As The Notorious B.I.G. enters the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a look back at ‘Ready to Die’
Biggie’s first album dropped the same day as the notorious Crime Bill
Hall of Fame career will officially be certified on Saturday when Christopher George Latore Wallace, known the world over as The Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls, is inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame alongside Whitney Houston, Nine Inch Nails, The Doobie Brothers, Depeche Mode and T.Rex. Though lacking the gaudy catalog of his fellow honorees, B.I.G. is the only one linked to one of the most consequential pieces of congressional legislation in recent history – the 1994 Crime Bill.
The grim reality for Biggie Smalls is that while he found massive success (and controversy) in his lifetime, the only project he was able to see live, grow and influence pop culture was his 1994 debut Ready to Die.
The album included crossover singles such as “Big Poppa” and “One More Chance” that solidified Biggie Smalls as the unorthodox sex symbol Sean “Puffy” Combs had envisioned from the moment he dropped a freestyle in his Uptown Records office in 1991. But those cuts never overshadowed the pain, paranoia and anger that Biggie Smalls brought to his first album. Via coincidence or karma, Ready to Die hit shelves on Sept. 13, 1994 — the same day President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Or, as it’s more notoriously known, the “Crime Bill.”
The symbolism, to this day, is piercing. Make no mistake, there was violence in America’s inner cities. Lots of it. Men, women and children lost their lives in record numbers. Families were forever fractured because of a wicked elixir of drugs, police brutality, gun violence and a society that seemingly cared more about punishment than addressing the issues that produced the carnage. Biggie Smalls saw it up close as violent crime increased dramatically in the 1980s and early ’90s, and at least in his time selling crack, was partially responsible for some of it.
The bill was supposed to crack down on juvenile “superpredators.” In the years since, it has been widely blamed for contributing to mass incarceration, although its actual impact was mixed. Ready to Die showed life on the other side of the fence. America was enraged by the explosion of violence, but what about the hopelessness, lack of opportunity and resources, and the anger that fueled that crime?
At its core, Ready to Die is a product of crack-era New York City and the stop-and-frisk policies that helped make Black kids into criminals because of their skin tone and the environment they were raised in. On “Everyday Struggle,” the album took aim at politicians as Biggie Smalls rapped that he was “Seeing body after body and our Mayor Giuliani/ Ain’t trying to see no Black man turn to John Gotti.”
“We wanted to make a movie on wax about this kid from Brooklyn who had nothin’ to lose — and he was ready to die,” said Combs, Bad Boy Records’ CEO, in A&E’s 2017 documentary Biggie: The Life of Notorious B.I.G. “That was the mentality coming out of the ’80s and out of crack and everybody losing their families and not seeing any light on the horizon.”
Hip-hop’s recognition in the Rock Hall is still a novel concept. And the institution’s track record with Black music is deserving of the critical analysis it receives. But Biggie Smalls, who joins the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Run D.M.C. and friend-turned-foe Tupac Shakur as the only rap performers in the Hall of Fame, never envisioned a long career for himself. Not because he knew he would die young (although he certainly recognized the possibility). Rather, he didn’t want to depend on the music industry for the next 10 to 20 years of his life.
“I don’t wanna be the 30-year-old rapper, man. I really don’t,” a 24-year-old Biggie Smalls told Ego Trip in a January 1997 interview. “If I ain’t got everything I want out of the game being in the game for so long, obviously this is not the right game for me.”
His career would end soon after that interview, having lasted approximately half a decade. Biggie Smalls was two months shy of his 25th birthday when he was gunned down at the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles after leaving an industry party in the early morning hours of March 9, 1997. Two weeks later, his highly anticipated sophomore album Life After Death hit shelves. The double LP would eventually become the first hardcore rap album to achieve diamond status.
Both of Biggie Smalls’ albums are an exercise in understanding just how much the Brooklyn, New York, artist’s life had changed in a short amount of time. Those records helped solidify Biggie Smalls as both a grimy, street MC from Bedford-Stuyvesant and an international playboy whom men wanted to be like and women wanted to be with.
