Thanks to Canibus, I’ll always remember the date of the Notorious B.I.G.’s death. Not that it wouldn’t have stuck otherwise—back in 1997, I was desperately looking forward to the impending release of Biggie’s second album Life After Death, which arrived in stores two weeks after the man born Christopher Wallace was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. Biggie’s death was the first time the passing of a famous person hit me really hard, as I was deeply invested in his incredible work despite the fact that as a suburban white kid from Connecticut, I had no real frame of reference for his tales of working crack spots in Fort Greene.
Perhaps that was the greatest testament to his unbelievable skill: He was so good—his storytelling so sharp, his imagery so vivid, his charisma so intense—that he really made you feel like you were there, even if you had never been to Brooklyn.
But Canibus, of all people, made today’s date immortal while taking down LL Cool J in one of the oddest beefs in late ’90s hip-hop. Back in 1997, only a few months after Biggie’s death, LL dropped a track called “4,3,2,1” that featured Method Man, DMX, Redman, and Canibus. When delivering his verse, Canibus rapped the line, “L, is that a mic on your arm? Let me borrow that,” referencing the tattoo of a microphone with a crown on it that adorns Cool James’ right bicep.
For some reason, LL took offense to that line, and countered with, “The symbol on my arm is off limits to challengers/ You hold the rusty sword, I swing the Excalibur,” then added, “Now let’s get back to this mic on my arm/ If it ever left my side, it’d transform into a time bomb/ You don’t wanna borrow that, you wanna idolize” just for good measure. Meanwhile, Canibus’ line vanished from the album version.
Canibus was incensed that LL would drop those lines into his song after Canibus had recorded his part, and that ignited a feud that lasted several years and a bunch of tracks. The biggest of those was “Second Round K.O.,” which was a pretty big hit for Canibus and transformed him from an underground favorite into a genuine star for a brief time.
There are actually a ton of songs on Canibus’ debut Can-I-Bus that take down LL, but “Second Round K.O.” is the most biting (and features a guest bit by Mike Tyson to boot). But even as he goes all-in on LL, he still pauses to genuflect to the great one with this immortal line, which Canibus delivers a capella: “That s— was the worst rhyme I heard in my life/ Because the greatest rapper of all time died on March ninth.”
So thanks to Canibus and “Second Round K.O.,” the date of Biggie’s passing is always etched in my memory, and every year part of my mourning period is spent re-living the strange rise of Canibus. If his legacy is helping people remember one of the finest MCs to ever spit a verse, Canibus shouldn’t be mad.