Released 20 years ago today, The Notorious B.I.G.'s 'Hypnotize' stands unquestioned as one of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time, as well as one of the most popular, topping the Billboard Hot 100 in May of 1997.
But while the song's flow and personality is singularly Biggie, the song's beat -- co-produced by Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie, Ron Lawrence, and of course, Sean "Puffy" Combs -- stood on the shoulders of an earlier No. 1 hit: the classic 1979 slow-disco instrumental "Rise," written by Andy Armer and Randy "Badazz" Alpert, and performed on trumpet by Randy's uncle, the legendary Herb Alpert.
Here, Randy tells Billboard about his memories of composing and recording "Rise," why "Hypnotize" was the first sample request that he actually cleared, and how Biggie's song has helped his own song live on through the generations. His words have been condensed and edited for clarity.
My name is Randy Alpert. But when I was about 18, I really wanted to be a musician, and at that time, Herb and A&M were giants. I hated as a kid how everywhere I went, I’d tell them my name, and they’d go, “Oh, are you related to Herb?” So at that time, I was going into doing funk music, and I randomly picked the name -- some girl was like, “Oh, you’re pretty badass.” And at that time, I was about 17, and I went “Boy, maybe I should call myself Randy Badazz.” And I did.
Herb and I were always close, family-wise, and as a kid, I always worked at [Herb's label] A&M Records. Back then I was 11, in ‘66, packing records in the shipping room, and I loved being around there. And when I started to do it seriously, like I said, I changed my name, and I got my first job -- which was to do demos for Columbia Records, for a group called Con Funk Shun. So I was doing demos, and the A&R guy at A&M Records at the time [Chip Cohen] said, “Would you want to do disco songs of Tijuana Brass things for your uncle?” And I said, "You know Chip, I don’t feel great about working with Herb.”
That night I was at the old Record Plant studios on third street. A friend of mine was out in the hallway -- Billy Preston, the keyboard player. I’d known Billy since I was a kid. And Billy said something to me in that hallway that really turned me around. He said “Look man, there’s very few people in the world who can touch millions of people... as a kid, I worked and traveled with Ray Charles, and he touches people. Frank Sinatra touches people. George Harrison, Paul McCartney touched people. And I saw that, I saw the power of that. Your uncle touches people with his trumpet.” He said, “Just do your thing -- change the frame around the picture. And let Herbie do what he does.”
So I called Chip Cohen the next morning, and I said “OK, what do you need?” He said “Do me a favor, work up a few Tijuana Brass songs, and do them the way you want to do them. So I think we worked up ‘A Taste of Honey,’ maybe ‘Spanish Flea,’ and ‘The Lonely Bull.’ And my writing partner at the time, Andy Armer and I had a little four-track studio in my apartment. So we worked up those songs, and at the same time, I said to Andy, “What if we came up with a song?” And Andy and I came up with the song “Rise.”
So we got this groove going up in the studio, and it was originally fast -- about 125 beats per minute. And we started to run it down, and it sounded really good. And I sat in that control room, and Herb came in and went, “What if we slowed this thing down?” And I said, “Well, let’s try it.” I think we slowed it down to about close to 100 beats per minute. And when you sit in the studio, sometimes when something’s magical, it’s like, “Holy shit! This motherf--ker…” A bell rings, y’know? And at that tempo, even before the trumpet came in, it just sounded like deep, dirty, funky… like the records I liked listening to. Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, that slow Memphis funk type of thing.
When we played back the original basic tracks, I thought, “Boy, we need something going into that breakdown section.” I went home and I fooled around on my mini-Moog synth, and I had an Echoplex [a tape-echo machine] at the time -- so the next morning, when Chris [Pinnick, guitarist] came in, I said “Can you play a G-Major chord going into the break section?” So we did that and we ran it into my Echoplex, and it sounded really cool, but it wasn’t cool enough. So I had him do it two more times, and each time I did it, I changed a little bit of the delay on the Echoplex, and I changed the pitch a little bit -- when all three of those were going, it sounded great. In the studio, it was, “WOAH!” So that became the hook for the Notorious B.I.G. song.
I’m a white Jewish kid, but for some reason, when my friends were listening to Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, I was listening to Con Funk Shun. So I was very much aware of black records, and the hip-hop scene in New York. Did I make “Rise” with that in mind? No, I made it more with funk in mind. But certainly, I knew about that [scene].
I did not think that pop radio would play that record, but I knew in my gut that rock radio would play it, and clubs would play it. I was really excited to go up to play it for Gerald Busby, who was the head of black promotion at A&M. So I came into his office, and I said, “I got the new Herbie record… I really think it’s a black radio record.” And he puts the record on, and I guess maybe 20-25 seconds goes by, and he turns the thing down. And he swerves back to me, and he says, “Well, I think it’s too slow… I just don’t think that this is a black radio type of record." I felt crushed at that moment. Because I knew in my heart that this was a record that black radio would play.
So I left that place, and I drove to Venice, and I remember sitting in my house, drinking Wild Turkey bourbon, and I felt dejected. And after I got really f--ked up, I took that record, and I put it on my stereo -- I played it for about two hours straight, over and over, and I remember thinking, “This is f--king great. I don’t give a shit what Gerald Busby thinks. This is f--king great.” Sure enough, the very first place that it started to break is black radio, and in the clubs in New York. And Herb told me this many times over the years -- he said, “Randy, we’re musicians. We listen to records differently. And that’s why I always went with my gut."
