Biggie Small’s “rough upbringing”, lyrical style and content, and his infamous rivalry with Tupac Shakur heavily influence rap in the mid-90s to present day.
Christopher Wallace, commonly known as Biggie Smalls, completely changed the rap game of the 1900s and onward. His music is commonly known and renowned by music lovers all around the world. Biggie’s legend is carried on through his husky voice, powerful musical flow, and “bad boy” image which are easily recognized even 20 years after his death. “In the early 1990s, the public’s attention had shifted to West Coast hip-hop, especially the music released by Dr. Dre and Suge Knight’s record label Death Row” (Henry Matarozzi). With the help of Biggie Smalls, New York and the East Coast was put back on the musical map. With his clear, powerful baritone, effortless flow on the mic and willingness to address the vulnerability, as well as the harshness, of the hustler lifestyle, Smalls swung the spotlight back towards New York and his label home, Bad Boy Records” (Biography.com Editors). This paper will explore why Biggie had such a huge influence on rap music. Biggie Small’s “rough upbringing”, lyrical style and content, and his infamous rivalry with Tupac Shakur heavily influence rap in the mid-90s to present day.
Biggie Small’s childhood was riddled with a lack of strong male role models drug dealing, and jail time. Unfortunately, his troubled childhood was a result of his own actions. His mother Voletta Wallace worked incredibly hard at her two jobs to give Biggie a stable and comfortable life. “He was more middle class than working class, attended [private] Catholic school and his home at 226 St. James Place was on the border between Bedford-Stuyvesant and the more stable Clinton Hill neighborhood” (Matarozzi). His father left them when Biggie was two years old. Even though his mother worked hard to provide for Biggie, he had no strong male role models. As a black man, it is essential to have a male role model, preferably a black one, to teach him how a man is supposed to act, treat other people, and provide for his family. A mother can only do so much to teach her son this. Sadly, he began his downward spiral at 12 when he began selling drugs. He was a good kid who did well in school “but the pull of the streets — it grabbed him, and he went that route.” (Kelley). With his mom being at work until late hours of the night, she had no recollection of his drug selling activities. “By 16 he was already gone. Neck deep in it. So him and his mom had a big fallout because he basically stepped off the path” (Kelley). By age 17 he had dropped out of school completely to fully pursue drug dealing. This decision further led him down the path of crime and in 1989 he was arrested for carrying a weapon. The following year he was arrested for violating his five-year probation and the year after that he was arrested for dealing cocaine. For this crime he spent nine moths in jail until he was able to pay bail. These self-made struggles heavily influence his lyrical style and content.
The lyrical flow that Biggie developed and the realness of his lyrics led to his permanent spot amongst the greatest rapper. In addition to Biggie’s renowned husky voice, his lyrical flow is unmatched. “Flow is like water. It’s like current. It’s the fluidity of your words — and how you can slow it up, pick it up, chop it up. You can take a slow beat and flow fast on it because it’s the structure of the words. Or you could take a fast beat and really screw it up and make it slow. Flow is a beautiful thing” (Kelley). Biggie’s sound is unique which is something a lot of rappers today are lacking. No matter how much people may try, his sound cannot be imitated. He began rapping when he was a teenager to entertain the kids in his neighborhood. He had no aspirations of becoming the famous rapper he eventually ended up being. Biggie mixtape that ended up in the hands The Source magazine where he was featured in the Unsigned Hype column in March 1992. This column gained the attention of Sean Combs who invited him to Uptown Records where he was offered a record deal. Soon after, Combs left to start his own recording label, Bad Boy Records, where Biggie joined him.
Even though Biggie grew up in a middle class family, his lyrics portray him as an impoverished black man just trying to make it out of the hood. After he began selling drugs and his mother kicked him out, this became his reality. His lyrics about violence, the streets, and the struggle of living in the hood allowed many people to relate to him. “[He] just starting to push the boundaries of his genre and tell stories about people whose voices don’t get heard” (Kelley).” Even though this became his reality, this was not the real Biggie. “He styled himself as a gangster and although he was no angel, in reality he was more of a performer than a hardened criminal” (Biography.com Editors).