But to understand the history that led to Sept. 13, 1994, it’s necessary to go back a generation in the Wallace family story.
As the tires on her Pan Am flight from Jamaica landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, 19-year-old Voletta Wallace found her independence. For years, she dreamed of life outside her hometown of Trelawny, 2½ hours northwest of Kingston. There was family in London, but the rainy U.K. didn’t interest her. Voletta Wallace worked part time in a travel agency and would come across brochures about America. Every aspect of the country appeared so fun, so radiant, so youthful. She saw wealth and glamour spread throughout the pages of Life and Ebony. When she received an invitation to visit New York, she jumped at the opportunity.
Whatever fairy tale she had devised in her mind was quickly shattered once she left the airport and heard a taxi driver yelling at a police officer: “You motherf—er, you better get out of my face, you motherf—er!”
“These were the first words I heard come out of an American’s mouth,” she wrote in her 2005 memoir, Biggie: Voletta Wallace Remembers Her Son, Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious B.I.G.
Here’s what Voletta Wallace perhaps didn’t fully understand at the time and a reality those pamphlets failed to capture. Much as her life was in transition, so was the United States. It was the end of a decade that had been defined by tragedy. The president of the United States and his brother, a presidential hopeful, were assassinated. So were pillars of the civil rights movement, such as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The country’s most outspoken athlete, Muhammad Ali, was exiled from boxing for refusing to report to Vietnam to protest racism in America. All the while families abandoned cities in droves for the suburbs once Black families became their neighbors.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, an operation a former top adviser said in 2016 was aimed at igniting disruption and destruction in the Black community. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs?” said former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman. “Of course we did.” A little more than a decade later, President Ronald Reagan reintroduced the war with a focus on increased penalties for a drug-related crime. Incarceration rates began to skyrocket, and though Black people were a minority in terms of population, they became the face of a prison industrial complex that preyed on them.
Crack cocaine’s arrival in the 1980s established a lucrative and violent underworld economy. Crack was easy to produce and even easier to sell. The erasure of manufacturing jobs that had provided stable employment led to Black unemployment rates being nearly three times that of whites. And the crack game was always hiring.
By September 1989, 64% of Americans saw drug abuse as the country’s No. 1 problem. A year later, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates stated in a Senate hearing that “casual drug users ought to be taken out and shot.”
Mass incarceration was a bipartisan issue, too. More people were in state and federal prisons during the Clinton administration than under famous anti-drug czars such as Nixon, Reagan or George H.W. Bush. As Rutgers history professor Donna Murch wrote in 2016, incarceration “became the de facto urban policy for impoverished communities of color in American cities.”
As Voletta Wallace raised a young son by herself in Brooklyn, her tactic to keep him off the streets was to shower him with clothes, video games and more. For a while, it worked, but it was never going to be a long-term solution. By the time he was 16, Christopher, once an honor roll student, was a high school dropout and on the corner full time.
Book bags gave way to handguns. Homework gave way to crack vials. Teachers gave way to police officers thirsty to pile up statistics. Getting involved in the drug game wasn’t hard. Crack was everywhere. Every corner was its own office building.
“People my age — 20, 19, 17, 18 — are involved with a lot of nonsense,” Biggie Smalls said in a 1995 interview. “It ain’t too many people my age living the right life. Especially coming straight outta Brooklyn in the ‘hood.”
Standing more than 6 feet tall and weighing well over 200 pounds, Biggie Smalls wasn’t hard to spot. He was constantly getting stopped by cops because he was the easiest one to point out. It was fast money, but not always consistent. The money he made paled compared with what those higher up the totem pole were making. “Time to contemplate, damn, where did I fail,” he’d later ponder on “Respect.” “All the money I stacked is all the money for bail.” On the streets, Biggie Smalls learned a valuable lesson. Hustling, in a lot of ways, was a pyramid scheme. It created an illusion that only focused on winners much like any other form of capitalism.
