The Making of The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die: Family Business
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with instrumentals, mixes and vocals, Puffy worked from a blueprint more Motown than Cold Chillin’—the Bad Boy brand superseded all else.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
Produced by Sean “Puffy” Combs
Easy Mo Bee The whole story line for the album—starting in the beginning when you hear the robbery happening on the train and “Rapper’s Delight” in the background and everything—that was Puff’s concept: to create a story line for the album. He just gave me a list of records that he wanted and I brought them back to him. He said he wanted “Rapper’s Delight,” Audio Two’s “Top Billin’,” “Superfly.” We had “Got To Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye, [but it got changed] probably for sampling reasons. Songs that explain their era.
“Prince” Charles Alexander First of all, I’m the father on the intro. There are all these voices on the intro. That “Wilona, what the fuck you doing? You can’t control that goddamn boy!” That was me. And the guy at the end, the guard that lets them out of jail and says, “You’ll be back,” that’s me also. And the reason that they used me is because three guys had gone in and tried, I forgot who. I was there, Puffy was there, Biggie was there. I was engineering and a couple of guys who were just hanging around went in and tried to do that part. And they’re like very stiff-sounding: “God damn it, Wilona.” And I’m like, “Yo Puff, I am an angry Black man. You should let me try that.” I went in there and I screamed. I mean, Goddammit, Wilona! What the fuck you doing?! I was way, way up in it. They fucking rolled. They loved it. They kept it. That was one of the things that kind of helped me to bond with the whole project. ’Cause I’m about 10 years older than Puffy, so I was really professional. I had a really professional vibe. So when I went in and did that, that really broke a whole lot of ice.
2 "Things Done Changed”
Produced by Dominic Owens and Kevin Scott
Lil’ Cease That was one that was most played in the car. Big loved that song. There was no particluar story behind it. It was more of a song that had a concept behind it rather than a story itself. Biggie made it to represent Brooklyn. To show how he grew up, how we grew up. He wanted to show what he was accustomed to and the lifestyle he was used to. It was one of the very first ones made. Whenever you make a track of that nature, with lyrics so real, it stands out.
3 "Gimme The Loot"
Produced by Easy Mo Bee
Easy Mo Bee When he did “Gimme The Loot” I was like, Whoa—dude’s got problems! People who wanna battle him, go up against him? Nobody’s gonna wanna battle this cat. If you heard everything he said in his lyrics, you won’t live. I remember very clearly that that song was done during the daytime. It was still light outside. Junior M.A.F.I.A. was there. I ain’t never really worked with nobody that really spit that hard before. So when I was in the studio, I was like, “Yo, man you sure you ain’t sayin’ too much?” And I remember Cease and Chico sittin’ back and sayin’, “Yo, Mo, just chill! You sensitive!” I was like, “I just wanna make sure we get sold. I don’t want no records getting snatched off the shelves.” That’s my whole thing. I guess that was their [definition] of being “sensitive.”
Maybe Puff didn’t necessarily respond to me at the time when I came to him and presented [my concerns] to him, but I remember telling him, “Yo, the shit about being pregnant, and the ‘Number One Mom’ pendant? Yo, be careful with that. Because you could have all kinds of Christian rights and women’s rights organizations trying to pull your stuff down off the shelves and all that.” At the time, Puffy kind of brushed it off. And I just walked away in my mind like, all right. But I guess later it made sense to him—even without him coming back to me. ’Cause [that lyric] got blurred out. So it worked out the way it was supposed to.
[As far as Big rhyming the two different characters’ voices], he went in the booth and then it just kind of happened. He just started doing it. He would do one voice, then come behind and do the other one later—just like, leave a gap so he could come back and fill the spaces. I was like, Yo, that’s creative! And he really had cats fooled. Even just last year, I was around somebody who was playing that, and still after all this time he was like, “Yo, who was that—that was Puff?” I was like, “Man, y’all really can’t hear that? That’s him! He did two voices.” That just shows you how good he was.
