Hey there, book nerds! ICYMI, Tiffany D. Jackson is back with Let Me Hear a Rhyme, yet another novel sure to make you feel. all. the. feels. Tiffany is an absolute master at creating intense, visceral scenes with characters that are larger than life, and Let Me Hear a Rhyme is honestly no exception.
Set in Brooklyn in the late 90s, Let Me Hear a Rhyme follows Quadir, Jarrell, and Jasmine, the best friends (and little sister) of Steph Davis. Steph was an aspiring rapper, funny, loyal to his friends—and was murdered in the middle of BK.
What happens next? Quady, Rell, and Jazz hatch a plan to stop Steph’s rhymes from dying with him—they set him up as “The Architect,” and work to prove his talent from beyond the grave. Naturally, things get… dicey.
Let Me Hear a Rhyme is one you won’t want to miss. While we wait for this to hit shelves, we’re giving you a sneak peek at the first four chapters!
You’ve probably seen this scene before:
Ladies in black church dresses, old men in gray suits, and hood kids in white tees with some blurry picture printed on the front under the spray-painted letters RIP. Pastor in the corner eating lemon cake, grandmas in their regal crowns waving church fans, while aunties swim around, refilling plates, sneaking sips of Henny stashed in their purse.
My best friend, Steph, smiles at me from his cousin Roger’s T-shirt. Roger lives in Queens, so Steph never saw him much. We Brooklyn kids don’t travel to other boroughs like that. I mean, why would we?
Deadass, it’s gotta be close to a hundred people stuffed in this tiny-ass apartment, and them Sternos heating up lunch is making this place feel like we sitting inside a radiator. I don’t recognize half the grown-ups walking around with long faces. They must be friends of Steph’s mom. Or his pops.
I thought I’d see some reporters and cameramen at the church. For the past few days, I flipped through channels waiting to see Steph’s photo cross the screen, but everyone was still busy talking about President Clinton hooking up with that intern. Like, damn, don’t murders make the news no more? Don’t they know who Steph was? I mean, yeah, folks die every day. But it’s not every day you lose your main man.
Guess I’mma have to be the reporter and tell his story. What Ms. Greene in history class call it? Oral history, black storytelling, or something like that. Bet a real reporter would set up the scene better than I did. Probably something like:
Headline: Funeral Held for Slain Teen
On Saturday, roughly a hundred friends and family filled the victim’s home in Brevoort, the notorious housing projects in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, to celebrate the life of Stephon Davis, Jr.
Suspect still at large.
“Heard she almost requested a closed casket,” someone whispers, but doing a shit job of it. “Poor thing, just been through so much.”
“She” being Ms. Davis, Steph’s mom, sitting across the room in the beat-up tan recliner Steph used to play in until he broke the handle and now nobody can recline like they supposed to. Her eyes stay locked on the green carpet, not caring if everyone tracks dirt across it. My mom made us take our shoes off at the door.
Jarrell is sitting next to me with a hole in his sock. He got that same look in his eye, like he’s real far away, leaning on the love-seat arm, his thick fist smashing into his baby-fat cheek. This is the same rusty-color love seat all three of us used to chill on when we watched Knicks games, ’cause Rell thought it’d bring us good luck. Ain’t never seen him look so sad. Not even when the Knicks lost in the playoffs and he owed Big Rob two hundred dollars. I know that’s a wack comparison. But if you saw the way Jarrell carried on for a week, you’d understand.
Ms. Viv from apartment 6C stops in front of us, smiling. “You two okay? Can I get you anything?”
I shake my head real slow. “No thank you.”
When Jarrell doesn’t answer, I jab him with my elbow and he wakes up.
“Oh. Nah, I’m good. Thanks.”
Ms. Viv sighs, heading for the kitchen, and I check on Ms. Davis again. Carl is curled up in her lap, eyes ping-ponging at everyone walking by. Poor homie, he’s probably real confused. First, his big brother dies, now he has all these strangers up in his house. I don’t know what I would’ve been thinking as a six-year- old. Ms. Davis rocks him back and forth, squeezing him like a pillow to her chest.
