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Why The Notorious B.I.G.’s Legacy Continues To Loom Over Hip-Hop
In Depth

Why The Notorious B.I.G.’s Legacy Continues To Loom Over Hip-Hop

A larger-than-life talent with a tragically early end, The Notorious B.I.G. helped to create the moneyed hip-hop world we know today.

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Christopher George Latore Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls… the Brooklyn, New York City, resident was a man of many names. Born on 21 May 1972, just before the birth of hip-hop, the game-changing rapper grew up around the music, experiencing its late-80s/early-90s “Golden Age” as a teenager: “It was all a dream/I used to read Word Up! magazine/Salt-N-Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine,” as he rapped on his breakthrough single, Juicy. Biggie took that experience and ran with it, becoming one of 90s hip-hop’s major stars, alongside collaborators such as Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z. The influence of that generation still looms large over the genre today, and it is a tragedy that Biggie isn’t here to experience that with them.

Listen to the best of The Notorious B.I.G. here.

I got a story to tell: Biggie’s early years

Biggie’s early career was that of a hustler, mixing rapping on street corners with jail time. His early freestyles are the stuff of legend, with one video capturing his prowess outside a Brooklyn grocery store, surrounded by onlookers witnessing the birth of a legend.

Rapper turned label-owner Andre Harrell had launched his new jack swing-heavy Uptown Records imprint in the mid-80s, and had one Sean Combs among its A&R staff. After hearing Biggie’s raw demo, Combs realised the rapper wouldn’t remain street-level for long. Reinventing himself as Puff Daddy and launching his own Bad Boy Entertainment outfit, Combs filched Biggie from Uptown. The up-and-coming star had already made guest appearances with big-name acts such as Busta Rhymes and Heavy D (A Buncha Ni__as, 1992), Neneh Cherry (Buddy X, 1993) and Mary J Blige (that same year’s Real Love), and proved his early versatility by working with dancehall reggae legend Super Cat on the pop single Dolly My Baby.

Biggie’s rapping style was consistent, combining some of hip-hop’s most cinematic rhyming talents and finest similes (“Making money smoking mics like crack pipes”) with solid, laidback vocals. But his subject matter was diverse. He worked just as well on hardcore hip-hop tracks (Warning, Who Shot Ya and the especially nihilistic Player’s Anthem, by Junior M.A.F.I.A., his side group featuring Lil’ Kim) as he did on the naughty loverman pieces he recorded alongside them.

Gimme the loot: breakthrough and fame

Biggie burst onto the scene at large in 1993, with the no-nonsense single Party And Bullshit. His paranoid, fatalistic debut album, the multi-platinum Ready To Die, emerged the following year. Combs’ Bad Boy production crew helmed much of the record, with the boss himself playing the hype-man role. The album also featured the talents of some of hip-hop’s most legendary producers, with fan favourite Unbelievable (“Tryin’ to play gorilla, when you ain’t no killer/The gat’s by your liver, your upper lip quiver”) being produced by Gang Starr’s DJ Premier, proving that New York’s finest were already kicking down Biggie’s door.

Biggie’s storytelling skills immediately put the nascent Bad Boy Records on the map. After opening to the sound of its star being born to Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, Ready To Die offered a tour of Biggie’s difficult upbringing. He expands upon this with Things Done Changed and Gimme The Loot, already feeling the pressure of trying to survive the deprivation he experienced on the New York streets: “My mama got cancer in her breast/Don’t ask me why I’m motherfucking stressed.”

Gimme The Loot was one of many Biggie tracks to be produced by Easy Mo Bee, and the partnership gave the world another early classic with Warning, in which pagers and dial tones introduce Biggie’s latest drama (“Who the fuck is this paging me at 5.46 in the morning?/Crack of dawn an’ now I’m yawnin’”) as he prepares his defences against incompetent rivals. With his problems closing in on him, on Everyday Struggle Biggie turns from fatalism towards suicidal ideation (“People look at you like you’s the user/Sellin’ drugs to all the losers, mad buddha abuser”). Ready To Die’s closing track, Suicidal Thoughts, picks up from where Everyday Struggle left off, Biggie letting life go with clarity and alacrity (“My baby mama kiss me, but she glad I’m gone/She know me and her sister had somethin’ goin’ on”; “It don’t make sense, goin’ to Heaven with the goodie-goodies”).

