Interviews

The Notorious B.I.G. Was Larger Than Life. This New Biography Humanizes Him [Interview]

Okayplayer spoke with Justin Tinsley about writing his Notorious B.I.G. book, It Was All A Dream: Biggie and the World That Made Him.

I like to think I’ve unofficially been pursuing the imaginary field of “Biggie Studies” for most of my life. I’ve been thinking, reading, and writing about the Notorious B.I.G. longer than the tragically brief period Christopher Wallace spent on Earth. I believe I’ve listened to every song he ever recorded and released dozens, hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of times. I believe he was the greatest rapper who ever lived.

So, when a writer publishes a book about Biggie, I take it seriously. This is why, when I heard the writer and pundit Justin Tinsley was writing a book about Big and his life, I reached out to him (and his publicist) for an advanced copy and the opportunity to discuss his work, with a mixture of anticipation and dread.

I am pleased to report the work Justin dedicated two years of his life to, It Was All A Dream: Biggie and the World That Made Him, is worthy of its subject. Justin was faced with a particular challenge: How to approach a story that has been told and retold in other great books and documentaries so many times before?

“What the hell do I tell people about the Notorious B.I.G. that they don’t already know? That’s a daunting task,” Tinsley said during our interview. “At this point, he’s a folk hero. But if anybody’s familiar with my writing, I’ve always been a guy that thoroughly enjoys research.”

Justin’s solution to the dilemma was simply to deliver the most holistic, comprehensive work covering the rapper I have ever seen. It uses the Great Man Theory to make Biggie an avatar for an entire generation of young Black men, and succeeds beyond any reasonable expectation.

“I could tell you Biggie’s life story but Biggie’s life story also encapsulates the world that he lived in,” Tinsley said. “Biggie wasn’t just 14 years old, jumping off the stoop saying, ‘You know what, I’m gonna sell crack and see where that takes me.’ It was a decision that he made but given the environment that he came up in and, given the environment that his friends came up in, they didn’t really have a choice cause they were entering a warzone that was created before they were born.”

It was a pleasure to talk to Justin — for likely far too long — about putting his book together, and the questions we’ll never be able to answer that haunt Biggie’s story.

You spoke to Donald Harrison, the great jazz musician who was Big’s neighbor and served as a one time mentor. He talks about listening to certain records with Big and taking him to MoMA. Were there any specific songs Harrison mentioned Big was into?

Justin Tinsley: Donald Harrison was one of the earliest interviews that I did for the book. He loved the art. He didn’t necessarily have specific work — remember, this was 40 something years ago. He just remembers Big appreciating the fact that, “Yo, this dude from my neighborhood is trying to show me different things.” Now, when it came to the music that they worked on at Harrison’s house, Big was fascinated, enthralled. He wanted to learn how to be a rapper but he discovered that, “If I learn different forms of music, it’ll only help my delivery. It’ll only help my cadence.” So, that’s something that he caught onto very quickly and almost naturally. In the book, Donald talks about Cannonball Adderley and how difficult his music was to pick up on.

And Donald was captivated by this teenage kid who was not only was interested in this music, but could mimic it. There’s grown men and women who can’t do what Cannonball Adderly did. And then he’d incorporate it into his own music. It makes sense when you listen to Big’s music. Yes, he was a rapper, but he had the control of a jazz player.

You include two anecdotes that I thought were interesting. The hotel robbery, which I believe was in North Carolina, right? 

Yeah.

And the house party on St. James, the first time Big gets on the mic and a fight breaks out. I was wondering — I can’t say it, the title of one of the songs that I have in mind — but that song and “Party and Bullshit.” I was wondering if you thought that those anecdotes could have potentially inspired those songs and that’s why they were included in the narrative.

Man, that is a great fucking question. You talk about getting into the weeds. I didn’t think anybody would notice that. I can’t confirm it 100% but one thing I know about Big, if something happened in his life, he put it in his music. When you go to his Benjamin’s verse, he talks about Donnie Brasco.

He saw it that day. 

He saw it that day, which makes the verse even crazier. I absolutely thought that fight scene in “Party and Bullshit” was inspired by that party. Big’s life would always find its way into his music.

