The rise of the Notorious B.I.G. brought a significant shift in hip-hop’s mid-’90s landscape, setting the stage for so much of how the world would see the genre going forward. The man born Christopher Wallace was a peerless emcee, and his debut is one of the most fully-formed in music history. The way that it changed hip-hop has reverberated for 25 years.
Biggie’s youth as a fledgling drug dealer in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn wasn’t all that different from most of his peers: single-parent households, poverty, and the crack epidemic were hallmarks of his generation. But Wallace was clever and ambitious. And as he began to build a name torching would-be rhymers around Brooklyn and popping up on mixtapes with his DJ 50 Grand, when the right ears heard him, it was only a matter of time before a career was sparked.
The story is well-known: Big Daddy Kane’s DJ Mister Cee heard Biggie on a tape and invited the burgeoning rapper to a showcase for The Source. From there, word got to upstart mogul-in-the-making Sean “Puffy” Combs about the gifted lyricist from Brooklyn. The MC would land some noteworthy early guest appearances on tracks by artists like Super Cat (“Dolly My Baby”) and Heavy D (“A Buncha N—as”), working closely with Combs at Uptown Records.
Uptown CEO Andre Harrell was immediately impressed with B.I.G. “He had a voice that just sounded like it was heavy, funky and rhythmic,” Harrell would tell the New York Times in 1994, just after Ready To Die went Gold. “And it had a lot of personality — like a light on his feet kind of big brother.” But Uptown dropped Biggie after Combs was fired, setting the rapper’s career in limbo. Big was looking to get back to the streets, but Puff’s ambitions were set towards launching his own label, Bad Boy Entertainment. Bad Boy’s run was kickstarted by Mt. Vernon’s Craig Mack, but it would soon become apparent that Puff saw Big as the label’s cornerstone.
“When Puff tells me he’s selling this amount of records a week, I’m like, ‘Is that good?’ All I know is Gold and Platinum,” Biggie told Interview magazine in 1994 after his career was heating up. “And I want to be Platinum. I’m just trying to blow up.”
Biggie would definitely blow up. “Juicy” would be a major success for Bad Boy and for Biggie. The classic breakthrough single was a fixture on MTV and BET in the late summer of 1994, with its Mtume sample (and uncredited production assist from superproducer Pete Rock) carrying Biggie’s semi-autobiographical rags-to-riches tale. The first verse would become as ubiquitous as any in hip-hop, and it made The Notorious B.I.G. a rising star. That development was significant, even as the East Coast’s latest wave of emcees were coming to the forefront. Biggie’s approach would prove to be wildly successful and hugely influential on how New York rappers would approach the mainstream in the post-Death Row Records landscape.
Before the success of Death Row, hip-hop’s most mainstream, crossover-friendly artists tended to be pop-rap superstars like Salt-N-Pepa and Heavy D. More street-oriented or “gangsta” acts may have gained notoriety and respect (and infamy) but they weren’t exactly expected to dominate the radio or sell several million units. But that all changed with the massive popularity of the MC then known as Snoop Doggy Dogg — a rising star as a guest on several classic cuts from Dr. Dre’s epochal 1992 solo debut The Chronic — which culminated in Snoop’s 1993 debut LP Doggystyle becoming the fastest-selling album in rap history. Nonetheless, even with the West Coast’s G-Funk revolution in full swing, the approach of The Chronic (gangsta subject matter over slick, radio-friendly production) hadn’t quite caught fire in the East Coast. At least not yet.
For most of 1993 and into 1994, New York City was suddenly caught in the shadow cast by the West Coast dominance of acts like Snoop, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, 2Pac and Warren G. That’s not to suggest things were stagnant in the Big Apple — Wu-Tang Clan dropped their classic debut Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers in late 1993, and Queens wunderkind Nas made his hotly-anticipated debut with the landmark Illmatic in spring 1994. But despite those successes, there hadn’t been an NYC rap act amongst this new wave that broke as big as the biggest West Coast artists. Not until Biggie dropped his debut album. And it was those hit singles like “Juicy” that rerouted everything.
Released in September 1994, Ready To Die is a lot darker and more nihilistic than its slick singles may convey. Biggie’s rhymes were fiercely personal, relaying the fatalistic worldview and “money over everything” ethos of a Brooklyn corner hustler. The gloom-and-doom of the album title, the constant references to murder and suicide, the sometimes-grimy production from the legendary figures like Easy Mo Bee, DJ Premier and Lord Finesse — in many ways, it flies in the face of the slick sounds of “Juicy” and “Big Poppa.” But it was that balance that set Biggie apart from his East Coast contemporaries, and it was that balance that brought the East Coast back to commercial prominence after those years of the West Coast’s mainstream hypervisibility.
The album’s second single was the Isley Brothers sampling “Big Poppa,” a smash hit that proved Biggie was formidable as a pop star, as it zoomed all the way to the top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100. It gave Biggie the kind of hit that put him over-the-top and pushed Ready To Die to Platinum status. His next single, the DeBarge-sampling “Stay With Me” remix of “One More Chance,” landed all the way at No. 2 on the chart. This dark street rhymer with a macabre sense of humor was now a superstar. New York City finally had its Snoop Doggy Dogg.
In essence, with Puff as a semi-svengali, Biggie, the Brooklyn street rapper with a history of drug dealing and guns, was transformed into Big Poppa, a playerific baller who was as nice with the ladies as he was with moving dope. That slicker, more commercial-friendly image made Biggie something different than what a Nas or a Wu-Tang had been up to that point. It took a Kool G Rap-style emcee and gave him Heavy D-esque commercial viability, setting a new standard for what “hardcore” emcees could do.
After the success of Biggie’s singles and Ready To Die, New York’s mainstream stars would adopt a Bad Boy-esque approach throughout 1995 and 1996: hardcore street raps, with slick, R&B-leaning singles. Everyone from Nas to Jay-Z would have easy-to-spot samples and R&B singers on their singles for the next several years, revitalizing New York’s hip-hop standing as Mafioso rap and, eventually, the “jiggy” era took hold in the mid-to-late ‘90s. None of that happens without Ready To Die.
The aftermath of Biggie’s debut is as unforeseeable as his rise. Just as things were taking off in fall 1994, Biggie’s friend, rapper/actor Tupac Shakur would be shot in an attempted robbery in a Manhattan studio where Biggie was recording. The Quad Studio shooting would spark a war of words between Shakur and Biggie that would mushroom into a so-called East/West rap beef that would dominate headlines in 1995 and 1996. Shakur would become even more infamous and antagonistic towards Biggie over that time, until 2Pac’s murder in September 1996 in Las Vegas. Biggie would be shot down six months later, killed while sitting at a stoplight in Los Angeles after an industry party just before the release of his sophomore album.
It’s impossible to talk about Biggie or 2Pac and not go to their tragic ends, but the legacy of Ready To Die isn’t how it all ended. It’s how it began — or better, how much it kick-started. For many hip-hop fans, Biggie’s emergence is a line in the sand; suddenly, more people were paying attention. Pop and R&B fans were suddenly flocking to buy rap albums, and while he wasn’t the only reason, you have to give some credit to Big Poppa for that. His debut album remains a masterpiece, and despite the fatalism throughout, Ready To Die has ensured that Christopher Wallace will live forever.