Mammoth-sized rapper (6 feet 3 inches and close to 300 pounds) the Notorious B.I.G., alternately known as Biggie Smalls but born Christopher Wallace, released just one album during his lifetime: 1994's Ready to Die. Written by Wallace and produced by Sean Combs, it was a remarkable debut, distinguished by Wallace's thick, commanding baritone and his slow, matter-of-fact rhymes about the hustler's life he left behind for rap. Wallace would not attain true iconic status until after his murder, on March 9, 1997. By the time his second album, the sprawling, double-CD Life After Death, hit stores three weeks later, Wallace —like his rival Tupac Shakur before him —had become a rap martyr.
By the time he was 15, Wallace was selling crack in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He gave up drug dealing for rap, however, and recorded homemade demos in his basement. One of these found its way to Uptown Records A&R chief Sean Combs, who, after leaving Uptown to start his own Bad Boy Entertainment label, signed Biggie Smalls. The Notorious B.I.G. helped Bad Boy on its way to becoming one of the most successful rap and R&B labels of the '90s when Ready to Die, released in September 1994, went to #3 on the R&B album chart and spawned several hits: "Juicy" (#27 pop, #14 R&B, 1994), "Big Poppa" (#6 pop, #4 R&B, 1995), and "One More Chance/Stay With Me" (#2 pop, #1 R&B, 1995) among them. The album itself was also a crossover success, climbing to #15.
In the wake of the album's success, Wallace was frequently called on as a guest artist, and he appeared on Michael Jackson's "This Time Around," from 1995's HIStory Past, Present and Future, Book I, among other recordings. He also started his own Undeas label, to which he signed fellow Bedford-Stuyvesant rap troupe Junior M.A.F.I.A. He executive-produced and guested on Hard Core, the 1996 debut by Junior M.A.F.I.A. vixen Lil' Kim, with whom he had an on-again/off-again affair.
As Wallace's (and Bad Boy's) profile rose, he and Combs became entangled in an ongoing East Coast–West Coast rivalry with Death Row founder Marion "Suge" Knight and his own star rapper, Tupac Shakur. When Shakur was shot and wounded in New York on November 30, 1994, he publicly implicated Wallace and Combs, and later taunted Wallace with the song "Hit 'Em Up," in which he boasted of sleeping with Wallace's wife, singer Faith Evans. On September 13, 1996, Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas, and six months later, Wallace was shot and killed while driving away from the Soul Train Awards party in L.A. No arrest has been made in either case to date, though informants reportedly told police that Shakur had been killed by a member of the L.A. Crips, a gang linked to Bad Boy; meanwhile, the Crips' bitter rivals, the Bloods, were similarly thought to have ties to Death Row.
Released less than a month after Wallace's death, Life After Death debuted at #1 on both the pop and R&B charts, selling 690,000 copies its first week and eventually going 10 times platinum. Two of the album's singles, "Hypnotize" and "Mo Money Mo Problems," topped the singles chart. Later that summer, Combs released his own debut solo album, No Way Out, which featured his tribute to Wallace, "I'll Be Missing You" (#1, 1997). In 1999 Bad Boy released the posthumous Notorious B.I.G. album Born Again (#1). Comprised of remixes and vault material, the album featured guest appearances by Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Missy Elliott, Method Man, Busta Rhymes, and Sean Combs.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).