Remembering The Notorious B.I.G.: From ashy to classy
15 years ago today, at the tragically young age of 24, Christopher George Latore Wallace was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles, CA. We at GrownNSexy tip our hats and pour a lil’ something out in reverence of the talent that was Biggie Smalls.
Ranked at #3 on MTV’s Greatest MCs of All Time list, Biggie’s entrance on the scene was pretty damn close to a defining moment in the story of hip-hop. When his debut album ‘Ready to Die’ came out in 1994, it was at a time when the prevailing voices in the genre emanated from the west coast of the United States. He became a central figure of east coast hip-hop and, sadly, also ended up just as central in the ensuing media-fueled East Coast vs West Coast feud that many say eventually led to his death. But the hype is not (and is never) to be believed.
Biggie was known for his “loose, easy flow, dark semi-autobiographical lyrics” and vivid storytelling abilities; not surprising if you know his actual real-life story. Left by his father at the age of two, he was raised in Brooklyn, NY by his mother who, in turn, had to work two jobs and was often away from home. Although Big was an excellent (and even award-winning) student, he started selling drugs at the age of 12 – and at 17 he dropped out of high school and was drawn deeper into a life of crime. That same year he was arrested on weapons charges, followed by two more arrests in as many years – the latter of which saw him locked up for nine months.
But rapping also featured strongly in his life – right along side all the trouble he was getting into. As a teenager, he would entertain people on the streets and perform with local hip-hop groups around where he lived. In 1992, a demo tape he had made for fun ended up on the desk of the editor of The Source and got him into the magazine’s Unsigned Hype column. It was that break that led to the production of a recording with other featured unsigned artists, and brought Big to the attention of one Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs – then Uptown Records A&R executive.
Soon after Biggie was signed to Uptown, Puffy was fired from the label and went on to form Bad Boy Records, with Big as his first artist. But the street life had followed Biggie too – after his daughter T’yanna was born in 1993, he continued to sell drugs and it wasn’t until Puffy found out and made him stop that the star of the man that would become the Notorious B.I.G. really began to rise.
Ready to Die went four times platinum and, according to Rolling Stone, “almost single-handedly… shifted the focus back to East Coast rap” – producing such chart-topping hits as ‘Juicy’, ‘Big Poppa’ and ‘One More Chance’. In July 1995, he appeared on the cover of The Source with the caption “The King of New York Takes Over” and, at the publication’s Source Awards in August, he was named Best New Artist (Solo), Lyricist of the Year, Live Performer of the Year, and his Ready to Die was announced as Album of the Year. The Billboard Awards then went on to crown him Rap Artist of the Year.
But his success was to be marred by the emergence of the so-called East coast vs West coast beef when, later that year, Big’s former friend – Tupac Shakur – signed to Death Row Records; there began the bitter rivalry with Puffy’s Bad Boy. In 1996 Tupac accused Biggie, Puffy and Uptown founder – Andre Harrell – of having involvement in the robbery that resulted in Pac being shot five times in November ’94. However (even despite several run-ins with the law in the mid-nineties) Big refused to be drawn into the drama.
Even after the1996 release of Tupac’s ‘Hit’Em Up – a diss song in which he claimed to have had sex with Biggie’s estranged wife Faith Evans and that Big had copied his style and image – Biggie never responded in kind during his lifetime. In a 1997 radio interview, he said that it was “not [his] style”. On September 7 1996, Tupac was shot in Las Vegas and died seven days later. Rumours of Biggie’s involvement were almost immediate, but he remained vehement in his denial of it.
In the lead-up to his next album, ‘Life After Death‘, Biggie admitted that he feared for his safety. His fear was evidently not unjustified. On 8 March 1997, while presenting a Soul Train award to Toni Braxton, he was booed by some members of the audience. Just a few hours later, at about 12:45 a.m. on 9 March, he was shot dead in the passenger seat of a GMC Suburban on the way back to his hotel after the awards’ after-party.
Life After Death went on to be certified Diamond (over 10 million units sold) and Big stands to this day as only one of five rap acts to reach that level of sales. This final release was a double album released posthumously on 25 March 1997. It made the largest jump to number one in history on the Billboard 200 chart , jumping from number 176 to number one in just one week.
Life After Death also topped the Billboard Year-End chart as an R&B/Hip-Hop Album for 1997 and was nominated for three Grammy Awards in 1998 – including Best Rap Album, Best Rap Solo Performance for the single “Hypnotize”, and Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for its second single “Mo Money Mo Problems”. Along with Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (1995), AZ’s Doe Or Die (1995), Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt (1996), and Nas’ It Was Written (1996), Life After Death has been considered by music writers as one of the seminal mafioso rap albums.
The Notorious B.I.G’s murder – just like that of Tupac – remains unsolved to this day. The alleged link between the two deaths is impossible to ignore, and the truth may be revealed yet. But one thing we do know is that, despite the circumstances of his life and whatever personal demons he had to fight, Biggie rose above it when it came to his art. His music displayed an integrity that those judging him solely on his police record could easily miss.
The fact is, his was a light snubbed out to too soon – a tragically common story. But we remember, Big. We always will.
Image: Timothy Hearne (c)