Christopher Wallace was shot and killed on March 9th, 1997. And while in my mind I can’t imagine that it happened that long ago, I have to sit back and remember that I was just a 16 year old kid at the time, in love with Hip Hop music and the culture. Now at the age of 37, it still hasn’t truly dawned on me that one of the greatest rappers to ever live was gunned down in Los Angeles that many years ago. Even after the man’s death I was still celebrating his music. Biggie was with me when I was having a hard time late in my high school days. He was also there when I made a huge life change and moved to a city I loathed to work a job I disliked. 9/11 happened and it changed my perspective on things. No longer was I concerned with childish things. At 20 years old I realized I need to put away these old tapes and CDs and start focusing on grown man business. I hung onto Biggie for a little while after that. 2004 was the last time I really sat and meditated on the words of the late Notorious B.I.G. With more important things going on, I guess I just forgot about him.
To truly appreciate the mild obsession I had with Biggie’s music, you have to understand what was going on with me in 1994. I was 13 and enrolled in an honors program at the public school in my neighborhood. While the other kids around us were wanna-be gangsters and had an edge to them, we were the nerds who were alienated by the rest of the school. My classmates weren’t exactly “hood.” A lot of them came from the suburbs, and were bussed to this program, which almost served as a way for white kids to interact with us inner city folk. While I really enjoyed the musings of Radiohead, Nirvana, and a lot of bands that these kids introduced me to, I longed for something with an edge. Sure, the cool kids at the school played a lot of Death Row, some Eazy-E, Tupac Shakur, and some G-Funk. I yearned for something deeper.
My friend Eric came to me at lunch one afternoon. He had two tapes on him, Gang Starr’s Hard to Earn, and Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die. He said he had bought them, listened to them and realized he didn’t like them. He gave them to me because he had a feeling I would like them. At this point I was really into groups like Leaders of the New School and A Tribe Called Quest, so someone telling me I’d really dig these other east coast artists wasn’t too far fetched. I took them home and instantly fell in love.
Ready to Die with the most raucous and visceral tape I’d ever heard in my entire life. From the get go it starts off with a snippet of Superfly by Curtis Mayfield playing while a baby is being born. Then, it transitions to a very vulgar argument between a man and a woman with Sugarhill Gang used as a backdrop. Next, Audio Two’s Top Billin’ is playing as Biggie and an accomplice commit a train robbery. I didn’t need to hear anything else, I was hooked instantly. The rest of the album contained nothing but raw and powerful music. Biggie’s verses were delivered in a crude and unrefined manner, but that’s what ultimately made the record as amazing as it was. He wasn’t polished. His words weren’t thought out or rehearsed. They were coarse and rough, they were his words. You could feel his soul shouting at you with every line. This was Christopher Wallace in the rawest form imaginable… this was rap that hit you in the gut. This was how a young and impressionable youth fell in love with a music and a movement that seemed just as organic and crude as Biggie was. This was heaven.
I soaked up every bit of knowledge about Hip Hop and about Notorious B.I.G. that I could. I subscribed to The Source Magazine, and I read it cover to cover. I watched The Show, and picked up every bit of music Biggie put out. The Junior Mafia album, I got it. I memorized his verse on R. Kelly’s You To Be song. I learned to write money orders through having to send away for mixtapes I found on the back of magazines. Biggie was Hip Hop. Through him I learned about other artists, like Craig Mack, KRS-One, ONYX, Nice & Smooth, Pete Rock, and Buckshot.
While waiting for Biggie’s second album, a double CD, I continued to study Ready to Die. I realized that some of the things he spoke on a lot of people went through. He didn’t hold back when it came to talking about his mental state, something you don’t talk about in the hood or else you’re labeled as soft. Even before his death, Suicidal Thoughts was the most chilling track I’d ever heard. Here was a man who openly said he would rather be dead than deal with the pressures he was facing. I had never heard anything like that before in my life.
When Notorious B.I.G. did die, I heard it on the radio the next morning as I prepared for school. The DJ simply stated that he was no longer with us. I wasn’t sad or upset. I just went on with my day. I later realized that they might not release his album now. A couple of weeks later Life after Death released. The intro gave me goosebumps. Picking up where Ready to Die left off, it featured Sean Combs talking to a comatose Biggie in a hospital, claiming that he had too much living to do. Ultimately, he flatlines and the first song on the album, Somebody’s Got to Die, begins to play. Life after Death was a much more polished album than Ready to Die. While his first album featured production by Easy Mo Bee and some tracks by DJ Premier, his second album had world class production by some of the hottest beat makers at the time, and it had a much more professional sound. Gone was the raw, untapped, adrenaline fueled angry music. It was replaced with words from a man of Biggie’s station at the time, a gentleman with money, no longer slumming, and no longer wondering where his next meal was coming from. These were all the trappings for a sophomore slump. However, it’s safe to say that Life after Death was the better album. It was just really, really creepy to listen to, especially the song Going back to Cali, the place where he met his ultimate fate.
Eventually, Notorious B.I.G.’s third album would release posthumously. Born Again was a failure in my eyes. It seemed less like a Biggie album, and more like a way to showcase all these super popular rappers from the time. It was guys like Eightball & MJG, Eminem, and Lil’ Wayne rapping over beats made by super popular producers that Biggie didn’t approve of, and then they’d just throw an unreleased Biggie verse over it. It was absolutely atrocious. I think this was what got me to not be a fan of Biggie anymore. It was Sean Combs and his insistence on using his old meal ticket to put out records. This became the formula, and it worked for a very long time. The worst of these is when Eminem was allowed to produce an updated version of Biggie and Pac’s duet Runnin’ from the Police.
I thought the Notorious movie was an abomination. It didn’t seem to go anywhere, nor did it have a straight narrative. It was just a mish mash of moments in Christopher Wallace’s career that they just seemed to string together. There were moments I remembered reading about in The Source. But, the movie seemed to offer no true insight into the man’s life, as if they didn’t bother speaking to any members of his family, just went by old newspaper clippings and hearsay. The new USA Network series on the Biggie and Pac murders is actually decent. It has more of a narrative than either man’s biopic. It also looks like they’ve done a lot of research on the subjects. I know this because for years I read every book, every headline, every magazine article pertaining to Christopher Wallace’s death. I honestly believe that just like every unsolved high profile murder case in America, the investigators know who did it, they just can’t prove it.
The term “Greatest rapper of all time,” is subjective, of course. In my opinion it’s Biggie, but that’s mostly because of how I connected with him as a youngster, as well as how great he was at the art of rapping. Canibus immortalized Biggie in his 1998 diss track, 2nd Round K.O. when he references LL Cool J’s verse on the song 4,3,2,1, by saying, “That shit was the worst rhyme I ever heard in my life, 'Cause the greatest rapper of all time died on March ninth.” Of course, I smiled and raised a fist in solidarity. There will never be another Christopher Wallace. While there are spitters out there as good as him, there will never be someone with his personality and overall presence. Even when Sean Combs went out and found a spitter with the same voice (Shyne), Biggie still couldn’t be duplicated. And while mentally, I’m not longer in that place where I need to soak in Biggie’s music every day, I will always appreciate the influence he had on a 13 year old kid who was lost and needed desperately to find himself. To quote Canibus once again, “God bless your soul, rest in peace, kid. It’s because of you now at least I know what beef is."