Who Was Biggie Smalls?
Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls and the Notorious B.I.G., lived a short life. He was 24 years old when he was gunned down in 1997 in Los Angeles, a murder that has never been solved. Smalls was from New York and had almost single-handedly reinvented East Coast hip hop — overtaken in the early 1990s by the West Coast "g-funk" sound of Dr. Dre and Death Row Records. With his clear, powerful baritone, effortless flow on the mic and willingness to address the vulnerability, as well as the harshness, of the hustler lifestyle, Smalls swung the spotlight back towards New York and his label home, Bad Boy Records. He styled himself as a gangster and although he was no angel, in reality he was more of a performer than a hardened criminal. In this regard, he was similar to Tupac Shakur, his one-time friend turned bitter rival — a contest that spiraled horrifyingly out of control leaving neither man alive to tell the tale.
Born and Raised in Brooklyn to Jamaican Parents
Twenty-three years before Rolling Stone would describe him, in a 1995 interview, as "a mountain of a man, 6ft 3 in, 280 lbs, black as tar, with a W.C. Fields scowl and a lazy left eye," Christopher George Latore Wallace was born on May 21, 1972 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents both hailed from the Caribbean island of Jamaica — his mom, Voletta taught preschool; his pop, Selwyn, was a welder and local Jamaican politician. Selwyn left the family when Biggie was two, but Voletta worked two jobs in order to send her son to a private school — the Roman Catholic Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School; alumni include Rudy Giuliani and former Primark CEO Arthur Ryan. But Biggie subsequently transferred to the George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School; alumni include the rappers DMX, Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes. Biggie had excelled at English, but often played truant at Westinghouse and dropped out altogether in 1989 at age 17.
Acquiring the childhood nickname "Big" because of his plus-sized girth, he began selling drugs at 12, according to an interview he gave to the New York Times in 1994, working the streets near his mom's apartment on St. James Place. Voletta worked long hours and had no inkling of her son's activities. Biggie stepped up the drug dealing after quitting school and was soon in trouble with the law. He received a five-year probationary sentence in 1989 after being arrested on weapons-possession charges. The following year he was arrested for violating that probation. The year after that, he was charged with dealing cocaine in North Carolina and reportedly spent nine months in jail while waiting to make bail.
Biggie and Bad Boy Records
Biggie began rapping as a teenager to entertain people in his neighborhood. After he got out of jail, he made a demo tape as Biggie Smalls — named after a gang leader from the 1975 movie Let's Do It Again; also a nod to his childhood nickname. He had no serious plans to pursue a career in music — "It was fun just hearing myself on tape over beats," he later said in an Arista Records biography — but the tape found its way to The Source magazine, who were so impressed that they profiled Biggie in their Unsigned Hype column in March 1992; from there, Biggie was invited to record with other unsigned rappers. This recording came to the attention of Sean "Puffy" Combs, an A&R executive and producer who worked for the leading urban label Uptown Records — he started there as an intern in 1990. Combs arranged a record deal for Biggie, but left the label soon after, having fallen out with his boss, Andre Harrell. Combs went on to set up his own imprint, Bad Boy Records, and by mid-1992 Biggie had joined him.
Before he had the chance to put anything out on Bad Boy, Uptown released music that Biggie recorded during his brief stint at the label, including a remix of Mary J. Blige's "Real Love" in August 1992 that featured a guest verse from The Notorious B.I.G. (He had been forced to change his recording name after a lawsuit; though he continued to be widely known as Biggie). In June 1993, the label released The Notorious BIG's first single as a solo artist, "Party and Bullshit."
Biggie and Tupac's Friendship
That same year, as he worked on music for his debut album, Biggie Smalls met Tupac Shakur for the first time. Their encounter, detailed in Ben Westhoff's book, Original Gangstas, took place at a party held by an L.A. drug dealer. They ate, drank and smoked together, and Tupac, already a successful recording artist, gifted Biggie, then unknown outside New York, a bottle of Hennessy. After that, Tupac mentored Biggie whenever the two met up — at one point Biggie even asked if Tupac would become his manager. "Nah, stay with Puff," Tupac apparently said. "He will make you a star." Biggie was particularly concerned about money around that time because he became a father in August to T'yanna, his daughter, with high-school sweetheart, Jan. It has been reported that Biggie went back to drug dealing at this point, until Combs learned what he was up to and made him stop.
