A hustler’s prayer: Biggie Smalls’ final 24 hours encapsulated the man he wanted to become
25 years ago, the Brooklyn rapper was evolving, both creatively and spiritually
On March 8, 1997, Christopher George Latore Wallace — or as he was more popularly known, The Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls — had no clue that when he awoke in his Westwood hotel suite that Saturday morning it would be the final sunrise of his life. Rather, he was genuinely excited for the future.
It hadn’t always been that way. When Wallace was hustling in the streets of Brooklyn, New York, five years earlier, getting a record deal had seemed like heaven compared with the daily hell of dealing crack. The rival crews, the out-of-town trips he’d make to North Carolina to resupply, getting jammed up by police, the shootouts with adversaries — they aged Wallace and a generation of young Black men with him. And while fame in hip-hop came with its perks — the money, the notoriety, the women who loved Big Poppa and couldn’t wait to show him — it was still hell in some ways, just in different packaging.
But on that fateful morning in March, Wallace’s life felt like it was at a crossroads. The slaying of his onetime friend-turned-rival Tupac Shakur six months earlier was still a fresh wound in rap’s psyche. Wallace’s, too. Wallace hated how their friendship had dissolved. He hated the whispers that he may have been involved in Pac’s death. The same week Shakur was killed, Wallace had been in a near-fatal car accident. He had to be cut out of the vehicle with the jaws of life, spent the next three months rehabbing, and needed to walk with a cane.
Wallace’s chaotic love life with his wife, singer Faith Evans, his most talented understudy Lil’ Kim, and girlfriend and rapper Charli Baltimore was tabloid fodder — and it was largely Wallace’s own doing. Despite it all, Wallace was hoping for a fresh start.
Even as headlines spoke of Bad Boy versus Death Row and the “East Coast-West Coast war,” Wallace had been in Los Angeles for the better part of 1997. At the time, the talk in the industry about Wallace centered on two realities: first, that his sophomore double album, Life After Death, figured to be the year’s biggest hit. And second, Bad Boy’s presence in LA so soon after Shakur’s slaying and Suge Knight’s newly minted nine-year prison sentence could be misconstrued as taunting.
But Wallace saw his time in the City of Angels as a diplomatic trip. He adored LA. He first met Shakur at the Sheraton Hotel in Studio City just four years earlier, and he had gotten his first tattoo in the city a few days before his demise. And though he was still battling the conflicting emotions of Shakur’s impact on his marriage and career, he loved hearing Shakur on the radio. Wallace was even attempting to buy a house out west. If he had his way, he’d be a Los Angeles resident very soon.
That tattoo revealed much of where Wallace’s mind had been and where he hoped he was going as he approached his 25th birthday. As he was preparing to get tatted, his friend and NBA star Shaquille O’Neal was finishing up his own ink. Their relationship dated to Wallace name-dropping O’Neal on 1994’s “Gimme The Loot,” and the two recorded “Still Can’t Stop The Reign” together in 1996. O’Neal was ecstatic to see his friend but also weary.
“Yo, just be careful,” the still-new Los Angeles Laker warned. O’Neal knew the temperature in the streets of LA had been intense the last several months as Death Row Records’ very public downfall played out.
“I hear you,” Wallace responded. “But come to my party.” (The party he was referring to was an after-party for the Soul Train Music Awards held a few days later at the Petersen Automotive Museum.)
Wallace didn’t blow off O’Neal’s plea. He heard him and he understood why the NBA star said what he said. Wallace had heard the chants of “Westside!” and “Death Row!” from cars as they passed by. He knew he wasn’t in Brooklyn. But as he sat in rehab, alone with nothing but his thoughts on many occasions, Wallace had found God. He wasn’t going to become a gospel rapper, but he had come to realize that his success was nothing without a spiritual grounding. If he ever forgot that — if he ever got too worried about his open cases for drug and gun charges — he could look at his right arm and read Psalm 27.
The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the truth of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?
