“I’m Coming Out”—written and produced by Chic disco architects Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards—is all bright joy, long strut, and renewed love of self. A year after the song’s release, Ross said to Dutch television host Mies Bouwman, “Some of the teenagers buying these records don’t know the Supremes. They don’t know,” Ross said, pinching her own jaw, “that I’m real.”
The deep imprint of “I’m Coming Out” was even more clear eighteen years later, when Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” was posthumously released on July 15, 1997. Built on a chiming sample from just after the sax break on “I’m Coming Out,” the Bad Boy production was nominated for a Grammy, spent two weeks as a number-one pop record in the United States, and was pretty much a top-ten pop around the world.
“It’s a perfect record,” says author, host, and TIDAL chief content officer Elliott Wilson. Wilson, who is my husband, first heard “Mo Money” in an Arista Records office when Sean “Puffy” Combs and Biggie presented Life After Death to the editorial staff of The Source magazine, of which he was then music editor. The meeting was pre-release, but Puff and Big knew what they had. “The song is so well done it deaded all the talk about how it wasn’t authentic to use pop-music samples. ‘Mo Money’ is one of hip hop’s signature songs. I can make the argument that it is one of the top twenty hip hop songs ever. I can also make the argument that it is number one.”
“Mo” was a collaboration across eras. A snatch of Ross’s vocals—I’m / Coming / Out—is laid, mantra-like throughout. The ecstatic quip functioned in the nineties as an announcement of hip hop emerging from the shock and grief over the twin murders of Biggie and of Tupac. It functioned also as the parade music for hip hop’s march toward cultural dominance. Mase’s opening, Who’s hot / Who’s not, sets off one of the most swaggeringly flippant verses of his career. Christopher Wallace’s verse, which includes Player, please / Lyrically / Niggas see / B.I.G., is a diamond among his pearls.
But the epic chorus of “Mo Money Mo Problems” is where the money is. It rises to the glory of Diana Ross’s “Coming Out” vocals, and it belongs to a middle child named Kelly Cherelle Price of Queens, New York.
When Biggie and Tupac died, many of us thought hip hop might go to the grave with them. Gatekeepers had been saying since rap’s beginnings that it wasn’t real art, that it was a fad, that it wasn’t worthy of documentation, let alone praise or respectful critique. In the face of that mourning and fear, singer/songwriter Price helped keep hip hop alive as much as Big, Puff, or Mase.