to her family losing their home and restaurant. At the age of eight, she began singing in English, gaining neighborhood attention. Her father, Abraham Quintanilla, decided that Selena’s potential could be realized if she transitioned to singing in Spanish. As a result, “Selena y Los Dinos” formed, a band starring Selena as lead singer, which opened the doors to gigs and concerts around Selena’s native Texas.
By 1988, Selena had released five LP albums, contributing to her winning Best Female Vocalist at the Tejano Music Awards in 1987. She won the same award for nine consecutive years, which led to her signing with EMI Latin Records. In 1990, Selena released a single titled “Baila Esta Cumbia” that gained her attention across the U.S. and Mexico, before being certified platinum. The following year she released “Buenos Amigos” and gained the top spot on the U.S. Billboard Top Latin Songs chart, her first number-one single. Moreover, her breakthrough album, “Entre Mi Mundo,” garnered phenomenal popularity in Mexico and the U.S, going ten-times platinum and selling over 300,000 copies.
1993 presented more success for Selena as she released her album “Live!” which was named Album of the Year by the Billboard Latin Music Awards and was awarded the Best Mexican/American Album at the 36th Annual Grammy Awards. Songs like “Como La Flor” became hits across Latin America, with lyrics such as “Como la flor con tanto amor me diste tu, se marchitó me marcho hoy, yo se perder” (“Like the flower that with so much love you gave me, it withered, I’m leaving today, I know how to lose”) that speak to the loss of love. Other songs like “La Carcacha” are upbeat, appreciating an old broken down car: “Carcacha, paso a pasito no dejes de tamblear carcacha, poco a poquito no nos vayas a dejar” (“Jalopy, step by step don’t stop coming along, little by little don’t leave us stranded”).
Despite her passing, Selena continues to inspire and attract new waves of fans to the Latin Pop genre. Her vibrant and confident style encourages many Mexican Americans to embrace their identities, regardless of cultural and language barriers. Her bilingual and bicultural identity resonates with many today and has influenced artists like Jennifer Lopez — who played Selena in her breakout acting role — Becky G, and Selena Gomez. Her achievements elevated Latin music to the mainstream market, continuing to open doors for new artists. Who knows what more Selena could have accomplished, but regardless, La Reina’s legacy will rule on for generations.
For me, Biggie and Selena represent two aspects of my identity. Biggie’s music is an outlet that allows me to resonate with the struggles of being low-income. His lyrics paint the realities of living in a harsh urban environment by illustrating the vicious cycles of poverty that often get ignored by the media. Nevertheless, Biggie’s success story inspires me to keep on fighting for my dreams despite the barriers and inequities that many POCs face in today’s society. Similarly, Selena is an artist that always reminds me of my Latino and bicultural heritage when I’m far from home. Whenever Selena is playing at a party, it allows Latinx students to showcase their heritage through dancing and singing. Biggie and Selena are reflections of my FLI and Latinx identity that allow me to feel proud of my roots and upbringing.