“It was all a dream/I used to read Word Up! magazine,” famously rapped the Notorious B.I.G. on his 1994 breakout hit “Juicy.” And three years later, he was living the dream before it all came to a tragic end.
Two weeks before the March 1997 release of “Life After Death” — his second and final studio album — the rapper was making plans to hypnotize London in support of the ambitious double LP. And while the bottles were popping at Vibe magazine’s post-Soul Train Awards party in Los Angeles, he was trying to convince DJ Clark Kent to be his spinning sidekick across the pond.
“He was like, ‘Yo, you gotta go on the road with me. We gonna go to London for this new album,’ ” Kent — who at the time was senior vice president of A&R at Motown Records — told The Post. “And I was like, ‘Man, you know I got a job.’ But he was like, ‘I’m going to London and you’re coming with me.’ ”
Sadly, the two never made that trip: After leaving the party at the Petersen Automotive Museum, the Notorious B.I.G., a k a Biggie Smalls, was killed at the age of 24 in a drive-by shooting while sitting in his GMC Suburban. Twenty-five years after his murder on March 9, 1997, the case remains an unsolved mystery.
The Notorious B.I.G. at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards.Jeff Kravitz“It becomes more mythic that it’s not solved, that we don’t know [who murdered him],” said Alan Light, who was editor-in-chief of Vibe at the time.
And Kent still can’t shake the feeling that Biggie should have never gone to that party — six months after the murder of Tupac Shakur had escalated the East Coast-West Coast rap rivalry.
“We were together earlier at the hotel talking about things,” said Kent. “I didn’t know he was gonna come to the party. And then I go to the party, and he’s there. I’m like, ‘What the f – – k?’ Because in my mind, I was like, ‘Dog, stay out the way.’ I wanted him to stay out the way because, to me, the tension was there . . . I just didn’t even necessarily feel like he should have been in LA.”
But after making just two studio albums in his career — with only one, his classic 1994 debut “Ready To Die,” released in his lifetime — the legacy of the Notorious B.I.G. still lives large a quarter century later. In fact, he became only the second solo rapper inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2020. And anytime “Juicy,” “Hypnotize,” “One More Chance” or “Mo Money Mo Problems” comes on, Big Poppa still rocks the party.
The Notorious B.I.G. only made two studio albums in his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame career.Chris Walter“The thing that’s so remarkable to me is, hip-hop moves really fast . . . always is kind of both eyes forward,” said Light. “And the fact that 25 years after he’s gone, [in] almost any conversation about the greatest MCs of all time, he’s still right at the top. That’s an astonishing thing.”
Born Christopher Wallace in Brooklyn, the Notorious B.I.G. had buzz in the underground New York hip-hop scene before he was signed to Sean “Puffy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records. Easy Mo Bee, who was a producer on both “Ready To Die” and “Life After Death,” had already heard Biggie’s demo before he met with the rapper to work on “Party & Bulls – – t” for the 1993 “Who’s the Man?” soundtrack.
“My first impression of him, of course, was [of] this big fat dude,” said Easy Mo Bee. “I began to wonder in my mind, like, ‘How is the public gonna receive him?’ But once those lyrics came out, that just took over everything. His lyrics superseded any thoughts that you could have of, ‘Could he succeed?’ His lyrical prowess stood out.”
And in addition to his mastery of language, imagery and storytelling, Light believes that Biggie’s delivery was as dope as it gets. “Donald Harrison, that great jazz saxophone player, was his next-door neighbor, and they would sit and listen and kind of study jazz records together,” he said. “And you can hear that in the way that his delivery bounces across bars. It sounds like a bebop solo sometimes.”