I could use a hug like that. Which reminds me, where’s Veronica? She said she’d stop by, and she knew what time the service ended. She get lost coming downstairs?
“Damn, it’s hot up in here,” Jarrell grumbles, tugging at the tie choking his neck. He can’t take it off ’cause his moms is in the room, watching us like the Feds. One thing about Ms. Mullen, she don’t play no games. Don’t matter if you her child or not, she’ll set you straight in a minute. Jarrell looks like the male version of her. Both got glowing dark skin, bowlegged, got deep wheezy voices, breathing mad hard like Darth Vader. Both got some weight on their bones, but while Ms. Mullen has all the fellas breaking their necks when she walks by, Jarrell’s FUBU sweaters be looking extra-small.
I check on Ms. Davis again . . . and Jasmine sitting next to her. I almost didn’t recognize her. I’m used to seeing her two Afro puffs and baggy jeans. Only seen her hair straight on picture day, and can’t remember the last time I saw her in a dress.
She glances at me, her eyes real glassy like she’s about to cry. And I can’t look away.
She looks so much like Steph.
“Yo, I just can’t believe he’s gone,” Jarrell says.
I blink at him, wondering if he caught me staring all hard. But his eyes were still glued to the rug.
“Yeah,” I mumble. “It was mad crazy seeing him in that box.”
He shakes his head. “Damn. He’s really gone, though. I mean, they just offed him . . . just like that.”
“Yo, chill, Rell. I don’t even wanna think about that. Not here. Not now.”
“You right. My bad, son.”
Mourners line up to pay respect to Ms. Davis, and Jasmine walks out the room. Wish I knew what to say to her. Steph always had a way to cheer her up.
“I heard Steph’s mom took it pretty hard. Jada said she could hear her screaming from her building.”
“Yeah. But she did aight during the funeral, though.”
Jarrell tugs at his collar. “I need a new suit. This shit is mad tight.”
I chuckle. “Or you could chill with the McDonald’s.”
Jarrell sucks his teeth. “Man, I’ve been in mourning. Stop clocking my mouth.”
As much fun as it is snapping on Jarrell, all I really wanna do is go home, lie in my room, turn up the radio, and read every magazine I ever saved cover to cover just to clear my head. This ain’t how I planned to end summer, held up in the house, mad depressed.
Last night, they played Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You” at least five times. That tribute to Big never made me cry before, but I sure lost a few tears thinking about Steph.
“We were supposed to go to Coney Island today,” I mumble.
That’s what Steph wanted to do. Tradition. Last Friday of summer break, we head to the beach, check out the shorties, then stay for the fireworks. Now we chilling at a funeral.
Biggie Smalls was right. Things done changed.
I always know when I’m about to faint.
First, all the muscles melt off my bones and slide down to my feet. Next, the room spins slow. Then, my knees stop working. Last, with all ninety-five pounds of muscle on the floor in a heap by my ankles, someone ties my shoelaces together, I take a step and fall flat on my face.
I overheat easy. Always have. Steph used to say if white folks ever send us back to Africa I wouldn’t last a day.
My knees just started to feel numb when I escape all the eager eyes in our living room. Everyone’s watching, waiting to see if Mom, Carl, and I will crack so they can open us up and see our insides. The hood is filled with nosy people, sucking up all the air, standing in the buffet line snaking out of our kitchen. How could anyone eat after seeing a body lying in a casket?
And not just any old body. Steph’s body.
“First her husband, now her son. Poor thing,” someone says, like they don’t know how to whisper.
“Poor child, they were like twins.”
“Mm-hmm. Lost a brother, but gained an angel.”
Mom squeezes Carl tight with one hand, clinging to the back of my cardigan with the other. But just the simple touch has my body hitting a thousand degrees.
I don’t want an angel. I want my brother back.
I rush out the room, in search of air that’s not mixed with perfume, pity, and fried chicken.
