No rapper in history had as much impact in as short a time frame as the Notorious B.I.G., who died 25 years ago this year. In Justin Tinsley’s new book, It Was All a Dream: Biggie and the World That Made Him, the author and Andscape writer unpacks Biggie’s monumental legacy with deep reporting and exclusive interviews with those who knew him best. The book will be released May 10; buy it here or check out an exclusive excerpt below tracing the early days of Big’s fame.
“They was letting us in the stock room and everything. We was taking people layaway stuff. We was wilding!” Groovey Lew said, laughing at the memory. “Big had the big yellow bubblegoose on, and he took a pair of Timbs. He put one under one arm, the other under the other, right? Then he told me to walk behind him.”
It was all good until it wasn’t. Lew continues, “When we get outside, a girl outta nowhere—like just around the homecoming scene—seen Big take the boots out and she’s like, ‘Oooo, Biggie! You stole a pair of Timbs!’ We was laughing so hard, man!”
At that point in time, it felt like Big’s career was impenetrable. Musically, he could do no wrong. But music was only one part of his life. And while he seemed to be batting 1.000 from an artistic perspective, peeling back the layers revealed a different story.
So much had changed in Big’s life in such a short amount of time. Less than three years earlier, he was selling crack in North Carolina, wondering what a legit exit strategy from the drug game looked like. Or if it even existed, for that matter. Now people all over the country of all races and backgrounds were rapping his words and idolizing his every move. The music game wasn’t all that different from the drug game.
“I look at y’all as my customers,” he said. “I gotta sell my product. They both exactly the same to me.”
Voletta Wallace was happy her son was doing what made him happy and she didn’t have to worry about him. But she wanted to make sure he was being careful with the money he was making. Satisfaction in the present meant nothing if it came with headaches in the future. She had read about this rapper named MC Hammer who amassed such a massive fortune and lost it all. She didn’t want that for her son.
“Ma, I’ll never be poor again,” her son said. “Trust me, Ma. If I have a question about my money at five o’clock in the morning, I’m calling my accountant like, ‘How much money I got?’”
His life was a whirlwind at the moment, but he always remembered that it was Voletta who loved him first. Now that he was making money (and money that couldn’t be tied back to selling crack), he wanted to make her life better. He wanted his mother to move to Florida, because it was the closest he could get her to Jamaica. Voletta wasn’t necessarily interested in that. She had her own life in America, and she wanted to stay close to Brooklyn. Per The New York Times in 1994, he decided to move his mother into a house in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She’d ultimately move to Pennsylvania. It was close enough to New York, but far enough away that life could be different.
How he understood his place in Brooklyn was changing, too. He’d always love Brooklyn, and he’d rep the borough until his last breath. That was never in question. He once spoke of never seeing himself leaving his hood because he wondered how it would impact his music. He couldn’t keep it real in the suburbs. But that was before the money started piling in, his face was on TV every day, and his voice saturated radio stations from Brooklyn to Long Beach and everywhere in between. He was too well-known, too successful, and too hot. He had to get off the block.
“One thing I learned about the game is when you get a lot of money, niggas don’t like you. I’m getting more money now,” Big said, months after Ready to Die dropped. He still kept a pair of 9 mm Rugers under the mattress in his bedroom. “I’m not paranoid to the point where . . . ” he said, catching his thoughts. “Yes, I am. I’m scared to death. Scared of getting my brains blown out.”
This was a part of success Big never saw coming.
“I’ll keep it one hundred with you. When he realized that we not around the hood anymore and he was living with a whole ’nother place with a big house, his whole mindset was a whole different character,” says Chico Del Vec. “He couldn’t be around certain people like he used to because certain people would try to take advantage of him because he’s a cool dude. That was more scary to him because the majority of the people he didn’t even know. They see you on TV and then you outside the next day? It was a lot going on.
“Can you imagine coming outside and you got 10 cars doubled parked on your block and you don’t know who’s in the car? And you’re just going to the store,” Chico said. “He used to tell us, ‘Yo, I feel like somebody’s going to kill me one day.’ I’d tell him, you’re talking crazy. What the fuck is wrong with you? One time I came in the room and he was asleep and I scared him. He jumped up and started swinging on me. I’m like, ‘Yo, it’s me!’ He’s like, ‘Yo, Chic, what the fuck?! Don’t do that!’ Life went somewhere else after a minute. It was a different life.”
For as much as Big enjoyed the success he found in 1995, it came with its own wave of stresses, too. “Who Shot Ya,” the Nashiem Myrick–produced banger, was recorded in 1994 and was featured as a Keith Murray interlude on Mary J. Blige’s My Life album. Big’s verse didn’t make the final cut. He had also been hearing from DJ Clark Kent that another Brooklyn rapper he was working with at the time, who went by the name of Jay-Z, was just as talented as him. In an effort to prove that no one in Brooklyn, or anyone for that matter, could rhyme harder than him, Big went back in to record the second verse later that year. That, in essence, is the backstory behind the B-side single for “Big Poppa.”