Photo Credit: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

You lay out in detail the process of Big getting to Uptown Records, and Puff Daddy’s reservations about Big and Big’s reservations about Puff. Their relationship is fascinating. I always think about their argument in the beginning over whether “Juicy” should be the lead single or “Machine Gun Funk,” and how that so perfectly encapsulates their taste and perspectives. How did they make the decision to trust each other? 

Big desperately wanted to get out of the streets. Cause Big gets arrested and he’s like, “Yo, this shit is not for me.” He said, “I’d rather be dead than be in jail.” He had a daughter coming, and Big’s friend O (Author’s Note: Roland “Olie” Young is a friend of Big’s who was murdered in 1992. “Missin U” off Life After Death is dedicated to him) would constantly tell Big, like, “Yo I know we hustling, I know we doing this, but you just met motherfucking Puffy. You know what I mean?” Puffy put Jodeci on. Puffy put [Mary J. Blige] on. Puffy’s with Heavy D.

Yes, it was more of an R&B track record. But when you’re trying to get out the streets and you got a connection to somebody in the industry, even at that point you gotta go all in and Big knew that, especially after O died. And especially after he realized that there was no long term play in selling drugs, that’s what it was. And they knew they needed each other because Puff knew, especially after getting dropped by Uptown, this has to happen.

And honestly, music was the only way out for Big. He was a high school dropout. One thing people told me was just like, “Yo, this dude hated to work. He was not gonna be that dude that was like, ‘Let me go apply for this job.’” He would get fired within the first 10 minutes of being hired. That just wasn’t him. They decided to meet each other in the middle and man, that middle — although that middle was a very short period of time, that middle that Biggie and Puffy found together. You could say anything you want to about Puffy but that middle! That shit was a fucking chef’s kiss.

So, it was interesting with their friendship — and I never really thought about this before — but why do you think Pac doesn’t get a shout out in the acknowledgements of the Ready to Die liner notes? Cause you mention this in the book and it is a little confusing. 

That was always a question that I had and when I asked people, nobody really knew. I don’t know if Big knew.

Oh, that’s interesting. Who was actually responsible for putting that booklet together. That’s a good question.

Yeah. And 2Pac — when we talk about 2Pac, his story and his feelings toward rejection, they run deep. And even Big would admit Pac was around a lot when he was recording his debut. He’d say, “Pac was the one that told me to sign with Puffy.” That’s how close they were. Before they fell out, they were as close as you could possibly get in rap at that point. They met in 1993 — Pac is dead by 96, Big is dead by 97. So, that time when they were friends was such a finite amount of time and so much happened. It’s really tragic.

What do you actually think happened at Quad? Was it Haitian Jack? Stretch? Jimmy Henchmen? What’s your theory on who was actually behind that?

Ooh, well alright. I gotta be careful how I answer this. (laughs) I would bet — and I feel confident in saying this — I don’t think Big had anything to do with the Quad studio shooting. He had no reason to set 2Pac up. He loved 2Pac. They recorded songs together. So let’s scratch that.

Photo Credit: Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

I’ve looked into this quite a bit as well. And I’ve always just sort of uniformly gone with the position you put forward — that Big had nothing to do with it. But there are some details in your book that gave me pause. There are some weird things around how Big handles it.

Definitely weird but I don’t think it implies that. Whether it’s Haitian Jack, Jimmy Henchman or some combination of the two, I find it hard to believe that they didn’t have anything to do with it. I quote this in the book — there’s that series that was on Fox a couple years ago with Ice-T and Soledad O’Brien, and Hatian Jack is on video saying like, “You know, moments after 2Pac was shot at Quad, somebody’s calling him like, ‘Yo, it’s done. Like we just hit 2Pac.’” And Haitian Jack was like, “Yo, I never told y’all to do that.”

