Christopher George Latore Wallace (May 21, 1972 – March 9, 1997), best known as The Notorious B.I.G., was an American rapper of Jamaican parents. He was also known as Biggie Smalls (after a character in the 1975 film Let’s Do It Again), Big Poppa, and The Black Frank White (after the main character of the 1990 film King of New York).
Wallace was raised in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. When Wallace released his debut album Ready to Die in 1994, he became a central figure in the East Coast hip-hop scene and increased New York’s visibility at a time when West Coast artists were more common in the mainstream. The following year, Wallace led his childhood friends to chart success through his protégé group, Junior M.A.F.I.A. While recording his second album, Wallace was heavily involved in the East Coast/West Coast hip-hop feud, dominating the scene at the time.
On March 9, 1997, Wallace was killed by an unknown assailant in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. His double-disc set Life After Death, released 15 days later, hit #1 on the U.S. album charts and was certified Diamond in 2000 (one of the few hip hop albums to receive this certification). Wallace was noted for his “loose, easy flow”, dark semi-autobiographical lyrics and storytelling abilities. Since his death, a further two albums have been released. MTV ranked him at #3 on their list of The Greatest MCs (Rappers) of All Time. He has certified sales of 17 million units in the United States.
Born in St. Mary’s Hospital, despite later claiming to be raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Wallace grew up in neighboring Clinton Hill. Wallace was the only child of Voletta Wallace, a Jamaican preschool teacher, and George Latore, a welder and small-time Jamaican politician. His father left the family when Wallace was two years old, leaving his mother to work two jobs while raising him. At the Queen of All Saints Middle School, Wallace excelled in class, winning several awards as an English student. He was nicknamed “Big” because of his size before he turned 10. At the age of 12, he began selling drugs. His mother, often away at work, did not know that her son was selling drugs until Wallace was an adult.
At his request, Wallace transferred out of the private Roman Catholic Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School to attend the state-funded George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School. Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes were also students at that school. According to his mother, Wallace was still a good student, but developed a “smart-ass” attitude at the new school. At seventeen, Wallace dropped out of high school and became further involved in crime. In 1989, he was arrested on weapons charges in Brooklyn and sentenced to five years’ probation. In 1990, he was arrested on a violation of his probation. A year later, Wallace was arrested in North Carolina for dealing crack cocaine. He spent nine months behind bars until he made bail.
Wallace began rapping when he was a teenager. He would entertain people on the streets as well as perform with local groups, the Old Gold Brothers and the Techniques. After being released from prison, Wallace made a demo tape under the name Biggie Smalls, a reference to his childhood nickname and to his stature; he stood at 6′ 3″ (1.91 m) and weighed as much as 300 to 380 pounds according to differing accounts. The tape was reportedly made with no serious intent of getting a recording deal, but was promoted by New York-based DJ Mister Cee, who had previously worked with Big Daddy Kane, and was heard by the editor of The Source.
In March 1992, Wallace featured in The Source’s Unsigned Hype column, dedicated to aspiring rappers, and was invited to produce a recording with other unsigned artists in a move that was reportedly uncommon at the time. The demo tape was heard by Uptown Records A&R and record producer, Sean Combs, who arranged for a meeting with Wallace. He was signed to Uptown immediately and made an appearance on label mates, Heavy D & the Boyz’ “A Buncha Niggas” (from the album Blue Funk). Soon after signing his recording contract, Combs was fired from Uptown and started a new label. Wallace followed and in mid-1992, signed to Combs’ new imprint label, Bad Boy Records. On August 8, 1993, Wallace’s longtime girlfriend gave birth to his first child, T’yanna. Wallace continued selling drugs after the birth to support his daughter financially. Once Combs discovered this, he was made to quit.
