If you had asked me, earlier in the week, to name my favorite five or ten or twenty rappers of that golden time of hip-hop between 1986 and 1993, I would not have mentioned Heavy D. He created gems with seemingly so little effort that it was easy to take him for granted. But more so than many of the rappers I would have named, were it not for Heavy D, that era would look very different.
He was a part of an interesting chapter of the genre, guys like Kid N’ Play, Redhead Kingpin, etc., that mixed playful raps with sing along hooks and sampled songs that your parents could easily identify. But aside from the hits (and there were many), Heavy’s influence over hip-hop really cannot be overstated: He was the first rap star to preside over a major music label (Uptown Records, in ’96, a decade before Jay-Z’s more ballyhooed turn at Def Jam.) He gave a 19-year-old Howard University student named Sean “Puffy” Combs the internship that would prove to be his big break. And he introduced the world to his soon to be legendary cousin, DJ/producer Pete Rock, and his neighbor, R&B pretty boy Al B. Sure, all part of the Mount Vernon posse that had a mini full nelson on the urban music scene in the late 1980s/early 90s.
We had never seen a big man so agile on his feet, so comfortable with being adored by women, so engaging and entertaining. With all due respect to the Fat Boys, they were a cartoon, representative of all the negative things we associate with overweight people. (Even down to the fact that we called them “fat.”) Cite the Notorious B.I.G. as the first rotund hip-hop sex symbol if you wish, while ignoring that Heavy cornered that market years before him, to the point that Biggie name checked him on his first hit (“It was all a dream/Used to read Word Up magazine/Salt N’ Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine.”)
Dwight Arrington Myers was born May 24, 1967 in Jamaica. His parents moved to Mount Vernon, New York, when he was a child. Like many black kids of his region and generation, he gravitated to the hip-hop culture and music originated by fellow Jamaican-American DJ Kool Herc over yonder in the Bronx. Plenty of other Jamaicans had moved to Mount Vernon as well, so that country’s influence was still very much a part of his life, via food, culture and, most importantly, music. His childhood friend, Trouble T-Roy, introduced Heavy to local producer Eddie F., and Heavy D. and the Boyz were born. As the first act signed to Uptown in 1987, their first album, Living Large, was a solid start, but paled in comparison to their #1 sophomore album, Big Tyme. Then on July 15th, 1990, T-Roy’s accidental death after a show in Indianapolis, triggered a change of pace: 1991’s more grounded Peaceful Journey and Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s unforgettable classic, “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”
In rap music, at that time, as utopian as we like to remember it, you were gangsta, eclectic or pop. You were The Geto Boys or De La Soul or MC Hammer. And that was pretty much it. Very few could dance and be romantic and still hold their own alongside more “streetwise” acts like Kool G. Rap or Tupac. Heavy was about having fun, but he also had a sense of social responsibility that escapes many of today’s rap artists. Only he would make a posse cut – loaded with rappers who like to curse – called “Don’t Curse,” and of course, he was a memorable part of the timeless East Coast anti-violence anthem “Self Destruction.”
More milestones: the theme song for the hit sketch show “In Living Color," had a tongue-twisting cameo on Michael Jackson’s “Jam,” solid acting turns in films like Life and The Cider House Rules, plus episodes of “Roc" (God, how I miss that show), “Living Single,” and “Law & Order: SVU.” But rap music has never been kind to its forefathers, and his run was destined to end. He continued to produce for other artists and raised his teenage daughter. It must be hard to be super appreciated in your 20s, then treated as an artifact thereafter. But by all accounts, he handled it with class. Then he awoke one morning and decided he was ready to make a comeback.
Which brings us to last month, when he appeared out of nowhere to perform on BET’s Hip-Hop Awards, the network’s annual tribute to why I don’t listen to much current rap music. But they seemed to have gotten the memo: interspersing dynamic freestyle ciphers (featuring rappers that can actually rap!), and giving stage time and respect to architects like Heavy, who still knew how to put on a show. In his first televised performance in fifteen years, it was like nothing had changed: He was still breezing through all the hits, looking a little winded in small stretches, but still doing far better than any 44-year-old man his size would be expected to on stage. My wife and I watched with glee; everyone I knew who had been black and young in the early '90s simultaneously posted on Facebook, like, “YO IT’S HEAVY D!!!!!” It was like any other time you were reunited with someone you hadn’t seen in years: The world was different but nothing had changed.
His weight had fluctuated, but at the time of his death – due to complications from pneumonia – he had gone back over 300 pounds. It’s clichéd, but how he died is not as important as how he lived. Heavy D made the most of what he had been given and was generous enough to take as many as he could along for the ride. He left us some great music. But he left even more than that.
ABOUT JASON GILMORE
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
I absolutely loved his energy. It saddens me that the industry doesn't seem to popularize a warm, sexy POV like Heavy D's. It's so tragic that he's gone.
11.18.11 @ 2:24p
Brings back GOOD memories of junior high and singing Run-D.M.C., Heavy D and Biz Markie on the bus on the way home from away games. It was a Christian school but after a win the coaches listened the other way as we belted out "Can't have ice cream without whipped cream. Plus an ice cube, to make you swing" and "So make a little room, here comes big daddy. Big like a truck, satisfyin like a Caddy. Many will call but the chosen are few and all I wanna know, is it good to you?"