How B.I.G. Taught Us to — Wait for It — Dream Big

Time to get paid: Biggie in front of the World Trade Center, 1996. Photograph by Chi Modu

How unlikely – so sudden and implacable – Biggie’s reign on the top was isn’t all that obvious 27 years after the fact. But there were clues all along: Black and ugly as ever; went from ashy to classy; while niggas flirt, I’m sewing tigers on my shirt; used to call me fatso. And Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell, the new documentary on Netflix about B.I.G. shows us, in loving detail, how his peculiar origin story helped define the most relatable rap superstar ever.

Why peculiar origins, though? The critic Walter Benjamin said, “All great works of literature establish a genre or dissolve one.” And B.I.G., being among the finest of literary craftsman did the latter. Overweight and bookish? Dark-skinned? Not exactly out the mud? Jamaican at a time when that shit definitely wasn’t cool? None of this at the time gelled with the predominant image of the macho rap lover man – you know, fellas want to be him; ladies want to bone him – mainlined by LL Cool J.

Somewhere close to the halfway mark, the doc highlights how Biggie’s first demo, a rap ballad in the vein of “I Need Love” recorded under his pseudonym at the time, MC CWest, over a dreamy loop courtesy of Toto’s “Africa” – had anybody on Beyoncé’s internet unearthed this gem before now? – was going for exactly that kind of appeal.

B.I.G.’s genius lies in how he expanded his natural magnetism by so effortlessly combining those bookish elements with the brolic bluster of Fulton Ave to have us all jonesing for the next one as if he were some impossible hybrid of a serial novelist also somehow well versed in the occult art of hand-to-hands.

Unsurprisingly, dream hampton has said that the man Voletta Wallace called “Chrissy Pooh,” who told a straight-up story better than everyone except Slick Rick was a mesmerized student of Charles Dickens. (Meth’s shout-out to that author on “The What” is only right, as far as synchronicities go.)

Also, dream told me personally, in one of our email exchanges back in the day that her friend from 226 St. James Pl was our Jimi Hendrix (I’d told her earlier that he was, if anything, hip-hop’s Hemingway because he wasted no words – every bar was essential) – implying that his brief life contained multitudes. Like Jimi, she said, he’d also been immortalized in the canon of perfect songs – informed, no doubt, by his expansive, catholic tastes.

Tastes that were refined, the film shows, by his around-the-way mentor, the saxophonist Donald Harrison, who took a young B.I.G. to films and museums in hopes of grooming him to be a jazz musician.

His childhood friends in the film talk about how Biggie, on his tree-lined Clinton Hill block was exposed to art that they weren’t. They mention how he admired Harrison, who he saw in the neighborhood with “beautiful ladies and the horn” (just as he admired young dope boys like his day one, D-Roc).

Remember back in the days? B.I.G. and crew. Photograph by Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

And it’s fun to think about an alternate-universe Biggie who would have been with the Brooklyn Boheme alongside Branford Marsalis (maybe he’d have sat in with the late Roy Hargrove), Carl Hancock Rux as well as, yes, DJ Premier. Maybe, if that were the case, he’d still be here with us today.

I’m personally inspired by B.I.G.’s life, with my own so far panning out to be something like the one I’d imagined for him. And I have a vested interest in his journey, if for no other reason than its tragic trajectory reminds me of the one I might have come this close to avoiding. I got a story of my own to tell.

I look to what B.I.G. accomplished in his abrupt but amazing life and let it guide me to even greater rewards.

In the spring of 1996, I used to post rhymes, when the Internet was a new thing, on a popular hip-hop-themed message board, basically to pass the time and build with the like-minded in the year before I would go to college.

Needless to say, your boy was type-nice with the pen and started to get a lot of attention from a lot of important people. One of them was Super Mario from Bad Boy Entertainment, who said he’d been peeping what I’d been doing and was impressed – my guess is with a fantasy rap that I wrote, à la “Just Playing (Dreams),” the classic Biggie mixtape cut.

Anyway, Mario said he wanted to discuss the possibility of “writing for Bad Boy,” and asked for my email address. Let that sink in for a minute. This was Bad Boy when they were selling like crills in the ‘80s. And B.I.G. was still alive.

Total had just taken off, and Puff was preparing for B.I.G.’s sophomore release as well as the Bad Boy Family album (I don’t have any of my old Source mags anymore, but the early ads had it titled Hell Up in Harlem). I was probably going to be writing rhymes for Puff.

Flattered and wild shook, I replied on the message boards that I didn’t have an email address (this was at least a few months before Hotmail).

Looking back, I’m so glad I didn’t get to accept that offer – too much flossing/Sam Rothstein, not to mention a major bout with alcoholism I would grapple with a few years later, would have taken me down. (Thankfully I was able to become sober by my 40's.) I recognized, though, that it would have been great to leave my Michigan hometown, where I was still living at the time, to meet Biggie and realize all the goals I had in mind since my early teens.

I now know I would have been overwhelmed – catapulted into the fast lane just to leave behind a pretty corpse. I don’t think Biggie was overwhelmed – just in over his head with everything that came with being a rap superstar in the late ‘90s. For better or worse (and back then, we were very vocal about that “worse” part), people like Puff helped create extraordinary opportunities for rappers like B.I.G., with unprecedented access to money, fame, and the drama that inevitably follows.

One of the more poignant moments in the doc is when Faith Evans mentions how emotional her late husband was over Pac’s passing. Scenes like that only seem to convey that if there were a single phrase to describe late-’90s rap, it might have been “too much, too soon.”

Nowadays don’t worry if I write rhymes; I write essays and, pretty soon, novels. I look to what B.I.G. accomplished in his abrupt but amazing life and let it guide me to even greater rewards.

‘Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell’ reminds us of the Notorious B.I.G.’s imperishable appeal.

Rewards, as we know, were on Biggie’s mind in March of 1997, when he’d headed West to enjoy the success that comes with being the greatest to have ever done it. And at the end of Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell, there’s footage from his last interview, at a San Francisco radio station four days before his murder, where he looks happy, like the guy who folks close to him said would crack jokes about the size of his son’s head.

Smiling, he says to his audience – which is also us, three decades later – “I’m gonna continue to keep making those songs that make you dance and make you groove and have kids and all kinds of things.”

It’s a captivating moment in a vital film which reminds us of the Notorious B.I.G.’s imperishable appeal. Biggie’s example proved that when it’s time to man up, woman up and live those dreams, not even the sky is a ceiling.




Cultural Critic | Past: @SPINmagazine @villagevoice @VibeMagazine @thefader |

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Will Dukes

Will Dukes

Cultural Critic | Past: @SPINmagazine @villagevoice @VibeMagazine @thefader |

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