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Technique

"My son is a poet, was a poet… Was it filth? Yes, it was filth, some of it was filth. But it was a filthy story, a story that was out there. A story that he wanted to be told" (Biggie and Tupac, 2002). Those are the words of Voletta Wallace, the Notorious B.I.G.'s mother.

As his mother and others pointed out, the story of the Notorious B.I.G. is also the story of Christopher Wallace—but the two are not always identical. Christopher Wallace was the overweight kid who lived most of his life as a young, tough hustler who also rocked Brooklyn street corners and basements with incredible rhymes. Notorious B.I.G., on the other hand, was the big show, the production created by Bad Boy Records and Puffy—a whole package, a whole image. "B.I.G." stood for "Business Instead of Game," a moniker that defined Biggie's transition from street hustler to huge star. Christopher Wallace was a drug-slinging kid; the Notorious B.I.G. was ready to dominate the industry through above-the-table business and serious talent-mongering.

Before he met Sean "Puffy" Combs, Christopher Wallace was not a climber. He was just a great rapper whose day job was dealing drugs. "Guys would come around, and they wanted to rhyme, when they saw Big come around, they didn't wanna touch that mike," said an old friend, recalling the days of street ciphers long before Biggie Smalls was on a record label. At the same time, Biggie sometimes turned down opportunities: "He would say things like, oh this guy want me to make a demo, I gotta eat." He didn't really foresee a life of fame and fortune.

When Sean "Puffy" Combs discovered Biggie, Puffy was an employee at Uptown Records. After Biggie appeared on a Source Magazine "Unsigned Hype" demo (having finally agreed to do a demo), Puffy reached out to find out more about Biggie. The two connected, and Biggie came under Puff's wing at Uptown. When Puffy left Uptown, so did Biggie—Puffy's new record label, Bad Boy, would become the venue for the Notorious B.I.G.'s debut album.

Puffy was not a star producer, but he was a star businessman: his vision for the Notorious B.I.G. was a vision of super-sized success. Although Biggie wanted to do hard, gangsta-type rap over the whole album, Puffy pushed him to make radio-friendly tracks that would bring big money into the picture. Biggie's most well-known songs—"Hypnotize," "Big Poppa," or "Juicy," for example—follow a formula that mixes smooth rap with catchy hooks and danceable productions. Biggie's hardcore feel is present in his lyrics, but these lighter-fare songs came to define the pop music of the 1990s.

Initially, Christopher Wallace was not at all eager to make these sorts of songs: "Big thought it was a popcorn record. He wanted to make all gangsta records. But Puff knew at the time radio wasn't into that gangsta rap stuff. Big was like, 'Yo, this guy is trying to make me an opera singer,'" says Poke, one of the producers on "Juicy." But he agreed to Puffy's vision because he wanted to make a buck, and he eventually had to accept that this was the way. "That fear. That, 'I don't know if I can succeed,' was driving Puffy," says "Prince" Charles Alexander. "It was driving Biggie. Biggie says it in the lyrics of 'Juicy': If it didn't work out, he was going to go back to slinging crack on the street. It was a time when everybody was not too sure if the public was going to get it."

But the public did get it, proving Puffy's marketing smarts if not his great intentions. After Ready to Die, the Notorious B.I.G. blew up. Suddenly it was cars, girls, and cash like he'd never seen. What happened to Christopher Wallace?

It's songs like "Juicy" that take the Notorious B.I.G. back to the world of Christopher Wallace. The song might be a catchy pop song, but it's also a story of narrow escape from poverty and hopelessness. Ready To Die is an inflammatory album title, but it's also how Christopher Wallace says he was feeling at the time: he was depressed to the point of feeling suicidal, rapping lines like "f--- the world, f--- my moms and my girl" on "Ready to Die" and claiming that he said that stuff (despite his absolutely undying love for his mom) because, well, he really felt that way.

"I got into this s--- to tell a story," said Biggie. When Biggie was killed, his desperate lyrics about a future fate of deprivation and death seemed to expand into an even more epic tale. Biggie was a real victim of the violence he rapped about. The Notorious B.I.G. was larger than life to people, but perhaps the greater tragedy was that Christopher Wallace, who was really just a 24-year-old with big dreams, died too. His words in "Juicy" tried to remind people that the Notorious B.I.G. was also just a kid from the streets.

"If I was just Christopher Wallace, they probably wouldn't look at it as, you know, 'shooting occurred.' They would probably just be like, 'somebody got shot,'" said Biggie in an interview not long before he died. "But if I'm Biggie Smalls, it gets amped up."

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