Mister Cee I clearly remember “Gimme The Loot,” because I did the scratches on it. Remembering that is like yesterday. I used Kid Hood’s verse from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario (Remix).” And how I did the turntables and made the word “Bad, bad, bad” from turning the knob off on the turntable from pressing the stop button. Each time that I brought the record back, it’s a different effect to where you turn the knob off on the turntable to where you stop the turntable. You get a different effect on the record. So when you bring it regularly it’s like, “Bad.” Turn the knob off, “Baaad”—slower. Press the button, “Baaaad”—slowest.
4 “Machine Gun Funk”
Produced by Easy Mo Bee
Easy Mo Bee Biggie picked that beat in my car. I had this green Acura, and we used to ride around Brooklyn. Like Fulton St. and St. James where he lived. I’d pick him up off the stoop where he lived. It’d be me, him, D.Roc, Lil’ Cease, Chico—as many as we could—ridin’ around in the car. We’d just ride around and just blaze and listen to beats. And that’s how he picked a lot of the beats. But the actual session for “Machine Gun Funk”… It’s vague to me, to be honest. Let’s put it like this: There was some hazy years. I’m a changed man now.
Chucky Thompson Big was crazy. He was just in there with some socks on and some boxer drawers—’cause it was really hot—doing his rhymes. That’s when he was actually writing stuff down. He didn’t take long at all. It was like he knew what he wanted to say. He’d be in there chilling, smoking or whatever and then he’d write two words, and then he’d go back to chilling and write two more words, and then he’d go in the booth.
Produced by Easy Mo Bee
Easy Mo Bee The significant thing about “Warning” is—and I’m definitely not trying to diss him, he put me on the map, he’s the first I ever worked with, so total respect to him—but that beat was offered first to Big Daddy Kane. I remember him sittin’ in my crib, and I was playing him beats. I forget the album at the time that he was doing. And you know Kane was always into the Barry White, Isaac Hayes thing. So I did this joint off of Isaac Hayes, and I’m just feelin’ it. I'm feelin’ myself. I just know he gonna love this. This is the vibe. But he was like, “Play the next beat.” I was like, “Yo, hold up, man. You sure you don’t want that? That’s Isaac Hayes!” He said, “You heard what I said, play the next beat.”
So I just kept the beat and held onto it. A few months later when it was time to play Big beats, I played it for him. Aw man, Puffy went crazy! He went crazy, like, “Yo man, this is it!”
6 “Ready To Die”
Produced by Easy Mo Bee
Easy Mo Bee Again, here we go with the “sensitive” part. When Big said, “Fuck my mom...” When he said, “Fuck the world, fuck my moms and my girl,” I was like, Damn! Okay, maybe “Fuck the world.” Maybe “Fuck your girl.” But, “Fuck your moms?!”
We all know he didn’t literally mean that. Anybody knows that. That was just his whole intensified approach to explaining just how much he felt. He was ready to die. It was just an emotional expression. But again, when he said stuff like that, I was like, “It’s like I’m working with Ice Cube!” AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted? I was like, Brooklyn’s Most Wanted! I’m sure Ice Cube and N.W.A and stuff like that had a profound effect on him. I’m sure in some type of way he was influenced by that stuff. At the time, we all were.
7 “One More Chance”
Produced by Norman & Digga/ Bluez Brothers, Chucky Thompson and Sean “Puffy” Combs
Additional vocals by Total
Instruments by Chucky Thompson
Lil’ Cease My sister did the interlude for “One More Chance”—with all the girls on it. The other girls on it, that’s just my sister’s friends. My little niece, she did the intro part before “One More Chance”: “All you hoes calling here for my daddy…” It was just people that was just around. If you’re around and he need you—“Yo, I need a hook done.”
