How Ya Livin Biggie Smalls?

Revisiting the people and places significant to the Notorious B.I.G.

Photographer Ian Baguskas
May 25, 2011
226 St. James Place in Brooklyn, Biggie's childhood home.

MATTY C (author of the Unsigned Hype column on Biggie in The Source): I bumped into Big and realized we lived two blocks away from each other. We started hanging out regularly. His house was on the way to the train, so it was pretty much an everyday thing that we would bump heads. Making his first album, a lot of the tracks were beats that he heard at my house, producers that I was working with. Once Big became a little more successful, he couldn't really be on the block like he used to. He was dealing with a lot of bullshit that happens when you come from an environment where everybody is fucked up and now you're not. [After that] we saw each other less because he moved to Jersey.

DAN SMALLS (former intern at Uptown Records): Me and Big, looking back at it, not knowing he was gonna be Big, it was interesting. He came to the office with his army fatigues on, but he was almost 6'4", 6'5"? And, you know, 300 pounds. He was a funny guy, but you see this guy in his army fatigues, bandana on and the boots on, you expecting some intimidation. But he was a kind, fun guy, everything was jokey joke.

ANDRE HARRELL (founder of Uptown Records): The level of flavor he was kicking? Black and ugly as ever…Coogi down to my socks. That was ridiculous. Rings filled with rocks… He took it crazy, he epitomized the whole Versace era.

MARK PITTS (Biggie's co-manager): I met Big when he came to Uptown Records where Puff's office was. I went into Puff's office and he had on these big army fatigues, a hoodie, some dark glasses. I remember saying to myself, "What the fuck is this?" He had such a presence. Honestly, at that time I was so green. I didn't have a feel for him professionally. It was like if I went to go pick up my kids from school and there was this big, huge dude sitting in class. I wasn't thinking like, "He can do this." I wish I could say that, but I was just thinking about his size. His look was dark, but his personality was colorful.

DJ 50 Grand's Basement Studio in Brooklyn

DJ 50 GRAND (Biggie's neighborhood friend and first DJ): I was the neighborhood DJ. Me and my man D-Roc, we used to hustle together. Because I knew a lot of people, he asked me to be Big's DJ. I went to the basement at my crib, we made about four demos and it went from there. After we finished making money, we'd go get beer, weed, some movies and just get in the basement and make tapes for the rest of the day and night. That's where it went down after the money was made. He taught me a whole lot. He changed me. Breaking down songs, he knew what he wanted, how he wanted it.

MATTY C: I'm not proud of the writing in Big's Unsigned Hype column and, to be honest, he was a little offended at a line that I wrote. I said his rhymes were as fat as he is. He's not that fat. He was a big framed guy, and I guess he was a little self-conscious about it.

DJ BIG KAP (Biggie's earliest tour DJ): Me and Big, we developed a good friendship. They call me the Supreme Bigga Figga Big Kap. I got that from Big. Big used to have this rhyme he used to say all the time, like, "Yo, Supreme Bigga Figga, ta da da, something something." And I was like, Yo, that's hot! And he was like "Yo, you can have that." Big was a funny, funny character. Like, he was a comedian! He never really called me Kap. He used to call me by my real name Keith Carter. He'd be like, "Yo, Keith Carter, Whattup?"

Bedford Avenue and Quincy Street in Brooklyn, the site of Biggie's famous teenage freestyle.

DJ 50 GRAND: I started working with Big in '91. I was 21, he was 15. I met him through a friend of mine. They hustled together on Bedford and Quincy. People in the neighborhood knew him as the hottest rapper around. Everybody that stepped in his path, he ate 'em up. He earned that stripe from that one battle he had on Bedford and Quincy. I was the one that was playing the music. This man used to live right upstairs from the pool room. Every day in the summer we'd play the music out. It just so happened that Big came around, so we brought the grill out, we brought the music out. They got on the mic and went at it. It went on from there. Cars stopped, it got real crowded out there. We rocked it 'til 12, one o'clock that night. It was a good look. Everybody that came at his back, he took out.

