March 9, 1997: There was absolutely nothing that could have prepared hip-hop fans for the tragic event that took place on that grim day. Then again, there was not much warning when the Notorious B.I.G. entered the hip-hop world either. Sure, there were key cameos on records with Mary J. Blige and reggae star Super Cat, but when all was said and done and B.I.G. was gunned down 15 years ago today, it became clear that rap had lost one of the great ones — perhaps the greatest one of all time.
In the beginning, Biggie Smalls wasn’t even the most prominent star on his label. That position was occupied by rapper Craig Mack, whose 1994 hit single “Flava in Ya Ear” initially set the mark of Sean “Diddy” Combs’ newly minted Bad Boy Records. B.I.G. was a respected lyricist, a raw rapper who at first seemed unlikely to make a mark on radio. In fact, one of his earliest singles, “Just Playing (Dreams),” poked fun at some of music’s biggest hitmakers like Mariah Carey and Patti LaBelle. Then, on September 13, 1994, things done changed.
On his debut album, Ready to Die, Biggie would find an exceptional balance between the unapologetic street rhymes for which he was heralded and a newfound sense of the type of pop sensibility that radio programmers love. On “Gimme the Loot,” he threatened to rob a pregnant woman for her jewelry and then managed to sweet-talk the ladies on “Big Poppa.” On his “One More Chance” remix, Big described himself as “black and ugly as ever,” and though he didn’t possess the physique of an LL Cool J, Biggie’s charm made him an unlikely sex symbol.
Ready to Die would go on to be certified platinum four times over by the RIAA, but between the bootleg copies and albums sold in largely unaccounted for mom-and-pop shops, its impact was much greater. Rappers like Jay-Z, Nas and Eminem readily admit the influence that Big’s opus had on their own art.
Before dropping his second album, Biggie would branch out and start his own label with partner Lance “Un” Rivera and release an album from his group Junior M.A.F.I.A. in 1995. His sexy protégé Lil’ Kim would go on to be a star in her own right.
B.I.G. had graduated. Once a street poet, the Notorious One transformed himself into a rap don. He “went from ashy to classy,” he would later rap. But as B.I.G.’s celebrity grew, so did the resentment of his rival rappers. Biggie would become entangled in a lyrical tit-for-tat with onetime friend Tupac Shakur and his Cali crew over at Death Row Records. It was dubbed an East Coast/ West Coast beef. Rumors would then surface that it was the Biggie and ‘Pac beef that led to the shooting and eventual death of Shakur in September 1996. Although those rumors continue to persist in certain circles, there is no evidence that Tupac’s feud with Biggie led to his death.
With the hip-hop community picking up the pieces after ‘Pac’s death, B.I.G. continued to prepare his sophomore LP, Life After Death. On the double-disc CD (24 tracks in total), the Brooklyn don would exhibit even more musical growth. The underground spitter who at first never seemed to have a chance at radio was easily making hits with the best of them. L.A.D.‘s first single, “Hypnotize,” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and Big’s sophomore album would go on to be certified diamond by the RIAA, selling more than 10 million copies.
Sadly, the Notorious B.I.G. didn’t get to see how the world truly embraced his final album. On March 9, 1997, Christopher Wallace, the Notorious B.I.G., was gunned down at age 24 in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles after leaving a Soul Train Awards afterparty at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Life After Death was released in stores 16 days later, on March 25, 1997. His murder remains unsolved.
Join MTV News as we celebrate the Notorious B.I.G’s life on the 15th anniversary of his death. From March 9 through March 25, we will be rolling out exclusive and commemorative content from Biggie’s closest friends, collaborators and his biggest fans. To join the conversation on Twitter, hit @MTVRapFix using the hashtag #biggie15.