In his second piece #itchysilk writer Amar discusses the enduring love affair that some have with Biggie. April 1997 his sophomore album Life after Death (1997) reached the number one spot on the Billboard charts. It was a sophomore helping Biggie along the hip-hop road to legendary status. His death (as is the case) hastened that ‘legendary’ status. And while there are those camps who hail Tupac as the greatest, for the pro Biggie camp there are a veritable and bountiful array of superlatives to lavish on the Brooklyn native Biggie.
Christopher George Latore Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G, was a central figure in East Coast hip-hop scene before his death in 1997. He increased New York City’s visibility in the genre during a time when the West Coast scene was dominant. Biggie was able to change the in-balance. He was very much a product of his time. Like many in the black American community during the 1990’s hip-hop functioned to give him a voice in the public sphere.
Following the release of Ready to Die (1994), Biggie, led his childhood friends to chart success through protégé group, Junior M.A.F.I.A and the album Conspiracy (1995). He became involved in the East Coast-West Coast feud when recording his second album Life After Death (1997) in September 1995. The focal point of this feud being, Biggie and is former friend Tupac Shakur. After the release of “Who Shot Ya?” (1995), which Tupac interpreted as a diss song mocking his shooting, the rapper appeared on several tracks throwing insults toward Biggie, the Bad Boy label and any affiliates. These can be heard in “Against All Odds” (1996) and Bomb First (My Second Reply)” (1996).
The media continually followed this growing feud dubbing it the ‘coast rap war,’. This media coverage divided fans who had to choose sides. Biggie never explicitly retaliated to Tupac, stating in a radio interview in 1997 that it wasn’t his style. However, several of Biggie’s lyrics were interpreted by listeners as subliminal shots aimed at his former friend, especially in the track “Long Kiss Goodnight” (1997).
On September 1996, Tupac was shot in a drive by in Las Vegas and died after spending six days in hospital. Immediately after his death, rumours began about Biggie’s involvement in his murder. Chuck Phillips claimed that Wallace had paid for the gun used to shoot Shakur. Biggie was killed six months later, in March 1997. For many this rivalry seems to define his legacy. But this should not take precedence. Biggie was and is one of the best rappers ever. He is often described as the saviour of East Coast hip-hop. Wallace’s music still stands strong today, with many artists sampling his lyrics.
Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Alicia Keys, Nelly, Eminem, Ja Rule, Lil Way and Michael Jackson have all sampled Biggies lyrics. Murals of the wrapper can be found across America. He is as important today as he was during his life, not just in music but also in the local area – led by The Christopher Wallace Memorial Foundation which launched the “B.I.G Night out.” This annual black-tie event raises funds for children’s school equipment and supplies while honouring the late rapper. “B.I.G” not only represents the rappers name but also stands for “Books instead of Guns.”
Biggie is still a gateway to hip-hop for many.
What is astonishing – but not a surprise given Biggie’s talent – is how he still influences hip-hop today, 21 years after his death. With streetwise lyrics, lubricated by masterful wordplay and a distinctive flow putting the East Coast scene back on the map and it has stayed there since. Some of the best hop-hop artists of the modern era have thanked Biggie for their success. Jay-Z acknowledges the debt he owes to Wallace. Their friendly rivalry pushed Jay to greater heights. He has received criticism for the way he has ‘stolen’ Biggies lines but hey the best form of flattery is imitation-right? Drake sampled Mo Money More Problems (1997) in Worst Behaviour (2014) and put Life and Death on his all-time top albums list. But Biggie’s biggest influence on the OVO kingpin might be his willingness to simply open-up every now and then.
While infamous for street-corner tales, Biggie was a deceptively thoughtful lyricist, unafraid of contemplation. Think of how he alludes to depression and mortality on Everyday Struggle (1994) where he almost prophesised his death when he rapped: “Sometimes I hear death knocking on my front door” and the eerie Suicidal Thoughts (1994), where he shows contrition for crimes, right back to stealing from his mother’s purse as a child.
What makes Biggie’s music so compelling is the combination of great stories, with lyrical innovation – a unique flow with variable tempo that dances around the beats he raps over, increasing the dramatic tension and drawing in the listener. Think of Gimme The Loot (1994) where the rap genius gives different voices to two separate characters.
While Kendrick Lamar a more politically engaged rapper uses similar tricks, he too has paid tribute freestyling over The What (1994) on the 18th anniversary of his Biggie’s death. He also sampled Biggie’s Notorious Thugs on Hood Politics (2015). Further than that, he has cited Biggie in his list of all-time favourites. In 2013 he told a US radio station he wants to “leave a mark as great as Biggie”.
Biggie is still a gateway to hip-hop for many. Take Post Malone for example. A controversial figure. Certainly, the Rockstar MC reminds us that Notorious B.I.G. is still a gateway to hip-hop for new generations. Born in the Big Apple and raised in Dallas, Texas, he vibed on his father’s Biggie record, providing a key signpost for his own out-spoken career. Rapper AZ, who met Biggie when he was rapping on the streets, sums up his influence.
“Big influenced a generation. This whole generation took pieces and bits. Everybody took a piece out of Big that’s on the charts right now. Everybody, rapping is about bringing people into your world. That’s what Big used his voice for.”
If he was still alive today, the hip-hop scene might be very different. He pushed boundaries at such a young age and would have continued to do so. We cannot underestimate his influence.
Featured image a mural by Owen Dippie