The man also known as Biggie Smalls became a symbol of the meaningless violence that overwhelmed inner-city America in the waning years of the 20th century. Whether or not his death was really the result of a much-publicized feud between the East and West Coast hip-hop scenes, it did mark the point where both sides stepped back from a rivalry that had gone too far. |
The Notorious B.I.G. was born Christopher Wallace on May 21, 1972, and grew up in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He was interested in rap from a young age, performing with local groups like the Old Gold Brothers and the Techniques, the latter of which brought the teenaged Wallace his first trip to a recording studio. Raised by his mother Christopher Wallace started out with ambition of establishing himself as a graphic artist, but was inevitably drawn into the hustling life of the streets.
He had already adopted the name Biggie Smalls at this point, a reference to his ample frame, which would grow to be over six feet tall and nearly 400 pounds. By the age of seventeen he had dropped out of high school to take up full-time duties as the neighborhood crack dealer, taking time off occasionally to rap for fun at house parties and with the local crew The Old Gold Brothers. Attracted by the money and flashy style of local drug dealers, he started selling crack for a living. He spent nine months in jail, and upon his release, he made some demo recordings on a friend's four-track. The tape began to move around and generate interest in east coast rap circles and then it fell into the hands of Mister Cee, a DJ working with Big Daddy Kane; Cee in turn passed the tape on to hip-hop magazine The Source, which gave Biggie a positive write-up in a regular feature on unsigned artists.
In the weeks after his signing, Combs put the young rapper to work on several remix projects, amongst which were tracks by Mary J. Blige, Neneh Cherry and Super Cat. As work on the first B.I.G. effort was completed, both Combs and Wallace were dropped in succession from the Uptown roster. Thanks to the publicity, Biggie caught the attention of Uptown Records producer Sean "Puffy" Combs, who signed him immediately. Not long after Biggie's signing, Combs split from Uptown to form his own label, Bad Boy, and took Biggie with him.
Changing his primary stage name from Biggie Smalls to the Notorious B.I.G., the newly committed rapper made his recording debut on a 1993 remix of Mary J. Blige's single "Real Love." He soon contributed his first solo cut, "Party and Bullshit," to the soundtrack of the film Who's the Man?. Now with a considerable underground buzz behind him, the Notorious B.I.G. delivered his debut album, Ready to Die, in September 1994. Its lead single, "Juicy," went gold, and the follow-up smash, "Big Poppa," achieved platinum sales and went Top Ten on the pop and R&B charts. Biggie's third single, "One More Chance," tied Michael Jackson's "Scream" for the highest debut ever on the pop charts; it entered at number five en route to an eventual peak at number two, and went all the way to number one on the R&B side. Ready to Die had sold over four million copies and turned the Notorious B.I.G. into a hip-hop sensation -- the first major star the East Coast had produced since the rise of Dr. Dre's West Coast G-funk.
Not long after Ready to Die was released, Biggie married R&B singer and Bad Boy labelmate Faith Evans. In November 1994, West Coast gangsta star Tupac Shakur was shot several times in the lobby of a New York recording studio and robbed of thousands of dollars in jewelry. Shakur survived and accused Combs and his onetime friend Biggie of planning the attack, a charge both of them fervently denied. The ill will gradually snowballed into a heated rivalry between West and East Coast camps.
Biggie ended 1995 as not only the top-selling rap artist, but also the biggest solo male act on both the pop and R&B charts. He also ran into trouble with the law on more than one occasion. A concert promoter accused Biggie and members of his entourage of assaulting him when he refused to pay the promised fee after a concert cancellation. Later in the year, Biggie pled guilty to criminal mischief after attacking two harassing autograph seekers with a baseball bat.
1996 proved to be an even more tumultuous year. More legal problems ensued after police found marijuana and weapons in a raid on Biggie's home in Teaneck, NJ. Meanwhile, Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Lil' Kim released her first solo album under Biggie's direction, and the two made little effort to disguise their concurrent love affair. 2Pac, still nursing a grudge against Biggie and Combs, recorded a vicious slam on the East Coast scene called "Hit 'Em Up," in which he taunted Biggie about having slept with Faith Evans (who was by now estranged from her husband). What was more, during the recording sessions for Biggie's second album, he suffered rather serious injuries in a car accident and was confined to a wheelchair for a time. Finally, in September 1996, Tupac Shakur was murdered in a drive-by shooting on the Las Vegas strip. Given their very public feud, it didn't take long for rumors of Biggie's involvement to start swirling, although none were substantiated. Biggie was also criticized for not attending an anti-violence hip-hop summit held in Harlem in the wake of Shakur's death.
Observers hoped that Shakur's murder would serve as a wake-up call for gangsta rap in general, that on-record boasting had gotten out of hand and spilled into reality. Sadly, it would take another tragedy to drive that point home. In the early morning hours of March 9, 1997, the Notorious B.I.G. was leaving a party at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, thrown by Vibe magazine in celebration of the Soul Train Music Awards. He sat in the passenger side of his SUV, with his bodyguard in the driver's seat and Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Lil' Cease in the back. According to most witnesses, another vehicle pulled up on the right side of the SUV while it was stopped at a red light, and 6-10 shots were fired. Biggie's bodyguard rushed him to the nearby Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, but it was already too late. As much as Shakur was mourned, Biggie's death was perhaps even more shocking; it meant that Shakur's death was not an isolated incident, and that hip-hop's highest-profile talents might be caught in the middle of an escalating war. Naturally, speculation ran rampant that Biggie's killers were retaliating for Shakur's death, and since the case remains unsolved, the world may never know for sure.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the release of the Notorious B.I.G.'s second album went ahead as planned at the end of March. The eerily titled Life After Death was a sprawling, guest-laden double-disc set that seemed designed to compete with 2Pac's All Eyez on Me in terms of ambition and epic scope. Unsurprisingly, it entered the charts at number one, selling nearly 700,000 copies in its first week of release and spending a total of four weeks on top. The first single, "Hypnotize," went platinum and hit number one on the pop charts, and its follow-up, "Mo Money Mo Problems," duplicated both feats, making the Notorious B.I.G. the first artist ever to score two posthumous number one hits.
Plus, Combs - now rechristened Puff Daddy - and Faith Evans scored one of 1997's biggest singles with their tribute, "I'll Be Missing You." In 1999, an album of previously unreleased B.I.G. material, Born Again, was released and entered the charts at number one. It eventually went double platinum, but thus far it's been the only posthumous collection in Biggie's discography (unlike the cottage industry surrounding 2Pac).
In the years following Christopher Wallace's death, little official progress was made in the LAPD's murder investigation, and it began to look as if the responsible parties would never be brought to justice.