'Ready to Die' Album Takes Off
The Notorious B.I.G.'s debut album came out on Bad Boy in September 1994, a month after "Juicy," his first single for the label. The album, Ready to Die, was certified gold within two months, double-platinum the following year, and eventually quadruple-platinum. "Big Poppa," the second of the album's four singles, was nominated for a Grammy for best rap solo performance. Ready to Die marked a resurgence in East Coast hip hop, and Biggie was widely acclaimed for the narrative ability he displayed on the album's semi-autobiographical tales from his wayward youth. Away from the more playful radio-friendly singles — "Birthdays was the worst days/Now we sip champagne when we thirst-ay" he chortled on "Juicy" — Biggie did not sugar-coat the drug-dealer lifestyle; the album's final track, "Suicidal Thoughts," sounded like a cry for help. "In street life you're not allowed to show if you care about something," Sean Combs told the New York Times. "You've got to keep that straight face. The flip side of that is this album. He's giving up all his vulnerability."
In the run-up to Ready to Die's release, Biggie married the R&B singer Faith Evans, his label-mate on Bad Boy, on August 4, 1994. They wed just days after meeting at a photoshoot. Evans went on to be featured on "One More Chance," the fourth single from Ready to Die, which reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and was certified platinum. She gave birth to their son, Christopher "CJ" Wallace Jr. on October 29, 1996.
Biggie and Tupac's Feud
But perhaps the most significant date in Biggie's rollercoaster year was November 29, 1994. This was the day Tupac Shakur was shot five times during a robbery in a recording-studio lobby in New York. Shakur survived, but believed Biggie and his label boss Combs had orchestrated the attack. It didn't help that the B-side to Biggie's single "Big Poppa," released a little more than two months after the incident, featured the song "Who Shot Ya?" Tupac interpreted this as Biggie taunting him, and released an explosive diss track, "Hit 'Em Up," the following year, on which he claimed to have slept with Biggie's wife. (Evans would speak about this many years later in 2014, when she told MTV that Shakur once hit on her after a recording session, "but that ain't how I do business," she said.)
Biggie & Michael Jackson, More Legal Problems
Biggie's next album release came on August 29, 1995, as part of the group Junior MAFIA (an acronym for Masters at Finding Intelligent Attitudes). He had formed the group to mentor young rappers including Lil' Kim, with whom he would have an affair. That year he also became one of the only hip hop artists to collaborate with Michael Jackson on the song "This Time Around." (The story goes that Biggie was with another of his Junior MAFIA protégés, Lil Cease, who was then 16, when he was summoned to the studio to record with Jackson. But according to Cease, Biggie would not allow him to meet the King of Pop because he didn't "trust him with kids.") Biggie also guested on R. Kelly's eponymous album on the track "(You to Be) Be Happy." By the end of 1995, the Notorious B.I.G. was the biggest-selling solo male artist on the Billboard charts — not only in hip hop, but in pop and R&B, too.
Biggie began working on his second studio album in September 1995 and continued into the following year. But there would be more trouble. In March 1996, he was arrested after chasing two autograph hunters with a baseball bat in Manhattan, threatening to kill them; he was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. Months later police raided his house in New Jersey and found 50 grams of marijuana and four automatic weapons. That same summer, he was charged with beating and robbing a friend of a concert promoter at a New Jersey nightclub. And then in the fall, he was arrested again, this time for smoking marijuana in his car in Brooklyn.
The Death of Tupac
On September 7, 1996, his former friend Tupac Shakur was shot dead in Las Vegas. Nobody has ever been charged for the murder, but as a consequence of the ongoing East Coast/West Coast rap beef that Biggie and Tupac's rivalry had come to embody, and also of Tupac publicly blaming Biggie and Puffy for his non-fatal shooting in 1994, there were plenty who believed that the East Coast rap kingpins were behind Tupac's murder. (Both Biggie and Puffy strenuously denied their involvement and other key suspects have since emerged.)
