Notorious B.I.G. - Biography
By David Downs
East Coast hardcore gangster rapper Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace ranks among the most iconic African American artists of the 20th or 21st century on the merits of just two albums, his debut Ready to Die (1994-Bad Boy) and follow up Life After Death (1997-Bad Boy), released just weeks after he was shot to death in Los Angeles at the age of twenty-four. Born to a single mother in Brooklyn, his earliest known solo work is "Party and Bullshit" for the soundtrack of the film Who's the Man? Even unsigned, however, his reputation preceded the six foot three, three-hundred pound man. A dexterous, humorous, larger than life rapper – Biggie Smalls' depictions of ghetto life, death, mafioso tales, drug dealing, materialistic bragging and romance were extrapolated from his real-life memories of selling crack, going to jail, beating strangers, and high-profile love affairs with spouse Faith Evans and mistress Lil' Kim. Ready to Die (1994-Bad Boy) singles "Juicy", "Big Poppa" and "One More Chance" made the debut album one of greatest hardcore rap albums ever recorded, and it became a platinum seller many times over, unlike critically regarded East Coast peers Wu-Tang – who didn't connect with mainstream America the way Wallace did. In 1995, The Source magazine named Wallace the Best New Artist (Solo), Lyricist of the Year, Live Performer of the Year, and gave his debut Album of the Year. Billboard merely named him Rap Artist of the Year. Wallace then became an iconic martyr to the idiotic and brutal East Coast-West Coast rap war when he was shot to death in a car in Los Angeles, only serving to amplify sales of follow-up album Life After Death (1997-Bad Boy) which went on to sell more than ten million copies worldwide thanks to singles "Hypnotize," which hit number one on the pop chart, its follow-up, "Mo Money Mo Problems," and third single, "Sky's the Limit.” Grammy nominations for Life After Death and its first two singles followed. Unreleased material appeared on Born Again (1999-Bad Boy) and even less material appeared on Duets: The Final Chapter (2005-Bad Boy) which was followed by a Greatest Hits (2007-Bad Boy) record and a 2009 biopic. Smalls is survived by his children and mother who has filed two civil suits against the City of Los Angeles for what she says in the LAPD's complicity in her son's murder.
Wallace was born on May 21, 1972, the son of a pre-school teacher and a small-time Jamaican politician who did not raise him. He was raised by his mother in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant during the raging crack epidemic and nascent rap movement of the '80s, both of which would have a powerful influence on the gifted student, who excelled in English. Wallace was interested in rap from a young age, and performed with local group the Old Gold Brothers and the Techniques. The Techniques introduced Wallace to the the recording studio as a teenager and he took the name Biggie Smalls from a '70s gangster film. Wallace was a good student, yet transferred out of a private Roman Catholic school to attended state-funded George Westinghouse Information Technology High School where Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes were also students. Wallace maintains that he was entranced by the gangster lifestyle and started selling crack at age twelve without his mother's knowledge. She says he became a teenage smart-ass and dropped out of high school at the age of seventeen to sell crack. His mother insists he didn't need to sell crack and never went hungry. But Wallace said in interviews that crack dealers were his role models.
At age 17 in 1989, he was arrested on weapons charges in Brooklyn and given five years' probation. In 1990, Wallace was arrested on a drug trip to North Carolina and did nine-months in a county jail instead of posting bail. He rapped in jail, and when released, borrowed a friend's four-track, and tape recorder to record some basic tracks in a basement. The tapes ended up with Mister Cee, a DJ who gave them to Hip Hop magazine The Source, who gave Wallace a crucially positive review in its unsigned artists section Unsigned Hype, where it was read by Uptown Records producer Sean "Puffy" Combs.
Combs was another middle class child posing as a gangster, in addition to being a hard-working, extremely ambitious music producer. He was born in Harlem in 1969 and raised in Mt. Vernon, NY. Combs attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., then convinced childhood friend Heavy D to get him an internship at Uptown Records. Within months, Combs was an A&R executive with plans to run his own label. He executive produced hit Father MC album Father's Day (1990-MCA), Mary J. Blige' What's the 411? (1992-Uptown), and Heavy D & the Boyz's Blue Funk (1992-Uptown).
Combs singed Wallace to Uptown and Wallace began rapping on associated works like a 1992 remix of Mary J. Blige's single "Real Love" and 1993's "What's the 411? Remix" and contributed his first solo cut, "Party and Bullshit," to the soundtrack of the film Who's the Man? Combs also scheduled Wallace for his first major label sessions, producing part of Wallace's debut album in New York City at the The Hit Factory between 1993 and 1994. The first tracks recorded were the less commercial “Ready To Die,” “Gimme The Loot” and “Things Done Changed”. Combs was then fired from Uptown and Wallace returned to dealing drugs in North Carolina, returning the following year to record for Combs' new Bad Boy Records label and completing the album, including the album's singles. Between the two stages, XXL magazine wrote Wallace moved from writing lyrics to freestyling them from memory – which could explain the seemingly-spontaneous, highly reactive dynamic flow Wallace possessed. Wallace had a new daughter however, and kept dealing drugs through the recording, production and release of debut album Ready to Die (1994-Bad Boy) until Combs discovered the practice and stopped the sideline.