DJ Clark Kent accompanied the Notorious B.I.G. on shows after his career took off with “Juicy.”Donato SardellaWhen Biggie needed a DJ to start playing shows, the rapper’s then-manager Mark Pitts handpicked Kent. “He was like, ‘Yo, you gotta be his DJ, dog, because you’ve been on the road for years,’ ” said Kent, who taught the rapper a valuable lesson about his newfound juice at one of his early shows in Minneapolis. “He didn’t want to do ‘Juicy.’ I’m like, ‘Dog, you have to!’ So I throw on ‘Juicy,’ and he was like, ‘Yo, turn that s – – t off.’ And all of a sudden the people started throwing s – – t onstage . . . He just didn’t love the song like that. But he began to understand the power of it.”
Not only did “Ready To Die” go six-times platinum and immediately establish Biggie as a major new player in the hip-hop game, but it gave West Coast rappers some real competition from the East Coast.
“This was a time when certainly the commercial center of gravity had shifted to California,” said Light. “You’re talking about the pinnacle of [Dr.] Dre and G-funk and that stuff really overpowering where the audience was going.” And Biggie was “somebody who could shift the focus back to more of a New York aesthetic.”
Since the Notorious B.I.G. was the prize protégé of Combs — who was in a well-publicized feud with West Coast rap kingpin and Death Row Records founder Marion “Suge” Knight — Light said, “It does feel like he gets kind of sucked into this story.”
The Notorious B.I.G. mural near the corner of Bedford Avenue and Quincy Street in Brooklyn.Gregory P. MangoBut Kent insists that there was no East Coast-West Coast beef from Biggie’s side. “He ain’t have nothin’ to do with what happened to ’Pac,” he said. “It was just terrible — all of the s – – t was lies. So he got lied on, and then the s – – t just went the way that it went. It was f – – ked up.”
Indeed, the Notorious B.I.G. gave California some love on the “Life After Death” track “Going Back to Cali”: “Y’all n – – – – s is a mess/Thinkin’ I’m gon’ stop givin’ LA props/All I got is beef with those that violate me.”
Still, that LA trip would prove to be fateful — and fatal — for Biggie. And there have been various conspiracy theories surrounding his murder. In fact, the 2021 crime drama “City of Lies,” based on the nonfiction book “LAbyrinth,” alleged that Knight financed the hit — and that LA cops helped to both carry it out and cover it up.
The Notorious B.I.G.’s funeral motorcade to Brooklyn in March 1997.MARK LENNIHANKent and Biggie were taking separate cars on their way to another Soul Train Awards after-party — this one hosted by Trackmasters producers Poke and Tone — when he was gunned down. “When the shots happened, I was on the other cross-section,” he said. “And when you’re from New York and you hear shots, you drive off. So we’re not knowing that they’re shooting at his car. So we get all the way to the party and then my phone’s ringing like, ‘Yo, your man got shot.’ I just walked out the party and went right to the hospital. It was bad news as soon as I got there.”
Easy Mo Bee recalls that the last time he saw Biggie was when he and another Brooklyn hip-hop legend, Jay-Z, were in the studio working on the “Life After Death” track “I Love the Dough.” They were writing in their heads for the song,” he said of the two rappers, neither of whom ever wrote anything down. “And then he told me, ‘Me and Jigga, we’re gonna step out. We’ll be right back.’ Those were his exact last words. And they went out, and they took too long to come back. I waited until about 2 o’clock in the morning, and then I told the engineers, ‘Let me know when the next session is.’ ”
The Notorious B.I.G. (right) performs with his mentor and friend Sean “Puffy” Combs in 1995.Raymond BoydIf he had lived, perhaps Biggie would have gone on to have had the kind of opportunities and longevity that Jay-Z has had. Certainly, the two MCs were already pushing each other on the mic. “This was a time where the culture was opening up so much more to hip-hop and to possibilities for these kinds of stars for whatever other things he might have wanted to pursue, musically or otherwise,” said Light, who now co-hosts SiriusXM Volume’s “Debatable.”
“And that was taken so soon and so early on that you have to think about what else was possible. I mean, certainly, when you look at Jay Z’s career — everything that that’s become above and beyond the music — you have to think: Where would Biggie have been able to head with more time?”