Beyond its lyrical potency was its timing. It was released in February 1995, the same month Tupac was sentenced to up to four and a half years in his sexual abuse trial, and the talk around the industry of course centered on a narrative of its being a subliminal shot at the incarcerated superstar. Tupac was still hanging with Big around the time “Who Shot Ya” was recorded, but he took it as disrespect that the song would be released so soon after his own shooting and while stowed away in a maximum-security correctional facility in upstate New York. It was in that same facility, too, that ’Pac’s anger began to stew more and more. On the outside, it was Big who was becoming rap’s top star. Meanwhile, ’Pac claimed to hear little from the man he once saw as a brother.
“My homeboy Stretch is going to Biggie’s concerts. Niggas is abandoning me. But then on the air and like on TV they like, ‘Yeah, ’Pac . . . keep the struggle on,’” Shakur said in a later interview. “Niggas is just gonna act like I’ma just be in jail and they gonna give me shout-outs. They trying to take my position. And if you watch, that’s what Biggie did.”
Shakur continued, “While I’m in jail, strangers is telling me, ‘Yo, you don’t know? Biggie’s homeboy shot you.’ ’Cause they bragging. They telling they niggas in jail. ‘Yo, we just got ’Pac. Whoo, whoo, whoo.’”
The miscommunication of the song’s intent was far from the only headache in Big’s life. He was so famous now that everyone who saw him expected him to be Big. To be the gangster playboy. He wasn’t acting, but it’s hard being that person 24 hours a day. He was constantly on tour, constantly doing media in a different city. And that came with a different set of requests from a different set of fans, groupies, radio DJs, and venues. Big’s headlining performance at San Francisco’s 1995 KMEL Summer Jam was cut short because of extreme heat warping DJ Big Kap’s records. Big was always cool, calm, and collected for the most part. But this sent him over the edge. There was a rule that each mistake during a live performance cost $100. The rule applied to everyone, including Big. Kap’s records were cooking like bacon under the extreme heat, but Big didn’t care. He threw a water bottle at Kap and walked offstage. Kap, who had to take a cab back to the hotel that evening, was embarrassed. He knocked on Big’s door, only to find him laughing with a bunch of girls in his room.
All Kap wanted to do was apologize. Even though it wasn’t his fault, he felt bad. People didn’t like letting Big down. “Man, I knew! I saw those records,” he said. “I knew it was the sun. But I couldn’t let them think it was me out there messing up!”
Not everything was resolved so easily. In May 1995, Big was set to perform at Club Xscape in Camden, New Jersey. The show was canceled, but Big still wanted the back half of his $20,000. The show’s promoter, Brook Herdell, was missing in action, which left Big annoyed. Nathaniel Banks Jr., an associate of Herdell’s, bore the brunt of what came next. Big warned that if he didn’t get his money that he was “going to start punching mothafuckas.” And so his crew did. Banks had a bracelet, necklace, watch, cell phone, and $300 in cash taken from him that night. Big and his crew denied that he ever took part in the fight. “Who knows who beat the shit outta duke?” he said in a later interview. “That whole block was lined up with cars.”
“People tell me he’s really not that type of person,” Banks reasoned to Spin a few years after the incident and after a $41,000 settlement. “Maybe he had to do what he did because he might look like a punk if he didn’t. Maybe he had to act out what he says on his records.”
A month and a half after the Jersey incident, Big was arrested after performing at a club in Concord Township, Pennsylvania, roughly an hour outside Philly. Big was drunk, holding a bottle of Dom Pérignon in his lap, and initially he thought it was a police escort, but that thought quickly turned when police were pointing guns at the car. Then he was on the ground, with rocks and bugs near his mouth while a cop held a shotgun and flashlight near his head. In the precinct, the police seemed to bask in their headline-inducing arrest—all the while asking him for autographs.
“They were like, ‘My daughter Meghan loves you,’” Big was quoted as saying in “Unbelievable.” “So I’m talking to Meghan on the phone, and she telling me she want to go to my concert. I’m like, ‘Yo, Meghan, talk to your pops.’”
Big was held without bail, since he was technically on the run stemming from robbery and aggravated assault charges in the Camden altercation. He was released three days later, but much like the experience of being locked up in North Carolina during his hustling days, the time in the can shook him. That’s what he was rapping for—to avoid that. And it hurt that his mother was deeply disappointed in him. So much so that she didn’t speak to him for a while.
“I’d rather be dead than in jail,” Big said.
