Twenty-eight years ago, the world was introduced to a rapper from Brooklyn who would change the course of music history. On September 13, 1994, Christopher George Latore Wallace—more commonly known as The Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls—released his debut album, Ready to Die, to critical and commercial success.
However, on March 9, 1997, just two weeks before his second album Life After Death was scheduled for release, Biggie, only 24 years old, was fatally shot at a stoplight. It has been twenty–five years since the death of Notorious BIG, aka Biggie Smalls. We remember one of the greatest rappers of all time on this day.
The Life of Biggie Smalls
Born in 1972 in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Bedford–Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, New York, Biggie’s early life wasn’t easy. His father left the family when Biggie was two, and his mom, Violetta Wallace, worked at two jobs to provide for him. Nevertheless, Biggie excelled in his classes in high school, a skill that would bolster his future rap career. He also attended high school with future rap legends Jay Z and Busta Rhymes. Rap was a hobby for Biggie throughout his early life, as he performed with local rap crews, earning the stage name “Big” for his heavyset frame and tall stature.
Despite his success in school and the rap scene, Biggie grew up during the crack epidemic in New York City, and selling drugs was a lucrative hustle. Biggie started selling crack cocaine at the age of 12 and dropped out of high school when he was 17. He also had some run-ins with the law, from weapons charges in 1989 to probation violations in 1990 and an eventual nine-month stint in prison for selling crack in 1991. However, after leaving prison, his rap career began to take off.
The Music of Biggie Smalls
Through the early 90s, Biggie rose to greater prominence by featuring on other artists’ records, such as the remix of Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” in 1992 and by recording the promotional single “Party and Bullshit” for the 1993 movie Who’s the Man. Biggie's music eventually gained the attention of influential rapper and producer Sean “Puffy” Combs, who signed Biggie to his new record label, Bad Boy Records, in 1993. In his personal life, Biggie had just had his first child, T’yanna, with his then-girlfriend of four years, Jan Jackson. He eventually dedicated his debut album to his daughter.
The Making of Ready to Die
In A&E’s 2017 documentary, Biggie: The Life of Notorious B.I.G., Sean Combs explains that Biggie wanted to make an album that embodied the mentality of a kid with nothing to lose after “coming out of the 80s, and out of crack, and everybody losing their families, and not seeing any light on the horizon.” “Juicy” was released as the first single from Ready to Die in August 1994, which peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 at number 27. Lyrics such as “Girls used to diss me // Now they write letters ’cause they miss me” and “Thinkin’ back on my one-room shack// Now my mom pimps a Ac’ with minks on her back” told the story of Biggie’s past life struggles, but also his come up and newfound fame. When Ready to Die was released in its entirety a month later, the album went gold within two months.
The album was a critical success as well as a commercial one. Rolling Stone’s music review called it the “strongest solo rap debut since Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted.” The lyrics throughout the album expressed the realities of drug dealing and street life over melodies and beats sampled from songs from the 70s and 80s. In a New York Times feature that named Biggie “Rap’s Man of the Moment,” Combs elaborates that Biggie’s music was so innovative because “In street life you’re not allowed to show if you care about something. The flip side of that is his album. He’s giving up all his vulnerability.”
After the release of Ready to Die, Biggie formed and mentored Junior M.A.F.I.A. This rap group consisted of Lil’ Kim, Lil’ Cease, Trife, Larceny, Nino Brown, Chico Del Vec, MC Klepto, Capone, and Bugsy. The group’s 1995 debut album, Conspiracy, did well commercially. Though they disbanded after Biggie’s death, the success of songs like “Get Money” helped launch Lil’ Kim’s solo career. In 1995, Biggie also was one of the only rappers to collaborate with Michael Jackson. Biggie had a verse on the well-reviewed single “This Time Around” from Jackson’s ninth studio album HIStory.
Biggie & Tupac
Tupac, a Los Angeles–based rapper and an icon of West–Coast rap, was friends with Biggie at first. The two met in 1993 when Tupac was well–known in music and movies, and Biggie was starting out in the industry. According to the book Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap, Tupac and Biggie shared a mutual respect. They even freestyled together at Madison Square Garden in 1993.
However, their friendship took a turn for the worse in 1994, after Tupac was robbed, beaten, and shotgunned down in a lobby on the way to a recording session at Quad Studios in New York City with Biggie and Sean Combs. After surviving the assault, Tupac suspected Biggie and Combs had known about the attack and set him up. Tupac eventually signed to Suge Knight’s Death Row Records, a rival studio to Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Records. The two even fired shots at each other through their music, through Biggie’s more indirect song “Who Shot Ya” and Tupac’s outspoken, 1996 responding track, “Hit Em Up,” in which he claimed to have had an affair with Biggie’s estranged wife, Faith Evans. Hit Em Up is credited with escalating the East-West rap rivalry with its bold lyrics that outright dissed Biggie, Junior M.A.F.I.A., and Bad Boy Records.
The Legacy of Biggie Smalls
Biggie and Tupac’s feud has often been speculated as to the cause of both rappers’ deaths. Biggie died in March 1997, at age 24, six months after Tupac. Just four months earlier, Faith Evans had given birth to her and Biggie’s first child together. The murder of Biggie was never solved.
Biggie’s posthumously released album, Life After Death, was a success, earning the nomination for Best Rap Album at the Grammys and was certified diamond by 2000. Critics such as Rolling Stone’s Anthony Decurtis wrote that the album “constructed a sprawling, cinematic saga of the thug life, a conscious continuation of Ready to Die.”
Though his career was just in its beginnings, Biggie has been an inspiration to various popular hip-hop artists today. Nicki Minaj used the beat of “Just Playing (Dreams)” on her August 2018 track “Barbie Dreams,” while Ashanti’s classic 2000s R&B song “Foolish” samples “One More Chance (Remix).” Countless others have interpolated or sampled his work, including Kanye West, Jay Z, Tyler the Creator, and Lil Wayne.
How Biggie’s Son is Carrying on His Legacy
CJ Wallace, Biggie’s son with Faith Evans, played his father's younger version in Notorious and is carrying on his father’s legacy with the cannabis companies Think BIG and Frank White. Wallace’s business aims to include people of color in the cannabis industry and rebuild communities harmed by the War on Drugs. The Think BIG company advocates for the health and mind benefits of cannabis, citing its ability to make people more creative & challenging its negative perception.
Celebrating the Notorious One
Biggie’s long-term influence on the rap genre is undeniable. Twenty-five years after his death, his music is still being dissected, praised, and sampled. He left an unforgettable legacy that has been deeply explored by documentaries such as Netflix’s 2021 Biggie: I Got A Story to Tell and the 2009 biographical drama film Notorious. Biggie’s Ready to Die and Life After Death are classics of the East Coast hip–hop sound. Without the work of the Notorious B.I.G., rap, music, and popular culture would not be where they are today.