“Prince” Charles Alexander “One More Chance,” I remember specifically. That song has a piano figure that goes ba-bu-da-na-na-na-na. One of the things that I did is, all the way through the song there are two parts of that piano figure, and the second part I had to keep riding, so I had to raise the level. So it’s like ba-bu-da-na-na-na-na, and louder, ba-bu-da-na-na-na-na. So that it would be level with the first song. And it was a request. Puffy actually asked me to do that, because it was a sample, but he didn’t want the sample to sound just like it had sounded before. He wanted a nuance. He wanted something that had its character in the Bad Boy world. It was little stuff like that he was requesting that really gave Bad Boy a sound. I remember him turning to me and saying, “Do you think we have a sound?” This was after the “Flava In Ya Ear,” after Biggie came out, and I think we were moving onto Faith. And Puffy turned to me and said, “Do you think that we, meaning Bad Boy, have established a sound?”
Digga Puff was in my ear every 10 seconds in that session. When me, Big, Cease and Klept and some of the crew was in the studio it was all good. But once Puff came on the scene everything got tight. At the time, Puff was still learning about production and he wanted to show that he knew something about music. He wanted certain arrangements. And I was looking at him like, “What the hell is this guy talking about?” We’d listen to him for half a second, then we’d be like, “Yeah, whatever.”
8 “#!*@ Me (Interlude)”
Produced by Sean “Puffy” Combs
Lil’ Cease We were just trying to put some personality and just put some comedy and some sense of humor to it. Him and Lil’ Kim did it. What they did was, there was a piano in the booth of the studio we was working in, it was in Daddy’s House. It had the piano and the chair to the piano. Big is heavy, when he sit on something you hear that creak, that’s that shit when there’s too much weight on that shit. And he just told Kim to sit on top and he just like started rocking her.
Chucky Thompson That was crazy, ’cause they kept laughing. There was even sicker takes that we couldn’t use ’cause we all kept laughing. But she was tearing his ass up. They were in the booth with the lights out. We didn’t know what that little bed noise was. Somebody said, “What the hell is that noise?” He was like, “It’s the piano stool.” He was sitting on there, shaking it.
9 “The What”
Produced by Easy Mo Bee
Featuring Method Man
Method Man My relationship with Big was cool. When I seen him, it was always love. Even if the rest of my niggas ain’t fuck with him, I fucked with him. ’Cause it was like, Well, that’s how they feel—I don’t necessarily feel that way about you and shit. It was always on speaking terms—we smoked blunts and shit. We almost got bagged smoking some weed at the airport in North Cackalacka. Word. The guy came over, we all lit up cigarettes. But that’s a long story right there... He was a funny muthafucka too—make you laugh all fuckin’ day, man.
It was no secret: Rae didn’t like him, Ghost didn’t like him. They thought he was a biter. But if you look at Rae and Ghost, they don’t like nobody! The rest of my niggas had love for Big. It was just Rae and Ghost. The other niggas had no problem. You can’t hate a nigga for doing his thing, it’s ridiculous.
But there were moments where they in the house, and we in the house. And my niggas—it’s like we’re a unit, we moved as a unit. So where if one of my niggas ain’t speakin’, then nobody was speakin’. And we would just roll right by a nigga, walk right past. But Lil’ Cease can vouch for this, and my niggas can vouch for this—I always stopped to give word with Big. No matter what.
There was a show at Shelter, I think that was the name of the place. And he had performed, and Wu-Tang had performed that night, and Yo Yo performed that night too. Outside the club Big approached me and shit. Like, “Yo, I wanna do something with you on my album.” I was like, “Alright, yo, just make it happen. I’ll come through and shit.” I knew Tracy Waples, and she was tight with Puff and them—she works for ’em now—she hooked everything up. I went through that night, kicked it for awhile and shit, talking back and forth about shit—that’s when I found out he was a funny nigga, ’cause he had me crackin’ up. We puffed some blunts, Mo Bee threw on the beat. He was like, let’s just grind this shit out. We wrote our verses. We was both in the same spot, writing our verses together.