Sweating through the stockings Mom made me wear under the dress that I can’t stand, I bust into Steph’s room and throw open the window. The relief is like sticking your face in the freezer. After spending two hours fighting with Mom’s hot comb last night, my hair is already frizzing. Of course. There could be a drop of rain two states away and my hair would peep it and shrink up. I wanted to wear it in my regular puffs, but Mom made a big deal about straightening it for the funeral, and I didn’t have the courage to argue with her. She doesn’t like me rocking my hair natural. She’s old-school. She still believes in blue flames and blue grease to straighten hair when all the other girls are using flat irons.
At least she didn’t say nothing about my medallion. It’s round, leather, with a cutout shape of Africa, stitched with red, green, and gold thread. It used to belong to Daddy. He wore it everywhere.
I hid in here during Daddy’s funeral too. Except Steph was already in here, recording songs off the radio to make a new mixtape. He had this technique that made his tapes sound real professional. You have to listen close, one finger on the Record button, the other on the Play, half pushed down. Then when the first beat of the song he wants comes on, he’d push both buttons down real fast and it made for a smooth transition on the cassette tape. Last February, he gave Mom an R&B mixtape for Valentine’s Day, and she thought he’d paid big money to have it done.
Lady of Rage stares down at me with that “Don’t even try it” expression as tears rain on my dress. Would she be crying like this? I remember when I put that poster up for Steph. All he had were pictures of brothas, but ladies rap too. And no, not some models/side chicks pretending they know how to spit, rapping about all the clothes, sex, and money they get. I’m talking lyrical geniuses. Independent and strong. Everything I want to be.
“What up, Jazz?”
Quadir stands in the doorframe, squirming, looking unsure of whether it’s safe to take another step.
“Uh . . . what up?” I say, sniffing back tears and quickly wipe my face dry. Dag, I don’t want anyone seeing me like this. Especially Steph’s friends.
“You okay? I was just . . . whoa.” He gapes at the walls.
Mom used to say Steph’s room looked like a magazine threw up all over the place with every artist you could ever think of: Biggie, Puff Daddy, the Lox, Mase, Method Man, Capone-N-Noreaga, Jay-Z, Big Pun. One side of the room dedicated to The Source magazine, Rap Pages, and Vibe. The other, movie posters: Scarface, Coming to America, Boomerang. You’d never know the walls were painted blue underneath his shrine to hip-hop, his first love.
Quadir gawks like he’s walking into a museum. We lock eyes for a brief moment before Jarrell pushes past him.
“Yo, son. You think you a ghost or something and I can just walk through you? Move out the . . . whoa.” Jarrell spins around, letting out a small chuckle. “Damn, look at all this shit!”
He grabs the basketball propped up next to Steph’s bed, tossing it in the air.
On the desk is a three-disc-changer stereo with detachable speakers, covered in old fruity scratch-and-sniff stickers, so worn down the colors are faded white. Steph begged for almost a year for that thing, drove Daddy crazy over it. Daddy found one at a pawnshop, slightly damaged (one of the CD slots doesn’t work) but for Steph, it was love at first sight. He almost cried when Daddy walked in with it. Stacked around the stereo were cassette tapes and CDs. Dozens of them. Some
named, some left blank.
“No wonder he never let us up in here.” Jarrell laughs, snatching a tape off one of the piles, and reads the label. “‘The Build, Volume 1.’ Yo, this fool was serious.”
“You know how he is . . . was about his music,” I say, feeling the need to defend Steph. He wouldn’t want nobody touching his stuff, but I’m too numb to stop them.
“How you holding up?” Quadir asks. He’s always been friendly, in a quiet, shy type of way.
“I’m straight,” I lie, adjusting my posture. Just because Steph is gone don’t mean I’m some weak girl who needs to be babied. “How you two doing?”
Quadir glances at Rell, combing through tapes. “We aight. Sorry about Steph. We know you two were close.”
I swallow back the rising tears. “Not as close as you three.”
“Aye, Quady, come look at this,” Jarrell says.
“Yo, quit messing with the man’s shit. It’s why he never wanted us in here in the first place.”
Jarrell blows him off with a wave of his hand.
“Check it,” he says, flipping through the pages of a blackand- white composition notebook. “Look at this. All this fool ever did was write rhymes.”
