Twenty years ago I was a senior editor at VIBE magazine, settling into my comfy new office with wall-to-wall green shag carpet, a sturdy wooden door, and two windows overlooking Lexington Avenue. Quincy Jones’ harebrained media gamble, to publish a hip-hop culture mag via Time Inc., the home of Fortune and Sports Illustrated, had blown up like the World Trade in 1993. The first few issues sold briskly—apparently people from all walks of life enjoyed feeling “ghetto fabulous”—and the staff’s reward was to escape the awkward elevator rides with the suits in the Time-Life skyscraper. We set up shop in our own spot on Lex, in the same building as Steve Rifkind’s Loud Records and William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review.
One rainy spring afternoon two black teenagers shrouded in baggy Gore-Tex outerwear burst through my office door unannounced, explaining that they were with the Bad Boy street team. One of them slipped off his nylon drawstring backpack and fished out two cassette tapes. “Craig Mack is the first to drop,” he said as he handed over an advance copy of Project Funk da World. “But this is the shit right here,” he added emphatically. “You need to hear this Biggie Smalls shit.” I placed the Craig Mack on top of a tall stack of cassettes, popped the one labeled Ready to Die into my Fisher hi-fi, and stepped into a world.
The three-and-a-half-minute intro had me hypnotized: Ominous cinematic strings give way to the sound of a heartbeat and a woman straining to give birth. “Come on, baby, push! One more time,” the father exhorts as Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” plays in the background (on the final album, this song would be changed to Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly,” released in 1972, the same year as Biggie’s birth). “I see the head!” the proud father roars before the music fades into the Sugar Hill Gang’s 1979 “Rapper’s Delight,” signifying that seven years have passed. Now the boy’s parents are arguing, with the father threatening to “smack the shit outta” the mom because she “can’t control the goddamn boy” as Wonder Mike and Big Bank Hank rap on and on to the break of dawn. The sound dissolves again to Audio Two’s 1987 “Top Billin',” which marks an eight-year passage of time, and signals rap’s evolution to harder-edged sounds and themes while at the same time representing BK to the fullest. Our 15-year-old antihero is now plotting a stickup with a slightly reluctant henchman. “You momma giving you money, nigga? My moms don't give me shit… Time to get paid… Muthafucka is you with me?” A gun is cocked, a warning shot fired, and the kids rob a whole subway car. After the screaming fades, the music shifts again, and we hear the young man being released from prison. “So how’s it feel leaving us?” the corrections officer asks sarcastically. “Ha!” Biggie replies. “What kinda fuckin’ question is that, man? I’m trying to get the fuck outta here, dog.” Defying the racist guard’s predictions, he vows, “You won’t see me in here no more. I got big plans, nigga. Big plans.”
People remember the covers, but the most prescient article VIBE ever published was Scott Poulson-Bryant’s lengthy profile of the head of A&R at Uptown Records. His name was Sean Combs, but everybody called him Puffy, and his name was buzzing even more than the artists he worked with. Scott pitched the story in that first contentious edit meeting, explaining that the hip-hop audience paid as much attention to the players behind the scenes as they did to the artists themselves. In green-lighting this audacious idea, VIBE became the first publication to recognize the fact that Puff Daddy was a star and to present him as such.
He posed in Timberlands and baggy jeans with Calvin Klein briefs showing, and talked about shaping the image of Mary J. Blige and Jodeci, about the birth of his first son, Justin Dior, and about what he called “the next generation of Bad motherfuckers.” (Puff was known to carry a briefcase containing the Bad Boy logo, a sketch of a mad-faced baby in Timbs and a diaper, so he could show it off in the club.) Then in July 1993, just as the issue was going to press with a glaring picture of Snoop Dogg on the cover, we got word that Puffy had been fired from Uptown. Scott didn’t seem the least bit fazed at the news, and smiled as we rushed to revise the conclusion of his Vanity Fair-style profile. He was plugged-in enough to know that getting fired from that job was the best thing that could ever happen to Sean Combs, and that the legend of Puffy had only just begun.
Christopher Wallace took the news of Puff getting fired a lot harder than anyone on the VIBE staff. The 21-year-old rap phenomenon, known in the streets of Brooklyn as Biggie Smalls, already knew the thrill of hearing his records blasting out of Jeeps. His verses had sparked the remixes to Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” and Super Cat’s “Dolly My Baby,” and his first solo joint, “Party and Bullshit,” had just dropped as a single from Uptown’s Who’s The Man? movie soundtrack. (The latter track was a favorite of Tupac Shakur’s, who played it on repeat when it first came out, and befriended the Brooklyn rapper out of sheer admiration.) That was all well and good, but Biggie wasn’t seeing any serious paper yet, and his daughter, T’Yanna, was about to be born. The crack game was the only sure payday he knew, and he had no time for anybody trying to sell him a dream. Sure, he was excited to be working on a debut album for Uptown, which he was planning to call The Teflon Don, but if Puff’s big talk about becoming a hip-hop superstar was going to fall through then Biggie had no choice but to catch the Amtrak down to North Carolina where he had set up a lucrative spot that brought in $30,000 every two weeks.
As he would later recall in his single “Juicy,” this rap shit “was all a dream.” All those details in that song about letting his tape rock till his tape popped? True story. Biggie was a born-and-bred hip-hop head who visited his mother’s homeland of Jamaica on holidays and happened to live across the street from the New Orleans–born hornsman Donald Harrison, who exposed him to crucial jazz albums and gave him the opportunity to record his earliest raps. Creatively, Biggie Smalls was a perfect storm, drawing on the great traditions of reggae, jazz, rap, and soul. He had a booming baritone, a wicked sense of humor, and a brilliant brain crackling with buddha-blessed wordplay night and day. His rap style fused Kane’s rapid-fire polysyllables, G-Rap’s rawness, Too $hort’s bawdy boasting, and Slick Rick’s genius for spinning narratives out of dramatic dialog amongst distinct characters. But ultimately Biggie Smalls was in fact the illest because his artistry was greater than the sum total of its influences.