Wallace gained exposure later in the year on a remix to Mary J. Blige’s single “Real Love”, under the pseudonym The Notorious B.I.G., the name he would record under for the remainder of his career, after finding the original moniker “Biggie Smalls” was already in use. “Real Love” peaked at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was followed by a remix of Blige’s “What’s the 411?”. He continued this success, to a lesser extent, on remixes with Neneh Cherry (“Buddy X”) and reggae artist Super Cat (“Dolly My Baby”, also featuring Combs) in 1993. In April 1993, his solo track, “Party and Bullshit”, appeared on the Who’s the Man? soundtrack. In July 1994, he appeared alongside LL Cool J and Busta Rhymes on a remix to label mate Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear”, reaching #9 on the Hot 100.
Ready to Die and marriage
On August 4, 1994, Wallace married singer Faith Evans after they met at a Bad Boy photoshoot. Four days later, Wallace had his first pop chart success as a solo artist with double A-side, “Juicy/Unbelievable”, which reached #27 as the lead single to his debut album. Ready to Die was released on September 13, 1994, and reached #13 on the Billboard 200 chart, eventually being certified four times Platinum. The album, released at a time when West Coast hip hop was prominent in the U.S. charts, according to Rolling Stone, “almost single-handedly… shifted the focus back to East Coast rap”. It gained strong reviews on release and has received much praise in retrospect. In addition to “Juicy”, the record produced two hit singles; the Platinum-selling “Big Poppa”, which reached #1 on the U.S. rap chart, and “One More Chance” featuring Faith Evans, a loosely related remix of an album track and its best selling single.
Junior M.A.F.I.A. and coastal feud
In August 1995, Wallace’s protegé group, Junior M.A.F.I.A. (“Junior Masters At Finding Intelligent Attitudes”), released their debut album Conspiracy. The group consisting of his friends from childhood and included rappers such as Lil’ Kim and Lil’ Cease, who went on to have solo careers. The record went Gold and its singles, “Player’s Anthem” and “Get Money” both featuring Wallace, went Gold and Platinum. Wallace continued to work with R&B artists, collaborating with Bad Boy groups 112 (on “Only You”) and Total (on “Can’t You See”), with both reaching the top 20 of the Hot 100. By the end of the year, Wallace was the top-selling male solo artist and rapper on the U.S. pop and R&B charts. In July 1995, he appeared on the cover of The Source with the caption “The King of New York Takes Over”. At the Source Awards in August 1995, he was named Best New Artist (Solo), Lyricist of the Year, Live Performer of the Year, and his debut Album of the Year. At the Billboard Awards, he was Rap Artist of the Year.
In his year of success, Wallace became involved in a rivalry between the East and West Coast hip-hop scenes with Tupac Shakur, his former associate. In an interview with Vibe in April 1995, while serving time in Clinton Correctional Facility, Shakur accused Uptown Records’ founder Andre Harrell, Sean Combs, and Wallace of having prior knowledge of a robbery that resulted in him being shot repeatedly and losing thousands of dollars worth of jewelry on the night of November 30, 1994. Though Wallace and his entourage were in the same Manhattan-based recording studio at the time of the occurrence, they denied the accusation. “ It just happened to be a coincidence that he was in the studio. He just, he couldn’t really say who really had something to do with it at the time. So he just kinda’ leaned the blame on me. ” Following release from prison, Shakur signed to Death Row Records on October 15, 1995. Bad Boy Records and Death Row, now business rivals, became involved in an intense quarrel.
Arrests, Shakur’s death and second child
Wallace began recording his second record album in September 1995. The album, recorded in New York, Trinidad and Los Angeles, was interrupted during its 18 months of creation by injury, legal wranglings and the highly publicized hip hop dispute in which he was involved. During this time, he also worked with pop singer Michael Jackson for the HIStory album.
On March 23, 1996, Wallace was arrested outside a Manhattan nightclub for chasing and threatening to kill two autograph seekers, smashing the windows of their taxicab and then pulling one of the fans out and punching them. He pleaded guilty to second-degree harassment and was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. In mid-1996, he was arrested at his home in Teaneck, New Jersey, for drug and weapons possession charges.
