The Once and Future King
Words: Chairman Mao | Photo: Eli Hershko
Originally published in The Source, April 1997
The saying goes, “No man is an island.” But if any man can challenge the wisdom of that proverb at this moment it’s Biggie Smalls. Within the A-room of friend and mentor Sean “Puffy” Combs’ Daddy’s House recording studio, the Notorious B.I.G., casually dipped in his own line of Brooklyn Mint sweats and a pair of sneakers, rests his impressive, six foot plus, currently immobilized frame in a beige easy chair – a charismatic island of hulking human mass, wholly human emotion and superhuman talent hobbled by a still-recuperating broken femur bone suffered in a September car accident. A nearby table-top is littered with stray remnants of the miscellaneous offshore activity that swirls about him: a pack of Halls mentholiptis, empty food containers, an unopened bottle of Hennessy, an empty record jacket for Gang Starr’s “Take It Personal”…
But forget the physical manifestations of island-ness this posture evokes. Ignore the Dutch-passing presence of his loyal sidekick, Lil’ Ceas of Junior M.A.F.I.A. and his man Gutter shrouding the small room in a haze of cannabis clouds, and recognize that Biggie Smalls – like cheese – stands very much alone. Very simply, this 24 year-old emcee is, above all others, the central figure in contemporary hip-hop’s pantheon of ever-rotating stars. Doubt the cat’s status and he’s more than happy to lobby on behalf of his own perspective on the matter, for should you be so unaware, Biggie Smalls is not only the illest, but he’s also mentally vexed.
“I want people to buy [my new] album,” he states emphatically, “and just straight up say, ‘Yo, he’s the best. He’s the best ever. He’s the best that ever did it.’ That’s what I’m lookin’ for. I want my props. ’Cause they slept on me. I read [what people write and say] and they give me my props as being that solo emcee that blew up from the East Coast: But they don’t give me my props like, ‘Yo, Big be straight dicin’ niggas on the mic! On the rhyme side, he’s nice!’ They don’t really look at me like that.”
Though I can’t personally recall anyone foolish enough to front on Biggie’s lyrical skills, before I can fully debate the validity of his dispute, B.I.G.’s trusty comrade vocalizes in support.
“A good example is that Source shit, man,” chimes in Lil’ Ceas.
“I never got ‘Dopest Rhyme of the Month,’” laments Biggie.
“I seen a lot of wack shit in that shit,” complains Ceas.
“I never!” continues Big. “That shit been out for a while, yo. Some rappers been on there couple times. Twice.”
“Nas on there twice, Redman’s on there twice.”
“Prodigy too. Don’t get me wrong, I respect all them niggas as emcees. They get very busy. But how you gonna give me Lyricist of the Year on the Source Awards but don’t give me ‘Dopest Rhyme of the Month’ not once?
“Foul!” Biggie exclaims, obviously savoring the righteousness of his cause. “I just want niggas to fuck all that [other] bullshit. Let’s just get down to the straight up and down real to real: lyrics and beats. That’s what it’s all about right? It’s all about the lyrics and the beats. ‘How’s the beat?’ ‘The beat is bangin’.’ ‘How’s the rhymes?’ ‘The rhymes is BANGIN’.’
“Who’s your favorite emcee?” the Notorious one asks me in that tone of voice that falls somewhere between a criminal prosecutor and that high school chemistry teacher/wrestling coach who never really liked you.
“Some of the people you just mentioned,” I answer vaguely.
“No, who’s your favorite emcee?” Forget the Black Frank White. Scrap the crutches, give Biggie a wheelchair and he could be the Black Perry Mason. My response doesn’t arrive quickly enough.
“See, I want you to be able to say, ‘Big’” he says softly, turning the charm back on with a chuckle. “Without hesitation—‘He’s the best.’”
Suddenly, as if on cue, the studio door hurls open. It’s Big’s manager Mark “Gucci Don” Pitts. “Put the chronic away, police comin’ up in here!”
“Aw man!” Biggie moans agitatedly. With an ongoing court case in Camden, New Jersey still open, an extraneous bust for marijuana possession is the last thing he needs. Though his bad leg may prevent him from moving, Big directs Ceas and Gutter as they begin frantically hiding the stash. Ceas rashly deposits a canister in the garbage.
“Ceas, where you puttin’ that right now?” Biggie reproaches. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Put it in your drawers,” says Gutter.
“They might search you,” warns Biggie. “Aw, man. Why is all the weed in here, yo? Take it out of here, Gucc. Tell ’em don’t let ’em in. I got cases, man.
“You see?” Biggie says turning to me almost comically, “Source magazine, this is what I gotta go through. Po-po, runnin’ in this piece. Stay runnin’ up in here, man.
A few minutes later, things have settled down. Biggie still rests in his chair, still the rock-like centerpiece of the room. Apparently the cops have either gone about their business, or it was a false alarm. Just to be sure, Pitts begins spraying the room and the carpet with Lysol excessively to obscure any noticeable leftover signs of the chronic. The disinfectant scent grows suffocatingly strong.
“All right, Gucc. Gucc, Gucc!” pleads Biggie, “Smell, Gucc. It’s perfectly clean.”
Everybody begins laughing, relieved.
“That’s like the second, third time,” Biggie says of such recent visits to Daddy’s House from New York’s finest. “They just be so disrespectful, man. And we ain’t on no bullshit. We just be up here workin’. If we got a little weed up in here, what the fuck, man? We rappers. We smoke. Go up in one of them rock n’ roll sessions, they’ll come out with some heroin, little bit of meth.
“In some rapper’s joints you might find some heroin,” Gutter laughs.
“I told Puff I wanted to finish my album somewhere else,” Biggie sighs. “How the fuck you supposed to be creative, when you got jake runnin’ up in your spot searchin’ everybody?”
Another day, another struggle.