Quadir reads over Rell’s shoulder. “He didn’t even need to. He was better off the dome anyways.”
“Yeah. Remember, when he called that dude ‘a player who got burnt up and strung up ’cause he hit that broad up?’ With his girl standing right there? Son, I was dying that day.”
Rell cackles and Quadir can’t help but snicker with him.
“Damn, that kid was good.”
Quadir sighs. “Yeah. He was.”
Their laughter slowly dies down and they both glance at me, like they forgot I was in the room. Yes, y’all, we’re still at the repast for my brother.
Rell clears his throat. “Let’s see what this fool was listening to.”
He presses Play on the stereo, and the cassette tape hisses before Steph’s voice fills the room.
“Oh shit, this must’ve been those tracks he was working on.”
“Didn’t he say he was going to a studio the night before he . . . died?”
Wait, Steph was in a studio? Like a real one?
Jarrell presses stop and ejects the tape before turning to me.
“Yo, Jazz, you think I can have this?”
Quadir watches me. Is he waiting for me to crack too? Bet they expecting it, but I ain’t giving them the satisfaction.
“Sure. It’s not like anyone else is gonna listen to it,” I say with a shrug as the little girl inside me says in a small voice, “Anyone except me.”
Whenever we chill on the corner, we got to play our positions: me, posted up against the wall; Quady sitting on milk crates; and Steph leaning against the lamppost outside Habibi’s bodega. Homie loves Quady ’cause he got a Muslim name even though he ain’t Muslim. Can’t stand me ’cause I mess up his name all the time. Not my fault I can’t roll my r’s and shit, but they halal food be the truth.
The spot Steph would’ve been standing in is looking mad empty now that he’s gone.
My pops hate them type of words: should’ve, would’ve, could’ve. They ain’t nothing but excuses. Pops don’t even live with us and I’m afraid to use them words up in our spot. He’s quick to make me do twenty push-ups when I try. Probably got the place wiretapped or something.
He’s right, though. There ain’t no excuse for Steph not being here with us. Somebody killed him for no reason.
“Damn, it’s hot out here,” I say, and gulp down another ninety-nine-cent Arizona Iced Tea. “Hotter than it was up in Steph’s crib.”
After we rapped with Jazz real quick, we took to-go plates of Mummy’s jerk chicken, rice and peas, and cabbage, then bounced. I didn’t want to be up in there with all them sad people and pictures of Steph staring at us. I’m sad enough as it is. Quady is too. He don’t have to say it. It’s all over his face,
living in his voice.
“Yo, you think he knew what was about to go down?” Quady says, glancing at Steph’s spot on the corner.
“Nah, son. No way.”
I loosen my tie, my collar wet with sweat. These church clothes be killing me. Don’t get it twisted. I still look fly, and no one in the hood have these black gator dress shoes. But I had to pop a pant button open just to finish my plate. Yeah, I could’ve stopped eating, but when Mummy gets busy in the kitchen you never let her food go to waste. I mean, I guess I can’t really call them church clothes since we only roll up in there for holidays. Now they got a new name: funeral clothes.
Never thought my first funeral would be for someone I really knew like that. I thought it would be a random kid from school or some great-aunt back in Jamaica. Not my main man hundred grand. I used to wonder what Peter Parker felt when Uncle Ben was killed in Spider-Man. How it felt to lose someone you looked up to, someone you cared about. Now I know.
The shit aches, and the thoughts are giving me ruthless bubble guts. Or it could’ve been that Cap’n Crunch.
A gold Lexus stops at the light, its tinted windows halfway down, blasting “Can I Get A . . .” by Jay-Z with Ja Rule and this new chick Amil. The bass thumps through my chest and I’m not even in the car. They keep it up and they gonna blow out their speakers by Halloween.
Two cats stare at us, their seats leaning like they about to take a nap. We stare back. You never know what a dude is holding, so you gotta stay ready so you ain’t got to get ready, feel me? And the way they did Steph . . . I don’t trust nobody out here in ‘Do-or-Die Bed-Stuy,’ and neither should you.
