When Biggie Smalls took his final breath 16 years ago today with three condoms, an inhaler and a bag of weed in his pocket, I was 11 years old. I remember exactly where I was. I remember exactly what I was doing.
Any other night, falling asleep was easy; except Saturday nights. Maybe it was because there was no mandated bed time* or maybe it was due to the fact my body clock never cooperated with the 10 A.M. church service looming on the horizon. Whatever the case, I was awake watching MTV when either Kurt Loder or John Norris – I can’t remember which – broke the news. Even at 11, my first thoughts were, “Is this what rap is all about? Making music and dying?” It was all I could fathom at the time, especially with Tupac’s demise still freshly embedded on rap’s conscious. In my pre-teen mind, who’s to say Snoop wasn’t next? Or Scarface? Or whoever was a name of power then.
Over the years, maturity and an evolving, irreplaceable bond with Hip-Hop led me to unearthing a Pandora’s box of music, stories and urban legends was about the era I lived in, but was on the brink of truly understanding. My old stepbrother Ryan told me one day, “Soon, you’ll learn about this East/West thing and realize it was all hype. All bullshit. And the only thing we got out of it was two rappers dead. Two rappers we’ll never replace.”
I’ve completed an endless amount projects and reports on Hip-Hop through middle school, high school and college; in this case, Biggie. Yet when people ask, “What’s your favorite B.I.G. song that’s never mentioned?” there are two answers. The first being some random R&B remix with Frank I heard in 2007 in the car with my homies Max and Will. To this day, we can’t remember the title or even the first bar. All we know is B.I.G. rapped for two straight minutes, none of us had ever heard the song before and by the end we were all left with that dumbfounded look you had when seeing titties for the first time. To make matters worse, the radio never repeated the title, went straight to commercial and never spoke of the song again. It’s almost like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones memory zapped us.
The second is his 1995 “Road To Riches” freestyle, flipping several notable Death Row instrumentals and knocking them out the park as if Derek Jeter tossed them underhand during batting practice at Yankee Stadium. What I remember most is Ryan damn near losing his top hearing this on cassette way back when. And also how at home B.I.G. sounded over “Gin & Juice,” “Black Superman,” “Murder Was The Case” and more.
Biggie’s six-minute lyrical exercise was enough for me to ponder “what if?” because God knows I love torturing myself with “what if?” scenarios. What if Pac never got shot in Quad Studios in November 1994? What if he and B.I.G. ironed out their differences about the Quad Studios shooting instead of outside voices getting in Pac’s ear? What if Puffy and Biggie held on to “Who Shot Ya?” and didn’t release it shortly after Pac’s first brush with death? What if B.I.G. and Dr. Dre could’ve worked together? What if a 1995 B.I.G. rhymed alongside a 1995 Snoop? Or a 1995 Nate Dogg? Or a 1995 E-40? What if the ’95 Source Awards was remembered more for two coasts coming together instead of Suge’s “come to Death Row” comment and The Dogg basically telling New York to sick his duck? What if we missed out on genre-defining collaborations because of regional differences based off lines some guy drew under candlelight over 150 years ago? What if I just stopped here because none of these make sense to anyone but the guy typing this?
Nevertheless, “Road To Riches” remains a landmark Biggie record both for what it was and what could have been. B.I.G. was two months shy of his 25th birthday on this day in 1997; the same age as someone like Kevin Durant if perspective is needed. That’s why March 9 will forever remain important to Hip-Hop. That’s why people flood social media with lyrics and pictures and requests on radio stations on this day every year.
Depending on personal preferences, the greatest rapper of all time may or may not have died on March 9. A world of potential and innocence did, however. That’s why Hip-Hop celebrates, to keep from mourning. That’s why Hip-Hop raps to B.I.G., instead of crying for B.I.G. Life after death, indeed. Just the way he planned.**
The Notorious B.I.G. – “Road To Riches” (West Coast Freestyle)
Bonus: I’ve never seen this in its entirety. To my knowledge, all that was out there was the footage of Pac and B.I.G. freestyling. Shot by dream hampton with Pac’s camera in May 1994 at the Royalty Hotel, the two rap icons smoke, drink and enjoy the other’s company in one of those clips you wished would play forever.
* – Otherwise known as my mama coming in my bedroom saying, “You better cut that damn TV off. Fall asleep in school if you want to.” My mom is an angel for real, but she did not play around with me falling asleep in public places where her reputation was on the line.
** – On everything, I’ve always held the belief that’s part of the reason why Lil’ Kim has chopped her face up so much over the years like a weird coping mechanism.