The second week of March will always be a somber time for hip-hop enthusiasts as it marks the sudden passing of The Notorious B.I.G. amidst a barrage of gunfire while the once-in-a-generation rapper was riding in a SUV in Los Angeles on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and South Fairfax Avenue.
At the time, Biggie had risen to the heights of rap stardom – blooming into a rare breed of emcee who was commercially successful – but not at the expense of his cunning wordplay which also endeared him to fans of the underground.
Many also forget that he was only 24 years old at the time of his death – surely robbing the world of a discography that would be second-to-none in a contemporary context.
In today’s world, tools like social media aid would-be stars in showcasing their talents across various platforms that award brevity and universality above all else. In 1988, those tools didn’t exist. If a person wanted to “make it,” they had nothing to lean on but physical talent and a little bit of luck.
As he so vividly layed out on classic albums like Ready to Die and Life After Death, Wallace dropped out of high school in favor of selling drugs after discovering that he was to become a father.
Although the choice to chase cash instead of book knowledge seemed like a logical choice for someone who knew there would be an extra mouth to feed, the very circumstances of how New York City was operating at the time also impacted who sought out the quick buck – and how a new product for sale was unlike anything the drug-seeking public had ever seen before.
According to the Village Voice, budget cuts from the 1970s, when New York City was almost bankrupt, forced the NYPD to lay off nearly a third of its officers from 1975 to 1982. As a result, drug dealers were allowed to operate with less police interference than ever before.
“So now, all of a sudden, you have got a product that is saleable to a mass new audience,” Robert Strutman, a former New York city DEA agent, told PBS Frontline in 2000. “And that is what the New York drug peddlers did. They mass-merchandized cocaine.”
In the 2009 biopic, Notorious, Biggie is depicted selling drugs to a pregnant addict despite the moral objections from his peers. Although a decidedly negative depiction, his mother, Violetta Wallace – who cooperated in the making of the film – believed it was important to note what her son was really like prior to starting his professional rap career.
“I wanted this to be real, I did not want to obliterate the negatives and focus on the positives,” she said.
Despite having a “day job” that inevitably assured most opportunists an extended period of time in the penitentiary, Biggie was also cultivating a reputation as an emcee as well.
“I started working with Big in ’91. I was 21, he was 15,” said DJ 50 Grand, Biggie’s first DJ. “I met him through a friend of mine. They hustled together on Bedford and Quincy. People in the neighborhood knew him as the hottest rapper around. Everybody that stepped in his path, he ate ’em up.”
Despite his reputation in the musical realm in Bed-Stuy, eventually the long arm of the law caught up with Wallace.
According to The New York Times, “At age 17, he was arrested on a cocaine-dealing charge in North Carolina and spent nine months in jail while waiting to make bail.”
Following his incarceration, Biggie returned to Bed-Stuy where he refocused his attention on a career opportunity that would allow him more longevity. The more people heard his command on the mic, the more his legend grew in the borough. Specifically, it was a chance encounter between a then 17-year-old Biggie and another local rapper, Supreme, that really cemented his cult status.
“He earned that stripe from that one battle he had on Bedford and Quincy,” DJ 50 Grand remembered. “I was the one that was playing the music. This man used to live right upstairs from the pool room. Every day in the summer we’d play the music out. It just so happened that Big came around, so we brought the grill out, we brought the music out. They got on the mic and went at it. It went on from there. Cars stopped, it got real crowded out there. We rocked it ’til 12, one o’clock that night. It was a good look. Everybody that came at his back, he took out.”
Ten years after Biggie’s death, the footage of the microphone assault eventually found its way into the 2007 documentary film, Notorious B.I.G. Bigger Than Life. Since YouTube was still only two years old at the time, dusty classics like the rap battle between Biggie and Supreme weren’t as readily uploaded for public conception as they are today.
While most looked at the footage as a somber reminder that the world had been stripped of a great rap talent, another prominent participant in the battle had a decidedly different reaction to seeing the clip go viral.
In 2008, William Troy McCune (Supreme), the rapper pitted against Biggie, filed a $5 million USD lawsuit against producers of the film, saying he suffered “irreparable harm, mental distress, and disturbance of his peace of mind.”
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