For those not digging quite as deep, Ready To Die boasted a trio of sterling singles that still stand among the best Notorious B.I.G. songs. The Mtume-sampling Juicy was an odyssey of both memories and aspiration that acted as Biggie’s calling card. With a refrain handled by Bad Boy’s female R&B group Total, the track took listeners back to Biggie’s 80s childhood and teenage criminality. He dedicated the track to “all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustlin’ in front of/Called the police on me when I was just tryin’ to make some money to feed my daughter”, in both an appeal to his hometown and an introduction for others to his world and motivations (“stereotypes of a Black male misunderstood”). The internal rhymes were already off the hook: “Birthdays was the worst days/Now we sip champagne when we thirsty.”

Ready To Die’s second single, the platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated Big Poppa, sampled The Isley Brothers’ 80s soul classic Between The Sheets. Here in his loverman guise, Biggie dazzles a woman whose man is at the bar, and the two leave for a liaison in a jacuzzi. Underlining how his figure adds to his eligibility – “Believe me, sweetie, I got enough to feed the needy” – Biggie says he appreciates women as materialistic and mercenary as he is, dedicating the piece to “all the honies gettin’ money, playin’ fellas like dummies”.

One More Chance was remodelled from the album version in 1995: “Lyrically, I’m supposed to represent/I’m not only a client, I’m the player President,” Biggie raps. The smooth, sexy, DeBarge-sampling Stay With Me remix is just as good as the Hip Hop Mix, which rides Lou Donaldson’s neck-breaking Who’s Making Love? All in all, Ready To Die helped secure hip-hop’s continued rise to dominance in the 90s, and is now regularly listed among the greatest albums of all time – a big-hearted, morally confused but fascinating picture of late-20th-century humanity. But more was to come.

Notorious thugs: West Coast rivalry and death

Biggie continued his slew of iconic guest appearances by opening Total’s 1995 single Can’t You See with a classic verse (“My rap lines is like land mines/One step, ka-boom!/Black suits fill the room”) as well as featuring on This Time Around, from Michael Jackson’s HIStory collection. That same year also saw the release of the Wu-Tang-influenced, piano-led single Who Shot Ya, featuring vocals from Biggie’s wife, Faith Evans.

Released in the wake of an attempt on the life of Tupac Shakur, the song immediately inspired rumours that Biggie was taking lyrical shots at his sometime friend turned West Coast rival. Biggie denied any such intention, but storm clouds were brewing. He had reclaimed the throne and returned the crown to an East Coast scene struggling to cut through in the wake of the West’s G-funk-fuelled gangsta-rap assault on the mainstream, and tempers were flaring across the country. After Tupac signed to Death Row Records, a default West Coast rival to Bad Boy, fans scoured the two rappers’ records for further references to a feud that culminated in the senseless, needless deaths of both.

Tupac was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas in September 1996, and Biggie’s death followed just six months later, when he, too, was fatally shot in a drive-by, on 9 March 1997, just two weeks ahead of the release of his prophetically-named, diamond-selling, Grammy-nominated double-album, Life After Death. With both murders going officially unsolved, rumours tying the two together continue to circulate. It was a tragic ending for a talent that had seemed unstoppable, especially considering Biggie’s attempts to free himself from the stereotypes he rapped about.

Life after death: posthumous releases

Again overseen by Combs, Life After Death featured the massive singles Hypnotize, Mo Money Mo Problems (featuring Combs protégé Mase, who had also guested with Biggie on Combs’ own Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down the year before) and Sky’s The Limit (featuring regular Biggie R&B collaborators 112). There was also more excellent work from DJ Premier, in the form of Kick In The Door and Ten Crack Commandments.

