Last Exit From Brooklyn: The Notorious B.I.G.

Christopher Wallace was a restless honor-roll kid from Brooklyn who ended up selling drugs, going to jail, and feuding with Tupac. Sia Michel discovers that it's awfully lonely at the playa's club for the Notorious B.I.G.

The Notorious B.I.G. / Photo by Rex Miller
The Notorious B.I.G. / Photo by Rex Miller
WRITTEN BY
Sia Michel

At press time, SPIN learned that Brooklyn rapper the Notorious B.I.G. had been gunned down in a Los Angeles drive-by on Sunday, March 9. Biggie, who had been in L.A. for the past few weeks doing West Coast interviews, canceled a flight to Europe to attend a Vibe magazine and Qwest Records party at the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard. When a fire marshal shut down the overcrowded, industry-laden event, Biggie and some friends regrouped in a Chevy Suburban and watched the attendees file out onto the sidewalk. Suddenly, a dark sedan sped by and a young black gunman sprayed the vehicle with bullets from a 9-millimeter pistol. Biggie, hit several times in the chest and abdomen, was declared dead on arrival at Cedars-Sinai Hospital at 1:15 A.M. He was 24.

I first met Biggie on January 23 and finished the following story a week before his death. After much debate, SPIN decided to publish the story as originally written. The Notorious B.I.G., born Christopher Wallace, was, like most charismatic people, a ball of contradictions — warmhearted and selfish, hilarious and melancholy, sharp and foolish, sensitive and raunchy, childlike and hardened well beyond his years. He was caught between debunking the debilitating stereotypes of hardcore rap and living them up with characteristic panache. In short, he was painfully and joyously human. Ultimately, we felt that it would be disrespectful to Biggie's memory to posthumously bowdlerize such a complicated and moving life. We hope the piece is read in that spirit. 
For a rap superstar, Biggie's dreams were almost embarrassingly small: His ideal future, he said, was "to quit the game and just chill and watch my kids grow up — live the life of a normal rich person." That became an impossibility the day Tupac Shakur declared war on him, and deep down Biggie knew that. He was incredibly world-weary at the ripe old age of 24. By going to California, though, he was determined to put it all behind him. "What's up, Cali?" he asked cheerfully at the Soul Train Awards the night before his murder, trying to make peace. People in the audience booed him. The saddest thing about Biggie's death is that, in the long run, it probably wouldn't have made a difference if he hadn't changed his plane ticket: Some kids are always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sprawled Buddha-like in a cushy chair at Daddy's House, the Star Trek-y studios of Bad Boy Entertainment impresario Sean "Puffy" Combs, the Notorious B.I.G. is in full-on B.I.G. Willie mode. "Yo, where the ho's at?" he shouts to the roomful of head-bobbing writers assembled for the unveiling of Life After Death, his highly anticipated second album. "Got to get some pussy later on." His acolytes, a group of guys wearing identical BROOKLYN MINT: IN MONEY WE TRUST sweatshirts, nod in agreement. Our first encounter is brief.

"All right, freaky mama," Biggie says, waving me off. "I'll be catching you later." 
Two weeks later, though, as we cruise around Manhattan in his loaded blue Chevy Suburban, he's B.I.G. Poppa, a yin-yang of sugar-daddy authority and brotherly concern wrapped up in a XXX-large camouflage shirt. Biggie, his bodyguard/chauffeur D-Rockefeller (Biggie doesn't drive), and Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s Lil' Caesar (affectionately dubbed "Lil' Sleazer") are sipping Cristal and grooving to Sade, but the conversation is anything but a playa's refrain. Rockefeller is discussing the most recent home improvements to the trio's New Jersey bachelor pad. When I ask if it's always a men-behaving-badly mess, Rockefeller is mortally offended. "No, we're real clean!" he insists. He points to my notepad. "Stress that." "Yo, stress the neatness," Biggie concurs. 
We drive aimlessly for hours, Biggie breaking the occasional interview lull with a provocative question pulled out of the blue: "Have you ever wished you was someone else?"; "Did you ever want to be black?"; and, strangely, "Have you ever been in a situation where you supported a man?" We stop at a red light and sit in silence as Rockefeller selects the next CD. Biggie turns around and props his chin on the headrest, fixing me with his bloodshot, bassett-hound eyes. "Have you ever been lonely," he says softly, "like talking-to-yourself lonely?" "Why, have you?" I respond. He starts to speak, but the music interrupts him and he turns away. I already knew the answer.