Four singles were released from the album: "Juicy", "Big Poppa", "One More Chance" and "Warning" with “Juicy” leading in August 1994; a Horatio Alger story of rags to riches, Brooklyn gangster-style. Second single “Big Poppa" sold over a million units and was nominated at the 1996 Grammy Awards for Best Rap Solo Performance. Third single "One More Chance" peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached number one on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks, also selling over a million copies with Rolling Stone writer Cheo H. Coker noting it as one of the bawdiest sex raps since Kool G Rap. The record quickly went platinum and B.I.G. was named Rapper of the Year at the 1995 Billboard Awards. Rolling Stone and other magazine lauded the release.
Outside of music, Wallace also proved larger than life. Biggie quickly married R&B singer and Bad Boy labelmate Faith Evans, and was implicated in the November 1994 shooting and robbery of Tupac Shakur in the lobby of a New York recording studio. Shakur accused Combs and his onetime friend Biggie yet both vehemently denied it. The verbal conflict between Combs and Wallace's East Coast-based Bad Boy Records and Shakur and Death Row Records of the West Coast, quickly escalated into a full-on, bicoastal rap war. Biggie dissed Tupac, Tupac retaliated, and so forth. Sales soared.
Wallace also found time to promote boyhood rapper friends Junior M.A.F.I.A., guesting on their singles "Player's Anthem" and "Get Money” as well as working with Michael Jackson and R. Kelly. In 1995, after a concert cancellation, B.I.G. and his entourage allegedly assaulted a promoter who didn't have his fee. Later that year, Wallace and friend took baseball bats to the windows and occupants of a vehicle in response to a aggressive photograph request. The married Wallace also started a very public affair with female rap artist Kim Jones, a.k.a. L'il Kim, producing her album Hardcore. In 1996, police raided his New Jersey residence and found marijuana and weapons, and while recording his follow-up he suffered a serious injury in a car accident, confining him for a short time to a wheelchair.
Six months after the murder of Tupac Shakur, it was Wallace's turn. In March of 1997 Wallace was on the West Coast doing advance press for his next release, Life After Death. He attended the Soul Train Music Awards in Los Angeles and in the early morning hours of March 9, left a party at the Petersen Automotive Museum thrown by Vibe magazine. Wallace was sitting in a G.M.C. Suburban on the street when he was shot several times by an unknown person and died almost instantly. He was twenty-four years old. There was never an arrest.
Wallace's public funeral featured thousands of people flooding into his Brooklyn neighborhood and ten were arrested. A private funeral with Queen Latifah, Public Enemy and Naughty by Nature featured Wallace in an open-casket from the waist up. The rapper reportedly wore a double-breasted white suit and matching hat.
A week later, double-CD Life After Death was released and went to number one, where it remained for three weeks and is universally ranked among the greatest Hip Hop albums of all time. It went on to sell more than ten million copies worldwide, with singles like the classic "Mo Money, Mo Problems." Executive produced by Sean "Puffy" Combs and Mark Pitts and written partially by Wallace it features dozens of guests including R. Kelly, Jay-Z, Mase, and is cleaner, more sample-heavy and upbeat. It hit number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 and the U.S. Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums, selling nearly 700,000 copies in its first week of release. First single, "Hypnotize" went platinum as well as "Mo Money Mo Problems".Third single, "Sky's the Limit" went gold. It was followed by Combs and Evans' 1997 single "I'll Be Missing You" sampled from the Police's “Every Breath You Take” and featuring lyrics about Wallace's death which also went to number one.
Posthumous release Born Again includes previously unheard material from Biggie and guest spots from Busta Rhymes, Redman and Method Man, Missy Elliott, Ice Cube, and Snoop Dogg. Third posthumous release Duets: The Final chapter contains notably less Wallace material yet went platinum as well. Wallace's Greatest Hits (2007-Bad Boy) gathers "Juicy," "One More Chance," "Big Poppa," "Notorious Thugs," "Ten Crack Commandments" "Dead Wrong”. Its release marked the 10th anniversary of Wallace's death.
In 2009, Notorious -a biographical film about Notorious B.I.G. that stars rapper Jamal Woolard as Biggie - will be released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Producers on Notorious include Combs, Voletta Wallace and Biggie's former managers Wayne Barrow and Mark Pitts. Voletta has filed two civil suits over the death of her son, and various allegations have pinned the blame on Suge Knight and the LAPD. None have been substantiated by a conviction or victory in civil court.
In closing, Wallace's life represents perhaps one of the most egregious wastes of potential in Hip Hop's long-running history of wasted potentials. Murdered at twenty-four before he had even released two albums, Wallace posited himself as a gangster thug, and died as such. In reality, he was a middle class honors student who's talents could've made him anything he wanted to be, had he not followed his disastrous father figures on the street, and his own impulses toward the seductive, easy money of the drug trade. Wallace enriched most of those around him, including Combs -- who had three bodyguards the night of his friend's murder -- yet Wallace was left unguarded to die on a public street 3,000 miles away from his home in a crime with no arrests. His own friends refused to help police with the investigation. Easily one of the most lyrically gifted men of his age, Wallace remains an icon for the work he left behind. Given the resonance of his early work even a decade after his murder, no one can estimate how large the scope of his influence would be had he survived the toxic culture he so worshiped.