Biggie Smalls was in fact the illest because his artistry was greater than the sum total of its influences.
Without Puffy’s guidance he might have become the greatest hip-hop footnote ever to touch the mic. Had Puff not landed a distribution deal for his Bad Boy imprint with Clive Davis at Arista, he would never have tracked Biggie down in North Cackalacky, paging him over and over, cussing him out and telling him he had a check with his name on it. Surely then Biggie would never have headed back to New York when he did, just hours before the cops raided his spot, arresting his partner and seizing their assets. Biggie got out in the nick of time, and stepped out of the shadows into the spotlight. He had already appeared in Matty C’s “Unsigned Hype” column in The Source—that was how Puffy first heard of him—and now he was about to be profiled by Mimi Valdes in VIBE’s NEXT section, posing on Fulton Avenue in a Karl Kani sweatsuit and Timbs, still a world away from the days of Versace shades, tailored suits, and alligator boots.
Six short years after the creative pinnacle of 1988, New York hip-hop was undergoing a profound transformation. Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) arrived in December 1993, a year after Dr. Dre’s masterpiece The Chronic blew the roof off everything, dominating the streets as well as radio and video rotation like nothing seen before, and challenging New York’s long-held claim as the nerve center of hip-hop. The RZA’s seminal posse album, as raw as Dre’s album was smooth, spoke to “the core of the hard” as Da Ghetto Communicator put it in his review for The Source. Truly, 36 Chambers was the East Coast’s answer to The Chronic—positing the bold, unified vision of a single producer, populated by a gang of brilliant MCs spitting impenetrably dusted Five Percent Nation mathematics all filtered through the lens of Kung Fu movie mythology. Nas’ superb Illmatic showed another way for the East Coast to move forward—nine songs, five brilliant producers, plus the profound poetic observations of a “ghetto monk” in Q-Tip’s memorable phrase. Elsewhere in America, 1994 was the year of OutKast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Scarface’s The Diary, Common Sense’s Resurrection and Warren G’s grandiosely titled Regulate... G-Funk Era. But the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die outsold all of them.
Of course Biggie’s virtuoso flows were essential to that success, but you can’t take credit away from Puffy, who cherry-picked the best of everything that was popping at the moment—a pinch of Primo boom-bap, a smidgen of funky-worm synth, a baby-photo album cover and autobiographical narrative frame reminiscent of Illmatic, and Puff’s own specialty—songs that made people dance. He mixed all these ingredients together with perhaps the greatest mic controller ever born and proved that a New York rapper could go platinum too (even if he had to kick a little West Coast flavor to do it).
Some of Biggie's most painfully honest lyrics were tough to digest, from “Me and My Bitch” to “I wouldn’t give a fuck if you're pregnant/Give me the baby rings and the No. 1 Mom pendant.” But for every “black and ugly as ever/However, I stay Coogi down to the socks,” there was a line like “stereotypes of a black male misunderstood/And it’s still all good.” Biggie’s brutal candor was its own redemption. Even the album's nihilistic title and its final, melodramatic suicide skit possessed an awful authenticity. After Ready To Die rappers could never again boast of "keeping it real" without acknowledging the dark side of the game
Released Sept. 13, 1994, Ready to Die was recorded in two bursts of creativity. Biggie’s voice sounds higher-pitched and angrier on the earlier material—tracks like “Things Done Changed” produced by Darnell Scott, and the four Easy Mo Bee joints that follow it on the album: “Gimme the Loot,” “Machine Gun Funk,” the superb “Warning” and “Ready to Die.” The later material, songs like “Juicy,” with its radio-friendly Mtume sample, and “Big Poppa” with its G-funk keyboard line, reflect Puffy’s commercial savvy as well as his powers of persuasion—Biggie was not trying to hear that shit at first, but Puff wore him down. The Debarge-laced “One More Chance/Stay With Me” remix (which could not have been further from the original album version) sealed the deal, catapulting the Black Frank White to the highest heights. By the time it dropped, Biggie was not just a client, he was the player president.
All those promises of rap superstardom? Puff came through on everything. Biggie would appear on VIBE’s cover twice during his lifetime. First in October 1995, with his beautiful wife Faith Evans, and again in September ’96 with Puff, on the infamous “East vs West” cover. And then, three years after Biggie’s debut album dropped, he was murdered as he left a party sponsored by VIBE, six months after Tupac Shakur's murder and two months shy of Biggie's 25th birthday. He was survived by a daughter and a son and a wife and a mother and a devastated Junior Mafia clique and a gutted hip-hop nation. I myself had a hard time going to the office after he passed. The place felt haunted, or maybe it was just me. The Puffy legend would continue to grow, now inextricably intertwined with that of the late Christopher George Latore Wallace. Twenty years after Ready to Die's release, Diddy is the uncontested Big Homie of hip-hop, and Biggie’s artistry remains so pervasively influential that we cannot even see it anymore. Every major rhymesmith from Jay Z to Kendrick Lamar must wrestle with his ghost. As he put it on “Unbelievable,” my personal favorite song off his debut, “Ain’t no amateurs here, I damage and tear/MCs fear me, they too near not to hear me.” We still hear.
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