Once the light turns green, they roll off and I take a breath.
After a while Quady says, “That’s that new Jigga Funk Flex dropped last week.” Music is our thang and I’m happy to change the subject.
“Yeah. What’d you think?”
Quady shrugs, rubbing his arm. “It’s aight.” He stops to think for a second. “Steph would’ve murdered that beat, though.”
Can’t argue with that. You gave that fool Steph a hot beat, and he’d smash it to smithereens with the quickness. I palm his tape in my pocket, rubbing my finger against the grooves.
“I just can’t get over that part,” Quady says.
“The part about him being dead and all that niceness going into the ground. It’s blowing my mind! Yo, deadass, he would’ve been one of the hottest emcees to come out of Brooklyn. He should’ve been signed.”
More should’ve, would’ve, could’ves.
“And I’m not saying that ’cause he was my man; it’s just facts,” he continues, and starts pacing. “He had shit wayyyy better than anyone you heard on Def Jam, Death Row, or even Bad Boy.”
“Yo man, you right! This is some bullshit,” I say, slamming my empty can on the ground. “I could’ve been kicking it with some shorties on a tour bus right now.”
Quadir gives me a look then starts snickering.
“What, son? What you laughing at?”
He waves me off. “Nothing, man. Nothing.”
“What you saying with that laugh? You saying I’m fat? You saying I can’t bag no shorties?”
“I didn’t say that, you did,” he chuckles.
“Man, get out of here,” I laugh, patting my belly. “The ladies love rubbing the Buddha. You know Biggie was getting all the ladies too. So was Heavy D. Big boys like me be smooth as fuck and snatch yo’ girl when you ain’t looking.”
Quady frowns. “Yo, did you just fart?”
I gulp and go serious. “Aight. You know what? I ain’t even gonna lie to you. I did.”
He howls, and that light-skin pretty-boy face of his turns red. Quady got the complexion of a waffle. He acts tough, but that fool is soft, soaking up all the syrup he showers in.
“It ain’t funny, man,” I say, trying to hold back a smile. “All this death talk got my stomach leaning. Think I ate too many of Ms. Rogers’s deviled eggs.”
Quadir is crying real tears, he’s laughing so hard, until he slowly stops, his shoulders sagging.
“Damn,” he mumbles.
“It’s . . . it’s just not the same snapping on you without Steph here.”
I know exactly how he feels. “Yeah. That fool was pure comedy.”
A blue Toyota Camry rolls by, his chrome rims gleaming in the sun, blasting Tupac’s “How Do U Want It.” All the girls love that song. Funny how over a year ago, no one would be caught dead rocking to Tupac like that. During the East Coast vs. West Coast beef, we rep hard for Biggie and the whole Bad Boy family heavy. But in the end, it didn’t make no sense. Tupac’s gone. Biggie’s gone.
Now Steph’s gone.
I feel myself dipping back into sadness until I hear Dante’s voice.
“Oh shit, look at Rico Suave with this here suit on!” Dante strolls down the block with a grin and dusts my shoulders off. “Looking smooth, kid!”
Dante’s our age but barely taller than my baby brothers. He keeps his braids fresh, his gear tight, and his Timbs clean, so you gotta pay him mad respect.
I laugh. “What up, boy?”
We pound, dap, thumb, and snap. The handshake be looking real complicated, but it’s actually mad easy. Dante offers his hand to Quadir, and he shakes his head.
“Nah, son. I’m good.”
Dante smirks. “No problem, man. Yo, sorry about Steph. Shit is crazy out here on these streets. Anyone find out what happened yet?”
Quadir and I share a quick look. Surprised Dante doesn’t know. He be knowing all the hood gossip.
Quadir sighs. “Wrong place, wrong time. You know how it be.”
“Yeah, man. I heard Ro Ro got murked last night.”
“Which Ro Ro?”
“You know, Ro Ro, the one who played with that hood team who lived down Ralph.”
“Son! That kid used to dunk on cats.”
“I just played him the other day,” Quadir yells. “He was supposed to go to St. John’s next year. Full ride and everything.”
