The story behind The Notorious B.I.G.’s spooky ‘Life After Death’ album cover
20 years after the photo shoot, the photographer recalls a long day at the cemetery
Twenty years have passed, but the shock is still fresh — and still incomprehensible. On March 9, 1997, Christopher Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G., was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. It remains unsolved.
At 12:30 a.m., Wallace left a Vibe magazine Soul Train Music Awards after-party at Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum. The SUV in which he was traveling stopped at a red light just 50 yards from the venue. A dark Chevrolet Impala SS pulled up along the passenger side. The driver rolled down his window, drew his weapon and fired. Four bullets struck Wallace. He was rushed to nearby Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and was pronounced dead at 1:15 a.m.
Not long afterward, The Notorious B.I.G. rose again: The double album Life After Death was released March 25. It sold 700,000 hard copies almost immediately, jumping from No. 176 to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in the space of a week. The album’s cover art featured the man formerly known as Biggie Smalls in a long black coat and black bowler. He stared us in the face while leaning against a hearse that bore the license plate “B.I.G.” There were no sunglasses to hide his lazy eye. He wore it full and proud, looking over his shoulder as if he already knew. He wasn’t smiling. But he wasn’t mad. He was just stating the facts from the other side of the grave.
It seemed like a prophecy.
Six weeks beforehand it was just a job, albeit one of the biggest of photographer Michael Lavine’s career. Hailing from South Denver, Lavine arrived in New York in 1985. After a stint at Parsons School of Design and an internship with fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo, Lavine started his own business in 1988. Rick Rubin hired him for his first music gig: photographing heavy metal band Danzig for Def American (now American Recordings). Lavine was best known for shooting bands such as Nirvana, Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys. In the early years, it was hard to cross over into the hip-hop scene. He remembered, “The look was different, a lot of clean and clear. It wasn’t supposed to be crazy and wild like it is now. Back in the early ’90s, you couldn’t get away with doing weird, arty photographs for the urban market.”
Bad Boy Records had grand plans for Life After Death. But the album, originally scheduled for a Halloween 1996 release, was pushed to ’97. “Puffy [Combs] was very demanding,” Lavine said. “He did not mess around. I hired a location scout to find a graveyard. I took photos up to Puffy’s office and he was like, ‘These are terrible! Find a better graveyard!’ And he was right. They just weren’t dramatic enough. We had to push the shoot back a day. We scrambled, and we found the proper graveyard.”
Established in 1848, Cypress Hills Cemetery is as proper as it gets. The graveyard is seated on a promontory on the border of Brooklyn and Queens and has majestic views of Manhattan, the Atlantic Ocean, the Long Island countryside and even the distant blue hills of Connecticut. Jackie Robinson is buried there, as well as Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, Eubie Blake and pioneering actress Rosetta LeNoire.
Permits were secured. A date — Jan. 24, 1997 — was set. It was cold and gray. Big was walking with a cane, his left leg shattered in a car accident months earlier. Those who knew him described him as grumpy, but he maintained a professional demeanor throughout.
Although the cover has been described as having overtones of Alfred Hitchcock, Lavine said he doesn’t use references. “It’s very risky to do that. There’s more opportunity for failure [without references], but there’s a better chance for greatness. In this situation, I was given certain elements: I didn’t pick his clothes, and I didn’t decide ‘cemetery.’
“I was told, ‘Get a hearse.’ That’s all the direction I got.”
Lavine scouted a location within the cemetery where he could visually tell the story of Life After Death. “I wanted to have some space around the hearse,” Lavine explained. “I didn’t want it to feel too cramped. I found a spot, and then we had a smoke machine to give it some atmosphere. Groovey Lew was trying to get the styling right, and Puffy was yelling about the buttons. Puffy kept jumping in. He was like a guy who wanted to be in the picture. He would literally be getting in a lot of the shots with Biggie.”
Then, during the shoot, Lavine asked for another camera. His assistant Karen Pearson whispered, “It’s not in the truck … it’s missing.” A bag with $15,000 worth of camera equipment had been stolen while they were loading the truck outside of Lavine’s Fifth Avenue studio earlier that day.
“I almost threw up,” Lavine said with a laugh. “Fortunately, I had a lot of other cameras.”
The last thing he wanted was Biggie or Puffy to be aware that anything had gone awry. But the stolen camera bag was not the only thing amiss. Lavine remembered thinking, “ ‘I need to find something else,’ because [the shoot] wasn’t rendering right in my mind. I wasn’t happy with how things looked. At lunchtime, I scouted on my own. I drove around until I found this amazing spot at the top.”
As soon as he saw the location, Lavine could see the picture in his mind’s eye. He drove back and told Puffy.
“Surprisingly, he said ‘OK.’ We were not in tune, but … he trusted me enough to go,” Lavine remembered. The entourage was assembled, and the caravan headed out. “Puffy, Biggie and I got into my Ford Explorer. I had a six-disc player, and it automatically went to Elvis. … I don’t know what it was doing in there, but Elvis came on and Puffy was like, ‘What’s wrong with you? What do you listen to this for?’ Biggie was in the back and he said, ‘Hey, man, chill out. Elvis was cool,’ ” Lavine laughed. “I thought it was so awesome that Biggie was sticking up for me for listening to Elvis.”
At the second location, Lavine set up the shot with Biggie standing in front of what appear to be endless rows of ghostly tombstones. “There’s this timelessness to it,” said Lavine. “It takes you out into a different realm because it’s black and white, his outfit looks like it’s from the 1800s and his eye is like jacked over. It’s a powerful presence. It makes you feel like he works there, or presides over all those souls. It’s like his home.”
By the time the world saw the photograph, Biggie was gone. His death lent the image deeper meaning. “If you go there to that spot, it doesn’t look like that. That’s the nature of photography: You can sculpt an image out of a location. That’s my challenge, how to make him seem bigger than life. On the most simple level, I want people to look cool as hell.”
The news of Biggie’s death of course caught everyone by surprise. “It was shocking, really nonsensical. How do you process something like that? You feel helpless,” said Lavine. “That’s one of the things that’s so powerful about the photos. That changed the whole dynamic pretty radically. You have a photograph of a man in a graveyard who died violently weeks later — it makes the image more emotionally laden. … It’s not just a photo. … What’s the name of the album? Life After Death. That’s crazy. Flirting with disaster.”
On the 20th anniversary of his death a new perspective comes, one that is only possible with the benefit of staying alive. “Twenty years is a long time,” Lavine reflected. “Time is hard to describe until you experience the passing of more time, and then it becomes relative. A kid who is 15 can’t comprehend what 20 years feels like.”
In many ways, the title “Life After Death” isn’t just about Biggie — it’s about us. We are the ones living life after his death.
“The album changed my whole life in a way,” Lavine revealed. “I had been working in New York for 10 years to get to that moment. The brilliance of the record alone was enough; to just be associated with it is a big deal. The gravity of his death was overwhelming.
“As far as my photography is concerned, it became a magnet. People wanted to be associated with me because I was associated with him. It shot me out in space. It changed the trajectory of things. It fueled my spaceship, and I rode it for a long time.”