On the 17th anniversary of the tragic death of The Notorious B.I.G., VIBE goes back to its May 1997 cover story, ‘Chronicle Of A Death Foretold,’ where the rapper’s passing is examined and mourned.
‘Chronicle Of A Death Foretold’
by Cheo Hodari Coker
Exactly six months ago, with our November issue on its way to the printer, we received word that Tupac Shakur had died in Las Vegas after being shot in a drive-by. This time, again as the presses were about to roll, we were hit with more terrible news: Th e Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, born Christopher Wallace, had been shot and killed while driving away from a party cosponsored by VIBE at an L.A. nightclub.
This latest tragedy came a week after Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight had been sentenced to nine years in prison for parole violation. In just a few short months, two extraordinarily talented young men who were at the center of the stupid and overhyped rivalry between Death Row and Bad Boy, played out so extensively in our pages over the past year, were dead, and another was behind bars.
This month we had planned a special Sex issue, an exploration of matters of the heart and the flesh. It’s our intention that VIBE cover the whole spectrum of urban culture, including the fun stuff. But as long as our icons keep dying in bursts of gunfire, that kind of fun needs to take a back seat so we can begin rebuilding. As soon as we heard about Biggie, we knew that this issue’s cover had to change. The juxtaposition of these grim stories-Biggie’s murder, Suge’s incarceration-with the remnants of our Sex issue may seem strange, but it’s no stranger than the situation we find ourselves in: We set out to write about sex but ended up, once again, having to confront death.
There’s a wonderful diversity of individuals in the hip hop community, and in that diversity lies strength. We all need to come together and take responsibility for ourselves and for each other before more lives are lost. If we simply allow things to stay as they are, if we’re afraid to take a moral stand, there will be blood on all of our hands. We have passed the point for words; now is the time for action and change.
Let us all pray that this is the last time we at VIBE have to cover the murders of our music’s heroes.
Our deepest condolences go out to the Wallace family, Bad Boy Entertainment, and all of Biggie’s fans.
Everything was looking good for Biggie Smalls on March 8. It was a warm and sunny L.A. Saturday, and he was chillin’ like a star. The big man had spent much of the day with his agent, Phil Casey, discussing his upcoming tour with Dru Hill, BLACKstreet, and Heavy D. The day before, he’d presented a Soul Train Award to Toni Braxton before spending the evening in his plush hotel suite, watching the awards show on TV, and talking with a journalist about how far he’d come in his 24 years.
When Biggie showed up at the Peterson Automotive Museum in L.A.’s Mid-Wilshire district Saturday night for a party cosponsored by VIBE, Qwest Records, and Tanqueray, he was dipped in a black suede shirt, a gold chain with a Jesus pendant, and clear-framed wraparound shades. He looked confident and relaxed, a long black cane supporting the slight limp he’d acquired in an automobile accident six months before.
“The party was a nice scene, especially after the stress of the Soul Train Awards,” said Kevin Kim, security guard for Big’s ex-wife, Faith Evans. “Nothing but celebs there, people having a good time. Everybody was dancin’ together; artists hugging each other, congratulating each other on the awards they won.” Shortly before midnight, the DJ blew up the spot with Big’s new single, “Hypnotize.”
“I was sitting across from Biggie for most of the night,” said Def Jam president and CEO Russell Simmons. “I was throwin’ paper at him, tellin’ him how much I liked his record. These girls were dancin’ for him, and he was just sittin’ there, not even movin’ his cane. I told him I wanted to be like him. He was so cool, so funny and calm.”
At around 12:35 a.m., fire marshals shut down the party, apparently because of overcrowding. People filed out into the parking structure connected to the museum and found their rides. After bumping some tracks from his then unreleased album, Life After Death:’Til Death Do Us Part , Biggie got into the front-passenger seat of a GMC Suburban. His man D-Rock was driving. Little Caesar from Junior M.A.F.I.A., Big’s own lyrical cartel, was in the back. When they turned out of the lot onto Fairfax, they were traveling in a line of three cars. Directly in front of them was another Suburban containing members of Biggie’s entourage; behind them, a Blazer with personal security guards.
