Bastard Swordsman
The Improbable Ascent Of Christopher Wallace (1972-1997): From Unsigned Hype To King Of New York

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In the March 1992 issue of The Source, Matty C who ran the Unsigned Hype column picked a demo tape of straight up gutter street rap from some Brooklyn cat named Biggie Smalls over some looped up beats as his DJ 50 Grand did cuts. It didn’t even contain any fully structured songs but that raw demo tape was still easily head and shoulders above anything else that was submitted to him at the time. Bear in mind that in March 1992 the Second Golden Era of Hip-Hop was just underway.

Story goes that anyone else that heard this very same demo tape was instantly floored by the emcees’ presence, flow, voice, rhymes and delivery. Hip-Hop was just coming out of an era where Pop Rap was overly dominant and gimmicks and image were important. Biggie didn’t dance. Biggie wasn’t handsome (Heartthrob? Never). Biggie was just immensely talented, so much so that he was undeniable from the first listen. Over the next 5 years this underground rapper from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn would have the most dominant run of any emcee in Hip-Hop history during one of it’s most competitive eras.

From his first guest appearance on Heavy D’s posse track “A Buncha N*ggas” to his first single “Party & Bullshit” off the “Who’s The Man” soundtrack and his guest appearances to follow, BIG’s verses managed to even set him apart from the rest of the growing number of supremely talented emcees of the era which included everyone from Treach to Nas to Jay-Z to Big L to Raekwon to Ghostface Killah to Snoop (Doggy) Dogg.

In each of Hip-Hop’s golden eras there’s always a new influx of sonic and lyrical innovators that ultimately create an ultra competitive environment that leads to great music being churned out regularly. Biggie Smalls began as one of those innovators back at the outset of this new era in 1992 and by the time it was all over and the smoke had cleared, he was crowned the undisputed King Of New York.

Big listened to Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” & Wu Tang Clan’s “Enter The 36 Chambers” and knew where he had to go thematically and sonically with his debut album. He was going to speak to that man or woman who was struggling with day to day life in the inner city and he was going to strike a chord with them and make music that reflected his experiences simultaneously. Biggie went into the lab with all of these things in mind as he crafted his bars for “Ready To Die” (which was originally going to drop on MCA until Sean Combs was fired).

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Sean “Puffy” Combs landed a situation with Arista Records for his burgeoning label Bad Boy Records. Notorious B.I.G.’s album was highly anticipated after the radio airplay & charts success of the lead single “Juicy” and the buzz his mixtape bars created (although he hated doing them) and the streets were on fire because of the incredible DJ Premier produced B side “Unbelieveable”.

Notorious B.I.G.’s debut album “Ready To Die” dropped in September 1994 about 5 months after Nas dropped his damn near perfect classic debut “Illmatic” on Columbia Records. Keep in mind that Nas was essentially touted as the lyrical reincarnation of Rakim by The Source at the time. They did a cover story about the making of Nas’ album and it even received the coveted 5 mic rating in The Source. “Ready To Die” got 4.5 mics in The Source in comparison but then the streets had their say in the matter.

The Notorious B.I.G. singles “Juicy”, “Big Poppa” and “One More Chance” far surpassed Nas’ “It Ain’t Hard To Tell”, “The World Is Yours” and “One Love” in street buzz, radio airplay and sales numbers. 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. Biggie’s grimy street tales even resonated with those who resided in the suburbs. In the end, “Ready To Die” became for the East Coast and New York what Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” was for the West Coast and Los Angeles.

Biggie’s sheer lyrical brilliance and street credibility coupled with his overwhelming commercial success (thanks to Sean “Puffy” Combs in his role as executive producer, general counsel & overseer) aided in his once thought improbable ascent to the throne. Christopher Wallace, not Francis M.H. White, had now assumed the mantle of King Of New York all off of one album. All while Nas and the Wu Tang Clan were all hotter than volcanic lava fresh out of the microwave oven after 15 minutes on HIGH.

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”. The ambitious entrepreneur would soon branch out with Un Rivera, secure a deal for their joint label Undeas then make & release Junior M.A.F.I.A’s “Conspiracy” album.

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Undisputed classic Rap albums like Mobb Deep’s “The Infamous” and Raekwon The Chef’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” were blaring out of Acuras from Pasadena to Medina at the time but none of that stopped The Notorious B.I.G. from completely sweeping the 1995 Source Awards. “Ready To Die” was still moving units. “Conspiracy” was moving units. Biggie was on top of the mountain when his competition was the stiffest it’s been since Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G. Rap, KRS One, Ice Cube etc. were all at their peaks circa 1989 and the inevitable backlash had just begun.

Biggie started out as the quintessential hardcore grimy raw backpack emcee. 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 had already begun (i.e. “Shark N*ggas” on Raekwon The Chef’s “OB4CL”).

