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As hip-hop turns 50, Biggie Smalls' legacy reminds us of what the genre has survived

A woman passes by a mural of the rapper Biggie Smalls on a wall in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.
Timothy A. Clary
AFP via Getty Images
A woman passes by a mural of the rapper Biggie Smalls on a wall in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.

On Sept. 13, 1994, the same day President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, rapper Christopher Wallace, better known as Biggie Smalls, or the Notorious B.I.G., released his debut album, Ready to Die.

Author Justin Tinsley calls the convergence of the two events a "form of serendipity," with Biggie's album, which details his life as a young Black man growing up in Brooklyn, acting as a "rebuttal" to the punitive Crime Bill.

In his book, It Was All a Dream: Biggie and the World That Made Him, Tinsley details the rapper's life and legacy. Ready to Die, Tinsley says, is "basically saying, 'OK, we understand how Washington and Congress and so many other levels of government view these inner-city kids. But I'm going to give you the perspective of being an inner-city kid. ... These are the things we're trying to survive.'"

Born in Brooklyn in 1972 to parents who had immigrated from Jamaica, Biggie began selling drugs on the corner to make money. Occasionally, he'd travel from New York to the Carolinas to sell, and during these long car rides, he got to practice rapping. Tinsley says that everyone who heard him recognized his immense talent.

"When you listen to Biggie rap, you're like, 'OK, this guy is special,'" Tinsley says. "He was put on this Earth for a lot of reasons. But one of the most important was to make music."

Biggie was 22 when Ready to Die came out; it would be the only album released during his lifetime. He was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles on March 9, 1997, just two weeks before his second album, Life After Death, came out. In 2022, Rolling Stone named Ready to Die the greatest hip-hop album of all time.

Now, as hip-hop marks its 50th anniversary, Tinsley says Biggie's short life and lasting impact is a testimony to the enduring power of the genre.

"You can't talk about the story of hip-hop without mentioning the name Biggie Smalls," Tinsley says. "He's also a reminder of what the genre has survived. Like, [along with Tupac Shakur], this genre lost arguably the two greatest rappers it's ever seen ... in six months. And it's still found a way to survive. But we'll never forget it."

/ Abrams Books
Abrams Books

Interview highlights

On how Biggie connected with producer Sean "Puffy" Combs

So Biggie's demo tape had become kind of like an urban legend because so many people heard it, and so many people wanted other people to hear it. And it ultimately got to Puffy at Uptown, who had read the "Unsigned Hype" column in The Source, and he heard that demo tape, and he was like, "There's no way this dude is that great at rapping. This has to be heavily edited." So ... Biggie [comes] to Puffy's office, and at one point in the sit down, Puffy was like, "Hey, I want to hear you rap," and Biggie raps. And he blows Puffy's mind away. ...

So [Puffy] tells Biggie right there, "I can get you a record out by the summer." And Biggie's like, "Yeah, sure, whatever. But until that moment comes where you offer me a contract and I actually see real money, I have to go down to North Carolina, I have to go back to the block, I have to go back to Brooklyn and basically sell [drugs] until you come through with your word."

So the crazy story is Biggie is down in Raleigh, North Carolina because that's where he went to hustle. ... He's in his house and Puffy calls him in. Puffy is mad: "I told you not to go back down there. I told you I was going to get the contract right. I told you I was going to get your money. I'm looking at the check right now. Please come back to New York and sign this contract." Big toy with the idea of staying in Raleigh, but he ultimately decided to get on a bus and head back to New York. And ... not four or five hours later, the police raided the house, the trap house that Biggie lived in, and arrested everybody and took them to jail. And they all did prison time. So that's how close we were to never hearing the Notorious B.I.G. Or the name Biggie Smalls, the rapper.

On Biggie's mother, Voletta Wallace

Nobody can ever say that she didn't try her hardest to protect her son at every stage of his life. She loved him and he loved her immensely. ... She's a single mother. She's a schoolteacher. So she's given her son the best life that he can [have], but the '80s was a very materialistic time. ... And so Biggie was never going to go to McDonald's and flip burgers for minimum wage when he knew that real money was just outside of his door. ... And this is stuff that Voletta could not protect her son from because once you walk out that door, you're the world's property. And it was only a matter of time before he jumped off that stoop. But there was so much that happened in his life even before he got to the streets that really influenced the artist that he would become.