According to police, the three cars had slowed to a stop at the first intersection, Fairfax and Wilshire, when a dark sedan pulled up along the right-hand side of Biggie’s vehicle and someone fired six to 10 shots from a 9mm weapon. Biggie lost consciousness immediately after being shot. He was rushed to nearby Cedars-Sinai Hospital and pronounced dead at 1:15 a.m. Bad Boy Entertainment president Puffy Combs and Faith were both at the hospital when the announcement was made.
The LAPD’s Lt. Ross Moen said that the Blazer with Big’s security guards chased the dark sedan for a couple of blocks but lost sight of it without getting a license plate number. At press time, the department had assigned 22 detectives to the case and was interviewing 200 witnesses. According to Moen, they had some solid leads but could describe the suspect only as “male, black, early twenties.”
“We’re not ruling out the fact that this was possibly a hit,” said Moen at a press conference the day after the murder. “We’re investigating possible connections to other murders in New York, Atlanta, and L.A. We can’t ignore the fact that there have been a number of murders involving rap singers recently.” Moen said also that they were looking into the possibility of the killing being gang-related, but he wouldn’t elaborate.
“This was a hit, something preplanned,” said one Compton resident a day after the murder. “And there’s going to be a few more hits.” According to another source, the hit was pulled off by gang members who came to the party in the entourage of a well-known rap artist and coordinated the shooting over cell phones. Another report put an individual outside the party with a cell phone saying, “He’s comin’ out now,” as Biggie left the party.
Various industry insiders have speculated that the killing had more to do with personal beefs than with rap itself, but that it’s now spilling over into the music. “Puffy thought it was all calmed down out here,” says Phil Casey. “But at Soul Train there were boos, and they were throwin’ up Westside from the balcony. That should have been a sign right there.”
Sources close to Bad Boy and Death Row dismissed widespread speculation that Wallace’s slaying was payback for Tupac’s murder. “It’s ludicrous for anyone out there to blame Death Row,” said Norris Anderson, who took over as label head after Suge Knight wa s jailed. “We do not condone this activity, and Death Row certainly had nothing to do with it.”
“It didn’t have nothin’ to do with East-West rivalry, but it does now,” says one former Death Row artist. “I heard somebody say it’s over now. How can it be? Now you’re gonna have muthafuckas from the East who gonna just start to shoot at muthafuckas from the West. It shouldn’t have to be this way;doesn’t make no goddamn sense.”
September 27, 1994; nightfall
The Notorious B.I.G. sits on the front stoop of a brownstone near the corner of St. James Place and Fulton Street in Do-or-Die-Bed-Stuy. His first album, Ready to Die (which would eventually go double platinum), has been in stores for just over a week, and already every car that passes seems to be playing a different cut. Today Brooklyn; tomorrow-who knows?
As twilight slips into darkness, Big calmly recounts his life story in the same ultrarealistic terms that made his album so damn compelling. As he talks of his own criminal days-doing everything from subway robberies to selling crack to pregnant moms-his eyes begin to fire up. Not with anger, but as if he’s watching each episode unfold with the telling.
“When I say I’m Ready to Die, people may be, like, `Oh, he’s on some killing himself shit,’ ” says Biggie. “That’s not what I meant.” He pulls out a lighter, flicks it, and brings the flame up toward his lips, where a tightly rolled blunt awaits his attention.
“I meant that I was willing to go all out a hundred percent as far as the music was concerned. When I was hustlin’, I was doing that shit every day-waking up, putting drugs in my pocket, and not even thinking about the police, stickup men, or my competition. I was riskin’ my life, so that meant I was ready to die.”
Even at this early stage of his career, it was already clear that Brooklyn couldn’t contain Biggie much longer. “Juicy,” one of the weaker tracks on the album, was leaping the Billboard charts with alarming speed. The cream of his dreams was within reach: fantasy houses in the country, girls in the pool. And then what?
As he talks, Biggie’s eyes suddenly widen with fear. He actually seems frightened at the thought of leaving Brooklyn.
“How real can your music be if you wake up in the morning hearing birds and crickets? I never hear birds when I wake up. Just a lot of construction work, the smell of Chinese takeout, children screaming, and everybody knocking a different track from Ready to Die as they pass down the street,” he says. “Brooklyn is the love borough. Everywhere you go, we’re already there.”
