Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the March 2012 issue dedicated to Notorious B.I.G.
[Sixteen] years after his tragic death, Biggie Smalls looms as large as ever on the hip-hop landscape.
Words: Michael A. Gonzales
Painting: Tim O’Brien
BORN IN 1972 IN THE BRUTAL NEW YORK CITY BOROUGH OF BROOKLYN, YOUNG CHRISTOPHER WALLACE CAME OF AGE DURING A TIME WHEN YOUNG BLACK MEN WEREN’T EXPECTED TO LIVE TO SEE THEIR 40TH BIRTHDAYS.
INDEED, AS DETAILED ON his only two studio albums, 1994’s Ready to Die and 1997’s Life After Death, the world that reared him was a continuing cycle of chaos, paranoia and hyper violence.
As a teenager in the late 1980s, when the entire graffi ti-splattered city was in decline and crack was on the rise, the husky, fatherless kid went to sleep at night to a soundtrack of police sirens wailing outside his apartment windows. While his schoolteacher mother loved him much, it wasn’t enough to keep him from harm. He looked to the streets for guidance and encouragement.
Playing hooky from school, chilling with his crew on the stoops of St. James Place, he watched the junkies and dealers, stickup kids and welfare mamas—recording it all with his mind’s eye. Infl uenced by golden-era rap greats like Big Daddy Kane and Rakim, he took to freestyling with other aspiring MCs. Between toking on blunts and sipping on malt-liquor brews, the world-weary teenager matured into the illest of artists. Biggie Smalls, he went by, and as his rep grew, The Notorious B.I.G.
It was Kane’s old DJ, Mister Cee, who supplied the 19-year-old with the connections that landed him in The Source magazine’s then-famed Unsigned Hype column, in March 1992. Soon after, a tape of the massive rapper was sent to Uptown Records A&R rebel and chief conceptualist Sean “Puff y” Combs. When Puff y parted with Uptown and started a new label from scratch, he made Big the foundation for Bad Boy Records. Some doubted that a hardcore, Buddha-belly MC—one who was, in his own words, “Black and ugly as ever”—could ever sell to the masses, but naysayers would be proved wrong.
Opening with the scene of his birth, and ending with the harrowing desperation of “Suicidal Thoughts” and a gunshot, Ready to Die gave us a guided tour through Big’s world: the stressed-out crack-game woes of “Everyday Struggle,” the goodlife aspirations of “Juicy,” the cold-blooded hunger of “Gimme the Loot,” the raw vulnerability of the title track. Full of wit and passion, and spit over block-rocking beats, Ready to Die sold millions, making an instant star out of its author, the undisputed king of New York, and helping to bring the city itself back to its central spot on the rap map.
While Biggie was able to rise above the bullshit he was born into, becoming a husband and father along the path of his hip-hop greatness, the fl esh-and-blood Christopher Wallace was ultimately unable to escape the fate all too often bestowed upon Black boys born into a world they have no control over. To hell with making it to 40—Biggie was gone before he was even 25. In March 1997, just two weeks before his second masterpiece, the double-length Life After Death, would hit stores, a terrible night in California left hip-hop mourning an unthinkable loss. Yet, in a certain way, Biggie has defi ed mortality itself. Fifteen years later, we’re still celebrating him. Cue up “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).” Listen to Biggie’s gruff , bottomless voice riding the beat, spitting phrases that thrill you. It’s almost like he’s still here. Almost like he’ll be Notorious forever.