In June 1996, Shakur released “Hit ‘Em Up”, a diss song in which he explicitly claimed to have had sex with Wallace’s wife (at the time estranged) and that Wallace copied his style and image. Wallace referred to the first claim about his wife’s pregnancy on Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn’s Finest” where he raps: “If Faye (Faith Evans, his wife at the time) have twins, she’d probably have two ‘Pacs. Geddit? 2Pac’s?”. However, Wallace did not directly respond to the record during his lifetime, stating in a 1997 radio interview that it was “not [his] style” to respond.
Shakur was shot multiple times in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada, on September 7, 1996, and died six days later of complications from the gunshot wounds. Rumors of Wallace’s involvement with Shakur’s murder were reported almost immediately, and later in a two-part article by investigative reporter Chuck Philips in the Los Angeles Times in September 2002. Wallace denied the allegation claiming he was in a New York recording studio at the time. The Los Angeles Times later determined the article written by Philips “relied heavily on information that The Times no longer believes to be credible”, including false FBI reports, and the paper published a retraction. Following his death, an anti-violence hip hop summit was held.
On October 29, 1996, Faith Evans gave birth to Wallace’s son, Christopher “C.J.” Wallace, Jr. The following month Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Lil’ Kim released her debut album, Hard Core, under Wallace’s direction while the two were involved in an apparent love affair. During the recording sessions for his second record, tentatively named “Life After Death… ‘Til Death Do Us Part”, later shortened to Life After Death, Wallace was involved in a car accident that shattered his left leg and confined him to a wheelchair. The injury forced him to use a cane.
March 1997 shooting and death
Wallace traveled to California in February 1997, to promote his upcoming album and record a music video for its lead single, “Hypnotize”. On March 5, 1997, he gave a radio interview with The Dog House on KYLD in San Francisco. In the interview he stated that he had hired security since he feared for his safety; this was because he was a celebrity figure in general, not because he was a rapper. Life After Death was scheduled for release on March 25, 1997. On January 8, 1997, Biggie Smalls and Sean “Puffy” Combs made a video “What’s Beef” which was directed by Dave Meyers. On March 8, 1997, he presented an award to Toni Braxton at the 11th Annual Soul Train Music Awards in Los Angeles and was booed by some of the audience. After the ceremony, Wallace attended an after party hosted by Vibe magazine and Qwest Records at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Other guests included Faith Evans, Aaliyah, Sean Combs, and members of the Bloods and Crips gangs.
On March 9, 1997, at around 12:30 a.m., Wallace left with his entourage in two GMC Suburbans to return to his hotel after the Fire Department closed the party early because of overcrowding. Wallace traveled in the front passenger seat alongside his associates, Damion “D-Roc” Butler, Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Lil’ Cease and driver, Gregory “G-Money” Young. Combs traveled in the other vehicle with three bodyguards. The two trucks were trailed by a Chevrolet Blazer carrying Bad Boy’s director of security.
By 12:45 a.m., the streets were crowded with people leaving the event. Wallace’s truck stopped at a red light 50 yards (46 m) from the museum. A black Chevrolet Impala SS pulled up alongside Wallace’s truck. The driver of the Impala, an African American male dressed in a blue suit and bow tie, rolled down his window, drew a 9 mm blue-steel pistol and fired at the GMC Suburban; four bullets hit Wallace in the chest. Wallace’s entourage rushed him to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, but he was pronounced dead at 1:15 a.m.
Fifteen days after his death, Wallace’s double-disc second album was released as planned with the shortened title of Life After Death and hit #1 on the Billboard 200 charts, after making a premature appearance at #176 due to street-date violations. The record album featured a much wider range of guests and producers than its predecessor. It gained strong reviews and in 2000 was certified Diamond, the highest RIAA certification awarded to a solo hip hop album.