I ask if it’s true that he’s just gotten married. Biggie turns his head from the street and looks into my eyes before telling me about Faith. “When you start hustlin’, you get introduced to shit real fast,” he says. “You be gettin’ pussy real quick, because you be fuckin’ the users sometimes. I done had every kind of bitch. Young bitch, old bitch, users, mothers, grandmothers, dumb bitches-and I never, ever met no girl like my wife. She talks to me like nobody else talked to me before. When I first saw her, she was killing me with those eyes. I rolled up to her and said, You’re the type of girl I would marry. She said, `Why don’t you?’ So I was like, Fuck it, it’s on. We had only known each other eight days.”
I ask him if that wasn’t kind of soon. “She ain’t speaking to me right now,” he says with a smile, “but it’s all good.”
When we met again almost three years later, Big and Faith’s marriage wasn’t all good. They had been involved in a messy separation that got played out in the press. Tupac’s B-side “Hit ‘Em Up,” in which he called Big a “fat muthafucka” and claimed to have slept with Faith, couldn’t have helped them work things out.
Biggie clears up the misinformation in matter-of-fact tones: “People was like, `When she stopped fuckin’ with Big, she started fuckin’ with Tupac, and Big started fuckin’ with Lil’ Kim.’ That’s the summary of the Biggie Smalls/ Faith shit right there. But we wasn’t fuckin’ with each other way before the rumors popped off.
“I married her after knowing her eight days and I was happy,” he says. “That was my baby. At the same time, with us being so spontaneous, we did it backwards. Maybe she won’t admit it, but I will. We should have got to know each other and then got married . The relationship kind of dissolved, but we’re still going to be friends. I love her. We have a baby together, and we’re always gonna love our kids. Who knows? Ten years from now we might even get back together.”
I ask the baby’s name. “Christopher Jordan Wallace,” Big proudly replies. And what of his sarcastic comments on wax, like the line on “Brooklyn’s Finest,” his duet with Jaÿ-Z? “If Fay has twins, she’ll probably have two pacs. Get it? Tu…Pac’s.”
Biggie laughs deep, long, and hard. “I got to make jokes about the shit,” he says, his stomach damn near jiggling. “I can’t be the nigga running around all serious. The shit is so funny to me because nobody will ever know the truth. They’ll always believe what they want to believe. ‘Pac says he fucked her. I asked Faith, You fucked him? She said no. I can’t get to ask him about it. So am I gonna hate her for the rest of her life thinking she did something, or am I gonna be a man about the situation? If she did it, she can’t do it no more, so let’s just get on with our lives. I hold grudges but I can’t hate nobody, that’s not my nature.”
Born Christopher Wallace to Jamaican parents, the man who would one day call himself the Notorious B.I.G. had strikes against him from the moment he checked into this world on May 21, 1972.
His father left his mother when he was just one and a half. Other than pictures in a scrapbook, Biggie had no tender memories of him. “I didn’t know him and I don’t want to know him,” he says coldly. “Moms should have just pushed him off and not even had me if he wasn’t going to handle his business. I couldn’t even speak to him. I don’t need that cocksucker for nothing.”
So little Christopher grew up with his mother in Brooklyn and spent the first 22 years of his life on St. James Place. Working two jobs and attending night school, Voletta Wallace remained a stable presence in her son’s life. She tried her best to shield her sensitive, introspective child from the streets.
The only problem was that nobody was protecting the streets from young Wallace. Way before he hooked up with Puff Daddy, Biggie already had visions of becoming a bad boy. “I was a sneaky motherfucker, I guess,” he says with a laugh. “I was real, real bad. You know what made it worse? Motherfuckers would tell my mother that I did something, and she just wouldn’t believe them. `Not my Christopher,’ she would say.”
One of Big’s earliest interests was art; but growing up young, black, and poor, he found there was little he could do in that field that would change his everyday reality. “Back in third grade they used to say, `Take whatever talent you have and think of something you can do with it,’ ” he recalls. “I liked to draw, but what could I do with it? Maybe I could be an art dealer-nah, can’t see myself doing that. Maybe I could do commercial arts? But once I got introduced to the crack game-commercial arts? Please.”
At 13, he was schooled in the game by a member of the Junior M.A.F.I.A. clique (the street gang the rap group took their name from), and things started rolling quickly. In the space of a few weeks he went from begging his mother for ice cream money to never having less that $700 in his pocket, and all the designer gear he could imagine.