DREAM HAMPTON (journalist and Biggie's close friend): I remember sharing Ntozake Shange with him. She wrote this amazing book called The Love Space Demands. It's a book of poetry, and there's an amazing poem in there called "Crack Annie" and its about a crack head selling her daughter, her eight year old for sex, for crack. And I remember him reading it on the train and it just blew me away. He could memorize Ntozake's fuckin' 40-verse poem after one read. His mother is a huge reader. And Jamaicans have that British shit, so he knew all that stuff. He read more Charles Dickens than me, for sure. I'm more of a Mark Twain type of girl.

BUCKSHOT (Brooklyn rapper and co-founder of Duck Down Records): The illest memory of Biggie is seeing him so drunk that he was passed out on the corner of his block. Me and my friends was coming from a club one night, this was early, early '90s, and me and my best friend, Swan Gotti, drove past Fulton Street and we saw this big guy laid out on the hood of a car. And I said, "Who the fuck…?" And I stopped the car because it looked like Big. And Swan said, "I know that ain't Big." And I backed up, and sure enough, it was Biggie. He wasn't laid out like passed out, he was laid out like it was a nice day out and he's just chilling. That was the finest moment. I swear to god I wish we had YouTube back in the day.

ANDRE HARRELL: I remember taking them to Sylvia's [a Harlem soul food restaurant], Puff telling me that he needed me to go with him to convince Big to sign because he wanted Big to sign to Bad Boy, and Biggie needed to know that Bad Boy was connected to Uptown Records and would have all its services and energy and commitment from me. So I went and big-brothered that with Puff. But Puff was the director of Biggie's movie. Biggie was coming out saying whatever his truth was and Puff knew how to create narration on a visual level.

House in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Biggie stayed while hustling.

SMOKE (Biggie's friend in North Carolina): Nobody in Raleigh had no idea that he was a rapper. I just knew him by Fat Chris and I knew he always had good product. He was a sharp dressing dude. He wore the little leather jackets and the matching hats and matching Kangols. He was a respectable kind of dude, had a nice, clean, humble game. Everybody was making money. It wasn't no recession, it wasn't no depression going on. Everybody had their own business, all the night clubs was making money. I had the west side of town locked down, and I guess he had the south side locked down. We partied at this joint called Groucho's and this joint called Tremors and Fevers. Raleigh was booming. Houses was getting built in North Raleigh, and all the New York state folks and the Ohio folks moved there. It's different now; everybody is locked up or dead.

Quad Studios, where Biggie recorded and Tupac was shot.

ANDRE HARRELL: Biggie was on one floor, SWV was on one floor and we was on the floor with Little Shawn with Tone and Poke producing. We all ended up in the lobby of the studio on the second floor where I was, laughing and joking and then Tupac and Stretch get off the elevator and Tupac is bleeding from his head! I'm the first one standing in the front and I address Tupac like, Yo, you bleeding from your head, what happened?! He says, "Yo, they tried to stick me downstairs." So then he says, "Stretch, roll me a joint." And he's looking suspicious at the motherfuckers who was there. So Stretch rolled him a joint and Tupac smoked that motherfucker straight. I mean straight down like it was a James Cagney movie—and then the mothefucker passed out. And then we had to pick this nigga up and put him on the couch. Biggie wasn't even on our floor.

WAYNE BARROW (Biggie's co-manager): The first time I was in the studio with him I realized he didn't write. I'd never seen anyone do that before. It amazed the heck out of me. At that point I'd be in the studio with some of the greatest artists, but I've never seen no one on either side of the spectrum—whether it be the R&B side or the hip-hop side—be able to create the type of songs that he created from his mind. No pen, no pad. Getting in the booth and just laying it down in damn near one take.

