Excellence is my presence. Never tense, never hesitant.I came from the ghetto. I used to sell drugs, rob and steal. I cleaned up my act and I made this rap thing work for me. I thought people would respect me for that. But instead it’s, ‘Oh, he’s sold all these records and now he thinks he’s all that.
Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls and the Notorious B.I.G., lived a short life. He was 24 years old when he was gunned down in 1997 in Los Angeles, a murder that has never been solved. Smalls was from New York and had almost single-handedly reinvented East Coast hip hop — overtaken in the early 1990s by the West Coast “g-funk” sound of Dr. Dre and Death Row Records. With his clear, powerful baritone, effortless flow on the mic and willingness to address the vulnerability, as well as the harshness, of the hustler lifestyle, Smalls swung the spotlight back towards New York and his label home, Bad Boy Records. He styled himself as a gangster and although he was no angel, in reality he was more of a performer than a hardened criminal. In this regard, he was similar to Tupac Shakur, his one-time friend turned bitter rival — a contest that spiraled horrifyingly out of control leaving neither man alive to tell the tale.
Born and Raised in Brooklyn to Jamaican Parents
Twenty-three years before Rolling Stone would describe him, in a 1995 interview, as “a mountain of a man, 6ft 3 in, 280 lbs, black as tar, with a W.C. Fields scowl and a lazy left eye,” Christopher George Latore Wallace was born on May 21, 1972 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents both hailed from the Caribbean island of Jamaica — his mom, Voletta taught preschool; his pop, Selwyn, was a welder and local Jamaican politician. Selwyn left the family when Biggie was two, but Voletta worked two jobs in order to send her son to a private school — the Roman Catholic Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School; alumni include Rudy Giuliani and former Primark CEO Arthur Ryan. But Biggie subsequently transferred to the George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School; alumni include the rappers DMX, Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes. Biggie had excelled at English, but often played truant at Westinghouse and dropped out altogether in 1989 at age 17.
Acquiring the childhood nickname “Big” because of his plus-sized girth, he began selling drugs at 12, according to an interview he gave to the New York Times in 1994, working the streets near his mom’s apartment on St. James Place. Voletta worked long hours and had no inkling of her son’s activities. Biggie stepped up the drug dealing after quitting school and was soon in trouble with the law. He received a five-year probationary sentence in 1989 after being arrested on weapons-possession charges. The following year he was arrested for violating that probation. The year after that, he was charged with dealing cocaine in North Carolina and reportedly spent nine months in jail while waiting to make bail.
Biggie and Bad Boy Records
Biggie began rapping as a teenager to entertain people in his neighborhood. After he got out of jail, he made a demo tape as Biggie Smalls — named after a gang leader from the 1975 movie Let’s Do It Again; also a nod to his childhood nickname. He had no serious plans to pursue a career in music — “It was fun just hearing myself on tape over beats,” he later said in an Arista Records biography — but the tape found its way to The Source magazine, who were so impressed that they profiled Biggie in their Unsigned Hype column in March 1992; from there, Biggie was invited to record with other unsigned rappers. This recording came to the attention of Sean “Puffy” Combs, an A&R executive and producer who worked for the leading urban label Uptown Records — he started there as an intern in 1990. Combs arranged a record deal for Biggie, but left the label soon after, having fallen out with his boss, Andre Harrell. Combs went on to set up his own imprint, Bad Boy Records, and by mid-1992 Biggie had joined him.
Before he had the chance to put anything out on Bad Boy, Uptown released music that Biggie recorded during his brief stint at the label, including a remix of Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” in August 1992 that featured a guest verse from The Notorious B.I.G. (He had been forced to change his recording name after a lawsuit; though he continued to be widely known as Biggie). In June 1993, the label released The Notorious BIG’s first single as a solo artist, “Party and Bullshit.”
That same year, as he worked on music for his debut album, Biggie Smalls met Tupac Shakur for the first time. Their encounter, detailed in Ben Westhoff's book, Original Gangstas, took place at a party held by an L.A. drug dealer. They ate, drank and smoked together, and Tupac, already a successful recording artist, gifted Biggie, then unknown outside New York, a bottle of Hennessy. After that, Tupac mentored Biggie whenever the two met up — at one point Biggie even asked if Tupac would become his manager. "Nah, stay with Puff," Tupac apparently said. "He will make you a star." Biggie was particularly concerned about money around that time because he became a father in August to T'yanna, his daughter, with high-school sweetheart, Jan. It has been reported that Biggie went back to drug dealing at this point, until Combs learned what he was up to and made him stop.
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