The way he ended his verse—he wanted me to start my verse with “T.H.O.D.,” because he ends his verse with, “You can’t fuck with M.E.” So that’s why my verse starts out, “T.H.O.D. Man...” But it didn’t actually come out that way. You can’t hear it, because I came over the top of him. If I wouldn’t have [rhymed over him], it wouldn’t have been on beat.
When I left, we didn’t have no title for the shit, but it was a tight-ass song. I couldn’t care less about the title, because at that time, Wu-Tang songs never had a title that had anything to do with the song. Like, the hook could be, “Yeah, nigga/Kill, nigga...” But the title of the song would be “Death In Current’s Wake Of The Absence To The Third Power,” or some shit.
Easy Mo Bee I remember Meth came to the studio. I was the producer, but I was being a little groupie, like, Oh shit! There go Method Man over there! Knowing that this nigga’s gonna blow, and we ’bout to be big here. Just taking it all in, man. Just loving it for the moment that it was.
When I heard the chorus [“Fuck the world/ Don’t ask me for shit...”] I was like, Okay, this definitely ain’t going on the radio. Again, like I was saying, I guess there was that whole “sensitive” part about me. There I went again, worrying: “Yo, man, we gonna sell records? I don’t want them to pull it down off the shelf, man. This nigga’s dope, man. We can’t mess this up.” Again, Lil’ Cease was like, “Yo Mo, chill. You sensitive!” That’s Lil’ Cease. My man. He gets the “sensitive” credit!
“The What.” I titled that song! That took me back to two years before, when I recorded with Miles Davis. Because Miles was a hardly-talk, express-his-self-when-he-wanted, the-way-he-wanted kind of guy. You’d be talking to him, and he’d just go, “Hmm.” I once asked Miles what he wanted to name a song—and we had already recorded about three or four songs—and he was like, “I don’t know, name ’em whatever you want to.”
With “The What,” the song was done and everything, and Big, Puff and me was standing there. And I remember Puff in particular was like, “Yo, what we gonna call this shit?” And I told him, “Yo, I nickname all my beats on the disc that I saved them to, so I know what each disc is.” So for whatever reason, I wrote on this disc, “The What.” Puff was like, “Yo, that shit is cool.”
Method Man A lot of quotes off that record have been used in hooks for other artists’ records. I want my money, y’all bitch-ass niggas! I got paid $2,500 for “The What.” And I had to hunt Puffy down for my $2,500. It took like two months to get it. I was like, “C’mon Puff, stingy bastard, give me my money!”
Produced by Jean “Poke” Oliver and Sean “Puffy” Combs
Additional vocals by Total
Lil’ Cease “Juicy” was done later. That was a “need-to-do” record. You gotta understand, that was back in like ’94 or ’95. Niggas would stay rhyming over R&B beats. That “Juicy” beat, that’s an R&B beat. We used to listen to that shit a lot. Like, we have this one Enuff tape, and he did like this old-school mix that had all that old shit on it. And this CD went from the house to the car to another muthafuckin’ house to the studio. That was the CD we used to listen to all day. That’s what I listen to right now, but I got that shit from Big. Like, Big listened to a bunch of old shit. And a bunch of old-school shit too, like old-school hip-hop shit.
Poke Puff had the idea he wanted to make a radio record that was still melodic. He suggested to me doing something with [Mtume’s] “Juicy Fruit,” so I took it home and put it together. I went into the studio—at that time, Puffy was living in Scarsdale, and I was staying there for a minute.
I used an MPC60. I just reinforced the bass lines and drums and tried to make it bigger than the original. But it was pretty much I just looped it and had the elements on top of it, to give it a little more hip-hop flavor. I added hi-hats and bass lines. I arranged it better, so he’d know where the rhyme and hook comes in. The hook, it’s like another break in the record. There are lots of breaks in the record, so I had enough room to take all the parts that we needed.
Big thought it was a popcorn record. He wanted to make all gangsta records. But Puff knew at the time radio wasn’t into that gangsta rap stuff. Big was like, “Yo, this guy is trying to make me an opera singer.” But Big was going to do everything that Puff asked him. He was at least going to try it. Once it became a hit, he realized: “These are the records I need to make.” When you get into this game you want to be a hardcore rapper, but those records only go so far.