COURTNEY "BROTHER BEAR" SILLS (former manager of 112 and Biggie's occasional barber): Big taking 112 under his wing meant so much to us. Everybody thinks when you sign to Bad Boy it's all gravy, money's flowing. But at that point we were just getting our feet wet. We walked back and forth to the studio sometimes in the rain and snow. Every time Biggie saw us, he would make sure we had something to eat, he would make sure we had rides, he would personally sit down and listen and encourage dudes. Towards the end of recording there was this one song that had an up-tempo sample that Puff really, really loved. We was all thinking in the back of our minds like, What if Biggie got on it? But we didn't really want to ask, so we told Puff. Puff was like, "Shit, he'll be at the club tonight. Ride with me."

I remember we were standing outside the car—
Puff had just got the black 500 S Class, the big four door. Biggie's just nodding his head, he's like, "I fuck with it, I fuck with it." This is my first group, my first single. To get the Notorious BIG on the record was just the most incredible feeling. We knew it was a dope record, but we knew that with Big on it, it was a no-lose situation. The next time we heard the record…Je-sus! The Notorious just pleased us with a lyrical thesis.

When Big Met Tupac:

DAN SMALLS: When we get to LA they put us up at the Sheridan in Studio City. Puff rents us 5.0s, which was the hot car convertible at the time—I remember we had a green one and a black one—and you couldn't tell us we wasn't doing it. Two cats from New York, in LA for the first time… So we had to have Fat Burger, we had to have Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles and Big had to have chronic and he wanted to meet Tupac. I had a guy that I knew from LA that supplied us with some chronic, and it so happened he had a line on Pac. So he made a phone call and when we pulled up to the hotel, sittin' in his convertible is Tupac. And as we're standing there, as Big and Tupac is talkin', Greg Nice of Nice N Smooth comes downstairs. So Big is talkin' and Tupac is like "Yo what else you gotta do today?" And Big looks at me, and I knew at that point, cancel anything else we had scheduled. It was gonna be a wrap. Pac's like, "Let's go to my house." So Tupac and Big, Greg Nice, myself and Groovey Lew [Big's stylist], we all go to Tupac's house. Pac had this bag, I mean, a clear, big freezer bag of the greenest vegetables I'd ever seen. Big was so happy!

We went back to Pac's house and they just rolled up: Big was rolling, Pac was rolling, Greg was rolling, Groovey Lew was rolling, it was just going back and forth. Next thing you know, they started a cypher. We sitting at the house, Big is flowing, Pac is flowing, Greg is flowing, and me and Lew is just sitting there like, Yo, the moment of hip-hop for us has reached its high.

After the freestyle session, Pac went into his room and pulled out this green army bag, and dumped it onto the floor. And it was, like, 25 guns. Handguns, machine guns... So now, here we are, in this backyard running around with guns, just playing. Luckily they were all unloaded. While we were running around, Pac walks into the kitchen and starts cooking for us. He's in the kitchen cooking some steaks. We were drinking and smoking, and all of a sudden Pac was like, "Yo, come get it." And we go into the kitchen and he had steaks, and French fries, and bread, and Kool-Aid and we just sittin' there eating and drinking and laughing. And you know, that's truly where Big and Pac's friendship started.

KMEL Summer Jam '95:

DJ BIG KAP: All right, KMEL Summer Jam is the thing that really made me a good DJ. I guess it's like when you come from a boy to a man, as far as DJing. It was like 100-and-something degrees out there. We were outside, and it was like an amphitheatre. People were up on the hills and the grass, laying out and everything. Big never wanted to use no DAT machines, none of that. He loved Run DMC and their whole show, so he wanted everything live from the turntables. Back then, people had started having their whole shows on DAT machines, but Big wanted strictly vinyl. So we used to travel with everything; turntables, mixers, all of that.

So this day, it's hot as hell, and I knew it at sound check. I'm setting up and I'm saying, It's hot, it's hot as hell. Me and Cease, Money L and D-Roc—we run through sound check real quick, boom. That was early in the day. So now, it's show time, the middle of the afternoon, and it's like a 105 degrees, and that sun—it's like its right over the stage. I'm dying, sweating.
So we go on, the show starts. I'm throwing the records and it's like, alright, cool we're going through it. But it's so hot the heat is actually warping the records. The records is melting! So the records are warping right before me and it's just likewoooommp. And Big looking at me. We had this thing like, every time you make a mistake on stage during the show, you get fined $100.

