Lil’ Cease never stopped riding for The Notorious B.I.G. During the photo shoot for this story, chatter about his late friend flows easily, whether it’s recounting how difficult it was to keep up with his voracious weed-smoking habit or helping to pick the most convincing artist rendering of what Big might look like today. And all the words are full of love—and gratitude. While still a teenager, the kid born James Lloyd Jr. reaped the rewards of Big’s efforts to establish his Brooklyn cohorts, Junior M.A.F.I.A., as rap stars in their own right—which led to solo endeavors from Lil’ Kim and Cease himself.

Now 34, and still baby-faced, Cease has some regrets about his stunted recording career. It’s been 13 years since his solo effort, The Wonderful World of Cease a Leo dropped, back in 1999—13 years that have seen lots of drama, including an infamous 2001 shoot-out with Capone-N- Noreaga’s crew, at Hot 97 studios, and a falling out with Lil' Kim, but not much more music. Cease’s lowest point came in 2005, when, after testifying in Kim’s federal perjury trial, he was labeled a snitch. The gregarious rapper stopped making music entirely and took a job as a salesmen at a car dealership. Consulting work on the 2009 biopic Notorious, though, reenergized Cease—as did shedding more than 80 pounds, which led to his series of HardBody fitness DVDs (and a series on Now he is reasserting himself as a rapper once more, working on a new album, Truth Be Told, to be released independently on his HardBody Music label. Back on course, Cease is giving hip-hop his all again, for Big’s sake.—Alvin Blanco (@Aqua174)

When you were running around with Biggie, before he blew up, in the early ’90s, were you thinking about your future at all?

I was just in the moment. My future plans, it was part of what Big did. Junior M.A.F.I.A. was his idea. Anything with music was Big idea. I didn’t wake up one day as a kid wanting to be a rapper. I was always just a hip-hop head that enjoyed the music. I think every kid from the inner city was into music—that was just our zone.
Big was writing the rhymes; he was picking the beats. Even when he was saying, “Junior M.A.F.I.A.,” we used to hear him say it on record and be like, “Big, who in Junior M.A.F.I.A.?” “Nigga, that’s y’all!” “Oh, shit, aight, no doubt.” That let you know how advanced he was. ’Cause Big was just a teenager, too. Big was 18, 19 years old when he was doing this. He knew, If I get that shot, I pop. I’ma blow. I got my clique already. I got the crew.

How did it feel when “Player’s Anthem” dropped and everybody knew your lyrics?

That was thanks to Big! [Laughs] He did that whole record. I think people should respect Big more for that, than respect us, because he was that much of a good person to where he took out his time not to just write for him, but to write for nine other little cats that he felt like should have a future. And to do that for somebody, that means you really love these people. I’ma write something to make you change your life. Think about what he did for other people, ’cause we still here to this day. Me, the Kims, the Un Riveras, the Puffs, all of us are a part of what Big created.
Our first session we did was at Quad Studio, and the first record we recorded was “Player’s Anthem,” with Clark Kent. I took for granted the opportunity I had. I had one of the best ever write my shit for me. He already popped off: “Juicy,” “Big Poppa,” “One More Chance.” You got “Player’s Anthem,” “Get Money,” we got a deal now. I didn’t have to do shit. I just sat there and got high, drunk liquor and celebrated. He was the one in there sitting listening to the beat for two, three hours, that wrote my verse for me. That’s why I go so hard for B.I.

The plan was for your solo album to drop after Kim’s. But then Big dies. Were you even thinking of moving ahead with those plans?

When Big died, that shit was out the window. After Big died, I’m thinking about his mom—that was her only son. I’m thinking about Faith. I’m thinking about the team. You just lost a nigga that controlled your whole base. The first thing immediately come to your mind is, Fuck music, fuck hip-hop, my man just died. How we going to tell this shit to his mother? How you going to explain this to his kids?
Music was last, but music was important because Big fought hard for that shit. So if we just sit there and let this shit go, that will wash down everything the nigga worked for. Puff did play his part, and he did a lot of shit for us, ’cause we was never signed to Bad Boy. After Big died, we all made this pact: We all stick together no matter what it is, who got problems with who. We all gotta do this shit for B.I. We tried to keep it all one big family. And we held it down for a minute.

You were signed to Kim’s Queen Bee imprint, under Atlantic Records, for a while. Had things started going sour before the Hot 97 situation?

Nah, everything was good. It was just, we became more… We were just still bitter. You just lost your homeboy, ’cause you felt you was caught slipping. So now anything pop up after that, we was shooting first, we swinging first, we fighting first—we just became more aggressive. That’s when all the shoot-outs and fights, all that shit started happening, ’cause we learned the first time. We just really didn’t give a fuck about nothing no more. We didn’t feel like we was rappers no more, ’cause that light wasn’t on us. But Kim was holding it down. We was in the process of working on another M.A.F.I.A. album. That’s when the whole Hot 97 shit came about, and shit just was downhill from there.

How did Lil’ Kim’s perjury trial affect your career?

At that time, I didn’t really think it was taking an effect, because I felt I was doing all the right things to defuse the shit. But I was just making it worse. I was around a lot of people that was feeding me the wrong shit. You’ll know when you’re doing the right things by what’s happening to you. I was getting arrested, being shot at, getting in fights. I was like, Damn, what’s next? I’ma get caught up and get killed in this muthafucka? I had to get away from all the people you thought was your friends that wasn’t. When the Champagne was good and popping, they was around you all day. The minute they start saying, “Yo, Cease is a rat,” or “Cease is this and that,” you can’t even find them to come give you a lift to your crib.

You extended an olive branch to Kim two years ago. You said you knew Big wouldn’t want you two separated like you’ve been. Have you spoken to her?

She knows where it’s at with me, and if you ever want to talk, the door is always open. Just on the strength of B.I., nigga. What we created is history. And if you too dumb enough to realize that, then that’s on you. Think about it. Maybe you’re not where you supposed to be because you ain’t doing the right things. I feel the same way about my career! I feel like maybe I might not make it where I’m supposed to be if I don’t do it with her. Maybe that’s just that black cloud Big going to have over us until we sit there and become grown and mature. If you love Big like I love him, you’d do what make Big happy.