Brooklyn Crack Dealer Restores East Coast Dominance
2:00PM ET March 1st, 2011
Contributor : Hip Hop Blog Staff
A Rocky Williform Company
Every week, HHB will spotlight a legendary hip hop artist and examine their legacy and body of work. Hip hop is 30+ years old, and HHB wants to make sure that everyone understands how rich and varied this musical genre is. From Grandmaster Flash to 50 Cent, there are an endless array of MCs, DJs and producers who have made this music what it is today. Let's clap for 'em...
He was a larger-than-life emcee who came from seemingly out of the blue to become one of the biggest stars of his generation. The Notorious B.I.G.'s musical rise and tragic fall has been well-documented in the minds of hip hop fans. But, aside from the mythology--do we really understand what made Biggie Smalls special? How did he become one of hip hop's most influential and important figures? Read on.
Biggie was born Christopher Wallace and, though he often claimed Bedford-Stuyvesant, Wallace actually grew up in the nearby Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn. His early life was characterized by poverty and a stern Jamaican-born mother, Voletta. As a pre-teen, Christopher was encouraged to focus on school and stay out of the streets, but as he grew older, the burgeoning crack trade became too much for him to resist. After learning that his girlfriend was pregnant, Wallace dropped out of high school to sell drugs.
But Biggie was also a clever and dexterous emcee. He began making a name for himself rapping in shows around town with his DJ 50 Grande. Eventually, he came to the attention of Big Daddy Kane's DJ Mister Cee, who introduced him to a young A&R at Uptown Records named Sean "Puffy" Combs.
The rest, as they say, is history.
To understand the significance of the Notorious B.I.G.'s rise, one must first understand the climate of hip hop in 1993-1994. The West Coast hip hop scene had been gaining steam since the late 80s, when artists such as N.W.A. and Ice-T first broke through to national audiences. But when N.W.A. alum Dr. Dre released his solo debut The Chronic in late 1992, it instantly became one of hip hop's biggest smashes and ushered in an unprecedented era of West Coast commercial dominance. Releases by Snoop Doggy Dogg (DoggyStyle), Ice Cube (The Predator), 2Pac (Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.) and Warren G. (Regulate...The G Funk Era) were getting much more attention from commercial audiences than anyone from the East Coast during this period. From 1991-1993, the East had become dominated by alternative rap acts like A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets. The first wave of lyrical virtuosos had all but disappeared--seemingly overnight. Rakim had gone into hiatus, Slick Rick was in prison, Big Daddy Kane's career had soured after ill-advised forays into more R&B-flavored territory and a shocking nude pictorial in Playgirl magazine. Street emcees like Kool G. Rap and KRS-One were never huge commercial sellers.
It was into this climate that a new, East Coast hardcore began to slowly emerge. The first blips on the radar were groups like Onyx and Das EFX, who experienced some commercial success in 1992 and 1993. But it wasn't until the debut of Staten Island's Wu-Tang Clan in late 1993 that New York's hip hop scene really embraced a new hardcore style and aesthetic. Wu's Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers was followed by Nas' landmark 1994 debut Illmatic, and within a span of six months, East Coast hip hop had gone from bohemian jazz rap to grimy street-hop.
But, still--no one in New York's new wave of hardcore had equaled the commercial clout of the West Coast.
Biggie's pairing with Puffy proved to be fortuitous for both parties. Puffy was subsequently fired from Uptown and needed a star to anchor his new label, Bad Boy Entertainment. And with Puffy, Biggie had a mentor with a knack for pop hooks and slick production. Puffy had previously worked with overweight pop-rapper Heavy D, and used that experience to fashion Biggie's new image: ladies' man. Biggie was able to convincingly rap about the rough streets of Brooklyn and the lavish lifestyle of a young rap star. That approach set him apart from his grimier-than-thou East Coast contemporaries in 1994, and when his debut Ready to Die was released in the fall of that year, it was an instant smash. He had finally given New York hip hop a superstar that could reach the masses similarly to what West Coast artists like Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg had accomplished.
Biggie's gift for wordplay and peerless storytelling ability also made him one of hip hop's most talked-about emcees. The self-proclaimed "Rap Alfred Hitchcock" could deliver darkly comical story raps that sounded effortless, but were lyrically intricate and detailed. His talents as a rapper didn't quash rivalries, however. Biggie's rapid ascendancy was met with scorn from several other New York rappers, most notably Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon and Ghostface Killah.
The feud that he is most remembered for, of course, is his beef with 2Pac. The former friends became enemies after Pac accused Biggie of having him set up and robbed outside a Manhattan recording studio. From there, the East/West feud escalated with diss records and physical altercations; until 2Pac was shot in Las Vegas in September 1996. Biggie was killed in an eerily similar fashion in Los Angeles in March 1997.
Biggie's legacy remains as one of hip hop's most gifted lyricists and as the most important figure in 1990s New York hip hop. His commercial success brought NYC rap back to prominence--which paved the way for later artists like Jay-Z and DMX to become superstars. Even Nas, who debuted before Biggie, experienced his highest commercial successes after Biggie re-established East Coast commercial visibility.
Instead of focusing on his tragic death, hip hop heads should always remember and continue to celebrate the overall musical legacy of one of the best to ever hold a microphone.
Ready to Die (1994)
"Juicy," "Big Poppa," "Warning"
Life After Death (1997)
"Hypnotize," "Notorious Thugs," "Mo Money, Mo Problems"
"Sky's The Limit"