There's always a divide between an artist's public image and private life, but for Biggie Smalls (a.k.a. Christopher Wallace), that gap is wider than his size 14EEE feet. In his videos, he's the overweight lover Heavy B., a gun-toting Diamond Jim Brady with a street-soldier stare. He's gotten more media attention for his blood feud with Tupac Shakur — who accused Biggie of setting up his 1994 robbery/shooting and later boasted of boning Biggie's estranged wife, foxy R&B diva Faith Evans — than for his platinum 1994 debut Ready to Die, the hit side project with Junior M.A.F.I.A., or his production work on Lil' Kim's solo joint Hardcore. Gat-talkin' and booty-slappin', he's the ruffneck nigga you'd be crazy to fuck with, in every sense of the phrase. Last year, for instance, he was arrested for chasing down two smart-aleck fans and smashing the windows of their cab with a baseball bat. But up close, Biggie's girth is more cuddly than imposing. Then there's his speaking voice, a far cry from his gruff, rapping bellow — at 24, he still sounds like a kid with the slightest hint of a lisp. And here he is now, offering me a Mentos.

"With big folks," he says, "either people think you look mean or it's more of a jolly Santa Claus, 'Oh, he's just a pudgy little teddy bear pillow.' 
"I'm basically different things to different people. If it's a guy, I'm-a probably have my guard up because it's a street rule that when men come around that I don't know, I just immediately throw shade on them. But I don't associate with fellas all that much; if it's a girl — a beautiful girl — I be nice."

He fields several calls from both Faith, who gave birth to his son Christopher Jr. late last year, and Lil' Kim, with whom he's had an on-again, off-again affair for several years (even during his marriage). The former gal-pals recently squared-off cat-fight style at the Apollo Theatre, but Biggie has managed to stay out of the fray — sort of. Faith rings him on the cell phone and soon they're arguing in the coded language of exes. "I'm going to hang up, okay?" Biggie says with a studied mix of gentleness and exasperation. "I don't want you to think I'm hanging up too fast and get all mad."

Biggie's a stealth charmer, a melancholy lost boy who palpably softens in the presence of women. He's also a relentless flirt who half-convinces me to catch a flick the following Sunday (hmm, Portrait of a Lady or Booty Call?) and pimp out my sister, sight-unseen, for a date with Rockefeller. It's hard to turn a man down when his armed bodyguard orders you not to "hurt his feelings."

"Biggie is one of the smartest and funniest guys I know," says his friend dream hampton, the Rap Pages editor who used to live around the corner from him in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. "Even before the star thing, he was always the center of attention. Kids on the street would naturally gravitate toward him, but there's definitely a line you know not to cross. All Geminis are capable of flipping."

Like the time Biggie broke the jaw of Nathaniel Banks, an independent-label owner who recently won a $41,000 civil settlement from Biggie in a Camden, New Jersey, court. As an unpaid favor to a promoter friend, Banks was supposed to direct Biggie, Combs, and a crew of about 30 to a New Jersey club. The show was canceled, but Biggie wanted his fee. "He said, 'If I don't get my money, I'm going to start punching muthafuckas,' " Banks recalls. Soon, Biggie's posse stomped on Banks, stripping him of all his valuables. "Then," Banks laughs, "I look up and see this 300-pound mutha kicking me in the head, making grunting noises and wobbling like a monster." Still, Banks is willing to cut Biggie some slack. "People tell me he's really not that type of person," Banks sighs. "Maybe he had to do what he did because he might look like a punk if he didn't. Maybe he had to act out what he says on his records."

