It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that everything in rap changed on March 9, 1997. On that day 20 years ago, just after midnight, Christopher Wallace, b.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G.—hip-hop’s biggest artist at the time and arguably the greatest rapper ever—was shot dead in the passenger seat of a green Chevrolet Suburban after leaving a Vibe magazine party in Los Angeles. Paired with Tupac Shakur’s also-unsolved murder six months earlier, Biggie Smalls’ demise set off a whirlwind that rerouted the course of music history. Nas once told Zane Lowe that he thought Biggie’s death marked “the end of rap.”
With each passing year, it becomes harder to track the ripple effects of Big’s passing. His death was so far-reaching that it redirected the course of hip-hop. To understand though, you have to start at the nucleus: his record label, Bad Boy Records.
Biggie was Bad Boy’s franchise player—his death sent the label into crisis mode. In order to keep the wheels turning, rising artists like the Lox rallied around Puff Daddy. The Bad Boy founder and producer was already transitioning into a recording career of his own—his debut album Hell Up In Harlem was pending. After Big’s murder, it became No Way Out.
“After Big died, we were searching to see who was gonna carry the torch,” Mase told GQ in 2014. “My verses on Puff’s first few singles from No Way Out were records I wrote… before I even got to the label. I gave them to Puff, because he was the one with the hot hand.”
Puffy’s own superstar ambitions were undeniably boosted by Biggie’s absence. The Brooklyn MC, who is credited as an executive producer of No Way Out, had already laid his parts for “It’s All About The Benjamins (Remix),” “Been Around The World,” the Jay Z-featured “Young G’s,” and “Victory,” before his death (he also wrote Puff’s verses for the latter). Setting aside the double-disc Life After Death, Puff’s maiden release was the immediate source of new Biggie material, helping push the album’s sales to 7 million units. Plus, the Grammy-winning No. 1 pop tribute “I’ll Be Missing You” made mourning Biggie through music both cathartic for fans and profitable for Puff. Still, by the time his 1999 follow-up Forever dropped, Bad Boy felt like a label in desperation—Double Up by Mase and Biggie’s posthumous Born Again were the only other LPs Bad Boy released that year. If Biggie had lived, would No Way Out have been just a modestly successful one-off project for Puff Daddy, a way of testing the waters? Or would it have pushed Biggie further in the direction of the lyricist-slash-exec role he’d already flirted with in launching Junior M.A.F.I.A.? Even if Sean Combs went on to have a successful solo career with Big in the picture, it’s hard to fathom his star shining as brightly as it has.
Mase, however, seemed destined for stardom. He had the catchy rhymes, Diddy-approved dance steps, and a style tailor-made for the Shiny Suit Era—the glitzy, Puffy-driven musical aesthetic that Biggie tempered before it became corny. Maybe Harlem’s smiley wordsmith would never have swapped music for ministry if Biggie had lived. (While Mase cited “a calling from God” as the motivation behind his career switch, he’s also pointed to Biggie’s death as a reason he stepped away from rap.) It’s likely Biggie would’ve continued to bond and collaborate with Black Rob and the Lox, but would that brotherhood have soured once the Yonkers trio defected from the label and threatened to drop a refrigerator on Puffy? Of course, this is all assuming that Biggie stayed put at his recording home. Disgruntled Bad Boy alum Mark Curry claimed that the Notorious One planned to leave the label, which might lead some to wonder if Life After Death’s double LP length was a ploy to expedite the completion of his recording contract.
There are bigger implications connected to a surviving Biggie Smalls once you zoom out, and take a look at the greater New York rap scene. A subliminal war of words had been brewing in 1997, with Nas, Raekwon, Ghostface, and Jeru the Damaja taking shots at the throne. Without saying names, Big addressed all detractors on “Kick In The Door” and “What’s Beef?” but none of the targets had a chance to respond, as Life After Death dropped posthumously. If Biggie were still alive, there would surely be more classic back-and-forth shots, and an eventual clash at the top between he and Nas. Biggie likely would have had to defend his crown the same way Jay Z did in 2001.
