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Searching for Biggie Smalls' Brooklyn

With the imminent release of the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious, we go looking for Biggie Smalls in the borough that made him: Brooklyn.
Over ten years after his unsolved murder, Brooklyn boy Christopher Wallace, the rapper known worldwide as The Notorious B.I.G., or Biggie Smalls, or a host of other aliases, remains mysterious. Sure, there's the Biggie-on-tape, the Biggie who spit rhymes, and the martyred, seminal figure who made Brooklyn the center of the world during his heyday in the 90s. But who was he as a man, as a father, as a son, as a hustler? Notorious, the splashy biopic opening this week, offers an answer.

 

According to Wayne Barrow, Biggie's former co-manager, the key to Biggie is that "he made fat black cats sexy.” Barrow loves this line; in fact, his Notorious cameo has him thanking Biggie (eerily embodied by Jamal Woolward, aka Brooklyn rapper Gravy, formerly best known for being the dude who got shot in the buttocks outside Hot 97) for, again, making fat black cats sexy.

 

Notorious
, written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker (the latter wrote the book Unbelievable: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of The Notorious B.I.G.), is a project fueled by Biggie’s friends and family—the producers include Barrow, Sean “Puffy” Combs, and the rapper’s mother, Violetta Wallace. It’s a little strange to see a movie about those halcyon days ten or so years ago; but then again, Biggie’s legend was tragically set in stone once he was brutally murdered in California.

 

So for a peek at the story-behind-the-songs, we tagged along on a Barrow-and-Wallace hosted tour of Biggie's Brooklyn.

 

Biggies momStop I: George Westinghouse Information Technology High School, 105 Tech Place, Brooklyn

 

As the rented bus went over the Manhattan Bridge, some of the reporters assembled were palpably excited, including one Californian whose running monologue/worship of Wallace provided a Biggie-worshipping counterpoint to Barrow’s bon mots and easy charisma. There was an air of a Friday-afternoon school field trip, and the crowd was a multicultural range of ages and origins. Our first stop was on Tillary Street, at the high school where (around 1985 and 1986), according to Barrow, "This building across the street, this is where Big, Jay-Z, and Busta Rhymes were born. They'd battle in the hallway, they'd battle in the stairways. They'd even battle in the corners every once in awhile." There's a billboard across the street from the school, looming overhead. It's a RocaWear billboard. It features Jay-Z. He's looking fresh and successful.

 

Stop II: Cruising down Fulton Street

Barrow is a tease. He makes sure to point out Junior's, with "the best cheesecake in the world," but time constraints mean that we're probably not going to be able to tuck into one of their giant cakes. The loudmouthed Californian freaks out and at least wants a picture. Others start mumbling about the infamous task in Puff Daddy's MTV show Making the Band, where he made his protégés walk from Manhattan all the way down to Junior's, just to get him a cheesecake. Another girl on the bus talks about buying a condo on a TV producer's salary. She definitely lives in the Midwest.

 

The bus moves towards Fort Greene, where "Christopher" (strange to hear the rapper called by his actual name) went to middle school. In the movie, there are some scenes set at the middle school featuring a younger Biggie, as played by his adorable lookalike real-life son (with singer Faith Evans), Christopher Jordan Wallace. We drive past the Catholic school and a little kid throws a rock at the bus. The Californian ducks and yells, "We shootin'?" Barrow laughs, "We are DEFINITELY in Brooklyn!"

 

biggieStop III: 226 St. James Place, Apartment 3L, Brooklyn

 

At this point, the reporters trudge off the bus. We're going to Biggie's childhood home. The Californian asks for a picture, saying, "This is one of my teachers, right here!" His never-ending monologue of enthusiasm, at that moment, is sweet. We get our first peek of Biggie's mother, wearing a regal fur coat. She's soft-spoken (to the point that it's very difficult to hear her talk), with a Jamaican accent. She's a former teacher. She has a master's degree and fought breast cancer twice. These days, she's a writer, and a major part of her job is managing Biggie's estate.

 

Looking at 226 St. James Place in its condo-friendly incarnation (what was once Bed-Stuy is more Clinton Hill these days), Barrow says, "When they [Biggie and Evans] got married, he was still living here. There'd be underground parties going on across the street at the Masonic temple. That's where they'd battle, rap off the top of their head, talk about what was going on in their life. He'd kill it, Biggie, Big Man."

 

Stop IV: Golden Krust Bakery, 918 Fulton Street, Brooklyn

 

Yeah, the Golden Krust is everywhere. But this is the one that young Biggie would go to. Barrow summed it up thusly: "We're going to where he used to hustle, eat his little chicken wings when he was broke. That's what Brooklyn was about."

 

biggieBefore we can get to the food, Barrow leads us across the street. He's explaining how the kids hustled in the 80s, selling crack. "They used to sit on the cans, the little guys would. Right about here is where everything was taking place. Neighborhood cats were out doing their dirt. At the end of the day, it's what they were doing to survive." It takes a while for Barrow to call "hustling" what it was: drug dealing. Wallace said, "I'm learning about my son, too, he's telling me lots of things about my son that I never knew. I never knew where he would hustle."

 

We end up across the street at the Golden Krust. Some reporters queued up for food. Some reporters formed a scrum around Wallace. Boisterous neighborhood kids and confused hipsters looked on at the scene. Wallace was open about her relationship with her son. "Rap music is not my thing," she said. "I like country & western, jazz. I had a wonderful relationship with my son because he told me, 'Mom, my music is not for you. Stay away from my music, it's not for anyone under thirty-five.'" Although he warned her, she still snuck away and listened to it. "Juicy" and "Miss U" were highlights. "It was so intelligently written," she said. "He told me a story."

 

It had to be weird for her, running around the old neighborhood. Biggie's Brooklyn has changed in the past decade. It's hard to know if another guy can unite a community, a city, and a culture in the way that Biggie did in his short time on earth. Things are more diffuse now. Perhaps that's why Notorious exists. It's proof that Biggie was in the world. And Barrow could feel his spirit out on the changing, shifting streets:  "Big is here with us right now. He kept his roots in the neighborhood. Without it, there would be no B.I.G., no Christopher Wallace." If there's one thing to take away from the Biggie tour: Biggie is definitely Brooklyn.

 

 


Notorious is in theaters everywhere on Friday. Click here to purchase tickets.

Love hip hop? Love Biggie? Then check out Brooklyn writer Paul Beatty's Tuff, a rollicking, brilliant work of fiction that asks, hilariously, "What if a kid like Biggie ran for city council?"
    

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