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Who Shot Ya? The True Story Behind Biggie’s Landmark Hip-Hop Song
Warner Music
In Depth

Who Shot Ya? The True Story Behind Biggie’s Landmark Hip-Hop Song

A vicious song that fuelled tension in the hip-hop community, Who Shot Ya? put The Notorious B.I.G. in the crosshairs of controversy.

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New York City’s Brooklyn-born hip-hop superstar The Notorious B.I.G. was riding high in 1995, following the release, the previous year, of his multi-platinum debut album, Ready To Die, through Sean Combs’ (aka Puff Daddy’s) highly successful Bad Boy Records. The album was brutal and confrontational in places, but much more was to come, courtesy of the rapper’s controversial, piano-led single Who Shot Ya?, and its clear, chilly influence from fellow New Yorkers Wu-Tang Clan. Here is the story of how one song found itself at the centre of a spiralling rivalry between two hip-hop legends.

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

The recording: Unhinged exhortations on top of breakneck beats

Starting life as an aborted Mary J Blige tune, the original, rough 1994 demo of Who Shot Ya?, recorded with rapper Keith Murray, saw some of Murray’s contributions being clipped for an interlude on Blige’s album My Life, and both of the Long Island rapper’s verses eventually sneaking out on a mixtape.

Biggie’s finished version of the song transforms the feminine role into a droning croon from his wife, Faith Evans, underneath Combs’ unhinged hypeman exhortations (at times reminiscent of Wu-Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard), all on top of breakneck beats. Who Shot Ya? also features a pivotal tinkling piano sample, which Nashiem Myrick, of Bad Boy’s in-house production team, The Hitmen, lifted from Stax soul man David Porter’s cover of the jazz standard (I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over, before being polished into a towering, immaculate stop-start bounce by Poke, from production duo Trackmasters.

The lyrics: All that conspiracy theorists needed
Porter’s recording had been sample fodder since at least 1991, when Brothers 4 The Struggle used it as the basis for their track It’s Over! But the disconcerting, ricocheting Who Shot Ya? completely recontextualised the tune, and Biggie’s vicious, calculated lyrics (“One false move, get Swiss cheesed up”) were all his own.

For Who Shot Ya?, The Notorious B.I.G. worked up an aggressive, cinematic storyline that shared an attitude with the Ready To Die cut Warning (the uncomfortably intimate lyrics include “I can hear sweat trickling down your cheek” and “You’ll die slow but calm”). But the song took on a reputation of its own when rumours surfaced that Biggie’s lyrical slights were aimed at the West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur, once Biggie’s friend, who had recently been shot five times in the lobby of Quad Studios, Manhattan, and robbed of $40,000 worth of jewellery.

Biggie denied that Who Shot Ya?’s lyrics were inspired by Shakur’s attack (lines such as “Slaughter, electrical tape around your daughter” supported his claims), but the tension between East and West Coast hip-hop artists was growing by the day, and Biggie and Shakur were seen as the figureheads – and guardians – of their respective territories. After Dr Dre’s G-funk sound had put West Coast acts such as N.W.A and Snoop Dogg ahead of their East Coast rivals, Biggie had been hailed for snatching the crown back for his hometown. Tempers were frayed – and torn even more when the New York-born Shakur signed to Bad Boy’s Los Angeles rival, Death Row Records. Who Shot Ya? ended with Biggie shoving a gun in his victim’s mouth and pulling the trigger – all that the conspiracy theorists needed to confirm their suspicions about his intent.

The release: Scouring records for references to the feud

Who Shot Ya? was first released on 21 February 1995, as a brutal flipside to a 12” reissue of Biggie’s massive, loverman-style single Big Poppa (excellent as they are, Biggie was always said to have been resistant to his more romantic pieces, and to favour the street raps). The double gatefold vinyl reissue of Ready To Die also utilised Who Shot Ya? as a powerful closer, and it made an appearance on Biggie’s multi-platinum posthumous collection Born Again, issued in 1999. That same year, Who Shot Ya? finally made A-side status when it came out backed with the Life After Death banger Ten Crack Commandments (on Who Shot Ya?, Biggie had proclaimed, “Slip and break the 11th Commandment/Thou shalt not fuck with nor see Poppa/Feel a thousand deaths when I drop ya”).

Amid a plethora of releases, rap aficionados scoured Bad Boy and Death Row records for further references to the ongoing feud between Biggie and Shakur. They didn’t have to look very hard to find the latter’s livid and direct Hit ’Em Up (1996), on which Shakur took down just about everyone associated with Bad Boy, one by one and in a severely brutal fashion (of Biggie’s rap group, Junior M.A.F.I.A: “Little Kim, is you coked up or doped up?/Get your little Junior Whopper click smoked up”).

The legacy: Going beyond warfare to inspire higher levels of artistry

Spiralling out of control, the situation reached a tragic turning point when Shakur was murdered in drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, in September 1996; six months later, Biggie was also killed in a drive-by, in LA, just weeks ahead of the release of his crowning achievement, the, diamond-selling, Grammy-nominated double album Life After Death. Rumours tying the two deaths together continue to circulate, fuelling a whole industry of books, documentaries and made-for-TV dramas.

Though it’s hard to disentangle Who Shot Ya? from the surrounding story, the song’s legacy goes beyond escalating a warfare between two rival rappers. It is said to have directly inspired rap mogul Jay-Z to higher levels of artistry, and in 2016, amid still-ongoing gun violence, the Black funk-metal band Living Colour reframed the track for a rock audience. One of the best Notorious B.I.G. songs, Who Shot Ya?’s hardcore rhymes and spine-tingling beats are likely to go on causing a commotion for generations to come.

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