Christopher Wallace was born in Brooklyn, on May 21, 1972. He publicly claimed Bedford Stuyvesant as his neighborhood, despite growing up on St. James Place in neighboring Clinton Hill (the area was considered Bedford Stuyvesant at that time).
Wallace – popularly known as Biggie Smalls, Big Poppa, The Black Frank White, and his primary stage name, The Notorious B.I.G. – is one of the greatest (some would argue he was the greatest) and most influential rappers of all time. His life story was no fairytale. In fact, it was short-lived, marked by poverty, hustling, violence, glamour, controversy and finally, tragedy.
Wallace was the only child of strict Jamaican parents Voletta Wallace, a preschool teacher, and George Latore, a welder and small-time politician. His father left when Wallace was two years old, leaving his mother to work two jobs while raising him alone.
His mother struggled to make ends meet. Still, at the Queen of All Saints Middle School, Wallace excelled in his classes. He loved to write poetry and won several awards in his English class for his writing. By age 10, he was nicknamed “Big” because of his large size.
Wallace attended Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School before asking his mother if he could transfer to George Westinghouse Information Technology High School where Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes also were students. According to his mother, Wallace was still a good student but developed a “smart-ass” attitude at the new school.
Wallace quickly gained a reputation in school and around his neighborhood as a phenomenal writer and skillful rapper. His ability to freestyle or “rhyme off the dome” garnered an unusually huge street buzz for him that spread fast. He was a dark-skinned Black man who was overweight and had a cock eye. Yet, he was known for his undeniable charm and enormous talent.
Also around this time, Wallace became involved with crime. Like many of the young boys around his age, he grew tired of his life of poverty and turned to petty hustling as a way to earn extra money. In 1989, at age 17, Wallace dropped out of high school, was arrested on weapons charges and sentenced to five years probation. Two years later, Wallace was arrested in North Carolina and spent nine months behind bars for dealing crack cocaine.
In 1992, after he was released from jail, Wallace – intent on escaping the downward spiral of the ghetto – began to re-focus on his only hope: his writing. He borrowed a friend’s four-track tape recorder and went on a recording binge in his basement.
Once again, Wallace quickly created a street buzz. His tapes were passed around and played at local radio stations in New York. In 1993, producer Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs – who had heard Wallace’s early tapes – signed him to his new label, Bad Boy Records. Wallace befriended and began opening shows for Tupac Shakur. Combs and Wallace worked on the artist’s first album, “Ready to Die,” and the Notorious B.I.G. aka “Biggie” was born. The album was released in 1994.
Biggie’s first song “Juicy,” stormed the Hip Hop music scene. His lyrics were crass, raw but always clever, and he had a remarkable flow – an ability to ride the beat with ease. In no time, the Notorious B.I.G. garnered a national fan base, including a slew of first-time hip hop listeners, quickly gilding his record certified platinum.
On August 4, 1994, Biggie married singer Faith Evans, who he met at a Bad Boy photoshoot. He was named MC of the Year at the 1995 Billboard Music Awards.
In addition to “Juicy,” the record produced two hit singles – the Platinum-selling “Big Poppa,” which reached #1 on the U.S. rap chart, and “One More Chance,” featuring Faith Evans.
For better or for worse, Biggie’s flow and influence changed the course of hip hop. But it also sparked what would become an unfortunate and deadly battle between the East and the West.
Tupac supported Biggie, often giving him advice. However, on November 30th, 1994, their friendship took a turn for the worst, sparking the most violent era in hip-hop.
While Biggie and P. Diddy were at a recording session at Quad Recording in Manhattan, Tupac went there to record with another MC for his third solo album, “Me Against The World” at the same time. But in the lobby, Tupac was held at gunpoint and robbed of $40,000 worth of jewelry.
Tupac was shot five times. Miraculously, he recovered from his injuries but blamed Biggie for the shooting. He said Biggie knew about it and failed to warn him. Biggie vehemently denied any knowledge or involvement.
Later, Hip Hop listeners divided into two groups, the west and the east, which was Death Row Records versus Bad Boy Records (Marion ‘Suge’ Knight versus P. Diddy, and Tupac versus Biggie). On September 7, 1996, Tupac was gunned down in a drive-by shooting off the Las Vegas strip after a Mike Tyson boxing match.
He died six days later as a result of those wounds at the age of 25. The case is still unsolved. Biggie was scared for his life, but he wanted to put an end to the war between the two coasts.
Biggie went to the west coast for several events, doing advance press for his next release, “Life After Death,” but also to make a statement that the war was over. His clothing line, Brooklyn Mint, was launched in 1996. He also had plans to open a fast food chain called “Big Poppa’s” in his old neighborhood of Bed-Stuy.
On March 9, 1997, after leaving the Soul Train Music Awards in Los Angeles, Biggie was sitting in an SUV on the street when he was shot several times by an unknown assailant. He died almost instantly. Biggie was only 24 years old. The murder remains unsolved.
Fifteen days after his death, Wallace’s double-disc second album “Life After Death” was released and hit #1 on the Billboard 200 charts. It gained strong reviews and in 2000, was certified Diamond, the highest RIAA certification awarded to a solo Hip Hop album.
Christopher Wallace is survived by one son, Christopher Wallace Junior, who he fathered with Faith Evans and a daughter named T’Yonna by an ex-girlfriend named Jan.
Long gone, but not forgotten, the Bed-Stuy community petitioned to co-name the Clinton Hill Street where the rapper grew up. Last year, the local Community Board 2 gave its approval.
Wallace’s lyrical style influenced scores of other artists during and after his reign. Many argue that even today, his talent has not been matched.
Christopher Wallace was a prolific poet – a phenomenon of his time. But most importantly, he was also someone’s son. However, the sickness and despair of a criminal street culture claimed him long before the world had a chance to embrace him fully.
More than 20 years after his tragic death, speculation still swirls about who’s to blame: Is it Pac’s people? Is it the criminal street culture? Or is it Biggie himself?
Despite who is to blame, the real tragedy is that another talented, young Black man’s life was cut short before it really began. What’s also tragic is the same scenario is repeated with even greater vigor today.
Christopher “B.I.G.” Wallace, we acknowledge your enormous talents, and we honor your memory.
*Sources: IMdb, nytimes.com, patch.com
February is Black History Month! Every day this month, BK Reader will profile one Black History Maker born or raised in Brooklyn. There are countless Brooklynites– past and present– who have contributed to America’s fabric as pioneers or leaders in art, entertainment, sports, science and government. This month, we present to you 28! Click here to see all of the profiles.
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