Originally appears in XXL‘s April 2004 issue
The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 debut Ready To Die is a double threat: a serious, artistic album equipped with catchy, radio-friendly singles. Rap Svengali Sean “Puffy” Combs encouraged his hardcore young MC to put his mack down on records like “Big Poppa” and “One More Chance”; Biggie played along, and it worked. Becoming hip-hop’s answer to the hedgehog-looking porn star Ron Jeremy (if he could get laid, anyone could), the plus-size charmer conquered the pop charts and watched his sales pass the two-million mark.
Mainly, though, Ready To Die offers uncompromising street material—a grim depiction of urban hopelessness told in one of the most immediate voices the form has ever known.
The difference between the grimier content and the hit singles might be explained by a two-part recording process. Songs like “Ready To Die,” “Gimme The Loot” and “Things Done Changed” (which engineer “Prince” Charles Alexander characterized as “a scream from the ghetto”) were recorded in 1993—shortly after Puffy signed Big to Uptown Records on the strength of a demo tape made in the basement of former Big Daddy Kane DJ, Mister Cee. On these records, an inexperienced, higher-pitched Biggie sounds hungry and paranoid. Also notable were the notebooks Biggie brought to the studio; he was still writing down some of his rhymes.
But with less than a full album’s worth of material recorded, Puffy was fired from Uptown, leaving his signee in contractual limbo. Big quickly slid back into the drug game, famously leaving a North Carolina drug house—at the behest of Puff, who’d sent him a ticket back to New York—one day before it was raided by the police and its occupants were sent to jail.
When he returned to the studio to record the second half of the album in 1994, he possessed a smoother, more confident vocal tone. He had also learned to commit his lyrics to memory, eschewing pens and paper. By this time, Puffy, who had eyes beyond the East Coast, had launched his own company, Bad Boy Entertainment, with Craig Mack’s smash, “Flava In Ya Ear,” and invented the remix. (Or at least introduced the concept of the overbearing executive producer to hip-hop.) Endlessly tinkering with instrumentals, mixes and vocals, Puffy worked from a blueprint more Motown than Cold Chillin’—the Bad Boy brand superseded all else. This was obvious on “One More Chance,” which was remixed three times for the album and once more for 12-inch release. If the original producer wasn’t present, Puff would ask another producer to add drums, a sample or even a whole new instrumental.
While Puffy’s vision pushed Ready To Die to higher heights than other records of the era, it was Big’s ability to be menacing one moment (“I don’t give a fuck if you’re pregnant/Gimme the baby rings and the ‘Number One Mom’ pendant…”) and heart-wrenchingly honest the next (“My mama got cancer in her breast/Don’t ask me why I’m muthafuckin’ stressed…”) that truly sets his debut apart. Ready To Die is more than a street record; it’s a vulnerable record.
On the seventh anniversary of Biggie’s death [eds. note: 2013 is the sixteenth anniversary], XXL has compiled a track-by-track, behind-the-scenes breakdown of the work that went into creating a classic, Ready To Die, as told by those involved.—ADAM MATTHEWS
Ready to Remember
Biggie’s Bad Boys:
-Lil’ Cease: Biggie’s close friend, member of rap group Junior M.A.F.I.A.
-Banger: Junior M.A.F.I.A. member
-“Prince” Charles Alexander: Ready To Die engineer
-Easy Mo Bee: Producer
-Chucky Thompson: Producer, member of Bad Boy Records’ Hitmen collective
-Nashiem Myrick: Producer, member of the Hitmen
-Mister Cee: DJ at New York’s Hot 97, former DJ for Big Daddy Kane, discovered Biggie in 1992.
-Matteo “Matt Lyphe” Capoluongo (a.k.a. “Matty C”): Former Source staffer, brought Big’s demo to Sean “Puffy” Combs
-Method Man: Wu-Tang Clan rapper
-Jean “Poke” Oliver: Producer, one-half of the beatmaking duo TrackMasters
-DJ Premier: Producer, one-half of rap duo Gang Starr
-Lord Finesse: Producer, member of Diggin’ in the Crates collective