The estate-approved 2021 The Notorious B.I.G. documentary, Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell, shows a different side of the iconic rapper, a storyline intentionally separated from the Shakespearian tragedy narrative of rags-to-riches on the corner, East Coast vs. West Coast, and eventual martyrdom that has long dominated his legacy. From R&B to jazz to country music to reggae to even the appreciation of other types of fine art, the film presents Biggie as a more well-rounded creative mind.
The Netflix film features exclusive interviews with those closest to the late Christopher George Latore Wallace including Voletta Wallace, his mother, and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, the Bad Boy records exec and collaborator with whom Biggie took over the airwaves and pop culture at large in the early ’90s. Told mainly by his childhood friends and family through extensive home video footage and first-hand accounts, the film endeavors to paint a more human picture of “Biggie Smalls, the artist” by explaining his roots, from his home life as a child in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn (just over the border of Bed-Stuy) to his summers in Jamaica with his mother’s family and his affinity for classic country music.
From his effortless, conversational cadence to his dense rhyme structures to his tactile wordplay, no rapper had ever sounded quite like The Notorious B.I.G. “The hidden secret is that Biggie was really, like, a R&B writer, he was like a R&B singer, so that’s why you get the melody [in his rapping],” Combs explains early on in the film. “It was rare that he would be rapping. He would always be singing somebody’s songs. As a hip-hop historian, being born in the time when hip-hop was invented, you always were able to hear some remnants of previous rap artists. This guy, I don’t know where he came from.”
When it comes to the rapper’s unique musicality, one of the most telling early associates featured in Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell is “Big Chief” Donald Harrison Jr., the well-known New Orleans musician who has mentored various revered jazz players—from Christian Scott to Christian McBride to Mark Whitfield. While The Notorious B.I.G. is often depicted as a student of the streets and nothing else, as we learn in the documentary, Harrison also became a musical and cultural role model for a young Christopher Wallace.
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As childhood friend Hubert Sam explains, “Donald Harrison was a young jazz artist when we were younger that happened to live on the block. He would see Donald coming in with beautiful ladies, and with the horn, and before I knew it he said, ‘Yo, I met him.’ … He would be a sponge to just so much more that was outside of our scope as young kids. ”
“I played with Art Blakey and Miles Davis and Lena Horne ” Harrison explains, “Clinton Hill at that time was becoming a place where a lot of musicians and artists were doing stuff in that neighborhood, so I figured I should be there, too. I was being helped by older musicians who were nurturing me. One of the things that they told me, which was in my heart anyway, was to pass it on.”
Young Biggie began to stop by Harrison’s house on a regular basis to soak up whatever the jazz musician had to teach him. Explains Harrison, “With Chris, I did a lot of different things. Go to the movies, the Museum of Modern Art, explaining Picasso and all those guys, the difference between different eras of painting.” Harrison even admits that he tried to sway Biggie toward jazz instead of hip-hop. “I was initially trying to groom Chris to be a jazz artist because he was so talented.”
Big was steadfast in his rap lane, but Harrison’s jazz lessons still wound up having a formative effect on his famed flow. As Harrison explains, “One of the things that we worked on was putting what a snare drum is in bebop drumming into the rhythm of a rhyme. We listened to Max Roach with Clifford Brown. Max has a very melodic way of playing the drums. He makes the rhythm into a melody. So if you slow one of those ideas down, put some lyrics to that, you can hear that Notorious B.I.G. was accenting those notes and rhyming in a way that exudes all the finer qualities of a bebop drum solo. It’s incredible.”
For added effect, the film goes on to lay a Biggie freestyle over a Max Roach solo. In this light, the depth of the influence is uncannily clear. Watch Donald Harrison Jr. explain how bebop jazz drumming informed the famous Biggie flow in the clip below.
Biggie Freestyle vs Bebop Jazz Drum Solo – Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell
Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell is now available to stream on Netflix.
[Originally published 3/7/21]