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Gun shots. Sirens. Redman clutching an aluminum baseball bat.
Such was the scene 30 years ago when The Notorious B.I.G. performed for the first time in New York. Not known even as “Unsigned Hype,” the larger-than-life rapper was only one man trying to make it in a city of seven million.
In the audience was Rob Stone, an New York native who’d go on to co-found The FADER. In his youth, Stone had seen Run-D.M.C. sell out Madison Square Garden roughly eight years earlier. Shutting down the same stadium that Walt Frazier famously played in, it felt like hip-hop had reached its peak in 1986. Kids of all colors were rapping every word uttered by the Hollis hitmakers — throwing their Adidas in the air and having the time of their lives.
Conversely, B.I.G.’s first foray in moving the crowd gave different syntax to Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell Tour.
Stone and other attendees busted out of the venue as chaos erupted and the scene got dicey. The underground audience there to see Black Moon make their mark was treated to more Buckshots than they bargained for, instead exiting the stage and getting the hell out of there.
As gully as New York got in ’92, no one had the foresight to predict the heavyset newcomer becoming the biggest artist on the planet. In the years that soon followed, The Notorious B.I.G. would have his 1994 debut album Ready to Die become Platinum-certified six times over. Its 1997 blockbuster sequel, eerily titled Life After Death, went Diamond.
Infamously, Life After Death was released as scheduled on March 25, 1997, two weeks after Biggie was shot and killed at a Los Angeles stoplight. On the 25th anniversary of the album’s arrival, we look back at the immense legacy the legend born Christopher Wallace was able to craft before his life was tragically stripped from him at just 24 years old.
Previously, on Ready to Die
The Notorious B.I.G.’s first performance in New York was literally a movie. Unfortunately for those in the audience, it was an action film.
That’s not to say the script couldn’t change. Also in attendance at Run-D.MC.’s Raising Hell Tour was a young kid named Sean Combs. Falling in love with the theatrics of hip-hop, Combs interned his way into the industry before birthing Bad Boy Records in 1993. Around then, Rob Stone was working at Arista and had been close to the Harlem honcho then known as Puff.
In 1994, Combs called Stone to come listen to a forthcoming Bad Boy album. While Stone had met Biggie in passing previously at a Clive Davis party at Trump Plaza, he had little reference of the rapper’s talent aside from that small show years earlier at The Muse.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Stone told Boardroom. “I thought it was going to be a bunch of people, but it’s just me and Puff. He brings me into the office, shuts the door, and plays a cassette of Ready to Die from beginning to end.”
The unmastered tape, which Stone still has in his possession, absolutely blew his mind.
Stone quickly called his friend Mike Kaiser at Def Jam, then working with Method Man, who happened to be Stone’s favorite artist at the time.
“I just heard one of the top-five albums of all time,” Stone told Kaiser.
“Top-five hip-hop albums?” asked Kaiser.
“No, one of the top-five albums ever made in music,” Stone asserted.
Hearing Ready to Die in unmastered fashion, including two tracks that didn’t make the final version, was already enough for Stone to compare it to Michael Jackson’s Thriller or Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Because Stone was working in crossover radio, Puff wanted him invested in the album so that the it could achieve mainstream success.
At the time, only one solo rapper had really made their way onto the radio and into the wallets of suburban homes.
“The first hip-hop records to really breakthrough were Coolio’s,” explained Stone, citing “Fantastic Voyage” and “Gangsta’s Paradise.”
As odd as it may sound, those songs became the roadmap for Puff and Stone’s sales pitch of the classically cinematic yet dramatically dark Ready to Die.
Because of this, “Juicy” released as the lead single — introducing Biggie in a rags-to-riches manner relatable to a mass audience. Next, they dropped “Big Poppa” to capture opulent success and absolutely owning the club.
The third single proposed by Puff and the label?
Despite the shiny suit glitz and dance tracks Puff would later be known for, his heart was set on remaining real and shocking pop culture with the hardest, toughest track on the album.
Stone had other plans.
Inventing the Remix
In the summer of 1995, fans were about to get hit over the head with “Machine Gun Funk” — a single more barbaric than Redman’s baseball bat. Sensing the moment, Stone intervened.
At a marketing meeting, the team played “Machine Gun Funk” and established it would be the next single. Stone suggested “One More Chance” should replace it, having a greater likelihood to connect on crossover radio. This idea seemed outrageous, as the album version of said song was dirtier than Penthouse.
Stone had to convince Puff.
“I get handed the phone to talk to Puff, and I was in shock,” recalled Stone. “I wasn’t prepared at all.”
As the story goes: Stone pitched the single shift to Puff, who responded by going into a trademark tirade filled with expletives, ascending octaves, and talking in the third person.
“Stop telling Puff what he needs to do!” Puff Daddy screamed at Stone.
Diddy’s energy, even through the phone, made Stone physically sick.
“I’m getting screamed on by Puff, and I’m nauseous,” Stone admitted, looking back. “But I spoke from the heart and told Puff he just took ‘Flava in Ya Ear’ and made the greatest remix of all time. Why can’t you take Janet Jackson, Madonna, Faith Evans, Aaliyah, all the most beautiful women in music, and remake the record? He was fucking dead silent, and I didn’t know if he hung up.”
