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'It Was All a Dream' explores the Notorious B.I.G.'s life and legacy

On Dec. 6, 1995, The Notorious B.I.G. wins best rap artist and rap single of the year during the annual Billboard Music Awards in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
On Dec. 6, 1995, The Notorious B.I.G. wins best rap artist and rap single of the year during the annual Billboard Music Awards in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Christopher Wallace, better known as the Notorious B.I.G., would have turned 50 over the weekend.

He was killed in 1997, six months after his friend turned rival Tupac Shakur was murdered. They were 24 and 25 years old, respectively. Neither case has been definitively solved.

A quarter-of-a-century later, neither of these icons have left the popular imagination.

Journalist Justin Tinsley’s new book,  “It Was All a Dream: Biggie and the World That Made Him” tracks the rapper’s life and the lasting impact of his short career.

“I struggle to think of an artist who accomplished as much in such a short window as The Notorious B.I.G.,” Tinsley says.

Tinsley notes that Wallace was born in Brooklyn around the same time that hip-hop emerged in the Bronx.

“And then by the time the eighties come around, when Christopher Wallace is in his pre adolescence, this is when the crack cocaine boom starts,” Tinsley says. “He’s influenced by the streets that were around him. He’s influenced by the music that’s around him. And thankfully, he didn’t lose his life in the streets at that point in time. He was allowed to grow into this musician that he eventually became.”

That growth happened quickly. His debut album came out in September 1994, followed by additional singles and features with other artists. He was killed less than three years later, before his studio follow-up was released.

“That was the extent of his career,” says Tinsley. “And a quarter century later, we’re still talking about this guy with the reverence of somebody who had a 30, 40, 50 year career.”

That leaves a difficult void, where all of the music the then 24-year-old star could have made, says Tinsley.

“It’s so painful to think about where he could have taken his career, because he was getting better as an artist at the time of his death,” he says. “The last two songs that he recorded in his life were 24 hours before he was shot. So it’s painful to know that we never got a chance to see Biggie Smalls in his prime because he hadn’t yet hit his prime, believe it or not.”

Interview Highlights

On Biggie’s response to Dr. Dre’s album, “The Chronic.” 

“When you heard that album, and I hope this is the right way to say it, it was like a sonic orgasm. That’s how good it was. Like, when you heard it, you knew you had never heard anything like it before, and you knew that Dre had tapped into a sound that was going to captivate America, but also the world. And it sounded like it was based in the streets. And somebody like a young Biggie Smalls at this point in time … he heard this. He’s like, ‘This is going to make me change my game. I have to step my game up.’”

On Biggie’s debut album, “Ready to Die.”

Watch on YouTube.

“Probably the track I listen to most is still ‘Things Don’t Change.’ When you take into consideration that ‘Ready to Die’ dropped on September 13th, 1994. Literally on that same day, the 1994 crime bill was passed in Washington, D.C. And we understand the legacy of that bill in terms like super predators and how that comes about. If you listen to that album under that context now and especially that song … it sounds like it’s Biggie Smalls as a rebuttal to what Washington, D.C. was attempting to pass. Hip hop has always been linked with the political temperature of America in so many ways.”

On Biggie’s friendship with Tupac prior to their feud

“The beginning of that story was a beautiful friendship. In Los Angeles, Tupac introduces himself and he says, ‘Yeah, I’m a big fan, like, yo, let’s ride out, let’s spend the day together.’ And they basically spent the entire day together …  It’s one of those great hip hop stories — that unfortunately has been buried underneath what eventually became.

“They would just spend a day at Tupac’s house, just smoking weed, drinking, freestyling back and forth, according to people who were there. One in particular, Groovy Lew, who was Big’s former stylist… It was the most incredible freestyle he’d ever seen. It had to be for at least an hour. You know, [Tupac] would freestyle for 5 minutes, then Big would come right back for 5 minutes, and Pac would be, you know, hypin’ Biggie up the entire time. And then Tupac would go in the kitchen, like cook food for everybody. And they would just be having the time of their lives. And there was so much of a respect factor between the two.”

On Biggie’s reaction to Tupac’s death

“When it was announced that Tupac passed away, Big was deeply shaken. He was deeply shaken. He felt like Tupac had turned fans against him with this East Coast, West Coast war. But at the end of the day, Tupac, he was still somebody that Big cared deeply about. And that mess with that mess with Biggie up until the day that he died.”

On the night he was killed in Los Angeles

“Ironically, Biggie wasn’t supposed to be in Los Angeles that night. He was supposed to fly to London for a promotional trip for ‘Life after Death,’ which was going to be his his second album. … But he decided to stay in L.A.

“So they go to a party at the Petersen Automotive Museum. … By all accounts, it was one of the best parties that anybody had ever been to. So many entertainers, athletes. There were a ton of gang members, and there were just a lot of people in there just wanting to have a good time. There were no fights. The party was only shut down because it was an overcrowding issue.

“Big and his entourage, they get into their SUVs and they drive off. As the story goes, they’re playing ‘Going Back to Cali.’ Dirac, who is one of Big’s closest friends, he mushes him in the head and was like, ‘You did it, baby. You did it.’ And you know, literally seconds later, car pulls up, a hand reaches out the window with a gun. Four or five shots go into the car. And within less than an hour, the Notorious B.I.G. was gone.”

On the response to his death

“It was such a dark period of time in those months following Biggie’s death because nobody knew where hip hop was going to go. A lot of people were thinking, ‘Okay, who’s the next rapper that we’re going to lose?’ In terms of music history, there are very few more tragic and sadder days than, in Tupac’s case, September 13th, but in Big’s case definitely March 9th, 1997. … In hip hop, [it’s] this landmark date where we always remember what we lost and we always mourn over what we were never allowed to have.”

Devan Schwartz produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtFrancesca Paris adapted it for the web.

Book Excerpt: “It Was All a Dream”

By Justin Tinsley

Excerpt from the new book “IT WAS ALL A DREAM: BIGGIE AND THE WORLD THAT MADE HIM” by Justin Tinsley published by Abrams Press. Text copyright © 2022 Justin Tinsley

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.