Because I control the publishing on that record, and Herb controlled the master, we had controls as to who else was going to use it. And there were probably 8-10 records between the late ‘80s through the early ‘90s that tried to sample "Rise," and I never liked them. I was always hoping that I’d get the call from Dre or N.W.A, because I was very much into N.W.A, really into the West Coast rap scene before it exploded onto white radio. Because again, it was funky records, and they were sampling records that I grew up with as a kid.
So we had turned down a bunch of records, and then finally -- I think it was in November ‘96 -- my publisher called me and said, “We’ve got this record in New York, and man… I want to send it to you, they’re sampling ‘Rise.’” And they sent me a cassette, and it was from Bad Boy Records. I was in my bathroom, I was shaving to go out for the night. I put the cassette on, and I didn’t even know who the rapper was. But I knew it was Notorious B.I.G. as soon as I heard it -- I was a huge fan of [1994 debut album] Ready to Die, and I knew that this guy was on the verge of breaking big.
I put that thing in, I went into the bathroom, I cranked the system, and I remember when that thing came on… that was it, “I’m done.” It’s great. And again, the same thing that I did when I had the record of “Rise” -- I played that cassette over and over. I must’ve played it for half an hour, 45 minutes. I said, “That’s a f--king hit record.” And I still have this cassette, where Biggie is singing the “Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can’t you see,” before they put the girl [Pamela Long of Total] on it. Because they wanted to clear the sample on it before they went to the next level. And right away, I called and said, “This is great. This is a go.”
So anyway, it’s early March of ‘97, and I’m going to go see a band playing in Santa Monica. I’m on the 101 freeway, and as I’m driving to the freeway, I’m listening to Power 106. As I switch onto the station, I hear the last maybe 20 seconds of “Hypnotize.” And the DJ’s going “THIS RECORD’S BLOWING UP!! WE’RE PLAYING IT BACK-TO-BACK-TO-BACK-TO-BACK! THE PHONES ARE ON FIRE!!” He goes to commercial, and I flip around to The Beat, which is the top R&B station in Los Angeles. And as I switch, so help me god, they’re playing it. There’s three R&B stations in Los Angeles, and that night they’re all playing “Hypnotize” back-to-back. That’s when I first knew that the song was out. Nobody ever told me.
The interesting thing was, kids had never heard “Rise,” and thought of it just as a new record, just part of Biggie’s thing. It just opens up a whole new thing, and yeah, I felt like “I’m a bad motherf--ker.” It’s just happenstance, you know. The Notorious B.I.G., he’s magic. And it goes back to what Billy Preston told me: the timbre of his voice, the way he writes lyrics, the way he phrases words, he’s a guy that touches people. The Notorious B.I.G., to this day 20 years later… like, I ask my twin 17-year-olds, and those 17-year-olds were not born when “Hypnotize” came out, and were certainly not born when “Rise” came out. But them and their friends love that record. So again, it goes back to Billy saying, there are certain artists that work through generations. And that guy, Biggie Smalls, I mean… he touched people.
I once asked Herb, "Have you ever listened to ‘Hypnotize'? Do you even know what it's about?” I don’t even think Herb knows, “I’m sicker your average, poppa twist cabbage off instinct, n---as don't think shit stink.” I said, "Herb, could you even understand that that’s the first line of that song?” Never understood it. I don’t think he’s ever tuned in to the lyrics of that song. But I love the first line of that song.
I remember when I heard about his death. It was a Sunday. And I got a call from my brother, who was a publicist, and he told me that Biggie got shot. I clearly remember it. And the other thing -- he got shot just before the album [Life After Death] was released. And I remember after it was out, walking to the Warehouse Records in Studio City, and I remember seeing a line of people with that CD in their hand. And I had never seen that before. I thought, “Wow, this is really big.”
I've turned down more samples than what we’ve approved. And the Bell Biv Devoe record ["Run," which also samples "Rise"], it was not a record where I said, “Boy, this is gonna blow up the world.” But I was actually a fan of Bell Biv Devoe in the ‘80s, and I know that they were kinda hoping that that record would take off for them, to revive themselves. The main thing that I turn down a lot, which we get a lot of requests for, is TV shows and movies. There are some movies that I approve -- there is a big movie coming out called Baywatch, which I think is coming out in May. I really only approved that because I really like that guy The Rock.
And I’ll tell you one thing I did turn down for “Rise" -- for HBO, The Sopranos. I remember the scene was Tony Soprano talking on the phone as “Rise” was playing, as one of his guys was in the back with the telephone receiver, beating some guy to death. And I just did not want “Rise” to be playing as somebody was being murdered. So right or wrong, certainly I could’ve done that and gotten the $20,000 or whatever that was, and all of the years that it gets played on DVD and around the world. But I just didn’t want it.
And in the mid-’90s, we got a call from Pfizer, who wanted to use the song “Rise” for Viagara. I think they were banking on the older people who would be using Viagara to remember “Rise.” And they were going to use it in the commercial, “Get a RISE out of Viagara…” as the song was playing. I shut that down. It was easy to turn down for longevity of the record.
You know, my two 17-year-olds and their friends think I’m the coolest guy, the coolest 62-year-old. There’s something that’s pretty cool about passing music on to generations. And I’ll tell you, when I was a kid, I was listening to -- like everybody -- The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals. And when I would read New Musical Express or Billboard, when I would read that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and Eric Burdon's favorites were Muddy Waters and Blind Lemon Jefferson and all of these black American blues people, that made me go to listen to those records. Those people passed that gift on to me. So it’s so cool that “Rise” got passed on to a hip-hop generation, which then gets passed on to some other generation.