"It's a funny thing, I kind of realized how powerful Tupac and I was," reflected Biggie to the interviewer Jim Bean after his great rival's death. "We two individual people, we waged a coastal beef. You know what i'm saying? One man against one man made a whole West coast hate a whole East Coast. And vice versa. And that really bugged me out . . .Like yo, dude don't like me, so his whole coast don't like me. I don't like him, so my whole coast don't like him. It let me know how much strength I have. So what I'm trying to do now, I've got to be the one to try to flip it. And take my power and flip it, like, yo, because Pac can't be the one to try to squash it because he's gone. So I gotta take the weight on both sides."
Biggie Smalls Shot to Death in Los Angeles
Sadly, Biggie did not live long enough to see the peace he wished for. He himself was murdered the early hours of March 9, 1997. It happened shortly after he left a Vibe magazine party at the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. As Biggie's SUV — in which he was riding with a bodyguard and Lil' Cease — waited at a red light, a vehicle pulled up alongside it, and a gunman opened fire. His bodyguard rushed Biggie to the hospital, but it was already too late.
Like that of Tupac Shakur, the killing of Biggie Smalls would never be solved. There would be no closure. Also like Tupac, Biggie would release a double album posthumously, in Biggie's case a mere fortnight after his demise. On March 25, 1997, Bad Boy released the spookily titled Life After Death. It had collaborations with artists including Puff Daddy, Jay-Z, 112, Lil' Kim, Mase, R Kelly, Darryl "DMC" McDaniels and Angela Winbush, and would be nominated for three Grammy awards — for best rap album, best solo rap performance for the lead single "Hypnotize," and best performance by a duo or group for its second single, "Mo Money Mo Problems," which featured Puff Daddy and Mase. The album was certified diamond in 2000 after selling more than 10 million copies.
With his murder seen by many hip hop fans as a tit-for-tat killing, Biggie appeared to continue the beef from beyond the grave on the album track "Long Kiss Goodnight." The lyrics seemed to refer to the time Tupac got shot, and survived, in New York ("When my men bust, you just move with such stamina / Slugs missed you, I ain't mad atcha"). But according to the hip hop magazine XXL, the song was likely to have been recorded before Tupac's actual murder. Whatever the case may be, Biggie's shocking fate spelled the end of the East Coast/West Coast rap feud. Things had gotten way out of hand. Two of the greatest rappers to ever pick up a microphone were dead and gone. Hip hop's reputation had been dragged through the gutter. Nobody had any appetite for more.
On March 18, 1997 Biggie's memorial service was held at the the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan among 350 guests, which included Lil Kim, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah, Run DMC, Busta Rhymes, Foxy Brown and other high profile artists. Biggie lay in an open mahogany casket dressed in a white suit. After the service, his remains were cremated.
Life After Death: Biggie Smalls' Legacy
But this wasn't the last that the world had heard from Biggie Smalls. He was featured on no fewer than five songs on Puff Daddy's 1997 album, No Way Out. A single from that album, "I'll Be Missing You," dedicated to Biggie's memory, won the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group in 1998 — ironically beating Biggie himself, whose "Mo Money Mo Problems" was nominated in the same category. There were two more posthumous albums using previously unreleased material: Born Again in 1999 and Duets: the Final Chapter in 2005 — featuring a host of guests including Eminem, Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige and, bizarrely, Bob Marley — also from beyond the grave — and the metal band Korn.
Watch an animated tribute to Biggie Smalls by Steve Stoute, one of Big’s contemporaries who worked as a talent manager and executive at Interscope Records. Stoute is the author of 'The Tanning of America: How Hip Hop Created a Culture that Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy.'
The actor, rapper and comedian Jamal Woolard played Biggie Smalls in a biopic in 2009, which grossed $44 million worldwide. It sparked a war of words between Faith Evans and Lil' Kim, who was upset at her portrayal in the movie. But they have since reconciled, and Kim appears on an album of duets between Evans and Smalls. Titled The King and I, the album reportedly features a mix of familiar and unreleased rhymes.
"At the end of the day we're family, whether we like it or not," Kim said last year, shortly before she and Evans went on tour. "I'm part of the estate. She's part of the estate. We're a part of Big, and we both share a lot in common. We all realized how strong we could be together."
It is a great shame that Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur were not able to reach the same conclusion.
(Photo of Biggie Smalls by Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images.)
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