Biggie Smalls couldn’t say it was all bad, because he enjoyed the perks. He especially enjoyed the money and moved to North Carolina to make more of it — but with the money came the realization of what it was doing to his own community.
“I lost a lot of friends and I made a lot of money,” Biggie Smalls said in that 1995 interview. “It had its ups and its downs, but it’s nothing that I would want to be involved with again.”
To get off the streets, he needed an exit strategy. He had a child on the way and always looking over his shoulder meant he couldn’t focus on his baby girl’s future. Music provided the escape route. He recorded a demo tape with Brooklyn’s DJ 50 Grand, who gave the tape to Mister Cee, Big Daddy Kane’s DJ, who rerecorded the project. From there, the tape landed in the hands of journalist Matteo “Matty C” Capoluongo, who placed Biggie Smalls in The Source’s “Unsigned Hype” column, which landed on the desk of a young, energetic and confident (some in the industry might’ve said “overly”) Uptown Records executive named “Puffy” Combs.
While Biggie Smalls created a buzz for himself on features, remixes and soundtrack placements such as “Party & Bull—” from the 1993 film Who’s The Man, the road to his debut album was full of speed bumps. So he continued to keep one foot in the streets.
“It was just that long wait,” he said. “[I’m saying], ‘Yo, wassup with the contracts? Are they coming?’ OK, well, while you’re waiting for them to come, this is what I’m gonna do. I got me a new hustle going on.”
The day Combs called Biggie Smalls to let him know the contracts were ready to be signed is the day he left North Carolina for good. Later that night, police raided the house he had been staying in. Music had to work now.
All of these life experiences went into Ready to Die: The governmental policies, federal and local, the fatalistic obsession with capitalistic gains by any means, and the paranoia that comes with carrying a handgun like it’s a vital organ. Ready to Die was a response to critics who’d never walked and spent time on Bedford and Quincy where the hustlers congregated. Those who never breathed the air on Fulton Street (“The Ave.”) and left with remnants of crack vials stuck in the bottom of their shoes. In a way, the streets were just like Capitol Hill. Both were the sites of unrelenting battles for dominance. The stark difference was that power moves in the streets often spawned violent and frequently fatal consequences.
Afrofuturist Sun Ra said in the 1974 film Space is the Place, “I do not come to you as a reality. I come to you as the myth because that’s what Black people are.” Ready to Die presents the reality to contrast with the myths that senators, representatives and presidents had convinced themselves and the voting public of. “Things Done Changed,” the album’s first song, details life in Brooklyn that turned him from an innocent boy to a flawed young man. In it, Biggie Smalls laments on how the uptick in violence changed the only home he’d ever known. “Back in the days our parents used to take care of us/Look at ’em now, they even f—in’ scared of us,” he rhymed. “Calling the city for help because they can’t maintain/Damn, s— done changed.”
“Gimme The Loot” portrays the mindset of stickup kids with a graphic, sarcastic take on living a life of crime, and he catches wind of a plot against his life on “Warning.” The album’s title track gives a firsthand look into the callous mind of a hustler with the ultimate goal being “getting paid.” “As I sit back and look when I used to be a crook/Doing whatever it took from snatching chains to pocketbooks/A big, bad motherf—er on the wrong road/I got some drugs, tried to get the avenue sold.” The album’s lead single, “Juicy,” championed the socioeconomic mobility that he never found in Brooklyn and certainly not while standing on the corners “trying to get some money to feed his daughter.” In October 2019, BBC named it the greatest hip-hop song of all time, calling it “the quintessential rap Cinderella tale.”