Matt Lyphe Both me and Big wanted “Machine Gun Funk” to be the first single. That’s what we both agreed on. And slowly, he was being swayed otherwise. I can remember a conversation with him trying to tell me, “Matt, I understand now that this [“Juicy”] is the record that is going to make me have commercial success.”
“Prince” Charles Alexander That fear. That, “I don’t know if I can succeed,” was driving Puffy. It was driving Biggie. Biggie says it in the lyrics of “Juicy”: If it didn’t work out, he was going to go back to slinging crack on the street. It was a time when everybody was not too sure if the public was going to get it.
11 “Everyday Struggle”
Produced by Norman & Digga/Bluez Brothers
Lil’ Cease The story line of it, that shit is just a real mission for some people. Like, just that whole rundown, it was so detailed. Just that struggle, just that life, moving that way. He just broke that shit down, detailed it. It’s telling something about his life or somebody else’s life. That shit is like watching a series or watching a movie.
Digga Big was getting antsy, like, “Yo, I gotta get this song off! I want that song bad.” I could see him just like sitting at the board, he wasn’t saying nothing. He was just bobbing his head. When I was picking out the instruments he would make a face like, “Yeah, I want something similar to that.” The guy was always thinking about how he wanted to make something better.
12 “Me & My Bitch”
Produced by Norman & Digga/Bluez Brothers, Chucky Thompson and Sean “Puffy” Combs
Instruments by Chucky Thompson
Nashiem Myrick That was a remix because we already had a track for that. I don’t know why Puff ain’t use the original track. Either he couldn’t clear the sample, or I don’t know what happened. I forget the original song. It probably was an Al Green record, but I don’t know. I can’t remember. We did it over. Chuck played the guitar. He used original instruments. I guess that was another sample problem.
Digga The original sample that we used was from a Minnie Riperton song that Stevie Wonder wrote. When they sent it out to him, he was like, “I love the song. But this cursing, I’m not with it. You can’t use it.” So they got Chucky to come in and add some bars here and take some bars there. He just had to change up the music so that Big could use it.
Big started to record “Me & My Bitch” at the end of a session and he didn’t like it. So he kind of like erased it and he went into another studio, wrote some more stuff and then he came back out. It probably took him a good 20, 30 minutes. He ate before he went in, and then he comes out like he just fucking walked to Russia. “Ain’t no more chicken wings? Order some more wings!” Like, “Yo, we just finished eating, you was in there for like 20 minutes.” He just burnt all that shit off. Big was just a real funny-ass dude at all times. The only time he had a little grimace on his face was when Puff tried to be an asshole. When that was going on, Big was like, “This fucking guy! He’s trying to rule me. I can’t rock like that.”
13 “Big Poppa”
Produced by Chucky Thompson and Sean “Puffy” Combs
Nashiem Myrick Puff said he wanted to use “Between The Sheets.” He said loop it. Me and Chucky went in—that’s when we moved the studio to the Hit Factory, and we produced it in there. That song was actually [supposed to be] for Mr. Cheeks, the Lost Boyz. We gave that song to the Lost Boyz. And then something happened and Puff was like, “Get that song back, get it back from him.” We traded them for another track. Remember that song, “Jeeps, Lex Coups, Bimaz & Benz?” That track Easy Mo Bee did for Craig Mack. That was going to follow up “Flava In Ya Ear,” but Craig didn’t like it. He couldn’t rhyme to it or something. So we ended up trading that track to the Lost Boyz for “Big Poppa.” Both of those songs became hits, so I guess it was a good trade.
Chucky Thompson Knowing Biggie as a person, he’s bigger than New York. He’s a real universal artist. His style reminded me of Ice Cube. So I was like, “Let me see if I can put him on a bigger page.” And that’s why I came with that little West Coast line. I just kind of took him out of the New York vibe and took him a little bit more out West, and he carried it. At that time, we were listening to Snoop’s album. We knew what was going on in the West through Dr. Dre. Big just knew the culture, he knew what was going on with hip-hop. It was more than just New York, it was all over.