On Biggie's love of country music

Biggie is seen as one of the all-time great musical storytellers. He called himself the Black Alfred Hitchcock. He loved storytelling.

When Biggie was in elementary school, he would he would tell his friends like, "Yeah, man, I can't go to sleep without my country music." And everybody would be like, Huh? ... And it makes sense when you listen to his music. Biggie is seen as one of the all-time great musical storytellers. He called himself the Black Alfred Hitchcock. He loved storytelling. And when you listen to country music, so much of country music is based around the art of storytelling. And so when we start to piece together those little things, his life becomes even more colorful than it already was.

On Biggie's friendship with Tupac

Think for the last quarter century plus; when people talk about Tupac and Biggie, we remember the negativity. And, of course, that is absolutely part of the story. We remember the fall out, we remember the diss records and we remember the very tragic ways both of those young men lost their lives. And again, that's part of the story. I have to talk about that in my book because it actually happened. But you know what else actually happened? They were really good friends. I would venture to say damn near brothers, in a sense. Now, it wasn't a long friendship because when they met in 1993, I think the falling out really started after Tupac's shooting at Quad Studios in November 1994. So when you think about it, their friendship maybe was only 16, 17 months old, but it was so vibrant. ...

Tupac would call Biggie's apartment to speak to his mom, to speak to Chris. ... Tupac would come to Fulton and St. James [in Brooklyn] and like, kick it with Biggie and Lil' Kim and Lil' Cease and just chain smoke blunt after blunt with Biggie on the block. He would take them to shows with them.

On Biggie's reaction to Tupac's murder

He was deeply, deeply hurt. This is a dude he once saw as a brother; this is a dude that he admitted himself was very instrumental in the early part of his career. But by the time Tupac was murdered, he was also the guy that said some really, really ugly, ugly things — not just about him, but his marriage to Faith Evans, his friends in the form of the ... [single] "Hit 'Em Up" and even in magazines and interviews. And [Tupac] really tried to assassinate Biggie's character in a lot of ways. So he was confused about that. But at the end of the day, he was sad because he lost a friend. He lost somebody who was very important to him in his life. So he took it hard. He cried. ...

He took it very hard because it was very few people in hip-hop at that point in time who could understand that level of celebrity that they both had ... but also the drama that came with the names Biggie and Tupac. There was very few people who could understand that. And now one of them is dead. Like, there was definitely a feeling of loneliness, too, and was also around the same time Biggie got in a very, very awful car accident, one that broke his leg. And he was in rehab for quite a few months. And he knew he was going to have to walk with a cane for the rest of his life. He was in a dark space. He was confused. ...

Tupac and Biggie: They're these larger-than-life figures in hip-hop and their stories are basically folk tales now. They're folk heroes. They're as much a part of the history of this country as anything else.

Keep in mind, at this point, he was only 24 years old. That's what's lost in a lot of these discussions. It's like, OK, we see Tupac and Biggie. They're these larger-than-life figures in hip-hop and their stories are basically folk tales now. They're folk heroes. They're as much a part of the history of this country as anything else. And what we forget is Tupac was 25 when he died. Biggie was two months away from his own 25th birthday when he passed. We think they were much older, but they were still babies. Their brains hadn't even really fully finished developing yet. And that's what's really lost in a lot of these discussions about those two.

On Biggie's funeral procession in Brooklyn

Brooklyn woke up on the morning of March 9th to the news that you didn't even think was possible: Biggie Smalls, Notorious B.I.G. murdered in Los Angeles. Like, that is a part of Brooklyn's soul and spirit that it will never get back because he meant that much to that community. He took Brooklyn everywhere with him ... so that community, that day of the funeral procession, they gave Big one of his last wishes, because he says on the song "Still Can't Stop the Reign" ... "I rely on Bed-Stuy to put it down if I die." And Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn and Clinton Hill, they took that personally. And when the hearse is going throughout Brooklyn, it turns into a party because that was Biggie's wish.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Ciera Crawford adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.