CJ Wallace talks about his father Biggie Smalls, launching a music career and his new film Kicks

The son of the infamous rapper The Notorious BIG played his dad in the 2009 biopic. Now stars in Justin Tipping's hip-hop driven coming-of-age tale 'Kicks' 

Kaleem Aftab
Thursday 25 May 2017 13:43 BST
CJ Wallace, the son of Biggie Smalls, is starring in a new comedy 'Kicks' and launching a music career
CJ Wallace, the son of Biggie Smalls, is starring in a new comedy 'Kicks' and launching a music career

It’s hard to think of any actor being given a more difficult debut role than when CJ Wallace was asked to play his father, the infamous rapper The Notorious BIG in the 2009 biopic Notorious. He was just 12 at the time.

Now, at the age of 20, Wallace is back on our screens, playing comic sidekick Albert in Justin Tipping’s film Kicks. In the film Albert is asked to come to the aid of his friend Brandon, after the latter’s prized Nike Air Jordan’s are literally stolen from his feet.

The general rule of nomenclature is that if you have good connections it will land you a job. But director Tipping says he thought twice about employing Wallace because he thought there might be baggage. But in the end he went with his gut instinct that Wallace was simply the best actor for the job.

Best friends Rico (Christopher Meyer), Brandon (Jahking Guillory) and Albert (Wallace) in ‘Kicks’

Meeting Wallace you can see why Tipping thought he was perfect for the happy-go-lucky part. He is relaxed, soft-spoken, humble and light-hearted. So much so that at one stage I tell him that he has a similar aura to Will Smith but without the bravado. To which he just says: “Thanks.”

The rapport between Wallace and director Tipping was strong from the start. “Justin gave me freedom to do what I pleased that helped,” says Wallace. “Obviously, the comedy and the jokiness, that was a given, I already knew and established after reading the script that Albert is the joke of the whole movie. Every time he comes into the scene, it’s punchline time.”

However, he can’t escape his forefathers. What’s remarkable is how at peace with it all he seems. His mother is Faith Evans, a great singer in her own right and the biggest influence on his life. And the other man he calls dad is music executive Todd Russaw.

Wallace played a young version of his father Biggie Smalls in the 2009 biopic about the rapper's life and murder

“It’s a lot I had to deal with,” says Wallace with typical understatement. “People look at me and say you had a lot to deal with.”

It’s not just the death of his biological father. He says he also calls Todd dad, not stepdad. He reels off a list of things that have affected him, both positive and negative.

“Being in Notorious at a young age, at 12 years old, seeing my parents go through a divorce, having a younger brother with special needs, he’s autistic, and a sister that lives 3,000 miles away, it’s a lot to deal with.”

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And even today he can’t escape stories about the drive-by shooting that resulted in his dad’s death on 9 March 1997. The mystery over the still-unsolved murder and the interest surrounding his discord with fellow deceased rapper Tupac Shakur has kept the story continually in the limelight. This fall their will be a new American TV show Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and Notorious BIG. that will fictionalise the investigations into the murders of the hip-hop stars.

Christopher Wallace, who was shot to death in his car in 1997, was better known as Notorious BIG or Biggie Smalls (Rex Features)

Showing a maturity beyond his years, he says: “I don’t think it’s about escaping it. I think it’s about coming to grips. It’s like any other situation. I guess it’s something really hard to talk about.”

But he has learnt to talk about it. And that he says is down to the album he is creating with his younger half-brother Jahad, as part of the rap group CJ and Jahad. It’s Jahad that encouraged him to put his travails into the art, encouraging him to do a course at Santa Monica College and confront his emotions. It is a personal journey that helped them create songs for the forthcoming album.

“We talk about everything we have been through”, he says. “From girls to dealing with our own situation. I have a younger brother who is born with autism and not a lot of people know that. We talk about that too. It’s got to be about everything, being uncomfortable talking about my dad, we have to push the envelope with these uncomfortable conversations.”

He continues: “It’s a true test of character. I need my brother with me, honestly to get into that space. He’s the one person who challenges me mentally. I used to really run from that. That uncomfortable feeling, those uncomfortable conversations and you cannot run from it, over time it eats you.”

Wallace plays a character called Albert in the new film 'Kicks'

So now when it’s mentioned that he looks uncannily like his father, albeit with a more svelte frame, he is able to respond. It’s something that his mother says to him all the time: “You are just like him. And I guess that’s his way of still being here.”

He was exposed to his mother’s music, way before he heard one of his father’s albums. “We had a studio in the basement in our house in Atlanta and my mom recorded most of her Faithfully album there. I think I was five or six, hiding in the studio, putting my ear next to the speaker listening to every song. She’s a huge inspiration.”

Art has helped him to understand his father’s death. It was his grandmother who suggested he should play the young version of his dad in the film Notorious. The experience opened his eyes to the legacy his dad left. “Making that film changed the way that I studied my dad,” he says. “I was curious, but not in the way that I was after I made that film. Before, I wasn’t really questioning things, after I wanted to know things about the Tupac situation. I think if I made that film when I was older, it would not have impacted me personally in the same way.”

Launching his own music career will surely make comparisons to his father more inevitable. He wary of trying to sound like Notorious BIG. but he says it’s impossible: “The struggle is not the same. I’m one to speak to that. I can’t rap about the stuff that my dad went through. People are like, ‘do it like your dad did’, and I say I’m not from Brooklyn though.”

He says if he truly wanted to avoid conversations about his past, he would have become a doctor or a lawyer, rather than pursue a career in entertainment. He sees music and acting as part of the same parcel. It is music that is taken up his time now, but he also dreams that in the future he’ll go to film school and take up directing. He wants to make all the music videos to accompany the songs on his album.

He says we can expect a surprise from the album as he and his brother Jahad are not as front and centre as some might expect. “It’s a group, my brother, myself and this girl named Berekeley. We are going to push her to the front and be the gentleman behind her. Everyone will be surprised and eat it up.”

Being a gentleman. That seems to be Wallace’s forte.

‘Kicks’ will be available on digital download from 22 May

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