A show in Raleigh came with its own harrowing experience and would later have Big questioning the price of fame as a result. He and the Junior M.A.F.I.A. had a show at a local spot called the Taj Mahal—in what would ultimately be the venue’s last-ever performance. For Big, it was a homecoming of sorts. He’d made a lot of money in that city, and now he was coming back to make some more in the limelight.
During a performance of “The What,” he surprised the crowd by bringing out Method Man. Things went left almost immediately. Their collaboration was already a hardbody record, with both MCs going bar for bar with some of the rawest lyrics in rap at the moment. That same energy bled into the crowd. Some concertgoers in the front row were talking shit to Big. They were testing his gangsta, demanding a battle. “Big was cool about his shit, but while Big is talking to the nigga, [Big’s] man slides him the piece,” Method Man recounted later.
Big entertained the fan, but he wasn’t just going to battle some random dude to give him that satisfaction. He told him that he’d battle him, but if he—when he—won, that fan would have to strip. If he was going to mess up the flow of Big’s show, then Big was going to emasculate him in front of his entire city. While the fan was trying to jump onstage, a member of Big’s entourage snatched the gun from Big and pistol-whipped the fan. Earlier in the day, Big was telling people he hoped the club had security. Turns out Big’s premonition held weight. A melee erupted.
“Everybody was scrapping in that motherfucker. Like four niggas got shot that night,” Meth said. “But what was so deep about it, it was just me and [my boy], but when that shit went down, like four niggas I ain’t never seen before were like, ‘You a’ight? We got you.’ That was Big, nigga.”
Being in Raleigh also gave Big an opportunity to connect with an old friend in Greg Dent. The transformation was incredible to witness for Dent. He’d known Big when he was just the out-of-town kid selling crack and who’d jump on the microphone at Dent’s parties to rap whenever Dent turned his back.
“I was so happy to see him,” Dent said, the pride in his voice still very much present more than a quarter century later. “I saw him when he wasn’t famous to, like, an icon. And through it all, he was still the same cat. Still silly as hell.”
Dent was excited because he’d been hanging with Big, Lil’ Cease, and the crew all day. He even took Big to the local hip-hop station 97.5 to promote the show. Dent was at the show when the shoot-out went down, too. The after-party was supposed to be at Dent’s club the Vibe, but the Raleigh Police Department put a stop to that following the brawl.
“I actually called my attorney,” Dent says. “My attorney was like, ‘They can’t stop you from opening. That happened somewhere else, so fuck them!’ ”
Dent opened the Vibe anyway, but the police blocked the entire radius off. No one showed up. Dent was upset. Not just because he missed out on some serious cash, but also because he didn’t think Big would show up. Dent barely got out of the Taj Mahal himself, so he understood if his old friend wanted to lay low.
“I’m thinking, Damn, man. Big ain’t gonna come to this shit after that crazy shoot-out and fights,” Dent recalled to me. “I barely got outta there myself to get back to the club to open it up.”
People who worked at the Vibe were starting to doubt that Dent even knew the Notorious B.I.G. “Like one in the morning, this motherfucker pulls up with some shit in an old beat-up-ass fucking SUV,” Dent says. “My security guard comes in like, ‘Yo, Big’s outside looking for you!’ They couldn’t believe it. They were like, ‘Yeah, we know you know some people, but you don’t know Big!’”
Dent walked outside. It was a ghost town. Nobody in sight except two people standing outside of, as Dent recalls, a “beat-up-ass fucking SUV.” There was Big, and a lady friend, standing outside with a huge smile on his face. “I told you I was gon’ make it,” he chuckled.
The two friends walked inside and sat at the bar throwing back Heinekens for nearly two hours. They laughed about the good times. About how Big would damn near cry when he couldn’t go eat. And Dent still doing his thing on the party scene. Big opened up about his newfound life, and Dent was surprised at his old friend’s vulnerability. “He was telling me, ‘G, this shit ain’t what you think it is.’ He was actually kinda not happy,” Dent told me.
“Yo, this fame shit ain’t what I thought it was. It’s cool and all that, but I’m just tryna do me,” Big admitted. “Shit is kinda fucked up out here.”
Dent remembers Big repeating that over and over. This fame shit ain’t what I thought it would be. Shit is kinda fucked up out here. Fame was bringing him a lot of money, but the price tag of it all was weighing on him. He was married—more so by law than by actual emotional attachment, as his union with Faith Evans was constantly being tested because of Big’s infidelity. And the rumors of him setting Shakur up were still permeating around the industry.
Shortly before three in the morning, Big and Dent exchanged their goodbyes with pounds and hugs. Dent gave Big an entire case of Heineken. Big gave Dent some weed. It would be the last time Dent would see his friend.
Excerpt from the upcoming 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