He died 25 years ago, but Notorious B.I.G is still synonymous with Brooklyn
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today marks the anniversary of the death of the rapper the Notorious B.I.G. His rhymes altered music. He was murdered in his 20s in 1997, a crime for which no one has ever been charged. He grew up in Brooklyn, which has changed a lot since his death. But 25 years later, people still feel his presence. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Before he was Biggie, B.I.G., Notorious, Big Poppa, he was Christopher Wallace.
MELVIN BLACKMAN: Always running his mouth (laughter). He was a pain in the neck.
GARSD: Melvin Blackman was Wallace's teacher at Quincy Lexington Open Door Day Care Center. He says he was a brilliant kid who came into preschool already knowing how to read and write, and a charmer to boot.
BLACKMAN: He used to talk the other kids out of their stuff. It was, like, charismatic, you know? And he always did it on the sly. So, like, we catch him doing it. You know, I would say, you got to stop doing that.
GARSD: Biggie himself rapped about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARTY AND BULLS***")
NOTORIOUS B I G: (Rapping) I was a terror since the public school era. Bathroom passes, cutting classes, squeezing - smoking blunts was a daily routine since 13.
GARSD: Blackman says his heart sank when he watched his former star student growing up and getting involved in selling drugs on this corner - Fulton and St. James. But in Brooklyn in the '80s and early '90s, drugs were everywhere. In fact, Biggie took that reality and turned it into a theme in his storytelling.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEN CRACK COMMANDMENTS")
NOTORIOUS B I G: (Rapping) No. 4 - I know you heard this before. Never get high on your own supply. No. 5...
GARSD: With the challenges came this amazing creative energy. Kids would gather on the streets and have rap battles. Here's some early footage of Biggie at one. This is from the Netflix documentary "I Got A Story To Tell."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BIGGIE: I GOT A STORY TO TELL")
NOTORIOUS B I G: (Rapping) West Side Brooklyn, where this rapper was originated. Your rhymes are s***. They must be complicated, ameliorated. The heavy-weight brother from the Brooklyn streets about to rhyme to a funky beat.
GARSD: These battles were an important part of the culture. Richard Grant, who goes by DJ Twin (ph), is from Brooklyn. He eventually toured with Biggie.
RICHARD GRANT: In the 'hood, we had our own American Idol, if you will (laughter). You know that. You - if you didn't make it to the next round, you know there's no way you get that golden ticket. Like, the 'hood gave you that golden ticket, like, gave you the confidence to go pursue.
GARSD: What happened next is hip-hop history.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUICY")
NOTORIOUS B I G: (Rapping) It was all a dream. I used to read Word Up! magazine. Salt-N-Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine.
GARSD: Biggie's 1994 debut album, "Ready To Die," was hailed by fans and critics as a masterpiece. At the time, West Coast hip-hop artists had taken the spotlight. Fans say Biggie brought hip-hop back to New York, and he did it by talking about his life in Brooklyn.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUICY")
NOTORIOUS B I G: (Rapping) We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us - no heat, wonder why Christmas missed us. Birthdays was the worst days. Now we sip Champagne when we thirsty.
GARSD: He's widely associated with gangsta rap, but he stood out for also being unusually vulnerable, for weaving tales of sadness, violence, love, sex and comedy into an enthralling narrative. Syreeta Gates is an archivist who focuses on hip-hop.
SYREETA GATES: You could create a direct connection between, like, a John Coltrane and a Biggie Smalls. Like, forever, Black music has been really intentional around the storytelling, like, creating these narratives, whether it's stuff that we live or stuff that we happen to experience.
GARSD: Which is why what happened in 1997, the murder of Biggie Smalls in Los Angeles, devastated his community. Twenty-five years later, Biggie is still everywhere. There are murals of him throughout the neighborhood. One of the largest ones is here, on Quincy Street and Bedford Avenue. Tourists still stop by to take pictures.
Of course, this is not the same Brooklyn Biggie Smalls grew up in or rapped about. These days, apartments in Biggie's neighborhood go for $2.5 million. The reality is a lot of the people Biggie came up with have been priced out. But plenty of community remains, and everyone holds his words close to their hearts. Ask anyone here their favorite line, and they won't hesitate.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Rapping) A T-bone steak, cheese eggs and Welch's grape.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Rapping) Ugly as ever. However...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Rapping) As I flow with the Junior M.A.F.I.A., I don't know what the hell's stopping you. I'm clocking you, Versace shades watching you.
GARSD: Because this cultural treasure that everyone now wants a piece of, a selfie with, an apartment in the middle of is understood uniquely by those who were here from the very beginning, back when it was all a dream.
Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Brooklyn.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE MORE CHANCE")
NOTORIOUS B I G: (Rapping) And sing the break.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Baby, here I am.
NOTORIOUS B I G: (Rapping) I got that good love, girl. You didn't know?
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) All I need is... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.