15 surprising facts about The Notorious B.I.G.'s 'Life After Death'
From its original title to the time Prince almost got involved, here’s a cache of unearthed facts behind Biggie’s magnum opus.
For over 20 years, the countless retrospectives for The Notorious B.I.G.‘s Life After Death have read like a perfect report card: exceeding in all levels.
Fact of the matter is, when the rap giant’s sophomore album arrived on March 25, 1997, just two weeks after his untimely death, he was resurrected. Superseding the heights soared on Ready to Die, his 1994 debut effort, the double album Life After Death cemented everything that Biggie, Puff Daddy, and Bad Boy Records worked ever so hard for. Beyond being the first rap double album to go diamond, the double-barreled blast aimed at “crush so-called willies, thugs, and rapper-dons” transformed Biggie from King of New York to all-time great, skyrocketed Bad Boy into the pop stratosphere, and backed up a message he gave Joe Clair of Rap City just one month before the album’s release: “I just want my spot back.” As its impact continues to loom, we dug through the crates of various articles and interviews about the album and put together a list of surprising facts about Biggie’s Life After Death.
A bulk of the album was recorded during the thick of the East Coast/West Coast feud
As tension was thick in New York at the height of the East-West hip-hop divide, Puff Daddy rounded up Bad Boy’s production squad, The Hitmen, and traveled to Maraval, Trinidad to cook up some vibes for projects like his own Hell Up in Harlem debut (later renamed No Way Out), as well as Big’s Ready to Die follow-up. Within the first week, they created 35 tracks, including “Hypnotize.”
It was originally titled Life After Death… Till Death Do Us Part
Before it arrived on March 25, 1997, Big’s sophomore album was tentatively called Life After Death… Til Death Do Us Part and slated for a Halloween release. The album was pushed back due to multiple rollout issues, including sample clearances, and more.
Big recorded most of the album sitting down due to his leg being injured from a car accident
During the sessions for Life After Death, Biggie was forced to be seated most of the time due to an injury caused by his good friend Lil Cease. As he tells the story in a 2013 interview with XXL, Cease was at the hand of the vehicle when Big suffered a broken leg following a car accident. Here’s the play by play:
“We got into the car accident in Jersey, but it started when we was in Brooklyn the day before that picking up some Wendy’s and smoking. We clipped the weed, and went to Wendy’s to get something to eat. We ain’t wanna drive, we wanted to eat that shit right there. We was on one of those side blocks in Downtown, so police roll down on us, and they wanna be all up in the car and one of those dick riding cops was looking in the car and seen the clip. We had it open near the ashtray, but we had like a soda over there, so one of those niggas in the passenger side while the other nigga talking, rolled up on the driver side, like, ‘That looks like weed right there.” Next thing they wanna pull us out the car, search, found like a little bag of weed, locked us up.
It was nothing but a little ticket. When they let us out the precinct and they was giving us our truck back, shit wouldn’t start so we called the tow truck had it towed all the way back to Jersey. Next day we go to the dealership, going to get a loaner car until they fix our car, and they sent us this aluminum van, looked like a runaround van, that they probably just used around the lot. I was like, ‘Y’all giving us this shit?” I’m thinking they gonna give us a Lexus truck, car or something, but for some reason B.I.G. was like, “Fuck it, drive it, it ain’t gonna be for a while anyway.” I said, “Fuck it, whatever you say my nigga. You boss.” We jumped in that shit and the minute we pulled out and the nigga we got the car from, took us there to get the car, he was showing us how to get out, brakes was fucked up, all this shit was fucked up on the car, and I was like, “Yo, B.I., this shit don’t shake right. He was just like, “Take it.” So we was going to get on the turnpike, you know when you going through tolls and we was going south. I was going around that circle to go north towards back our way, and we was in the car and that shit spun out of control. We wasn’t going fast at all ’cause we just got out and that shit just spun from the rain. We was on the side of the highway and went dead smack to the bottom. Thats how B.I.G. hurt his leg, and I hit my face on the steering wheel and I fucked up like four of my bottom teeth in that accident… So that’s where that shit came from. That’s what was dope about B.I.G., some things he rapped about, were just inside things, for family or for important people, a crew thing.”
Biggie had writer’s block for six months
Talking exclusively with REVOLT TV of the eve of Life After Death‘s 20th anniversary last year, Diddy revealed a little-known fact behind a barren recording point in the late great King of New York’s career. “A lot of people don’t know that Big stopped working for a while,” Diddy recalled. “He had a writer’s block and just an idea block. It lasted like 6, 7 months. We kinda kept it quiet. During that time he started getting in trouble, got into a car accident. A whole bunch of stuff was not going in the right direction. I got with him and really started explaining to him, ‘You know we could blow it?’ He started kinda really believing in the hype and wasn’t really focused on the second album.”