So during the show, Big heard the first womp, and he was like "A hundred dollars!" The record is crumbling up right before my eyes. Then it's getting bad and Cease is like, "Two hundred dollars!" And then Big, he just stopped everything and was like, "Yo! What the fuck is going on?!" I'm looking and my records look like a piece of bacon back there. Big is tight! He had a water bottle, he threw the water bottle at me, and just walks off the stage. And there's like 20,000 people out there. Then the guys from KMEL that was hosting came on the stage, and they was like, "Yo, technical difficulties!" And I'm still on the stage cause I got all my stuff there! You know, I'm in charge of breaking equipment down, everything.
So I'm sitting there and I gotta pack up the turntables. I bring everything off the side of the stage. Now the manager, this guy Hawk, he was the road manager. Hawk slipping in, and I'm trying to explain it's not my fault. You know, but you can't explain that to nobody at that moment. But it showed me that maybe I should've been more prepared. I knew the sun was out there, maybe I could've gotten something to put over [the turntables]. But it showed me you gotta be prepared for everything. There's no excuse for nothing.

I was just so embarrassed. And hurt behind it, you know what I'm saying? Everybody was waiting for Big to come on, and our show was crazy. I'll never forget: Jermaine Dupri and Jagged Edge was right there, too, on the side of the stage, so they looking at me, too! Jermaine Dupri knew because he saw what was happening. He was the only one—him and one of the twins from Jagged Edge—they were the only ones that was like, "Nah, it wasn't your fault." I'll never forget that, yo. They were the only ones when I came off that stage.
This is the funny thing: After it all went down, everybody left me. I had to take a cab back to the hotel! Niggas was mad. Hawk and those dudes were really mad, cause I didn't really see Big at first. After Big threw the water bottle at me, he was gone. When I get back to the hotel, I'm in my room and I'm so hurt. I'm so, so hurt and everything. And D-Roc and them they come to my room and they're like, "Yo, what happened?" So I'm explaining it to them and everything. They were like, "All right we understand, but Big is tight!" So, I go to Big's room, and I knock on the door. And then he opens the door laughing! And he got a bunch of girls in the room! I'm bashful and I'm like, Yo, I'm sorry, I apologize for all that. He was like, "Man, I knew! I saw those records. I knew it was the sun and all that. But I couldn't let them think that it was me out there messing up!"

Madison Square Garden, site of the inflammatory 1995 Source Awards.

DJ QUIK (LA-based rapper and producer): Going into it, it felt like a playoff game. That was the intensity of it. It felt like this is for all the marbles. Dr. Dre is here, I'm here, Snoop is here, Biggie's here, Faith is here, Diddy's here, Method Man is here, Nate Dogg is here. This is it. We're uniting hip-hop. That's what it felt like to me. Call me naïve, but I had no idea Suge Knight was about to get up there and say that. We were actually a little disappointed and a little angered that he did that. It was like he was playing with our lives. It was uncouth, it just wasn't classy. That's not how you take over. You take it when it's given to you. You accept it, you don't jack people for it.

MATTY C: I was in the audience at the '95 Source Awards. Working at The Source, I knew Suge, I knew Q-Tip really well. Seeing all the bullshit going on in the public eye, as an adult as I look back on it, it's like fighting in front of your kids. You know not to do that because you look so stupid, but people still get caught in the moment and do it. It's just such an ugly perfect storm to look back and see the obvious lead up. They created the monster that created the tragedy. Regardless of whether or not you're tying the specifics together, what that created was so sad. Everybody was so much a part of a small community. It was like high school.