Once “Ready To Die” exploded and BIG began to appear on every third radio hit as Bad Boy Records began to dominate the entire urban music landscape with it’s influence, the backlash suddenly kicked into overdrive. What followed soon afterwards were shots and things that could be perceived or misconstrued as shots that came from artists like De La Soul, Jeru The Damaja, O.G.C. and The Roots in either their rap bars, songs or their music videos.

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At the particular time, most of these 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 just beginning to take effect. Biggie suddenly went from one of “us” in the army jacket, jeans & timbs to the dude in the Versace shades that rapped on those damned Total and 112 songs which got played on the radio 30 times a day. He indirectly became the guy responsible/or unfairly blamed for all that “Jiggy shit” you couldn’t escape in late 90’s urban music since everyone copied everything Bad Boy did at the time.

The whole playa/Big Willie/Don image that Sean “Puffy” Combs had created for The Notorious B.I.G. 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 or a backpacker you peeped game and your first instinct would be to address it. That being the case, we STILL all acknowledged that Biggie was the nicest cat in the game. Even in a Coogi sweater, Versace shades and gators as opposed to smoking a blunt in an army jacket, black jeans & some Timberlands.

We tend to forget exactly how tumultuous and ultra competitive the Rap game was circa 1996. The underground was still part of the fabric of mainstream Rap music but the industry was slowly pulling apart at it’s seams. The dispute that began between Suge Knight and his vendetta against Bad Boy Records turned into a supposed East Coast/West Coast feud as evidenced by 2Pac’s disses to Biggie, The Dogg Pound’s 1995 song & video for “New York, New York” and the Capone N Noreaga response “LA, LA” featuring Mobb Deep & Tragedy Khadafi in early 1996.

As someone who read a dog eared New York Times with the Death Row Records roster on the cover back in January 1996 as a 20 year old freshman at Morgan State University in Baltimore I can attest to this. Fist fights would break out in my dorm when one person played Biggie and the next room over immediately blasted 2Pac and vice versa. In addition to that, the underground emcee was slowly losing his place in the increasingly jiggy mainstream Rap world and that created a different kind of friction in the Rap world. In September 1996, 2Pac was gunned down at the age of 25 in Las Vegas and Hip-Hop suffered the first of several wounds that it would never fully recover from.

Biggie’s debut single from his upcoming album “Life After Death” (which was originally supposed to be released in October 1996 but it would’ve interfered with the release of Lil’ Kim’s “Hard Core” which he executive produced and released on Undeas in November 1996) was officially released on December 13, 1996, exactly 3 months after 2Pac’s passing. “Hypnotize” was already a hit on the radio before it was even available commercially. There wasn’t a place you could go without hearing it blaring out of speakers. At the same time the push for “Life After Death” began in January 1997 the Shiny Suit/Jiggy Era was in full swing. Puff Daddy & Mase’s “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” & Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” were #1 & #2 on the Billboard charts before “Hypnotize” finally took the top spot.

When we finally lost Biggie on March 9, 1997 he was about to take the entire world over. His album “Life After Death” was about to drop on March 25th. Puff Daddy & The Family’s ‘Hell Up In Harlem” album was waiting in the wings with an #1 single and several guest spots from Biggie on potential hit singles. He was the central figure in the Bad Boy empire and he had laid out a plan to bring forth a supergroup called The Commission featuring himself, Jay-Z, Lil’ Cease and Charli Baltimore (Wu Gambinos & The Firm, I’m looking at you). He was looking into breaking into television and film plus he had a clothing company on the way called Brooklyn Mint.

The passing of Christopher Wallace is one that hits me hard personally for several reasons. First of all, due to what’s happened with the music industry since Biggie’s passing we will never again have an underground raw street rapper emerge minus the hype based on his pure talent alone get signed to a major label, make his way through the ultra competitive underground then into the even more competitive mainstream Rap world during a golden era of emceeing.

Not only that, but he dominated that era loaded to the gills with greats and legends through his talent, creativity and lyricism alone. There wasn’t any hype with Big, it was all earned. No asterisks will go next to his name in the Hip-Hop history books. The same way you go and ask great producers who the best was and they constantly answer with “Dilla” it’s the exact same way with Biggie. If you try that “He only had two albums” argument with me as to why he shouldn’t be considered in the discussion for the greatest emcee ever that just proves that you didn’t fully experience the years of 1992-1997 in Hip-Hop to me.

In conclusion, all I can say is RIP Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace. The Rap game never fully recovered from your loss and things were only compounded with the deaths of 2Pac, Big L & Big Pun. Now Rap is no longer about the things that made it great when you and many other mic titans clashed between more than 15 and 20 years ago. From ashy to classy. From hustler to legitimate businessman. He would’ve been on the top of MTV’s Hottest MC In The Game list multiple years in a row back when it would’ve really counted.

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    Great writeup by Dart Adams on BIG.
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