“Well, not no more. Got murk over some girl. Swizzcheesed his ass just like Steph, right in front of his crib.”
The thought of bullet holes in Steph makes my stomach lean left.
Quadir closes his eyes and shakes his head. “Damn.”
“Anyways, y’all look like you need some cheering up, and I got just the move.”
He hands out orange flyers like a car salesman.
“Party at E. Rocque’s tonight. All the blunts and girls with big butts you could want.”
“E. Rocque’s having a party? Bet! I’m there.”
Quady shakes his head. “Nah, son, I’m not in the mood.”
No way, man, he gotta come! Can’t have him out here looking like a sad puppy. We all we got now! “Quady, it’s an E. Roque party! We gotta go.”
“And you know your girl Ronnie’s gonna be there,” Dante added.
Quady raises an eyebrow. “When you see Ronnie?”
“Just a couple minutes ago, stepping out the salon.”
I roll my eyes. “So your girlfriend can get her hair done but can’t come with you to your main man’s funeral?”
Quady waves me off. “Whatever.”
Quady always acts like he don’t feel what kind of knockoff material his girl is made of.
“But for real, though, we gotta roll through. Come on, man! Steph wouldn’t want us crying like this. He would’ve wanted us to go and live life to the fullest.”
More could’ve, would’ve, should’ve.
“Shit, if it was one of us and he was still alive, he’d be the first one to wanna go just to take our mind off it.”
“Yeah, just come,” Dante adds. “Get your party on real quick and dip. Easy.”
Quady hesitates then smiles.
“Aight. You right. Let’s do this.”
Cheesing, I dap him up. “Word, kid.”
The air was thick and electric.
A hum buzzed through the crowd blanketing sidewalks. Heads popped out of open windows, staring off into the distance. Everyone watching anxiously . . . waiting to catch a glimpse of hip-hop royalty.
Stephon Davis snorted up the electricity with a smirk. He craned his neck into the desolate street lined with blue police barricades working like dams to hold the overpacked crowd from flooding the empty space. Any moment now, the cars would roll through, and his hometown hero would make his last drive through the borough of Kings.
Steph touched the tender spaces in between the cornrows under his knit hat with a slight wince. Jasmine always redid his hair when his mom couldn’t, but she had a nasty habit of pulling too tight and twisting pieces of his scalp into his braids. A little pain is better than looking busted, he thought,
and sniffed the air again.
Old ladies held candles around the makeshift memorials peppered with cards and teddy bears. Kids held up handmade posters . . .
Notorious B.I.G. Forever! Biggie Lives! We Love You Big Poppa!
Much different from the guys he passed on Fulton selling Biggie RIP T-shirts.
“I can’t believe we skipped school for this,” Quadir said behind him. “You know Ms. Reign’s gonna call my moms on me.”
“Fuck reading about all those dead white people,” Jarrell said, squished next to him, his hoodie up. “This is real history happening right now!”
The temperature began to drop and the cold sank into their bones. All they could do was blow hot air into their hands and hope the March sun would peek out from behind the clouds. They hadn’t come dressed for the weather. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision by Steph.
I should’ve brought Jasmine, Steph thought, watching a group of girls cry across the street. She needed to see that it wasn’t just him with unconditional love for Biggie.
TV crews and cameramen wiggled their way between residents. On the opposite end of the block, cops gathered, patrolling in riot gear. A few people booed, their presence unwelcome.
A hushed stillness came over the crowd. The quiet felt unnatural for Brooklyn, and it made Steph edgy. He was more comfortable with the noise of hectic traffic, street sirens, and arguing neighbors. He couldn’t even fall asleep without the radio on.
“Yo, where this fool at?” Jarrell said, shivering. “It’s brick out here.”
“You sure they gonna drive this way?” Quadir asked, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“This is Biggie’s block. He lived right over there, 226 St. James Place!”
“But we’ve been waiting for like two hours. The funeral gotta be over by now.”
Steph started having doubts. What if they lied? What if he wasn’t coming through Brooklyn like planned? That would mean he had convinced his best friends to ditch for nothing. That also meant he wouldn’t have the chance to say goodbye.