DAN SMALLS: Me and Method Man used to work together so I remember introducing Big to Meth, and when they met each other, they hit it off, they started rhyming. I mean, Big loved Meth, too, because that was the only guest appearance on the first album. Raekwon and Ghostface Killah kind of had a little issue with Big so at the Source Awards, before all that other bullshit popped off, I remember having to try to bridge this gap between Rae and Ghost and Big. I had a personal relationship with them, and I had a personal relationship with Big, and I'm like, Yo, this has gotta get deaded. Big, he felt like they was talking about him, but [they] were just talking in general, so it was really nothing, but the media took it to a whole 'nother, trying to make it more than it was.

2nd Street Tunnell in Los Angeles featured in Biggie's "Hypnotize" video.

PAUL HUNTER (director): I saw Biggie perform a couple years before [directing the "Hypnotize" video] in New York. I was just breaking into the business and a couple years later, filming him was really exciting. We filmed in '97. I was maybe 30? It was the first time I'd done a video with that big of a budget. I wanted to tell stories and do something that was cinematic and felt like we were taking a piece out of an action film. I was in JFK and Puffy called me and he's like, "What's your idea?" And I was literally walking through this tunnel in JFK and I was like, I see you guys driving backwards through a tunnel. That was kind of off the cuff, and he was like, "That sounds hot." Then we kind of just built it around that idea. The car driving backwards was something that I thought, "How could you get out of [a tight situation]…?" I thought about this movie A Bronx Tale, and I thought it was so cool that Chazz Palminteri— he was so lazy—didn't want to do a U-turn in the street, so he literally just backed his car up around the corner to wherever he was going. So I kind of flipped that. What saddened me was Biggie never got a chance to see the full video. I showed him a rough cut, an early minute that I put a Prodigy track to, just like as a teaser. He was totally blown away by what he had seen, and I was nervous because I had taken some of his music out and mixed it with Prodigy. I thought he would take offense to that, but my thing was mixing genres. The chase sequence we cut with just Prodigy behind it, I think it was "Fire Starter." I was like, Is he going to like this? But he really dug it. He was into the whole thing.

COURTNEY "BROTHER BEAR" SILLS: This one time I remember specifically was at the Soul Train awards, and I was at my hotel and Puff called—he used to call me Huggy Bear—he wanted to know if I could cut Biggie's hair. I went to the hotel and it was hot as fuck in there. He was sweating, I was sweating. Wiping his head to keep his hair dry. I gave him a fade, but I really didn't know whether or not Puff was supposed to pay me or Biggie was supposed to pay me. This was my first time going to LA ever. Big says, "Shit, what do I owe you?" and I say, "Shit, whatever. We family." He gave me about a quarter ounce of chronic. I'm talking about LA super stinky chronic. I'm looking at it like, I don't smoke! I gotta get on a flight tonight, how am I going to get this shit back to Atlanta? Dude gave me a quarter ounce of chronic as payment for his haircut. After I finished cutting his hair, he was getting dressed for the awards and that's when his road manager discovered that his shoes were too small. Biggie might've worn a 12 or 13 and these were an 11. Everyone was trying to push his foot into the shoes. That's when they ended up folding the back down like slippers. He ended up having to walk out of the hotel like that.

Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, the LA intersection where Biggie was shot.

JEFF BURROUGHS (former VP of Bad Boy Records): I never felt like I had any obligation to go to every party. Parties were for work. It wasn't like I was gonna go and have the grandest time. I'm better off with a couple honeys and a bottle of wine. But the party at the Petersen Museum I remember feeling like we should go or something like that. There was some level of responsibility to being at that event. I remember walking in and the air felt different. The vibe was just off, and it just seemed really forced. I wasn't the only one that felt it. And I didn't stay long. I kind of made sure that everybody was straight from all sides, and then I left, I went back to the Four Seasons to have some cocktails and meet a few people over there. And that was it. My assistant called and said Biggie got hurt. She was like, "Yeah, outside the party there was a shooting." I got to the hospital not too long after they had brought Biggie in, but it was over. There was 
no rational reason for someone to hurt Big at all. Like, he hadn't done anything 
to anyone. There was no fight. There 
was no argument. There was no insult. There was nothing.

How Ya Livin Biggie Smalls?