Jay Z in ’96 | Image via Al Pereira Getty
After Puff Daddy, Jay Z’s career was most directly affected by Biggie’s death. Another one of music’s most gifted lyricists, Hov likely would’ve found his way to superstardom eventually, no doubt. But who knows if he would have donned the “King of NY” crown that he overtly claimed with 1997’s “City Is Mine” and has referred to throughout his career. Big tapped Jay as an integral member of the Commission—the greatest rap group that never was—alongside himself, Charli Baltimore, Lil Cease, Puff, and producer Lance “Un” Rivera. It’s fathomable that Hov’s butter-smooth flow and witty lines would’ve been dwarfed by the self-proclaimed black rhinoceros of rap. Would they eventually grapple for the throne? Or does the Nas vs. Jay Z beef take place at a level beneath rap’s apex?
Biggie’s murder didn’t alter every New York City rapper’s trajectory, though. N.O.R.E. still would’ve happened. Big Pun pops off for sure. Shyne and other soundalikes don’t. Then there’s DMX and Ja Rule rising up the Big Apple ranks—they effectively fill 2Pac’s emotional thug void. But, more importantly, they’re a response to the shiny suits that Biggie helped to usher in, and Puff pushed into caricature. New York’s return to gritty gangsta rap continued from there. 50 Cent’s 1999 industry shakedown “How To Rob” was preordained; he likely would’ve baited Biggie into a subliminal response (Fif’ has said his track is modeled after Big’s controversial, R&B chick-lusting “Just Playin’ (Dreams)”).
Southern and Midwest hip-hop swooped in strong and swiftly after Biggie’s death. Missy Elliott brought her own unique flavor in ’97, and there was simply no stopping Cash Money’s millions and No Limit’s tank from crashing mainstream rap the following year. Eminem’s meteoric ascent in 1999 also would’ve been mostly unaffected. Judging by Biggie’s penchant for styles from elsewhere, he would’ve welcomed these emerging sounds from different corners of the country (as Jay Z did when he hopped on Juvenile’s ’98 Dirty South anthem “Ha”). He’d already worked with foreigners like Too Short, Uncle Luke, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, challenging his peers to look beyond New York and Los Angeles’ music scenes. And he was a fan of CeeLo Green and OutKast. Puffy directed Big Boi and Andre 3000’s “Players Ball” video, so it’s not farfetched to think Biggie would’ve appeared on their 1998 masterpiece Aquemini (Raekwon became the first New York artist to collaborate with OutKast on that album’s second single “Skew It on the Bar-B”).
The Notorious B.I.G.’s legacy may have looked different, too. Big’s catalog is near-flawless, yet it’s abbreviated compared to any other G.O.A.T. candidates. It’s inevitable that he would’ve dropped a meh project—it happens to every great artist (see: Kingdom Come, Nastradamus, or every Ice Cube album after The Predator). What’s not clear is whether he’d remain in every greatest rapper debate if he had some strikeouts to balance out the home runs.
Image via Mitchell Gerber/Getty
In his final days, Big was keen on becoming more than just a rapper. He spoke of transitioning from hip-hop to Hollywood like his buddy Busta Rhymes and rival Tupac Shakur. Biggie told journalist and Notorious filmmaker Cheo Hodari Coker of his ideas for a “Big and Heavy” clothing store with Heavy D, and a chicken-and-waffles restaurant with super-sized decor. And he was already looking to groom more of his own artists—he’d planned to make Lil’ Cease the next breakout star from Junior M.A.F.I.A., help Lil Kim craft another Hard Core, and take a locally bubbling Harlem rapper named Cam’ron under his wing. Already managing Puffy Daddy’s young artist career, Biggie could’ve gone down as one of rap’s great artist-mogul-visionary hyphenates.
It’s impossible to count all of the ways hip-hop would be different if Biggie’s life hadn’t been cut short at 24 years. One thing that’s clear, though, is that he had no intentions of slowing down. In one of Coker’s final conversations with Big, the rapper spoke about not yet being satisfied with his life and accomplishments.
“I feel there are a few more dues to be paid on my part,” Biggie said. “I think there are a lot more lessons I need to learn, a lot more things I need to experience, a lot more places I need to go before I can finally say, okay, I’ve had my days… I want a lot more.”