“It was all a dream…“
For years, the opening line of The Notorious B.I.G.’s iconic “Juicy” has been recycled by a coterie of hip-hop artists, ranging from Jay Z to Kanye West, Common, Lil Wayne, and more, as a way to pay homage to the late, rap phenomenon. And such a tribute comes with the most compelling of lines in hip-hop.
This song, though, features two oft cited lines. There’s the aforementioned and the now-ubiquitous “birthdays was the worst days, now we sip champagne when we thirst-ay.” Together, both phrases, though simple, carry much clout for not just the realism within the lines, but the magnetism behind them. After all, born in 1972, Christoper Wallace grew up in an era where young black men weren’t supposed to make it past 21. “Either you slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jumpshot,” he would detail, occasionally, on the two albums that would mirror the chaos, cries, and paranoia of this everyday struggle, 1994’s Ready to Die and 1997’s Life After Death.
As a teenager in the late 1980s, despite having stern parental guidance by his schoolteacher mother, who provided him everything he needed, the fatherless, buddha-bellied kid couldn’t help but look to the streets for counsel.
“Within no time — boom!,” he would describe to author Cheo Hodari Coker in an interview that would fill the 2003 biography, “Unbelievable.” “That’s what made the shit so fascinating. It wasn’t a situation where a ni—a was struggling for four or five months… I was basically uncontrollable. I wouldn’t stop no matter what.”
Stepping off the stoop to hang with the crew around the corner of his 226 St. James Place residence, the world-weary teen, who then went by “Big Chris” on the block, watched and studied the interactions surrounding him in the live section of Bed-Stuy and soon enough recorded all the experiences with his third eye. Just like the pivotal year he was born in, by his late teens, Wallace’s musical itch came along at a pivotal moment in rap’s evolution. Backed by the influences of Big Daddy Kane, Run D.M.C., Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Kool G Rap, Wallace would entertain the idea of becoming the illest emcee during a time when hip-hop was ringing in a new golden-age. Carrying the name Biggie Smalls, a play on one of the characters from 1975’s “Let’s Do It Again” film starring Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby, he eventually grew into The Notorious B.I.G.
After Brooklyn’s own DJ Mister Cee (who was also Big Daddy Kane’s DJ), handed Wallace’s demo to Matty C of The Source magazine, he soon landed in the March 1992 edition of the editorial’s famous Unsigned Hype column and later in the ears of Uptown Records A&R Sean “Puffy” Combs, who had his eye on creating “The Next Generation of Bad Muthaf—kas.” After parting ways with Uptown, the Harlem-bred impresario would launch a new record label from the ground up: Bad Boy Records.
As the label’s flagship artist, B.I.G. had to deliver — and he did. “Biggie Smalls passing any test,” he would rhyme on the title track of his 1994 debut. Providing a mood board and guide to the everyday struggle that preceded his journey to the limelight, Ready to Die, despite a slow start (selling 50,000 copies its first week) went on to sell millions, turning Bad Boy Records into an empire and making an instant star of its thrilling author, who The Source would later hail as the King of New York.
Like a great director, B.I.G. delivered a sense of palpability within each line and juxtaposed emotional highs and lows. Whether instructing listeners on how to avoid getting their wig pushed back (“10 Crack Commandments”), plotting a Cobainesque demise (“Suicidal Thoughts”), laying some master plans (“Sky is the Limit”) or making something better of himself (“Juicy”), the panoply of emotion within his raps made Christopher Wallace truly sicker than your average. The ars poetica element contained in these tunes, just like the age old poem by Horace, has allowed for his music to truly stand the test of time and his influence to linger as large as ever.
Although he was able to go from ashy to classy and rise above the chaos that reared him, becoming a father, hero, superstar and king, Christopher Wallace unfortunately succumbed to the violence that remains an uncontrollable cycle of hyper violence that plagues inner cities today. He died before hitting the age of 25. Even though he was gone too soon, his legacy remains a contribution to generations. March 9, 1997 will forever be a tragic reminder, but it’s also a date when Voletta Wallace’s baby boy became born again. In a certain way, B.I.G’s life after death has been eternal existence. Whether serving as the backbone for REVOLT or continuously being a source of inspiration for artists and immortal figures of music, Biggie has defied mortality.
“If the game makes me or breaks me, hope it makes me a better man,” he rhymes on “The Sky’s the Limit.” Over two decades later, Notorious remains unbelievable, and he’ll be remembered that way forever.
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