These types of songs appeared on his first album produced by Bad Boy Records in1994 called Ready to Die. “Ready to Die marked a resurgence in East Coast hip hop, and Biggie was widely acclaimed for the narrative ability he displayed on the album’s semi-autobiographical tales from his wayward youth. Away from the more playful radio-friendly singles” (Biography.com Editors). His album reached number 13 on the Billboard 200 chart and eventually went quadruple-platinum. His two most popular songs on the album were “Juicy” and “Big Pappa” which was nominated for a Grammy award. His song “Everyday Struggle” is a perfect example of the difficult drug dealing life he got himself into. He starts the song off with “I don’t wanna live no more. Sometimes I hear death knocking at my front door. I’m living every day like a hustle. Another drug to juggle, another day, another struggle.” Even though he is not a “hardened criminal,” he pushed himself into the life of crime and struggle when he began selling drugs. Around the time of his first album release, Biggie became friends with Tupac Shakur.
The friendship later turned rivalry between Biggie and Tupac further pushed them into the realm of great rappers. They first met in 1993 in LA where Tupac invited Biggie to his house party. From there, they begun a strong friendship. Their relationship was more of a mentor-mentee relationship than anything. Unlike Biggie, Tupac was known worldwide and had a very successful career. Biggie was just starting off and was struggling to get his career off the ground. He was hardly known anywhere outside of Brooklyn. Biggie, being a little frustrated by this reality, turned to Tupac for guidance. Fortunately, Tupac was impressed by Biggie’s skills and allowed him to perform at some of his concerts and offered advice. Tupac even said, “”I trained the nigga, he used to be under me like my lieutenant,” (Westhoff). Before the release of his first album, Biggie asked Tupac to become his new manager in hopes that we would make his career take off. Tupac declined the offer and told him “[Puff] will make you a star” (Westhoff). Their friendship began to fall apart when Tupac was shot in a Manhattan recording studio on November 30th 1994 and suspected that Biggie and Puffy had something to do with it. Tupac later signed with Death Row whose kingpin had a preexisting grudge against Puffy. This blossomed into a full-fledged rivalry, not just between the two rappers but between the East and West Coast. Biggie described this as, “We two individual people, we waged a coastal beef. You know what i’m saying? One man against one man made a whole West coast hate a whole East Coast. And vice versa” (Biography.com Editors).
Biggie and Tupac’s vulgar “clap back” lyrics about shooting and sleeping with women heavily influenced the rap songs in the future. Both rappers lyrically provoked each other. Biggie released the song “Who Shot Ya” which Tupac believed he released to taunt him. Tupac later released his single “Hit ‘Em Up” in which he claimed to have slept with Biggie’s wife and that Biggie stole his style and image. The content of future rapper’s lyrics was heavily influenced by songs like this. Today, all rappers really talk about is money, the life of a “real” gangster, and sleeping with women. Unfortunately, their rivalry ended with the death of both rappers. Tupac was shot which everyone suspected that Biggie set up. A little while later, Biggie was shot to death. Their feud eventually became the thing that destroyed both of them.
Biggie Small’s heavily influenced the future generation of rappers and he did this with only two albums. Rappers like Jay Z and Lil Kim were impacted greatly by Biggie and his lyrics. Jay Z quoted some of Biggie’s lyrics in his songs and “the two share a wicked flow and a lyric style that uses clever wordplay” (Adams). Many of Lil Kim’s lyrics were even written by Biggie.
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Kelley, Frannie. “Biggie Smalls: The Voice That Influenced A Generation.” NPR, NPR, 2 Aug. 2010. https://www.npr.org/2010/08/02/128916682/biggie-smalls-the-voice-that-influenced-a-generation (accessed November 5, 2017)
Matarozzi, Henry. “Remembering Biggie’s Contribution To Hip-Hop.” The Odyssey Online, 27 Aug. 2017. https://www.theodysseyonline.com/on-the-19th-anniversary-of-his-death-we-remember-biggies-contribution-to-hip-hop (accessed November 5, 2017).
Westhoff, Ben. “How Tupac and Biggie Went from Friends to Deadly Rivals.” Vice, 12 Sept. 2016, www.vice.com/en_us/article/gqkqz3/tupac-biggie-friends-to-foes (accessed November 5, 2017).
Weinstein, Max. “Why The Notorious B.I.G. Is the Most Influential Rapper Ever.” The Boombox, 18 May 2014, theboombox.com/why-the-notorious-b-i-g-is-the-most-influential-rapper-of-all-time/ (accessed November 5, 2017).
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