When the wicked, even my enemies and foes, came upon me to bite my flesh, they stumbled and fell …
How did he decide on that verse? He was only 24, still a baby in the grand scheme of things. But life in the fast lane can age a person. Wallace could no longer chain-smoke three ounces of weed or sleep with women from New York to Los Angeles and every city in between. This isn’t to say he’d go cold turkey. Never that, but he deeply valued the moment of clarity.
“I said to myself, ‘B.I.G., you’re moving too fast. When you get back on your feet, it’s time for this s— to change,’ ” Wallace told journalist Cheo Hodari Coker in the final interview of his life. “This is to reassure myself that whatever goes wrong, no matter how bad things seem, God is right there for you. … He’s going to find the road for me to take to avoid all of those obstacles, and take me where I’m going.”
Wallace’s stream of consciousness continued: “What I’m doing right now is right. I’m taking care of my mother, my kids and my peers. It’s legal and I’m just using a talent that I have to express myself and get paid. So it’s only right that I follow that righteous path.”
That combination of God, faith and peace guided Wallace in his last hours. He didn’t live his life in fear. It was actually the complete opposite. Much to the chagrin of some in the Bad Boy camp — including his manager, Mark Pitts — Wallace canceled a 10-hour flight scheduled March 8 to London for a promotional trip for Life After Death.
He was having way too much fun in LA to leave, and he was excited to drop his first new album in almost 2½ years. He’d tell anyone who’d listen that he “wanted [his] spot back.” Wallace was somehow improving as an artist — his lyrics sharper, the pictures he painted immaculate and vivid. After attending the Soul Train Awards on Friday evening, he and his crew went to see Donnie Brasco. Hours later, the film found its way into his art as he recorded a verse that would later end up on “It’s All About The Benjamins.” He recorded another song, too — “Victory.” It would be the first single from Bad Boy head and Wallace’s close friend Sean “Puffy” Combs. But it was also the final studio session of his life.
In those last hours, Wallace made a ton of phone calls. He was seeing life differently, and he wanted the people in his life to know how much he appreciated them — despite all the drama he created. One of those calls was to Lil’ Kim, Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s biggest star and someone Wallace cared for deeply. Their chemistry was undeniable on wax. Lil’ Kim’s boisterous presence was the perfect partner for Wallace’s laid-back, playboy gift of gab. Their relationship was an open secret, which took a deep toll on his marriage to Evans. Lil’ Kim even had an abortion after Wallace reportedly impregnated her, and, as she later said, their relationship was “very violent.” That animosity played out in the music, evident in records such as “Another” — a graphic duet on Life After Death recorded at the height of their angst toward each other. In the years following Wallace’s death, Lil’ Kim never shied away from discussing the darker side of their relationship, though she continued to proclaim her love for him.
“We were going through some things for a long time and it was major. But that weekend, I don’t know, he must have had a change of heart,” Lil’ Kim said on 106 & Park years later. “He was like, ‘You know what, ma? I decided whatever it is you wanna do, I’ma support you because I love you.’ He actually told me I’m a beautiful person inside and out. He never really would say things like that to me. He showed it, but that was the one time he really expressed from the heart how he felt about me.”
The check-ins the last several days of his life weren’t all as profound as that. Some were just to check in with friends such as Drew Dixon, who lived not far from him in Brooklyn when he was still hustling. She and Wallace had become colleagues of sorts as Dixon worked as an A&R rep at Arista Records, Bad Boy’s parent company — and had promised to hang out when he got back to the city. He also phoned one of his oldest friends, Hubert Sam, whom he promised to work on music with once he returned to New York, and DJ 50 Grand, who recorded the demo tape that changed Wallace’s life six years earlier. Wallace talked with them about his hopes for Life After Death, the tours, the videos, the awards and the different level the album would elevate him toward.