“I think Big got over the writer’s block when I started doing other things,” Diddy added. “I started doing Mary [J. Blige’s] remix album, the Lox and Mase was just going and starting to freestyle. I think he had to start hearing stuff. I went and did that Trinidad trip and came back with a lot of heat. I went and took this famous trip to Trinidad where I basically made…70 percent of the records that I put out in the 90s were made during one trip. I made 100s of records. I made his whole album, my whole album, Faith’s whole album, Total’s whole album, Mase’s whole album, all on this one trip. Then I think it was just you know, I had to wake him up. It was time to get back in the game.”
“Playa Hater” was created just as you imagined
The inspiration behind rap’s greatest stick-up ballad album came from Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411? As the co-conspirator of the track, Puff Daddy, recalled, Big wanting to create a cover like Mary did with Chaka Khan’s “Sweet Thing.”
Reliving the moment for REVOLT, the Bad Boy head honcho revealed, “[Big] was like ‘I wanna do a cover like Mary did. We was listening to the song one day while we was driving and he was like, ‘Yo, I wanna cut this.’” The result arrived in just one take, as neither artist wrote their lyrics.”We kinda made it up in the sense of the concept, so it was like freestyling. It was definitely a magical moment. It was something that gave, in a time that was so serious and so dark, a levity to it and kinda showed his fun side.”
“Hypnotize” was Biggie’s first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100
Despite pouring out a multitude of hits in his lifetime (“One More Chance,” “Big Poppa”), Big’s first No. 1 arrived eight weeks after his untimely death. Backed by the big budget music video for “Hypnotize,” the first single from Life After Death, the track rose from No. 2 to No. 1 in May 1997. The bittersweet accolade marked the first time he reigned on top of the chart.
Prince was approached to appear on a record
Big not only had hopes of sampling Prince’s group Vanity 6 (for the song “Nasty Gal”) on the album, but he also tried to get a collaboration with the icon as well. “We met with Prince,” Diddy revealed. “We did the [“This Time Around”] with Michael Jackson, and me and him were always Prince fans. But this during a time when Prince wasn’t really rocking with hip-hop and wasn’t really clearing any samples. That really didn’t go too well. But we was always still cool with him and I wound up sampling some of his records and he wound up not chasing me for them in the future. He would go through his phases and he came back to us and let us know how proud he was of us. He was really protective at one time of just what was going on with the ‘bitch’ and ‘hoe’ controversy. That was a real moment in hip-hop. That was a real reflection point in hip-hop when we were being kind of asked to take responsibility and really think about what we were saying.”
Born Again was the intended follow-up to Life After Death
The titles to Ready to Die and Life After Death were preconceived prior to their release. According to Lil Cease in a 2013 interview with XXL, Big had his first three albums mapped out before his untimely passing. “He had Ready to Die, he already had Life After Death and then he had Born Again,” Cease revealed. “He was just setting these up in his head already. Ready to Die was that ‘I just don’t give a fuck.’ This shit is from the inside looking out. Life After Death was like, ‘I made it. I got life. I’m from the outside looking in’ and Born Again is just the total flip, totally different man. Starting over, there’s no more Timbs, no hoodies. It’s suits and suitcases, it’s mob, it’s mafia. Who knows what would have came after Born Again. It would have stretched out, once he started that M.A.F.I.A. shit.”
Jeru the Damaja, Nas, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah were targets on “Kick in the Door”
In a retrospective about the making of the album in 2003, producer Nashiem Myrick touched on the origin of the “Kick in the Door.” “Nas said that record was for him, but when Big said, “Son, I’m surprised you run with them/ I think they got cum in them, ’cause they nothin but dicks,” he was talking about Jeru the Damaja to Premo cause Jeru was going at Big and Puff and all them [with the Premier produced “One Day”],” he recalled. In the same piece, Lil Cease divulged on Big’s “King of New York” line. “Big talked about Nas a little bit in that shit. It was the King Of New York part, the last verse: “This goes out for those that chose to use disrespectful views on the King of NY.” Thats when Nas had that freestyle out, where he was like “I’ll take the crown off the so called King and lock it down.” Thats when Big had the cover of The Source, and it said, “The King of New York.” So Big was just addressing shit, but being indirect, cause thats how he was with it,” he said. “He wasn’t saying who he was talking about. Big was like, “I’ma address it. I’m not gonna blow it. He’s the only nigga that’s gonna know what I’m talking about.” Everybody else wouldn’t have got it, cause you had to really listen to the lyrics.
Diddy also detailed the subliminal nature of the track, but simply summed it up as friendly competition. “Part of the song was meant for Nas but it wasn’t no real disrespectful shit, it was more like some subliminal mixtape shit. Nas was doing it. Wu Tang was sayin shit on tapes. We were all sayin subliminal shit on tape, but it wasn’t to the point where, when we saw each other, we couldn’t give each other a pound and know that some shit was said. It wasn’t no deep shit. It was more on some clever shit, you know? Like little clever jabs, so when you hear it, you’re like, “Ooh!” Like if you were the recipient, you would laugh at it, because it wasn’t having you all out on front street. Everybody wasn’t knowin about it. And you could damn near get with the person and yall could talk about it, like, “That shit you said was kinda slick.”
