Words and Spotify playlist by Joshua Phelps
Today marks the 15th anniversary of arguably the greatest rapper ever, Christopher Wallace aka Notorious BIG aka Biggie Smalls. Unarmed with the seemingly endless trove of unreleased material of 2Pac, or the atom bomb reach of the current digital mixtape circuit, Biggie was able to touch fans with a concise collection of certified bangers that leave most hip hop heads wondering, every March 9th, what could have been? They say you’re only as good as your last game and Biggie was into crafting no-hitters (wildly prolific mixtape artists bludgeoning us in the head take note.)
The first time I heard BIG was as a rising sophomore, Fall of ’94, at Newport “Bad” News’ Warwick High while traveling to a fall league basketball game in Suffolk, Virginia. We’d meet up at the 35th St McDonalds downtown, just across from Church’s Chicken and within the shade of the nearby “Peddler’s Village” shops. I imagine it was there, or nearby record shop Bottom Beat, where teammate Aaron Swann copped a DJ Clue? Tape that would change the rap game for most of us not living in earshot of NYC’s Hot 97.
He popped the tape in and as we crossed the bay in the sticky fall heat, the beat from “Unbelievable” coupled with R Kelly’s “Body’s Callin” sample rattled the windows and we were all stuck. At least I know I was. The song was a jolting juxtaposition of sexy slow jam versus a menace who carried machine guns in the door paneling of his Acura (I’m sure this influenced my purchase of a ’95 2 door Ac’ Legend somehow.) I’d never laid eyes on BIG, hadn’t seen the video for the upcoming Juicy single, but you could tell by the voice and cadence he loomed larger than life. He had a story to tell and you wanted to hear it, over and over. He was large, “black, ugly as ever” but rhymed with the confidence and swagger of an R and B star. He balanced this with dark tales of suicide, the twisted side of fame, and ultimately an eerie premonition of his own death from the beginning. He may have been ready, we as fans were not.
Where were you when you first heard BIG?