Critics at such respected organs as The Source, Billboard and Rolling Stone have held the Notorious B.I.G. up as the greatest hip-hop M.C. of all time. He wasn’t. That title goes to fellow New Yorker Rakim, hands down. (Oh, please, don’t argue, the R’s supremacy is an incontrovertible fact.) No, B.I.G. was not the G.O.A.T. But he was one of the best. The man had style, and we’re not just referring to those woollen pullovers he name-dropped on hits One More Chance / Stay With Me (remix), Hypnotize and Big Poppa. Check the garment-promoting flow on the latter, which uses possession of luxe knitwear to symbolise Big’s rise: “Money, hoes and clothes all a n**** knows / A foolish pleasure, whatever I had to find the buried treasure, so grams I had to measure / However, living better now, Coogi sweater now”.
As that lyric suggests, Biggie got his start slanging not CDs but Gs. Born in Brooklyn in 1972 to Jamaican parents, Wallace grew up in the hardscrabble Clinton Hill hood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. He was a smart kid who did particularly well in English class — in later days, wrote journalist Cheo Hodari Coker in Unbelievable: The Life, Death and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G.: “Unlike most other rappers, he never carried lyric notebooks into the studio… He would construct those intricately rhyming narratives inside his formidable brain, then step to the microphone and record them ‘off the dome’.” Nevertheless, financial necessity prompted Wallace to begin dealing drugs aged 12, helping his mother — who worked two jobs, day and night — cover the bills. “If the game shakes me or breaks me / I hope it makes me a better man, take a better stand / Put money in my mom’s hand,” as he described it on the track Sky’s the Limit.
By the age of 17, Wallace had dropped out of school to concentrate full-time on yeyo-related enterprises — a risky business, which saw him in several brushes with the law, being placed on probation for weapons charges in 1989 and serving nine months in prison for dealing in 1991.
Within months of his release, Wallace got his pivotal breaks in music. A mixtape he’d recorded with a friend found its way into the hands of legendary old-school rapper Big Daddy Kane’s DJ, Mister Cee, who was impressed enough to pass it along to an editor at the hip-hop magazine The Source, Matty C. He in turn gave Biggie his first write-up and, chatting at a club with a young V.P. at Uptown Records named Sean Combs (better known today as Puff Daddy or Diddy), suggested the rising music industry player check out this new discovery.