Over the years, there have been a handful of artists who helped define their era, who were the manifestation of the time and place in which they existed. The Beach Boys defined the good vibrations of Southern California in the early ’60’s. The Velvet Underground were emblematic of the nascent avant-garde punk scene in lower Manhattan in the late ’60’s and early 70’s. R.E.M. evokes visions of a burgeoning music community in 1980’s Athens, GA. And, of course, no artist embodied the mean streets of Brooklyn in the 90’s more than Christopher George Latore Wallace, better known as The Notorious B.I.G.
Born and bred in Bed-Stuy, Wallace started selling crack at age 12. Addicted to the money and the image the dubious endeavor afforded him, his operation grew in size and scale until it eventually landed him a 9-month stint in prison in 1990 on drug and weapons charges. The Notorious B.I.G. was all about his business–rapping was just a way to kill time, talk shit, and gain respect. Nevertheless, his lyrical prowess was undeniable even at a young age, imbued with the street hustle and silky flow of his Brooklyn upbringing. Watch a 17-year-old B.I.G. deliver an iconic battle verse on a Brooklyn street corner below:
After being released from prison, he recorded a demo tape under the name Biggie Smalls. The mixtape caught the ears of tastemakers around the city including hip-hop rag The Source, who featured Biggie in their 1992 “Unsigned Hype” column (ten years later, in 2002, The Source would name him the greatest rapper of all time in their 150th issue). The tape also made its way to young producer Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs at Uptown Records. When Puffy struck out on his own with Bad Boy Records later that year, Biggie signed with him, starting his trajectory toward the top of the hip-hop world.
As his popularity rose, Biggie’s clever lyrical style and masterfully smooth yet complex flow began to put Bed-Stuy on the map, giving the masses a window into the street patois of King’s County. In a similar way–and at around the same time–Tupac Shakur had made his name as the voice of L.A.’s hip-hop scene. While Biggie and Tupac started as friends, a series of altercations and retaliations between the two MCs and their respective cohorts eventually escalated into a full-blown feud between the East Coast and the West Coast. The fires of the highly publicized conflict were stoked by the music itself–particularly Biggie’s menacing “Who Shot Ya,” released after Tupac was shot by a rival gang. While B.I.G. maintained that the song was written before Shakur’s shooting and was not originally about him, it became a vehicle for Biggie to taunt his West Coast rival. Take a listen to this rare audio of The Notorious B.I.G. freestyling over the “Who Shot Ya” beat, which he prefaces with a pointed “you listening, biatch?” implicitly directed at Tupac:
While the East Coast/West Coast feud was rooted in the music, the animosity that it bred eventually began to manifest in real life. On September 13, 1996, Tupac was shot and killed in Las Vegas after a Mike Tyson fight, bringing that chapter of the conflict to a close. However, the death of their figurehead galvanized the West Coast faithful, who believed that Biggie and his people were behind Tupac’s murder. On March 1st, 1997, Biggie and his cousin (and fellow Junior M.A.F.I.A. member) Lil Cease dropped by The Wake Up Show w/ Sway & Tech in L.A. to spit a few bars at what would turn out to be his final radio appearance. The segment, much like the titles of his albums, proved to be eerily prophetic: Even beyond the chilling fact that Sway mentions he was the last person to interview Tupac before his murder during Biggie’s final interview, B.I.G. finishes his performance with a verse from his Life After Death track “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).”
While it may have been all love in the studio, the ongoing coastal antagonism was boiling over in the streets. Eight days later, while still in the L.A., Christopher George Latore Wallace was gunned down in a drive-by shooting by a bowtie-clad assassin, marking the tragic conclusion of the 90’s East Coast/West Coast hip-hop feud. He was 24 years old. Watch The Notorious B.I.G.’s final interview and freestyle below (verse starts at 5:10):
22 years after the Notorious B.I.G’s untimely death, he remains one of the most popular rappers of all time, with both his earlier albums and posthumous releases selling millions of copies. And while countless talented MC’s have come and gone in the years that followed, there has never been another artist quite like Biggie Smalls.
Rest in peace, B.I.G. You may have been “ready to die,” but the world was not ready to lose you.
[originally published 3/9/17]