Matt Lyphe I think another important misconception about the making of that album, the production of that album, is that Puffy was coming up with creative, catchy loops for Big to rhyme on. Big was very savvy himself in thinking of creative, catchy loops to rhyme on. I can remember specifically him telling me: “I’m going to rhyme over that ‘Bonita Applebum’ [A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 single that sampled the Isley’s Brothers’ ‘Between the Sheets’].” That was his idea. That’s “Big Poppa.” That’s “Between The Sheets.”
Produced by Jean “Poke” Oliver and Sean “Puffy” Combs
Additional vocals by Diana King
Banger “Nineteen Seventy something/Nigga I don’t sweat the date/My moms is late!” That shit was ill. How he’d do our situation or our conversation—he’d analyze it and absorb it and suck it up and then make a song about it. He absorbed his whole life.
15 “Friend Of Mine”
Produced by Easy Mo Bee
Easy Mo Bee Big used to be out on the avenue. He used to be standing out there with Lil’ Cease. And we could either find him on the avenue, or he was around the corner on his stoop. If he was in the neighborhood, he was in either of them two places. I remember hooking up this beat and [finding Big at] this fried chicken spot, which to my knowledge is still right there on Fulton between Washington and St. James. I rolled up in the car, I got the beat ready, I’m happy. I was like, “Yo Big.” He came over to the passenger window, I told him to get in, and was like, “Yo check this out, man.” He was like, “Yo, I’m lovin that, Mo.”
I think what was helpful was the hook that I had on there. That just told him what to talk about on the record. He ended up doing a relationship-type record, talking about a chick.
The thing about that record is [the hook I sampled]: “You’re no friend of mine/You know that ain’t right.” That’s Black Mambo. I might’ve been working with hard-ass Big, but I was gonna pull in a whole other crowd because of that Black Mambo. Black Mambo was from the Paradise Garage. DJ Larry Levan would throw that on—either mix it with beats, with other songs, or he would just throw it on a capella by itself in the club—and you would hear people stomping and going crazy. So I knew that anybody who heard that song was gonna think about the Paradise Garage—a disco, dance-music type of club from back in the day. So there are dance music elements attached to the song, but it fit.
Produced by DJ Premier
DJ Premier “Unbelievable” was the final song [recorded for] Ready To Die. I used to see Big all the time over on Washington and Fulton St., because I used to live on Washington between Lafayette and Greene, at Branford Marsalis’ crib. We’d always go down to the corner to get our 40s and Big and all of them—Kim, everybody—used to be on the corner every Friday. I used to see Big and Big was always like, “One day I’m gonna get a beat from you.” But when it came to him asking me to do “Unbelievable,” I didn’t really have time to do the song because I was about to go on tour. He was like, “Dawg, I gotta have you on here.” He even told me, “My budget is over, I have no money. Preem, please look out.” I was getting top prices back then. But it was Big, so I was like, Fuck it. I did that song for $5,000.
I was telling him, “Dawg, I don’t know what to give you, because if I do something for you, it’s gotta be bananas.” He said, “Man, I don’t care if you take ‘Impeach The President.’ Take that and do a beat.” I said, “Really, you serious?” He said, “Hell yeah!” I went and got [the Honeydrippers’ breakbeat classic] “Impeach The President,” took the snare and kick and chopped it up, and started playing those little sounds. I wanted [to make] something more hardcore, ’cause he had played me “Warning” and stuff like that. I wanted to make something that was equally as hard or better. And he was like, “Nah, keep playing them little buttons you pushing and change it up and make it do different melodies on the hook and stuff.” He sat there a while and went in there and did the vocals. I never saw him write nothing. He’d be like, Let me get a pen and a pad—and then he wouldn’t write shit. Might scribble little funny objects or something. That was it.
