Obituary: Notorious B.I.G.

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The Independent Online
Last Friday, British record executives and media were treated to an exclusive playback of Notorious B.I.G.'s forthcoming album, Life After Death. On it was a track called "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Kills You)" which the New York rapper dedicated to his rival the late Tupac Shakur who was murdered in Las Vegas in September last year.

Yesterday came the news that Notorious B.I.G. had himself been gunned down as he left a party in California. As in a bad movie, life imitates art and rap repeats itself.

Born Christopher Wallace 24 years ago, B.I.G. grew up in the Bedford Stuyvesant area, one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Brooklyn, New York. His childhood was bleak, surrounded by crackheads and drug dealers. Indeed, by his teens, Notorious B.I.G. had fallen for the life style that was all around him. "Hustlers were my heroes," he later admitted. "Everything happened on the strip I grew up in. It didn't matter where you went, it was all in your face." The rapper did it all: hanging around street corners, acting as a look-out, making deals. Soon, the fun and games took a darker turn. The police and rival gangs were after him and several of his friends got shot and ended up in coffins.

When he wasn't dealing, the young Chris was making music. As Biggie Smalls, he rapped with the Old Gold Brothers crew and borrowed a couple of turntables, a mike, a mixer and a cassette deck to do some scratching and record himself over the breakbits. Word got around the neighbourhood and a tape landed in the hands of Big Daddy Kane's Mister Cee. The DJ passed the demo on to an editor at the Source, America's No 1 hip-hop magazine. Wallace was featured in the "Unsigned Hype" column and was then introduced to Sean "Puffy" Combs, the maverick figure behind Bad Boy Entertainment.

By 1993, the rapper had become Notorious B.I.G. and was guesting on Mary J. Blige's "Real Love" and Supercat's "Dolly My Baby". The strategy was already paying off but, to gain further exposure, B.I.G. recorded "Party and Bullshit", which was included in the soundtrack to the movie Who's the Man.

The following year the rapper completed his debut album, the prophetically titled Ready To Die, which chronicled his transition from a life of crime to the rap rhymes. Singles like "Juicy", "One More Chance" and "Big Poppa" reached the Billboard top five, the last track earning the rap single of the year award from the publication. The album went platinum, selling over a million copies in the US. B.I.G. was also voted Best New Artist, Best Live Performer and Lyricist of the Year by the Source, the magazine which had given him his first break. On a rare UK visit, he proved himself the equal of the swingbeat star R. Kelly, whom he was supporting at Wembley arena. He was in even more stellar company, guesting on Michael Jackson's HIStory - Past, Present and Future Book 1.

But, if you could take the rapper out of the neighbourhood you couldn't take the hood out of the rapper. B.I.G. formed a group called M.A.F.I.A. with some of his former hustler friends and appeared on their Conspiracy album.

In May 1995 he allegedly beat up a man in a dispute over a cancelled performance in New Jersey. The argument was eventually settled with a $25,000 pay-off this January. Last year, B.I.G. wielded a baseball bat to autograph hunters and was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. A few months later, police checking a parking complaint found marijuana and firearms at Wallace's New Jersey home. In the autumn, Brooklyn patrol caught B.I.G. smoking a joint in a parked car and charged him with drug possession.

But, worst of all was the long-running feud between Notorious B.I.G., Sean Combs and Bad Boy on one side and Tupac Shakur, Marion "Suge" Knight and Death Row records on the other. Shakur was convinced that Wallace was somehow involved in a 1994 robbery in which Shakur was wounded and robbed of $40,000-worth of jewellery. The dispute festered and became an open wound between the East Coast and West Coast scene. After Shakur's murder in Las Vegas, Notorious B.I.G. was one of the few hip-hop stars not involved in the rap peace summit in Harlem.

However, with the forthcoming release of Life After Death (featuring guests like Lil' Kim), Wallace seemed ready to face up to his ghosts and make amends. Tracks like "Notorious Thugs" (with Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony) and "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Kills You)" indicate as much. The sleeve depicting the rapper standing next to a hearse with a B.I.G. numberplate will no doubt become the subject of much analysis and controversy by a hip-hop scene in which some people still maintain that Tupac Shakur faked his own death.

As Notorious B.I.G. told Billboard magazine last week: "I bring the problems and the situations that I've been through in my life into my music. "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Kills You)" is my favourite track. I like what the hook is saying.

"It brings to mind the expression `You'll miss me when I'm gone'."

Pierre Perrone

Christopher Wallace (Notorious B.I.G.), rap artist: born 1972; died Los Angeles 8 March 1997.