It was all a dream!
Christopher George Latore Wallace is a man of many names: Biggie Smalls, Big Poppa, B.I., Franky Baby, and — most notably — The Notorious B.I.G.
With a name like this, it’s easy to see why his music is immediately recognizable by both hardcore and casual rap fans alike. His life, career, and untimely death have been heavily discussed by music fans, rap historians, and media professionals, and his skills as a rapper and lyricist are frequently held up as significantly influential to the music environment that followed.
But one thing about Biggie remains frequently overlooked: his sincere appreciation for pop culture. In addition to life struggles, famed success, women, and the search for the C.R.E.A.M., his lyrics feature numerous references to musical influences, films, media personalities, and cultural icons.
To start the story, let’s follow the life of Mr. B.I.G. and explore some of the most interesting pop culture tools he used to become the so-called King of New York.
What better place to begin than the man’s most common moniker, Biggie Smalls? Young Christopher Wallace was always a large boy, and his classmates — as young people do — assigned him a nickname based on his size. It would seem that “Big” did not reject this title as derogatory, but instead embraced it.
After dropping out of school and spending a few months in prison, Wallace began a rap career under the name Biggie Smalls. While the name is an ironic reference to his childhood nickname, it was also adopted from the 1975 film Let’s Do It Again starring Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby. Calvin Lockhart plays character Biggie Smalls, a suave, smooth-talking gangster who comes head-to-head with John Amos’ character Kansas City Mack.
Much of Wallace’s rap persona (rapsona?) came from this character: a smooth cutthroat with a love of money and power. However, due to a threat of legal action by the original Biggie Smalls, Calvin Lockhart, Wallace was forced to release his first album under a new pseudonym. He chose “The Notorious B.I.G.” for the name behind his first release Ready to Die, while still casually referring to himself as Biggie Smalls. No legal consequences for casual nicknames, I guess.
Big’s references to Let’s Do It Again reveal the rapper’s love of film, especially 1970’s Blaxploitation. In fact, Ready to Die‘s “Intro” opens with a shout-out to another 70’s Blaxploitation classic. The introductory track acts as sort-of life story of Christopher Wallace, and features a collection of small skits representing events in the young man’s life.
The first of these skits presents the birth of (presumably) the young boy on the album cover above and the celebratory shouts of his father. Accompanying this exciting emergence of life is Curtis Mayfield’s theme song to the Blaxploitation movie Super Fly. Not only was this film released in 1972 (the same year of Biggie’s birth), but it also apparently served as a musical touchstone for the rapper’s young life. Here’s the hilariously 70’s trailer:
Other musical references in the “Intro” include “Rapper’s Delight” (the first commercially successful rap song) by Sugar Hill Gang, “Top Billin'” by Audio Two, and “Tha Shiznit” by Snoop Doggy Dogg. These musical shout-outs serve as the first of many in Biggie’s music, as he frequently expresses respect for his musical influences and noteworthy contemporaries. Ready to Die alone features call-outs to Biggie’s friends and collaborators Junior M.A.F.I.A., Lil’ Fame and the Mash Out Posse (M.O.P.), Puff Daddy, Salt ‘n’ Pepa, Heavy D and the Boyz, Ron G, Brucey B, Kid Capri, Funkmaster Flex, and Lovebug Starski (all nicely organized for some ultra-dope rhymes).
One rather humorous old school rap callback is to the 1983 novelty track “Rappin’ Duke,” in which musician Shawn Brown raps in the voice of late actor John Wayne.
This is common theme for Mr. B.I., as he regularly looks back to the days of old and yearns for those easier times. He remembers things such as listening to the New York radio program Rap Attack (hosted by alliteration duo Magic and MC Marley Marl) and reading the excessively edgy editorial Word Up! Magazine.
But with the pressures of life continually emerging in his life, he recognized that he needed one thing: C.R.E.A.M. This term of course stands for “Cash Rules Everything Around Me” and was made popular by the 1993 Wu Tang Clan song of the same name. Biggie uses this acronym in several songs to discuss his desire to achieve monetary success.
While Big adopts this phrase from the boys in Wu Tang, there was a considerable amount of animosity between him and the Clan. Raekwon and Ghostface Killah were both outspoken about Biggie’s (alleged) unoriginal style, and the group included critical references to Big in their 1995 track “Shark Niggas (Biters).” The track is super NSFW, so I’ll let you search for it yourself.
The creative differences never escalated too far, but Big himself included subtle jabs to the New York borough of Staten Island (calling it “Shoalin Isaland”) where the Wu Tang Clan is based, and to those who prefer Kung-Fu to automatic weapons like MAC 10’s. I can’t say for sure, but I like to think these statements foreshadow the Clan’s 1999 Playstation fighting game Wu Tang: Shaolin Style.
As that gameplay video suggests, the hard streets of New York are home to danger, in addition to strange Eastern mysticism. Mr. Smalls was no stranger to such danger, as he used allusions to his favorite films to describe the hard life he grew up in.
For example, in the song “Suicidal Thoughts,” Biggie speaks of the possibility of death “on the train track,” like character Ramo in the 1980 film Beat Street…
…or death by crack cocaine, like Chris Rock’s character Pookie in the 1991 Wesley Snipes movie New Jack City.
Biggie knows a good Chris Rock performance when he sees one. And his appreciation for black comics doesn’t end there, as he fires off a few Wayans Brothers references in the remix of “One More Chance.” I’m not entirely sure what the lyrics mean, but he apparently brings “Major Payne like Damon Wayans, Low Down Dirty even like his brother Keenan.”