Matter of fact, when we were doing “Unbelievable,” he brought Faith to the session the day we laid the verses, and said, “Yo, Premier, this is gonna be my wife. I’m about to marry this woman.” I was like, Word? I didn’t think nothin’ of it. And all of a sudden he was married.
Big was the one that told me to do the R. Kelly scratch [on the chorus]. He was like, “Yo, scratch that part off of ‘Your Body’s Callin’.’” ’Cause “Your Body’s Callin’” was popular at that time. I was like, “That might not match in the key.” He was like, “Just try it.” I didn’t have that record with me that day, so I went and got it the next day from my crib, brought it back in the studio, made the scratch, and I was like, Damn, man—this shit actually goes!
17 “Suicidal Thoughts”
Produced by Lord Finesse
Lord Finesse When I first worked with Big, he was as street as you can get. You couldn’t get any more street than what Big was rapping about and what he was bringing to the table. But him and Puff were both growing at an incredible rate, between Puff being at MCA getting ready to go to Bad Boy, and Biggie just being able to absorb what Puff was sending him like a sponge. Biggie watching and learning Puff was like Payton and Malone, ya know? Puffy dishing it and Biggie capturing and scoring, dunking. That combination was incredible.
Puff was at a point in his career where he was growing at an enormous rate; he had Craig Mack, and he’d just come off Mary and Jodeci. He was ready to show the world. He was able to sculpt Big to not only be an underground artist, but to be well rounded. To not just dunk, but be able to finger-roll, crossover dribble, to be the best player he could be in the game. And Big learned it real, real quick! When Ready To Die was almost done, Big had all the raw street incredible songs, and Puff said, “Okay, you got to do what you wanted with the album. Now let’s do what I want to do with the album.”
Big was like, “Puff said to do this, so I’m going to do it. Puff let me do what I want to do, so I’m going to do what he wants too.” Because of that, putting his ego to the side, like, “I’ma try this,” that gave him the edge. And after that, he tried everything and it all worked! It was crazy.
When we did “Suicidal Thoughts,” I laid the beat and Big told me he had this incredible idea. But I wasn’t in the studio with him when he laid that song. I didn’t hear “Suicidal Thoughts” until the album came out. People kept telling me, “Yo, that song you did with Big was crazy!” And I was like, What is they talking about? Because I wasn’t at the session. But when I heard it, all I could think in my head was, Wow...
“Prince” Charles Alexander “Suicidal Thoughts” was funny, ’cause at the end we were trying to get a “Thud.” At the end of the song, he drops the phone and he falls, ’cause he has shot himself. So he shoots himself, the phone drops and there was supposed to be a body thud. But we could not get a body thud, we looked on all kinds of different tapes that have sound effects. So I was like, “Yo, you know what we’re going to have to do?” So Puffy and I told Biggie to go in there—and to his credit, he’s a trooper, he was really a great guy—we turned off the lights and we played the music and we said, “Biggie, when the gun shoots, just fall. Just fall as hard you can.” Man, that gun went off and we heard the biggest fucking thud you ever want to hear in your life. We started rolling. We thought it was hilarious. ’Cause we didn’t think he was going to do it. But he did it and when I listen to it now, that’s one of the things I always think about that day. It was me, Puffy, Biggie. It was the way you would think an album was done—all the creative people are all in one room. I don’t know if Puffy works that way anymore. That was really intimate. He’s very much an executive now. He comes in and sanctions and puts his name on things that he’s requested. Back in the day, we were creating on the fly.
Nashiem Myrick That song is so real. I never talked to Big about that record, but everybody else was like, “We don’t even know if that can go on the album.” ’Cause he killed himself on the record. It’s like, How could you come back from that? No one has ever killed themselves at the end of their album.
The energy that came through him was the truth to everybody. He said things that was in everybody’s head, but no one has never put it down like that. He said things on that album, and that record in particular, that a lot of people in the hood, people in the streets—think that way. He said, “I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fucking tell.” I was like, Wow, how could you say that, son?
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