Ready to Die sold 500,000 copies in its first week. The album is chock-full of gold medal lyrical performances such as “The What” featuring Method Man, the DJ Premier-produced “Unbelievable” and menacingly bouncy “Respect.” “Everyday Struggle” gives the album’s title sound more and more credence as the scent of death remained pungent on every corner he’d ever hustled on from Brooklyn to Raleigh, North Carolina. Listening from start to finish, the album’s final track, “Suicidal Thoughts,” is the only possible conclusion there could’ve been. Its first lyrics rank as grizzled and morose as hip-hop has witnessed: “When I die, f— it, I wanna go to hell/Cause I’m a piece of s—, it ain’t hard to f—in’ tell.” He found the money, fame, women and power — and at the end, Biggie Smalls couldn’t stand the thought of looking at himself in the mirror because of the lives he ruined along the way. Most importantly, his Ready to Die isn’t a hero’s story. It is, though, the existence of so many young Black lives from that era who never made it to speak in front of Congress or catch the president’s eye outside of statistics he read from the Oval Office, let alone the local evening news.
“I wasn’t trying to kill myself and ready to die, but I was, like, ready to do whatever I had to do to get dough,” Biggie Smalls said of the album’s title. “Even if it involved risking my life, I just had to make it happen.”
Months after Ready to Die dropped, Biggie Smalls was a star. The drug game was behind him. His videos were playing on MTV seemingly every hour on the hour. But that haunting sense of death continued to stalk him.
“One thing I learned about the game is when you get a lot of money, n—as don’t like you. I’m getting more money now,” Biggie Smalls told The New York Times in December 1994. “… I’m scared to death. Scared of getting my brains blown out.”
Criminal justice reform and hip-hop changed on Sept. 13, 1994, as a result of two separate bodies of work that feel as if they’re as aligned with each other as cause and effect. Ready to Die wasn’t as much a rebuttal to the ’94 Crime Bill. Rather, it turned a humanistic lens on the petri dish of issues plaguing inner cities. Biggie Smalls is the protagonist whose decisions led to his own demise. The album’s last words are “I’m sick of n—–s lyin’, I’m sick of b—–s hawkin’/Matter of fact, I’m sick of talking.” A single gunshot is heard, followed by the sound of his body hitting the floor.
As it turns out, Ready to Die aged gracefully in part because Christopher Wallace is no longer here. Answering for the sins of our past is a reckoning that we all face at one point or another. Those close to Biggie Smalls noted that in the final months and weeks of his life, he cited an eagerness to become a better man and atone for the mistakes of his past. That his image of success and happiness had changed dramatically than what it was just a few years earlier when he left the drug game behind for the rap game. That the future Christopher Wallace prayed for, as he said in one of the final interviews of his life, didn’t include music and that he would, “…quit the game and just chill and watch my kids grow up — live the life of a normal rich person.”
Many of the politicians who backed the bill then have expressed remorse, too. In 2015, both Bill and Hillary Clinton said they regretted their roles in the mass incarceration policies that crippled largely Black communities. Despite the high crime rates that existed when he took office, the former president said that he “signed a bill that made the problem worse” and that so many people were put in prison “that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives.” Last year, Joe Biden, head of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee in 1994, said the bill was a “big mistake” that “trapped an entire generation.” He doubled down on that assessment three weeks ago during a televised town hall in Philadelphia, criticizing his involvement in the 1986 crime bill that established mandatory minimum for drug sentences.
Undeniably so, the Notorious B.I.G.’s pseudo-political, completely thugged out debut is a benchmark of that trapped generation. He’s often remembered as the “player president” and, as anyone who knew him would attest, the funniest comedian in any room he stepped into and a soul so genuine and so loyal that talking about a world without him, nearly a quarter-century later, still proves arduous. But the Hall of Fame Biggie Smalls and social commentator, isn’t always the first label to come to mind. Yet, Ready to Die cemented his prowess as an astute observer of the world around him.
“The s— I be talking about don’t be no bulls—. I’m not trying to be no role model for nobody. I’m not trying to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong, because I lived my life doing wrong,” Biggie Smalls said. “All I can say is if you listen to my s—, and you say, ‘Damn, that n—a been through some hard s—.’ And if you think about getting involved, think twice. I’m just a warning.”