Whatever the case, Biggie makes it clear that it’s hard out there for a pimp. And a pimp is exactly how he fancied himself. In fact, he had quite a few creative ways to describe his sex life. He…
- gets “physical like Olivia Newt” (referencing her 1981 hit),
- gets lucky “in the back of the pathfinder” (referencing LL Cool J’s “Back Seat (of My Jeep)),
- has “more mack than Craig” (referencing Bad Boy rapper Craig Mack),
- frequently “grabs his Charles Dickens” (referencing 20th century English novelist),
- and most importantly, fulfills “fantasies without that nigga Mr. Roark and Tattoo,” an obvious reference to the well-remembered, long-running television show Fantasy Island.
How could anyone forget?
But none of these call-outs describe Big’s female pursuits quite like Ready to Die‘s final song “Just Playin (Dreams)”. In this track alone, Biggie describes sexual encounters with (gasp for air) Patti LaBelle, Regina Belle, Jazmine Guy, Mariah Carey, Mary J Blige, SWV (Sistas With Voices), TLC, Chante Moore, RuPaul (a drag queen), Xscape, Zhane, Whitney Houston, En Vogue, Chaka Khan, Sade, Tina Turner, Patra, Toni Braxton, and Raven Symone (who was nine years old at the time).
Some may call it tasteless, some may call it success. Either way, let’s jump ahead a few years to 1997 with the release of sophomore Notorious B.I.G. album Life After Death. Released two weeks after Biggie’s actual death, this was the last to have his direct involvement.
But rather than focus on where the Big Man was at the album’s release, let’s focus on where he was at the album’s conception. Biggie found overwhelming success with Ready to Die, achieving respect, acclaim, and a vast rap fortune. In fact, he uses his accomplishments as an excuse to compare himself to many rich and powerful figures from the big screen.
Let’s run through these like a fully automatic.
Biggie’s known to “tote steel like Bronson,” or more specifically, Bronson’s smooth-talking, dangerous vigilante character from the Death Wish series.
He’s known to hit “in between they eyes” like Arnold in True Lies.
He has “fans like De Niro, Wesley,” a reference to 1996’s The Fan, starring Wesley Snipes and Robert De Niro.
He’s known to “smoke weed like Tony Montana sniff the yayo,” a reference to Scarface.
He’s known to “come through with mobs and crews” and “make the papers dangerous” like in the Scorsese film Goodfellas.
He’s known to “peep the scene, sorta like Sam Worthington” and Nicky from Casino, played by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.
Interestingly (and probably just to preserve a rhyme), Big calls Pesci’s character “Nicky Tarantino” instead of “Nicky Santoro” as in the film. This is obviously a reference to the fast talkin’ movie director.
He’s even known to “hit you with the force like Obi [Wan Kenobi]” from Star Wars. I found a pretty great Star Wars rap remix that uses the line (courtesy of APNJ).
And he’s even known to make his haters “more gone than Freeman,” punnily referencing Morgan Freeman.
As mentioned before, Life After Death speaks a lot of Big’s monetary success. Like with that bad Morgan Freeman pun to prove his worth as a dangerous man, Biggie uses more bad puns to prove his worth as a rich man. In fact, he’s both “Richie like Lionel” and “richer than Richie.”
Now we’re getting to the good stuff.
Like other 90’s rappers, Biggie uses material possessions like Rolex watches, Lexus luxury cars, and bulletproof Jeeps to celebrate his success. These are all traditionally gangsta things. But only the Notorious B.I.G., in all his pop culture forethought, goes as far as to gauge his success by professing his ownership of both a Super Nintendo and a Sega Genesis.
Shout-out to YouTube user Nelson Gomez for that gem. Go give him your views.
It would seem that Biggie Smalls had achieved it all on this Earth. After one buys a Super Nintendo and a Sega Genesis, there’s nothing left to live for. And sadly, in March of 1997, Biggie was killed in a drive-by shooting, only a few weeks before Life After Death‘s release.
It would seem the career of the Big Man was all but finished. However, as is the way in the corporate music industry, The Notorious B.I.G. had one last hoorah in him before they laid him to rest.
In 1999, Bad Boy Records released Born Again, a collection of unreleased tracks, remixed B-sides, and guest tributes from Biggie’s old friends. I’ll let you decide whether this album was a well-meaning celebration of Biggie’s career or a tasteless expression of corporate greed. But the album does give way to the possibility of more pop culture references, right?
Sadly no. Other than a few interesting comic book references to Lois Lane and Mr. Fantastic (plus a few cryptic call-outs to Patrick Swayze in Ghost), the album is fairly devoid of anything significant.
But there is still one major film reference in Biggie’s music I have failed to mention thus far. It is the reference that that he makes more often than any other, a reference heard in over 15 songs, a reference that actually contributed to the Notorious identity he had created.
This reference is to Frank White, main character of the 1990 film King of New York.
You see, Biggie Smalls liked to think of himself as the King of New York, a self-made man from the hard streets of the Big Apple who eventually built an empire. He related to Christopher Walken’s portrayal in the film and, like Calvin Lockhart so many years before, adopted Frank White’s name as his own.
So there you have it. That’s the story of The Notorious B.I.G. and his journey to become the King of New York. It was a journey full of drugs, sex, and money, pop culture shout-outs, movie references, and bad puns. These are things he used to build his empire, and the things that remain after that empire fell.
And that is end of the story. I hope you learned what it takes to survive on the streets and what it truly means to be… notorious. I’ll leave you with a track by the Big Man himself. Keep dreamin’.
Article by RODTheMaster.