That's Biggie, the kind of person you want to shake by the shoulders and shout, "Come on, you know better than that." It's this tension — between hardness and vulnerability, between blind acceptance of street codes and a searching intellect, between getting over and reaching out — that makes him such a significant figure. When Ready to Die dropped at the height of gangsta rap's blank-faced stare, it wasn't just the catchy mix of hardcore beats and R&B velvet that alerted both homeboys and critics. It was the emotional honesty of a former drug dealer who copped to the guilt and shame, as well as the gritty glamour, behind "keeping it real." "Back in the day our parents used to take care of us / Look at them now / They're even fuckin' scared of us," he rapped, pointing the finger of blame both ways. Unlike most rap heavyweights (see Tupac, Snoop, and Dre), Biggie seemed aware of the maddening contradictions in his persona.

In 1972, the year Christopher Wallace was born, the Last Poets released "When the Revolution Comes," a paean to black power that ended with a blistering attack on passivity. "Until then, you know and I know niggers will party and bullshit / And party and bullshit / And some might even die / Before the revolution comes." Twenty years later, before he was Notorious or even upper-case, "Big" sampled the rebuke, turning it into the good-time anthem, "Party and Bullshit" for the Who's the Man? soundtrack. Post-Poets, post-Public Enemy, post-L.A. riots, Biggie is the child of the revolution that never came.

A "sweet, chubby little thing," according to his mother Voletta Wallace, Biggie was born in Brooklyn to Jamaican immigrants; his father split when he was two, and visited only once, four years later. "One day I was reading Christopher a story," Mrs. Wallace says, "and he said, 'You know what I want? I want you to be my husband.' I asked him what a husband was, and he looked me in the eye and said, 'Someone who loves you and kisses you and brings you flowers and looks at you nicely.' I said, 'I can't be your husband, but I will always love you.' "

A devout Christian and an early-education schoolteacher, she's still confused by what happened ten years later. How did the former honor-roll, Catholic-school boy who dreamed of becoming a graphic artist end up a dropout selling drugs around the corner? She says she was shocked by his "filthy mouth" and "rude ghetto friends"; she never knew he was hustling until he was arrested on a visit to North Carolina at 17. Mrs. Wallace had won a $90,000 settlement from the city when Biggie broke his foot falling off a public bus as a child; the entire nest egg went toward bail. "He was just not the son I wanted," she recalls. "When he quit school I wanted to kill him. Finally, when he was 18, I said, 'If you can't live by my rules, you can't live under my roof.' I don't care if I was cold. If I had to do it all over again, I would."

Biggie complains that his mother was "too strict," that she was so busy shuttling between school and her job that she never got home before ten at night. Though he and his mom are "best friends" now, Biggie says, they still have their differences. First of all, there's his weight (Mrs. Wallace's "main, main worry"; Biggie says he's on a diet) and certain misperceptions about his upbringing. "Evidently, according to what I've read, he's some hooligan from a single-parent household in a run-down ghetto walk-up. Well, let me tell you, there are plenty of intelligent, good-hearted kids from single-parent homes and I always had a beautiful apartment. He has never gone hungry. He didn't need to sell drugs." She thinks he was seduced by rap's thug-life imagery; Biggie says neighborhood dealers were his only male role models. "My real life helped me sell a lot of records," he adds.

Soon after he started "banging on things all the time," as Mrs. Wallace describes the genesis of her son's musical career, a demo tape fell into the hands of Combs, who was then working at Uptown Entertainment. When Combs left to form Bad Boy, Biggie followed. ("I can't even say Puff and me are like brothers, 'cause we closer than that," he says.) By the time Biggie began recording his debut, his mother had breast cancer. "I really was ready to die," he says. "My mom was sick and I was not giving a fuck about anything anymore. I felt that if I were to die, not too many people would miss me. Having to wake up every day and sell drugs and do what I had to do, it was wack." But that very sense of resentment and rootless depression resonated: Ready to Die sold 1.5 million copies. Biggie married Faith and became a full-fledged member of the playa's club.

