Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 19, which explores the music and life of the Notorious B.I.G. with help from New York Times pop music critic Jon Caramanica.
How in-depth a Biggie Smalls primer do you even require at this point? How fast can I do this? Christopher George Latore Wallace. Born in Brooklyn in 1972; raised by his single mother, Voletta, in Bed Stuy. The border of Clinton Hill and Bed Stuy. Bed Stuy sounds cooler. His mother tried to keep him out of trouble—tried to protect him from the seedy allure of Fulton Street in the ’80s especially—to the point of virtually forbidding young Christopher from leaving the house, or the stoop. Young Christopher leaves the stoop. This is the crack era. He starts selling crack. Also, he soon discovers that he might be the greatest rapper in history. Deep, booming, warm, menacing, awe-inspiring voice. Like if the Grand Canyon were a person. Like if Brooklyn, in all its glory and atrocity, could be distilled into one person. How many rappers in history do you suppose have rhymed Rolexes with Lexus. My sincere guess is 400,000. But young Christopher is the only one who makes you feel every glorious atom of every syllable of the world Rolexes.
You could live, forever, like royalty, in that one word, when he says it. He battles a few guys and annihilates them basically by standing next to them: He’s 6-foot-plus and weighs 300-plus. He makes a demo tape that winds up in the hands of one Sean “Puffy” Combs, producer, rapper, executive, narcissist visionary, dancer all up in the videos. He signs young Christopher to Uptown Records—Heavy D, Jodeci, etc. Except Puff Daddy gets fired from Uptown Records for acting like Puff Daddy, and so instead, Puff ascends to the mountaintop via his new label, Bad Boy, whose kingmaking star attraction is one Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Black Frank White, a.k.a the Notorious B.I.G. His first song is called “Party and Bullshit.” He is a high school dropout who already knows more about the world than most college graduates. He has a daughter. He is married to R&B singer Faith Evans. His mother disapproves of the vast majority of everything he’s doing at this point. And his debut album, Ready to Die, comes out in 1994 and might be the greatest rap album in history and if you don’t know, now you know.
By 1994 New York City is not the end-all-be-all of rap music anymore; arguably it’s not even the epicenter of rap music anymore, depending on how obsessed you were with the West Coast, with L.A., with Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, on which Dr. Dre wistfully raps the following:
Things done changed on this side
Remember they used to thump
But now they blast, right?
And now, in the first 10 seconds of “Things Done Changed,” the first actual song on Biggie’s Ready to Die, amid the three other major samples already colliding in midair, there’s Dre again.
And I am grateful for this, too, for the bridge this builds, however tenuous, between Biggie and Dre, between Bad Boy Records and Death Row Records, between the East Coast and the West Coast. “Things Done Changed” is luxurious and vicious: all the guns, the chalk-body outlines, the actual bodies, the parents terrified of their own pager-wielding children. But Biggie saves his single hardest line for last:
Shit, my mama got cancer in her breast
Don’t ask me why I’m motherfucking stressed
Things done changed
Voletta Wallace would beat cancer, she would survive cancer. Voletta Wallace would survive her son. This album came out in September ’94, which means that by October ’94, New York City is functionally a giant parking lot in which every car is blasting a different song from Ready to Die. It’s quite harmonious, really. Nod your head approvingly at whichever car you like, though maybe avoid the cars blasting the stickup anthem “Gimme the Loot.” If aliens are ever about to blow up planet Earth and only two-thirds of the world’s population will fit in our escape shuttles, maybe let’s just leave behind the one-third of the world’s population who still thinks that there are two different rappers on “Gimme the Loot,” and don’t realize that it’s just Biggie, already flaunting his dramatic range. I picture his mother, listening to that, just gazing out the window. Biggie pulls the same trick on “Warning,” in which he basically notifies himself of an imminent robbery attempt against himself, an attempt that is of course doomed to catastrophic failure. The red dots, etc.
Brooklyn’s own Easy Mo Bee produced a bunch of early Biggie tracks, and he likes to talk about how disturbed he was, the first time he heard Biggie rap these lines from “Ready to Die,” the song:
My shit is deep, deeper than my grave, G
I’m ready to die and nobody can save me
Fuck the world, fuck my moms and my girl
My life is played out like a Jheri curl, I’m ready to die!
So Easy Mo Bee says, “Did you even hear what you just said?” And Big says, “Yeah?” And Easy Mo Bee says, “Fuck your Moms?” And Big says, “I’m just trying to say that I’m ready to die for this shit. This is urgent. You got to be willing to do whatever you got to do to make this paper.” There are 400,000 rappers out there who are Willing to Say Anything, and maybe five rappers in history who Sound Like They Mean It. Biggie was one of them. You can also feel every atom of every syllable of his various sex boasts, whether you’re into that sort of thing or not.
Really, though, I got the cleanest, meanest penis
You never seen this stroke of genius
As Ready to Die progresses the mood darkens, and hardens, and on songs like “Everyday Struggle” you get a panoramic view of ’80s and ’90s Brooklyn, both the glory and the atrocity, and you can hear the urgency in his voice intensifying as the music around him gets prettier.
I’m seein’ body after body and our Mayor Giuliani
Ain’t tryin’ to see no black man turn to John Gotti
My daughter use a potty so she’s older now
Educated street knowledge, I’ma mold her now
And then comes the song “Suicidal Thoughts,” which ends the original album, and ends with Biggie attempting suicide—the gunshot, the dropped phone—after he’s rapped at length about his remorse and shame and self-loathing. A central tenet of the Classic Biggie Story Industrial Complex is that Ready to Die is cinematic, that Puff Daddy, as one of the producers and the central sonic architect, is the director, and Biggie’s in the leading role. Think Coppola and Pacino, or Scorsese and De Niro. (Frankly I picture Puff more as a Nancy Meyers type, like getting really into the layouts of the kitchens.) But “Suicidal Thoughts” is the bleak and shocking twist ending: one last brutal reminder of how much Big means all of it.
It’s enough to make you almost wish you were one of those people whose personal version of Ready to Die has only two songs on it. Another central tenet of the Classic Biggie Story Industrial Complex is that he was leery of his slicker, poppier, cheerier songs—Puff had to talk Big into recording them, Puff insisted they’d made Big famous, and Puff being right a lot of the time is maybe the single most maddening thing about Puff. Biggie gravitated toward the songs with let’s say an ’80s Fulton Street attitude, the grime, the menace, the almost erotic sense of danger. Think “Unbelievable.” Think “Me and My Bitch.” But on this album it was “Big Poppa” that made him truly famous. That, and “Juicy.” Here comes the first line of Big’s first verse. You know it.
And already this song is famous. Already an all-timer. Took three seconds. You can feel the hunger in his voice, and you can hear the awe in his voice, as it dawns on him that his hunger might actually be sated. This is the moment where Biggie makes it. The moment where he ascends the mountaintop, and maybe climbs onto the cross.
To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.