Its lead single, “Hypnotize”, was the last music video recording in which Wallace would participate. His biggest chart success was with its follow-up “Mo Money Mo Problems”, featuring Sean Combs (under the rap alias “Puff Daddy”) and Mase. Both singles reached #1 in the Hot 100, making Wallace the first artist to achieve this feat posthumously. The third single, “Sky’s The Limit”, featuring the band 112, was noted for its use of children in the music video, directed by Spike Jonze, who were used to portray Wallace and his contemporaries, including Sean Combs, Lil’ Kim, and Busta Rhymes. Wallace was named Artist of the Year and “Hypnotize” Single of the Year by Spin magazine in December 1997.
In mid-1997, Combs released his debut album, No Way Out, which featured Wallace on five songs, notably on the third single “Victory”. The most prominent single from the record album was “I’ll Be Missing You”, featuring Combs, Faith Evans and 112, which was dedicated to Wallace’s memory. At the 1998 Grammy Awards, Life After Death and its first two singles received nominations in the rap category. The album award was won by Combs’ No Way Out and “I’ll Be Missing You” won the award in the category of Best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group in which “Mo Money Mo Problems” was nominated.
Wallace had founded a hip hop supergroup called The Commission, which consisted of Jay-Z, Lil’ Cease, Combs, Charli Baltimore and himself. The Commission was mentioned by Wallace in the lyrics of “What’s Beef” on Life After Death and “Victory” from No Way Out but never completed an album. A song on Duets: The Final Chapter titled “Whatchu Want (The Commission)” featuring Jay-Z was based on the group.
In December 1999, Bad Boy released Born Again. The record consisted of previously unreleased material mixed with guest appearances including many artists Wallace had never collaborated with in his lifetime. It gained some positive reviews but received criticism for its unlikely pairings; The Source describing it as “compiling some of the most awkward collaborations of his career”. Nevertheless, the album sold 3 million copies. Over the course of time, Wallace’s vocals would appear on hit songs such as “Foolish” by Ashanti and “Realest Niggas” in 2002, and the song “Runnin’ (Dying to Live)” with Shakur the following year. He also appeared on Michael Jackson’s 2001 album, Invincible. In 2005, Duets: The Final Chapter continued the pattern started on Born Again and was criticized for the lack of significant vocals by Wallace on some of its songs. Its lead single “Nasty Girl” became Wallace’s first UK #1 single. Combs and Voletta Wallace have stated the album will be the last release primarily featuring new material.
Wallace is celebrated as one of the greatest rap artists and is described by Allmusic as “the savior of East Coast hip-hop”. The Source and Blender named Wallace the greatest rapper of all time. In 2003, when XXL magazine asked several hip hop artists to list their five favorite MCs, Wallace’s name appeared on more rappers’ lists than anyone else. In 2006, he was ranked at #3 in MTV’s The Greatest MC’s of All Time.
Since his death, Wallace’s lyrics have been sampled and quoted by a variety of hip hop, R&B and pop artists including Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Alicia Keys, Fat Joe, Nelly, Ja Rule, Eminem, Lil Wayne, Game, Clinton Sparks, Michael Jackson and Usher. On August 28, 2005, at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards, Sean Combs (then using the rap alias “P. Diddy”) and Snoop Dogg paid tribute to Wallace: an orchestra played while the vocals from “Juicy” and “Warning” played on the arena speakers. In September 2005, VH1 had its second annual “Hip Hop Honors”, with a tribute to Wallace headlining the show.
The Christopher Wallace Memorial Foundation holds an annual black-tie dinner (“B.I.G. Night Out”) to raise funds for children’s school equipment and supplies and to honor the memory of the late rapper. For this particular event, because it is a children’s schools’ charity, “B.I.G.” is also said to stand for “Books Instead of Guns”.
Notorious is a 2009 biographical film about Wallace and his life that starred rapper Jamal “Gravy” Woolard as Wallace. The film was directed by George Tillman, Jr. and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Producers included Sean “Diddy” Combs, Wallace’s former managers Wayne Barrow and Mark Pitts, as well as Voletta Wallace. On January 16, 2009, the movie’s debut at the Grand 18 theater in Greensboro, North Carolina was postponed after a man was shot in the parking lot before the show. Ultimately, the film grossed over $43,000,000 worldwide.