The Notorious B.I.G.: From Unsigned Hype To King Of NY
In the March 1992 issue of The Source, Matty C picked a demo tape of straight rap from some Brooklyn cat named BIG over some looped up beats as a DJ did cuts. It didn't even contain fully structured songs but that raw demo tape was still easily head and shoulders above anything else that was submitted. The story goes that anyone else that heard it was instantly floored by the rhymes and delivery. Hip-Hop was just coming out of an era where Pop Rap was dominant and gimmicks and image were important. BIG was just immensely talented. So much so that he was undeniable from the first listen. In the next five years he would have the most dominant run of any MC in Hip-Hop history.
From his first guest appearance on Heavy D's posse track, “A Buncha Ni**as,” to his first single, “Party & Bullshit,” off the Who's The Man soundtrack and his feature spot to follow, BIG's verses set him apart from the rest during what we know acknowledge as the second Golden Era of Hip-Hop. In Hip-Hop Golden Eras there are always a new influx of sonic and lyrical innovators that create an ultra-competitive environment that leads to great music being churned out. Biggie began as one of those innovators in 1992 and by the time it was all over he was the undisputed King Of New York.
Big listened to Dr. Dre's The Chronic & Wu-Tang Clan's Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and knew where he had to go thematically and sonically with his album. He was going to speak to that man or woman who was struggling in day to day life and he was going to strike a chord with them. Biggie went into the lab with all of these things in mind as he crafted his bars for Ready To Die. Notorious B.I.G.'s debut album dropped in September 1994, about five months after Nas (who was touted as the lyrical reincarnation of Rakim by The Source at the time) dropped his own debut, Illmatic.
Christopher Wallace, not Francis White, had assumed the mantle of King Of New York. All while Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan were hotter than lava.
BIG's singles “Juicy” and “Unbelievable” far surpassed Nas' “It Ain't Hard To Tell” and “The World Is Yours”. When Ready To Die hit store shelves, it instantly captured the imagination and attention of not only hardcore Hip-Hop heads but it also managed to crossover and eventually win the hearts and minds of casual Rap fans as well. Ready To Die was for the East Coast and New York what Dr. Dre's The Chronicwas for the West Coast and Los Angeles. Biggie's lyrical brilliance and street credibility coupled with his overwhelming commercial success aided in his official ascent to the throne. Christopher Wallace, not Francis White, had assumed the mantle of King Of New York. Off of one album. All while Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan were hotter than lava fresh out of the microwave.
Big was so ahead of the game that if you pay attention he and Puff shout out “Junior Mafia” on “Juicy.” At the time he began mentioning them on record they'd be in the studio unaware he was referring to them. BIG told them “You're Junior Mafia. You're going to be my crew.” They had no idea. BIG would branch out, and with Un Rivera crafted Junior M.A.F.I.A's Conspiracy album that lead directly to them receiving a deal for their label Undeas. Mobb Deep's “The Infamous” and Raekwon's Purple Tape was blaring out of Acuras from Pasadena to Medina at the time, but none of that stopped BIG from sweeping the 1995 Source Awards. Ready To Die was moving units. Conspiracy was moving units. BIG was on top and the backlash had just begun.
We all acknowledged that Biggie was the nicest cat in the game. Even in a Coogi sweater and gators as opposed to an Army jacket, jeans & Timbs.
BIG started out as the quintessential hardcore backpack MC. His songs and verses circulated around on mixtapes (even though dream hampton told me on Twitter that BIG didn't “get” mixtapes and felt they were stealing from him) between 1992 and 1994 up until his album dropped, which helped to spread his legend. After he began to experience success and overshadow his talented contemporaries and peers, a mini backlash began (i.e. “Shark N*ggas” on OB4CL) but after Ready To Die exploded and BIG began to appear on every third radio hit as Bad Boy dominated the urban music landscape, the backlash kicked into overdrive. What followed were shots and things that could be perceived as shots that came from artists like De La Soul, Jeru The Damaja, O.G.C. and The Roots.
All of the acts were perceived to be at the opposite end of the Hip-Hop spectrum in 1996 as the fallout from the signing of The Telecommunications Act was beginning to take effect. BIG went from one of “us,” the man who made “Unbelievable” to the dude that rapped on Total and 112 songs that got played on the radio 30 times a day. He became the guy responsible for all that “Jiggy Rap” you couldn't escape. The whole playa/Big Willie/Don image that Sean Combs had created for BIG had caught on a little too well. Soon, even R&B artists were emulating it. Before long all of urban music fell under BIG's influence and if you were an underground cat you peeped game and your first instinct would be to address it. That being the case, we all acknowledged that Biggie was the nicest cat in the game. Even in a Coogi sweater and gators as opposed to an Army jacket, jeans & Timbs.
When we lost Biggie in March 1997, he was about to take the world over. His album Life After Death was about to drop. Puff Daddy & The Family's Hell Up In Harlem album (eventually re-titled to No Way Out) was waiting in the wings. He was the central figure in the Bad Boy empire and he had laid out a plan to bring forth The Commission featuring himself, Jay-Z and Charli Baltimore. He was the greatest and the sky was the limit.
Rest In Peace Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace.
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Photo: Everett Collection