“Aye! There they are!” Someone cheered.
At first only a few cops on motorcycles rounded the corner, crawling up the street, but behind them, the procession slowly followed, a caravan of limos following a black hearse, similar to what Biggie stood next to on the cover of his last album, Life After Death.
The block erupted with cheers. Everyone waving signs, clapping, whistling, saluting with fists held high, as girls screamed, “We love you, BIG!”
“Look! There’s Faith!” Someone yelled, pointing at Big’s widow in the back of one of the limos.
People peered through the tinted windows, straining to see the stars inside. One car passed, covered in beautiful wreaths, a standing spray with B.I.G. spelled out in red flowers. Tears flowed, even from the hood cats and stickup kids. They felt the impact of losing someone who had represented not only their struggle, but the life of every kid growing up in Brooklyn.
One of those kids was Steph. And as the hearse rolled by, surrounded by his best friends cheering and screaming, he raised a hand to wave and watched in silence.
The last car made a turn with a sharp finality and the block became still again. The small ripples of sadness that washed over them while they waited became giant tidal waves.
“Damn,” Jarrell said. Only word to describe the feeling.
The boys instinctively started walking toward Fulton as raw emotions spilled into the streets.
“He was ours, yo!” A man cried on the corner, sniffling through his words. “He was us! He dressed like us, talked like us, looked like us. No one from Brooklyn represented us like Big. No one!”
“Yo, duke is messed up,” Quady said solemnly.
“That’s what it’s like when you lose family,” Steph said. He was familiar with the shape mourning leaves you in: bent, broken, shattered, grasping at anything that would make you feel whole again. Music healed Steph after his father died. Biggie healed Steph.
Now, they’re both gone.
Then, out of nowhere, someone turned up the volume, and “Hypnotize” rumbled through speakers. . . .
Uh, Uh, Uh . . . c’mon
Biggie’s voice was the lighter that set the streets on fire. Everyone started jumping, dancing, and singing. The boys grinned at one another and took off into the crowd.
Hah, sicka than your average
Poppa twist cabbage off instinct
Niggas don’t think shit stink, pink gators,
My Detroit players
Timbs for my hooligans in Brooklyn
On the corner, Jarrell jumped on a dumpster with a crew of other kids, waving their hands in the air. Quadir and Steph set it off with the crowd below. They partied, singing at the top of their lungs, celebrating a dynamic life cut short on the very block he sold crack.
WOOP WOOP! In an instant, the cops descended like an army, shutting down their one moment of happiness. They ripped people off the cars they danced on, throwing men on the ground and against store windows, struggling to slap cuffs on anyone they could get their hands on.
In a panic, Steph looked up at Jarrell, unaware of the cops approaching.
“Rell! Watch out!” he screamed, but it was too late. A cop yanked at his arm and he toppled over to the ground. Another cop pressed a knee into Jarrell’s back.
“Yo, get off me,” Jarrell gurgled out, cheek pressed into the concrete. “I ain’t do nothing!”
Pepper spray perfumed the air. Pandemonium. Women coughed, sergeants barked, and sirens blared as Biggie continued to play in the background.
“Why y’all doing this?” a young girl cried to the cops pushing at the crowd. “This is mad unnecessary! We came here to represent for Biggie. Y’all won’t even let us have this!”
Steph looked to Quadir. There was only one way to save their friend. On the count of three, they bum-rushed the cop with their joint shoulders. The cop fell on his back. Quickly, Quadir helped Jarrell to his feet, doubling back.
“Yo, go! Go!” Quadir yelled, pulling Steph with him. “Run!”
Steph took off running, down Fulton Street, toward home. Wind whistled through his ears; his sneakers smacked the pavement as he ran harder, faster. Running from the cops and the new pain thumping in his chest he couldn’t tell his friends about. They would look at him . . . funny. He hated having to be so strong all the time. He looked back at Quadir, hot on his tail, Jarrell trailing behind them.
They all knew where to go: straight to Habibi’s.
They jogged down Marion Street to Patchen Ave, collapsing outside the corner bodega facing Brevoort.
