Biggie Smalls was the name of a flamboyant hustler in the 1970s action comedy Let's Do It Again, starring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. It's also the nom de rap of Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Chris Wallace, 22, a modern-day hustler turned MC, a million-selling artist who never expected to be pushing legal product. But with sales of his runaway debut, Ready to Die (Bad Boy/Arista), approaching platinum, Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls or the Notorious B.I.G., is more than content with hitting the big time; he's actually getting paid to rap about his life on the streets.
"Every true hustler knows that you cannot hustle forever," says B.I.G. "You will go to jail eventually. If the police or feds ain't on you, the niggas on the street are on you." He's a mountain of a man: 6 feet 3 inches, 280 pounds, black as tar, with a W.C. Fields scowl and a lazy left eye. The notorious part comes from his days selling crack on the Ave, as the main strip of Fulton Street is known to the residents of the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. A fixture there since the age of 15, B.I.G. spent his time kickin' it with the other dealers and "just being one of those flashy teen-age niggas," as he describes it.
The Ave is also where he hooked up with his DJ, 50 Grand; they made demos during raucous, marijuana-infused sessions in B.I.G.'s basement. One of these tapes was passed on to The Source magazine's Unsigned Hype column editor and from there to Uptown Records' A&R man Sean "Puffy" Combs, who signed B.I.G. immediately, " 'cause he said it sounded like I could just rhyme forever," says B.I.G. in the clear, commanding baritone that makes his rhymes so easily digestible and memorable. "I'm definitely a writer. I don't even know how to freestyle."
B.I.G. wields undeniable insight, grit and brutal honesty when it comes to wordplay and rhymes. Check the autobiographical slant of "Things Done Changed": "If I wasn't in the rap game/I'd probably have a key knee-deep in the crack game/Because the streets is a short stop/Either you're selling crack rock, or you got a wicked jump shot."
B.I.G. makes a cameo on "This Time Around," a track from Michael Jackson's upcoming new album, History Past, Present and Future Book I. Well before that, B.I.G. delivered his own underground smash, "Party and Bullshit" from 1993's Who's the Man soundtrack. On Ready to Die, the tracks are rugged uptempo funk produced by Easy Mo Bee, the Bluez Brothers and DJ Premier; the music rushes you through B.I.G.'s nihilistic existence and life history like a jolting, uptown subway ride. From his first gasp of air in the delivery room in "Intro" to his first stickup ("Gimme the Loot"), from his views on women ("Me and My Bitch," "One More Chance") to the chilling finale of "Suicidal Thoughts," B.I.G. offers a point-blank perspective on his experiences, rendered with cinematic clarity. "I had a master plan/I'm in a caravan/On my way to Maryland/With my man Two Techs to take over these projects," he says on "Everyday Struggle," a real account (according to B.I.G.) of a drug-selling expedition down South.
"At the time I was making the album," B.I.G. says, "I was just waking up every morning, hustling, cutting school, looking out for my moms, the police, stickup kids, just risking my life every day on the street selling drugs, you know what I'm saying? You could get killed easy, but I was doing that every day because I knew that's what I needed [to do] to eat."
At the moment, B.I.G. is making loot the legitimate way. With a wife and an 18-month-old daughter to support, his hardcore outlook is gradually changing. "She ain't got nothing to worry," says B.I.G. about his little girl. "All she gotta do is finish school. Everything she wants, she'll get if she just finish school." Though B.I.G. did not exactly follow this route himself, he wants his daughter to follow the straight and narrow. Positive reinforcement is key. "It wasn't like my mother said, 'You finish school, Christopher, and I will buy you a Benz – you don't have to sell drugs for that.' They had said that, I would have been a fuckin' graduate," Notorious B.I.G. declares with the stark confidence of a natural rapper. "Top of the class."
This story is from the June 1st, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone.