Drawn to a life of crime at an early age, Smalls turned his experiences into lyrics that fueled his rise to become one of the most influential rappers of all time.
Christopher Wallace, also known as the Notorious B.I.G. and Biggie Smalls, was at the vanguard of 1990’s rap music and his fame would burn glaringly bright, if only briefly in life. Lauded as one of the greatest rappers of all time by peers and within the recording industry, Small’s legacy, influence and success would go on to almost eclipse what he achieved in life ahead of his shocking 1997 murder at age 24.
Born May 21, 1972, in Brooklyn, New York to Jamaica-born parents, his father left the family when Smalls was 2 years old. His mother, Voletta, taught preschool and worked other jobs in order to give her son a solid education. He attended the Roman Catholic Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School before transferring to George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School where his skill with words helped him excel in English studies.
Growing up in and around the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, Smalls was witness to and immersed in street life from a young age, entering adolescence during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. “Christopher did very well in high school; it’s just that he talked back a lot,” Voletta said of her son. “He was a smart-ass.” Seeing street hustling as a quick cash route, Smalls dropped out of high school at age 17.
He used his early experiences to help create an authentic rap persona
Smalls began dealing drugs around the age of 12, plying trade along Brooklyn’s Fulton Street, activities his mother says she was unaware of. “I found out about my son and his little antics through his music and through magazines,” she told The New York Times. “I read this thing and said, ‘Huh? I never knew.’”
Arrested on weapons possession charges in 1989, he received a five-year probationary sentence he violated the following year; after that Smalls was charged with dealing cocaine in North Carolina and spent nine months behind bars. He was arrested in 1995 on robbery and aggravated assault charges and again in 1996 when police found marijuana and firearms in his home. Such encounters with the law and his honesty regarding his drug dealing helped Smalls construct a gangsta rap persona built on authenticity.
Interested in rap from a young age, he began performing with local rap crews including the Old Gold Brothers where his skill with words — both verbal and written — was soon being celebrated and appreciated. By age 13 he was nearly six feet tall and heavyset, his physical presence earning him the childhood nickname “Big” which he would capitalize on in his emcee career as Biggie Smalls, Big Poppa and the Notorious B.I.G. With friends, Smalls made demos in his basement, one of which was passed to the Unsigned Hype column editor at The Source magazine before catching the ear of Sean “Puffy” Combs who was working at Uptown Records. Combs signed the baritone-voiced rapper immediately, taking him to his new label, Bad Boy Records, when it launched in 1993, “’cause he said it sounded like I could just rhyme forever,” Smalls told Rolling Stone in 1995. “I’m definitely a writer,” he added of his skill. “I don’t even know how to freestyle.”
Published: February 26, 2021
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