Crickets could be heard for what felt like minutes. Suddenly, Puff broke his pause.
“Oh, shit,” exclaimed Puff. “I’ve got that good love, girl you didn’t know.”
Sensing the hook, Puff hung up the phone without saying goodbye and went straight to the studio to make the record. Ten days later, he showed up with two remixes — one rap and one R&B. The latter was selected as the single with the video seeing regular rotation on MTV and beyond.
Years later, in 2022, “One More Chance” has now amassed over 62 million views on YouTube.
Back in 1995, however, it was all about running radio and breaking barriers on Billboard charts.
“It was the highest debut at the time for any record,” Stone said, smiling. “It tied Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson’s ‘Scream’ on the Hot 100 chart. It was a big moment.”
The remix of “One More Chance” released on June 6, 1995. By the end of the month, it was Platinum-certified.
Tasting success, Puff and The Notorious B.I.G. fled together to the studio to lock in on a sophomore album. While both parties imagined how huge it could be, neither could have known it would be the last movie they’d make together.
Part 2: Life After Death
In 1977, George Lucas released Star Wars, a movie morphed from an $11 million budget that went on to earn almost $776 million at box offices. When working on Return of the Jedi, Lucas had four times the budget — allowing for higher profile special effects and reaching an audience far wider than sci-fi purists.
By the fall of 1995, Puff and The Notorious B.I.G. found themselves in the same shoes.
“He said after this album was done, he needed to go somewhere and record with Puff,” Stone said of Biggie’s mindset. “It was like a secret at the time because people didn’t realize how talented Puff was. They might’ve assumed that he was this exec, and there were always rumors that he didn’t do stuff.”
Puff was panned as an amped up A&R who suggested adding horns to a song and then called it his own, but he was actually very much a producer in the same fashion as Lucas. He knew he had his Luke Skywalker in Christopher Wallace, and the only way to make it major was to put his plethora of skills on full display.
“I can’t front,” B.I.G. once said to Stone. “If it wasn’t for Puff, Ready to Die would’ve never been it. He put my mind in the right place and put it together like it was a movie. I need to go away with Puff and just be in the studio with him so we can focus on the next album.”
What came out was Life After Death, a sprawling sequel to Ready to Die that was bigger, glossier, and even more cinematic than its predecessor. Crossover singles were apparent, but the deep cuts were even darker and more masterful.
Puff and B.I.G. had done it again.
“Puff is one-of-one,” Stone said. “He just had a different vision than anyone else. When you think of Ready to Die, it was all Biggie’s style. By Life After Death, he got so comfortable with who he was that he rhymed in Bone Thugs’ style and hung with them. ‘Hypnotize’ is a flawless pop smash, but to their credit, there’s still ‘Somebody’s Got to Die’ and ‘What’s Beef.’ On ‘Going Back to Cali,’ he’s showing that he could flip his flow. He was able to make pop records, but he was still Alfred Hitchcock.”
While B.I.G. was primed to play Madison Square Garden just like Stone and Puff had seen Run-D.M.C. a decade before, there would be no baller tour bus.
In its place was a hearse. Tragically, art imitated life as Biggie was killed in the early hours of March 9, 1997, in a drive-by shooting.
As alluded, the double-album went Diamond, shattering sales numbers and changing the trajectory of hip-hop. In the years that followed, an array of rappers from Ma$e to Juvenile, Eminem to 50 Cent, would see similar crossover success — taking the genre global with Puff perfecting the art of the remix, and “I Love the Dough” guest Jay-Z becoming a billionaire.
It all started when B.I.G. was barely old enough to rent a car.
Stock on the Rise
Michael Jordan won his first NBA championship at 28. Kanye West released The College Dropout at 26.
Christopher Wallace, the rapper known as The Notorious B.I.G., was pronounced dead at 24.
Even at a young age, B.I.G. had written two classic albums and harbored plans of launching his own clothing line called Brooklyn Mint. His appeal to the masses mixed otherworldly talent with wit and relatability, making him an icon through Puff’s production. Before passing, brand deals were on the table to take him to international heights well outside of Brooklyn.
“It’s crazy to think the heights he would’ve gone to and what he would’ve accomplished,” Stone reminisced. “He was so amazing that he did a Pepsi freestyle with DJ Enuff that he knocked out in five minutes. He rhymes about soda for 60 seconds, and it’s still cool.”
Introducing an audience of millions to luxury lines while still rapping a safe-for-school verse for Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jackson, the marketing engine powered by Puff could’ve made him hip-hop’s first billionaire. While half of that sweet science is being a tactician as a poet, the other half is being as human as they come.
More thoughtful and funnier than most knew, B.I.G. had the power to connect with an even wider audience. He was on the precipice of fully realizing that potential just as his life was cut short.
Over the phone, Stone shared stories about B.IG. that range from connecting during life conversations on car rides to his sister getting a bear hug from the rapper at an awards show. Stone worked with B.I.G. back when he was opening for Craig Mack and watched him grow to hit his prime. It all ended far too soon.
“B.I.G.’s confidence spoke for itself,” said Stone. “He didn’t have to be showy. He just knew. Everyone knew his greatness. He had big plans, and he was only 24.”