THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G. blasted his way onto the hip-hop scene with his platinum-selling album Ready To Die, and entered the mainstream public's eye in much the same way when he was murdered in March of 1997. Until his death, B.I.G., a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, né Christopher Wallace, was virtually unknown outside the world of hip-hop. But news of his death fueled intensive mediacoverage of an East Coast-West Coast rap war, rallied hip-hop artists from both coasts, and left two young children without a father. The 6'3", 280-pound Wallace was only twenty-four years old. Raised in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant as the son of a pre-school teacher, young honor-roll student Wallace dropped out of high school at the age of seventeen to sell crack. Although his mother insists that "he didn't need to sell crack. He never went hungry," Wallace contended that "crack dealers were my role models." Whatever his reasons, dealing was a way for a young black man to make a living in the ghetto. Of course, his career choice involved certain risks, not all of which paid off: one drug-exchange trip to North Carolina ended with a nine-month stay behind bars.
Wallace had plenty of time to think during his prison term, but becoming a millionaire musician was still in the realm of fantasy. Still, after his release, the young man borrowed a friend's four-track tape recorder and laid down some basic rap tracks in a basement. The tapes that he came up with were passed around until they landed in the hands of Andre Harrell, president of Uptown Records, who was impressed with what he heard. Also at Uptown at the time was the East Coast version of Death Row's Marion "Suge" Knight, Sean "Puffy" Combs. When he left Uptown to form Bad Boy Records, B.I.G. went with him. B.I.G. first made a name for himself with a remix of Mary J. Blige's "What's the 411?" and a track on the Who's the Man? soundtrack. But it was the 1994 album Ready To Die, that pushed him to the forefront of the hip-hop scene. The record quickly went platinum, and the Notorious B.I.G. was named Rapper of the Year at the 1995 Billboard Awards. Rolling Stone called the record the best rap debut since Ice Cube's Amerikkka's Most Wanted.
Ready To Die differed from other gangsta rap efforts in its matter-of-fact storytelling of life on the street, with B.I.G. acting as a kind of omniscient narrator. The entire album was held together by his unique perspective; rather than glamorizing violence with the telltale first-person bravado of many rappers, B.I.G. sought to tell the truth, and his deep voice and deeper tales earned him the respect of his fellow artists. The single "Big Poppa" landed him another nickname, and "One More Chance" was named Billboard's Rap Single of the Year.
But despite his new reign as a successful rap artist, B.I.G. had not completely left his former life behind. Over the next few years, he had several run-ins with the law, on charges ranging from beatings to drugs to weapons. In 1994, he and Combs were accused of setting up the November robbery-shooting of Tupac Shakur, a charge both of them vehemently denied. (Shakur later mocked B.I.G. in a song, claiming to have slept with Faith Evans, the R&B singer B.I.G. married shortly after the release of Ready To Die.) After one of his concerts was canceled in 1995, B.I.G. and his entourage allegedly beat up a promoter when it turned out the man didn't have the rapper's promised fee. Later the same year, as he and a friend were leaving the Palladium in New York, a crowd of autograph-seekers harassed them, and after some words were exchanged, two of them hopped in a cab to flee. B.I.G. and the friend followed, caught up with the cab, and took baseball bats to the windows and occupants.
B.I.G. kept extremely busy in the years between his two albums. He carried on a very public affair with Kim Jones, a.k.a. L'il Kim, and went on to produce her album Hardcore. He also appeared on R. Kelly's debut album and shared studio time with the King of Pop himself, appearing on Michael Jackson's HIStory. Along with Sticky Fingers and M.C. Lyte, the portly rapper even played himself on an episode of the TV show New York Undercover. All that ended in March of 1997 in Los Angeles. B.I.G. was on the West Coast for several events, doing advance press for his next release, Life After Death . . . 'Til Death Do Us Part. On March 9, he attended the Soul Train Music Awards and the party that followed. After the bash, B.I.G. was sitting in a G.M.C. Suburban on the street when he was shot several times by an unknown assailant. He died almost instantly.
Theories abound about B.I.G.'s death, the most popular being that the incident was part of the East Coast-West Coast feud between rappers, and that B.I.G.'s murder was payback for the September killing of Tupac Shakur. There had been a buzz around L.A. that the local rap community was unhappy with the high-profile presence B.I.G. had taken on while on their turf, and that the Soul Train Awards appearance was the capper. Another theory gaining prominence is that the murderer was part of a gang that B.I.G. had hired to protect him on his left-coast trip, and that the banger felt he'd been short-changed by the rapper on a past deal. Although the official report reads that the shooting was a drive-by, some accounts say that a man approached the car, talked with B.I.G., and then shot him as he rolled down the window. Several off-duty police officers were working security for Wallace at the time, yet none could provide any concrete evidence of the crime or its perpetrator. Los Angeles police have released a sketch of the suspect, but no arrests have been made.
B.I.G.'s murder thrust the so-called "rap war" into the national spotlight and created a call for peace from all sides. Rappers from both coasts, including Snoop Doggy Dogg, Chuck D, and Doug E. Fresh attended a summit held by Louis Farrakhan in Chicago, pledging their support for a unity pact that would include a joint peace tour and an album. Puffy Combs was unable to attend but sent his support, as did Ice-T and Ice Cube. Cube also canceled two shows he had scheduled in L.A. out of respect for the slain rapper. "Stop the Gunfight," a single recorded several years ago that featured both Tupac and B.I.G. was released soon after, and Puffy Combs put together a tribute album that included a single with both B.I.G. and Faith Evans. May 14 was declared Notorious B.I.G. Day, with over two hundred radio stations nationwide playing the single, followed by a thirty-second moment of silence.
The Notorious B.I.G.'s public funeral, however, was anything but peaceful. Thousands flooded into his Brooklyn neighborhood to catch a glimpse of his hearse, jumping on cars and clashing with police; ten people were arrested. A private funeral held earlier was more cordial, with Queen Latifah and members of Public Enemy and Naughty by Nature in attendance. The casket was open from the waist up, and the rapper had been fitted in a double-breasted white suit and matching hat. A week later, the double-CD Life After Death hit the streets, landing at the top of the charts, where it remained for three weeks.
Two years later The Notorious B.I.G.'s Born Again CD was released. It has 18 of The Notorious B.I.G.'s best previously unreleased tracks.