Biggie had always been open to collaboration, rhyming with Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man on The What and featuring Diana King on Respect, both from Ready To Die, as well as appearing on a number of songs by Junior M.A.F.I.A., including the standout cut Get Money (“You knew about me, the fake ID/Cases in Virginia, body in DC”). This love of collaboration was something he expanded on with Life After Death, which featured the likes of Havoc from Mobb Deep, The Lox, Jay-Z, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Naughty By Nature’s Kay Gee, the West Coast’s Too $hort, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA.

Most significant among the outpouring of grief over Biggie’s death was Puff Daddy, Faith Evans and 112’s multi-platinum, Grammy-winning single I’ll Be Missing You. An unashamedly pop tribute to the rapper, it overcame its debt to The Police’s Every Breath You Take with the purity of its sincerity.

Biggie was, however, a prolific talent and, in 1999, the multi-platinum double-album Born Again was issued. Compiled from unreleased recordings, it also lent itself to collaborations from beyond the grave, with guests included Big Tymers and Hot Boys, West Coast mainstays Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube, Brand Nubian’s Sadat X, Method Man and Redman, Biggie’s Bad Boy labelmates Craig Mack and Black Rob, Missy Elliott, Beanie Sigel, K-Ci & JoJo and Nas. Born Again also offered up the Duran Duran-sampling single Notorious B.I.G. and the brutal head-nodder Dead Wrong, originally produced by Easy Mo Bee before the release of Ready To Die, and now featuring a new verse from the then breakout star Eminem.

Following further vocal resurrections for high-profile features, the 2005 album Duets: The Final Chapter saw yet another generation of artists keen to get their time in alongside Biggie, including Twista, Big Pun, Fat Joe, Ludacris, The Game, Jagged Edge and Nelly (on the hit Nasty Girl), Juelz Santana, Akon, Scarface, Slim Thug, T.I. and Clipse. With guests as improbable as Bob Marley and Korn, and songs with barely a trace of Biggie on them, Duets was more a tribute than a full-blown Biggie work, but it was a reminder of the talent the world had lost, paving the way for Greatest Hits to follow in 2007, ten years after Biggie’s death.

Sky’s the limit: legacy and influence

The veritable industry of documentaries and books about the East Coast-West Coast rap rivalry started in earnest with Ro Ronin’s 1998 book, Have Gun Will Travel, and continued through works such as controversial filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s 2002 documentary, Biggie & Tupac; the 2011 book Murder Rap, written by Greg Kading, a detective on Biggie and Tupac’s murder cases; Fox’s 2017 documentary Who Shot Biggie & Tupac?; and a full season of the docudrama Unsolved. In 2009, the biopic Notorious was released, starring Jamal Woolard, who also reprised his role as Biggie for 2017’s similar Tupac film, All Eyez On Me. Notorious also featured Angela Bassett as Biggie’s biggest supporter, his mother, Voletta Wallace. Today, you can even buy notebooks and pillowcases emblazoned with the late rapper’s image.

Biggie now stands as a monument to the days before mumble rap, when rappers were unashamedly lyrical and wore that dexterity as a badge. Like Wu-Tang Clan and Eminem, The Notorious B.I.G. is a name for the hip-hop aficionados, but he is also a classic outlaw figure – and a huge talent who created a string of era-defining hits. And rappers are still dropping Notorious B.I.G. tributes today, showing just how much his work has influenced future generations.

It’s almost inconceivable how wealthy Biggie would be had he lived to see the increasingly moneyed hip-hop world he helped to pioneer. Might he be up there with the billionaires of the genre we are starting to hear about? Sean Combs is certainly close to that mark. If so, it would have been richly deserved. Biggie’s contribution to the world remains priceless.

Buy Notorious B.I.G. vinyl and box sets at the Dig! store.

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