“Yo, shit got crazy, I can’t believe they tried to bust me,” Jarrell wheezed. “Good looking out back there, y’all. Drinks on me!”
Jarrell grabbed three red quarter waters, a pack of sunflower seeds for Quadir, Dipsy Doodles for Steph, and chocolate Hostess cupcakes for himself.
Steph leaned against the light post, gazing at Brevoort across the street, Biggie playing out the speakers of almost every other window.
“Son, there were mad people out there,” Jarrell said, leaning against the brick wall. “Even white people! So much love for Big!”
“And you saw all them cameras and reporters,” Quadir added, squatting down on an empty black milk crate. “It’s gonna be all over the news tonight.”
Steph remained silent, lost in his own thoughts. The weight of grief settled like dust upon his skin. How could he lose the two men that shaped him? Why do the people that he love got to die? And how does he protect everyone left who’s important to him?
Quadir glanced up at his friend, cocking his head to the side. He always noticed when Steph drifted too far and had to fish him back out.
“You aight, kid?”
Steph sighed. “I just can’t believe he’s gone. He should’ve never went to Cali! Should’ve stayed his ass right here in Brooklyn. Cats took him out on some revenge-type shit when he never did nothing to nobody.”
Quadir spat out a few sunflower seeds on the concrete.
“Yo, deadass,” he said, cautious of the ears around them that could brand him a traitor. “This whole East Coast–West Coast beef never made sense to me. They even said it in Vibe—it was just a bunch of ‘he said, she said’ shit. And look what it cost us. Two of the best rappers alive.” He shook his head. “Tupac was the man, and I was shook to listen to him ’cause cats were wildin’. Why can’t I rep for Bad Boy but fuck with an artist on Death Row? Good music is good music. Point, blank, period.”
“Yeah,” Jarrell said, stuffing his mouth with the last cupcake. “That’s like when cats go ‘which one is better, DC Comics or Marvel?’ Son, everyone know Marvel is the illest. But you gotta respect Superman. I mean, duke’s an alien that can fly, carrying buildings and shit.”
Steph smirked. “So Tupac’s an alien?”
“He ain’t from our world,” Quadir said, laughing. “Duke was from the future or something.”
“Word, kid. See, ’cause Superman was born on the planet Krypton, which is like light-years ahead in the future, so he got all these powers beyond our human capabilities.”
His friends stared at him as if he had five heads.
Quadir laughed. “Son, I can’t believe you got us out here on the block talking about comic books like a bunch of nerds.”
“Shut yo’ ass up!” Jarrell snapped. “Everybody reads comic books!”
“So what you saying?” Quadir challenged. “Biggie was like Spider-Man or something?”
“Yeah! Well, except the part him being from Queens and all.”
“He was one of us,” Steph added with a shrug. “He looked out for his people. He was . . . home.”
The boys looked up through the trees at home, Brevoort. Towering brown buildings, a busy hub full of life.
“Yo, son, let me hear a rhyme or something,” Jarrell said. “Out here all sad and shit.”
Steph smiled. “Aight, set it off.”
Jarrell smirked before covering his mouth, and started beatboxing, Quadir already bobbing his head.
Unh! Watch me smash it
Funny how these days,
You can’t even view a casket
Of your favorite rapper
Without gettin your ass kicked
by the jakes
That’s harassment, them bastards tried to chase
Ran out of breath
We ran out from death
Tried to Rodney King me
My peeps ran out like “Steph!”
Felt like my heart ran out my chest—but I’m blessed!
Tell ‘em, “King Me!”
This is checkers, not chess!
But we doing this for B.I.G.
Rell compared him to Spider-Man, now I think see why,
G . . .
‘Cause it’s all about them red and blues
He got caught up in that web
Had the press confused,
telling lies like the Daily Bugle
But ain’t no J. Jonah Jameson,
Just some busters in Cali,
Lames wanna hate him.
So today we rally,
They ain’t gonna stop us,
The year ninety-seven and it ain’t the same without ya
So you gon’ hear this on these streets all day
“Spread love is the Brooklyn way”