So, I think it was because Pac was on record saying, “I think Haitian Jack is a government informant. Why isn’t he being charged with the same crime that I am?” I don’t know the full extent of Haitian Jack and Jimmy Henchman’s association, but there was a reason Jimmy Henchman — who Pac really didn’t know — was like, “Yo, I need you to come to Quad. We’re working on this song,” the night before Pac’s verdict. And when (Jimmy Henchmen) says, “Oh, I don’t have no money in my pockets,” Pac said, “All right, well, I ain’t coming.” And then Henchmen calls back like five minutes later and he’s like, “Yo, I got the seven Gs for you right here,” to lure him to Quad.

So it’s like, maybe an associate of Haitian Jack hears Pac talking shit. And without Jack giving an explicit go ahead, Henchman, Dexter Isaac or whoever, decide to set up Pac as retribution.

That, I mean — unless you were in the weeds of planning, you’ll never officially know. But that theory makes the most sense. But who knows, maybe Jack called it in.

Do you buy the Chino XL thing?

What he said about Tupac getting assaulted in prison? I felt like Tupac came into this world battling something, and he always felt like, “I have to fight.” He was built like that. That was his life, man. He was the son of a [Black] Panther. This dude at seven, eight, nine years-old used to have to take peanut butter and spread it on door knobs in his apartment complex so the feds couldn’t track the fingerprints. He’s dealing with that shit from a young age. When he’s eight he’s already lived a third of his life — he was only 25. So he didn’t get a chance to know what grace felt like. He didn’t get a chance to know what peace felt like. He was always on a thousand because that’s what his life made him have to be.

He didn’t need any one incident to make him crazy.

Right. So, in regards to Chino XL, I don’t know if it was like a scene from Oz or anything like that, but what I do know — and I’ve read this in multiple places — he was allegedly assaulted by prison guards. Like, you can read it. Tupac would go see his lawyers and he would have to have extra cavity searches. They would have the rubber gloves, and so you can imagine how that shit fucks with you. You feel like the entire world is looking at you. You were convicted of something you at least claim you’re innocent of, and you feel like your friends have turned their back on you. Nobody’s come to see him in prison. And I can’t justify everything that Tupac did but when you go through that type of experience, he wasn’t gonna come outta prison any other way. It’s like he says in the song “No More Pain”: “Prison ain’t change me. It only made me worse.” I think that’s true.

It’s the unforced errors in this tragedy that kill me. If the Notorious B.I.G. could have just gone up and seen Pac once in prison or something, it might have changed everything.

Yeah. I also think — even though the song wasn’t about him — but maybe they could have held off on releasing “Who Shot Ya.”

That’s what I was referring to earlier with the weird decisions. He goes to see Pac at the hospital after the Quad Studio shooting but Pac had already bounced. That’s a sliding door. But with “Who Shot Ya,” why did you do this? If you weren’t involved in what happened and you don’t have animosity towards this person —

I asked Mr. Cee about that. I was like, “Do you think that song is a case of bad timing?” And he told me “No.” I don’t think they thought about it that way. And people who I’ve spoken to for the book — and even just outside of the book and people who were there at the time — it was like, “Yeah, it is definitely a horrible case of timing,” but only in retrospect.

Looking back on it, you’ve got a bunch of 22, 23, 24 year-olds — kids basically — making executive decisions. And they’re not really looking toward the long term ramifications of what something might mean. And we can look at it now with the years of perspective and everything that went down, like, “Why would you release that then?” But back then, I think the thought process was, “Pac knows Biggie. Pac knows Biggie ain’t had nothing to do with it.” And sadly, that wasn’t the case.

In your intro you say your goal was to add depth to Biggie’s story; to say something that hasn’t been said. Do you think you accomplished that? 

I really hope that yourself and others who read this book come away with a better understanding of what this giant looked like as a human, you know? Talent, flaws, successes, pitfalls and all. As far as Biggie Smalls is concerned, his legacy is larger than life and I wanted to preserve that. But I also wanted to peel back the layers on that as best I could. To show that this didn’t happen by accident but it’s a gift from God that his life happened the way that it did, and what he was able to provide to the world.

Abe Beame: Flatbush local, culture writer, former mayor of New York City. You can follow him on Twitter @TheFakeAbeBeame 

Abe Beame

Flatbush local, culture writer, former mayor of New York City.

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