Tupac Shakur changed all that. Suddenly, for reasons still unclear - some blame jailhouse paranoia, others fault Death Row CEO Suge Knight's call to inter-coastal warfare — Biggie's former pal Tupac was convinced Biggie was behind the 1994 shooting that left him with five bullet scars. Upon Tupac's release, a verbal battle royale kicked off after the Soul Train Awards. While Tupac baited Biggie publicly and on record, Biggie never retaliated in kind. In fact, he seemed baffled by Death Row's gang-banging mentality. And though Biggie thinks Tupac's alleged kiss-and-tell with Faith was nothing more than a pathetic attempt to publicly castrate him, the strain was too much for his marriage. "I had nothing to do with any of that Tupac shit," he adds. "That's a complete and total misconception. I definitely wouldn't wish death on anyone. I'm sorry he's gone - that dude was nice on the mike." Soured by the experience, Biggie, already something of a homebody, has withdrawn completely. "It's not worth it anymore," he says with a grimace. "That's why I just stay in the muthafuckin' house."

A corporate boardroom is an oddly antiseptic place for a hip-hop listening party, but Bad Boy and Arista, too worried about radio leaks to dish out any advance tapes, aren't taking chances. An A&R rep tries in vain to set the proper mood. "Okay, this is about to get emotional," he says, turning the lights down low. "Hi, everyone!" Biggie says with a little wave, and "Playa Hater" — a torchy slow jam that he actually sings — sashays from the speakers. As a falsetto voice croons, "Please don't hate me because I'm beautiful," Biggie blows kisses like a Vegas showman.

Life After Death, a 30-track double album featuring guests Too Short, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and Lil' Kim, plus heavyweight producers like RZA and Premier, is sure to be a smash. It's too slick and formulaic not to be: There's a sure-fire radio slammer ("Hypnotize"), the prerequisite R&B ballad ("Miss U"), the harder-than-hard rep-preserver ("What's Beef?"), and, if all else fails, a hip-hop cover of Diana Ross's 1980 megahit "I'm Coming Out." The Glock and mack imagery flows like a fountain of Mo't.

What's missing is the depth and complexity of Ready to Die, with the exception of "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Kills You)," a funky fright-night riff. It's an ambiguous song ("Not about Tupac," says Biggie), in which the narrator is both mesmerized and disgusted by the live-fast-die-young credo. When I ask if any other songs tackle similar issues, Biggie quickly shakes his head. "Not really, 'cause I'm not on the streets anymore," he says. "It would look stupid. I'm a different person, I'm grown up. This record is about me and my position."

But is it? A profound sense of disengagement emerges, from Life After Death: Biggie, a self-proclaimed soul man who "doesn't listen to hip-hop all that much," couldn't even name many of the album's samples; his lyrics, mere dialogue bubbles for the Notorious B.I.G. cartoon, give up none of his fertile inner-life. Biggie once proved that hardcore could have a heart. Why isn't he interested in the challenge anymore? Is it forever hip-hop's curse that life imitates art, and that stereotypes become big business?

It's hard to tell, because Biggie, usually so articulate, lapses into the same ol'-same ol' whenever the conversation turns to his supposed responsibilities. On role models: "I'm not supposed to get high with my niggas and get head from girls with no condoms. You can't be a role model and do shit that I love to do, so I don't want to be one." On "street-reporting": "If I grew up in some suburb, I'd come out with a song about potholes-in-my-lawn. I had a sidewalk, and on it niggas sold dope and crack." On the ethics of rapping about designer clothes to inner-city kids, he wonders, "If I could take a whole fucking hood that's used to being on some old $60 sneaker shit and make them want to get jobs and buy shit and look decent and have the latest fashions, why am I wrong?"

This exchange occurs, ironically, while we're hell up in Harlem, on a desolate block called the "reefer spot." As a handful of teenagers eyeball the Suburban with a mixture of wariness and hunger, Lil' Caesar jumps out to score. Garbage dumped in waist-high piles lines the sidewalks and two old men pick through the muck. And all of the kids — all of them — are wearing $200 kicks.

But that's not the image that gnaws at me: It is of the Suburban still camped out in front of Daddy's House an hour after the interview officially ends. It's well past midnight and the studio is finally empty. Biggie and Rockefeller want to party and bullshit, but they're not sure where to go. So they sit and wait, hoping some friends will show up. Biggie stares out the passenger window, absent-mindedly nodding his head to the stereo's thumping beat. Neither bored nor impatient, he's just along for the ride.

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