Cappadonna originally did the hook on “Long Kiss Goodnight”
In XXL‘s 2003 “Making of” feature, RZA, who produced “Long Kiss Goodnight,” revealed that Capadonna was originally on the record. “Biggie wrote the verse after his accident. At first we had Cappadonna doing the hook, talking a lot of shit. In the beginning, you can hear Cappadonna. Then Puff did his thing at the end,” he recalled. “I wasn’t in the studio when they did that. I went in a couple weeks after he did the verse. They wanted to mix it themselves, but they didn’t even know where to put things at. I had so many sounds in there. They didn’t know what the fuck I was thinking about. We had about 10 basic musical elements on that track. At the end he’s talking about everybody was fucking with them at that time. He could have been talking about me [Laughs], cause there was some cuts at Biggie on the Cuban Linx… album.
Big cleared out the studio to record “Notorious Thugs” verse
On “Notorious Thugs,” Big proves his flow is ever so glorious. According to Lil Cease to XXL in 2013, the Brooklyn rhymer was so aware of the potential of his verse that he had everyone leave the studio in order for him concentrate. “That was the first time he actually, when he did that song, make everyone leave the room,” Cease recalled. “He used to never tell anybody to leave the room when he did vocals. He was like “All y’all got to bounce, you got to step out on this one. You’ll hear this when I’m done.” “I gotta sink in with this one, I’ll be quick.”
As Cease tells it, despite needing the room cleared, Big spat one of his “quickest rhymes” in that moment. “It probably wouldn’t have been as impactful if we was there to hear the punches; it was one of the quickest rhymes he did. Nobody could go in there when he did that verse, not Puff, me, nobody. He wanted everybody out the room when he did that verse. So we don’t know how many times he punched, how many times he did it. It was short and sweet, though, and that’s what came out when we heard that shit.”
“Miss U” is dedicated to Big’s best friend, “O”
Before getting acquainted with his longtime friends Lil Cease, D-Roc, and the rest of his Junior M.A.F.I.A. crew, one of Big’s best friends was a man by the nickname “O.” According to Cease, the Brooklyn native was Biggie’s right hand and one of the many to encourage the rapper to take the music route. “That was B.I.G.’s best friend. Before all of us, from me, Roc, Alex and Tony. He got caught up [around the way]. He was chillin’ in some store over there and some dudes came in the back of the store and shot him like four times in his chest. To this day we don’t know if he had a situation over there or if he was beefin’ with somebody. And that was B.I.G.’s man.”
“Somebody’s Gotta Die” was recorded after Big watched the film “Usual Suspects”
Other than mastering his flow and perfecting his space as the Black Rhinoceros of Rap, Big was big (no pun intended) on movies. According to his pal Banger of Junior M.A.F.I.A, it was after the crew saw the 1995 film “Usual Suspects” that the dramatic storytelling on Life After Death was born.
“B.I.G. was ill with the movies. I remember me and the nigga went to the movies one day to see “Usual Suspects.” Right after [we] went to the studio and that “Somebody’s Gotta Die”–that nigga watched the whole “Usual Suspects” movie, went to Daddy’s House and laid the shit down,” Banger recalled in 2013. “He used to watch movies and come up with the whole fucking song [at the same time.] That’s why his lyrics [tend to be] photogenic, he would watch movies and come up with the whole song.” “Somebody’s Gotta Die” was also the first song recorded for the album.
Fun fact: One of the last films Big watched in theaters was “Donnie Brasco.” According to Lil Cease, soon after they watched the film, Big hit the studio and recorded his verse for No Way Out‘s smash hit, “It’s All About the Benjamins.”
Big had The Lox redo their hook and verses on “Last Day”
Styles P came up with the hook to “Last Day,” while the trio itself performed their own verses. According to Styles and Kiss, Big also had them redo their verses to fit the song. “He was a man who knew his craft real well,” Styles P recalled. While Big was recording Life After Death, the group were also recording their own debut album, Money Power & Respect. “We’d come in the studio to work on the Money Power & Respect album, and you go into Big’s room and DMC is in there saying [the hook to] “My Downfall.” [For] “I Love the Dough,” Angela Winbush is in there singing the hook. This is no sampling. This is the real deal.”
“Ten Crack Commandments” was the last song recorded for Life After Death
As DJ Premier once recalled, the hard-hitting “Ten Crack Commandments” was the last song recorded for the album. “As soon as we finished the record, Biggie yelled on the mike and said, ‘Prime, it’s over! It’s over! I’m the greatest. I did it!” Those were the last words Premier would hear from the rapper. “Those are exactly the last words I ever heard that man say,” the rap producer told Cheo Hodari Coker in the 2003 biography “The Life, Death, and Afterlife of The Notorious B.I.G.”
Interestingly enough, the producer also mentioned how Snoop Dogg and Daz were in the studio during the recording session for the song.