As his star rose, he turned to mastering the music industry behind the scenes. The irony of him wanting to be an executive while Combs wanted to become an artist wasn’t lost on him. Wallace was still committed to making music. He was starting a supergroup with fellow Brooklyn rapper Jay-Z with Lil’ Cease, Charli Baltimore and Lance “Un” Rivera called The Commission. From the time they were introduced to each other through DJ Clark Kent a year earlier, the two talented rappers spoke every day. In Jay-Z, Wallace believed he had found an equal — and if he was caught slipping, someone who was better than him. Wallace also was hell-bent on signing a young Harlem emcee named Cam’ron, who had written Lil’ Cease’s verses on Lil’ Kim’s monster hit “Crush On You.”
There were other business interests, too. Wallace was always a hustler at heart. He was planning to open Big Poppa’s Chicken and Waffles in New York City, he co-owned a clothing store with Heavy D appropriately called “Big and Heavy” and promoted his own clothing line, Brooklyn Mint.
But what excited Wallace the most now was family. As he did most days, he spoke to his mother, Voletta Wallace. To the world, he was a rap superstar. But to her, he was still the young boy who, against her wishes, watched the movie Ten Little Indians and begged to sleep in her bed because he was having nightmares. Wallace had dropped out of high school to sell drugs and frustrated her to no end with the decisions he made. But through it all, he was hers.
Voletta Wallace was surprised her son wasn’t halfway to London by the time they spoke on March 8 — and she was concerned. It wasn’t like she listened to Hot 97 or read The Source or VIBE every month, but she understood the climate. Shakur used to call her apartment looking for Wallace. Now Shakur was dead. All Voletta Wallace wanted was to ensure her son lived the long life Shakur was never afforded.
She had nothing to worry about, Wallace told her. Hit records and critically acclaimed projects were dope. Dominating the 1995 Source Awards at Madison Square Garden stamped Wallace as “The King of New York,” and starring in an episode of Martin, his favorite sitcom, was surreal. But nothing carried more of a sense of accomplishment and pride than being a father.
“I want to wake up with my kids. Get ’em ready for school and take ’em to school,” he told friends on March 8. “I want to participate in all that. I want to see my kids get old.” That quote would be featured in the program of his homegoing service.
It may sound weird, but Wallace wanted to be a suburban dad. Well, a handsomely paid suburban dad. He may have shown up to parent-teacher conferences smelling like weed, but he’d be there and he’d be engaged. Wallace was dedicated to providing what he never had growing up — a father. He spoke with Jan Jackson, his first girlfriend and the mother of his daughter T’yanna, in his final hours. That day, they joked about “how sexy” he looked at the awards. Wallace wanted to see his daughter, and Jackson told him to handle his business on the road and as soon as he returned to New York, she’d make sure that would happen. One of the big goals of his life was walking T’yanna down the aisle and seeing his daughter have kids if she chose to do so. The prospect of being a grandfather one day was beautiful to him.
In terms of his son, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Wallace couldn’t have been happier. C.J. was 4 months old on March 8, and the elder Wallace couldn’t stop talking about the future with him. Despite not being on speaking terms with Evans at the time — though both would attend the VIBE party at the Petersen Automotive Museum later that night — he was grateful to her for the life they created. It was the happy part of their union, he’d told Rap City’s Joe Clair weeks earlier.
“I want him to be able to always feel, ‘I can tell my pops anything ‘cause that n—a’s just the coolest n—a ever.’ That’s what I wanna be,” Wallace told ego trip in January 1997. “I wanna be the n—a’s best friend more than anything. Whatever he wants to do in life is completely his choice. I definitely want him to learn from his mistakes. But at the same time, I would never want him to feel like he would have to sell a drug or do anything out of the ordinary … because I’m here.”
Wallace’s last 24 hours on Earth revealed he was learning from mistakes, praying for the best and understanding God was with him. At the party at the museum, Wallace saw the gratitude Los Angeles was giving him, and he returned it in kind. He couldn’t move that well, but the entire party came to him, letting him know how much they appreciated his presence. Wallace loved the love. He even apologized to Xscape for disrespecting them a few years earlier on “Just Playing (Dreams).”
Wallace’s first single, “Hypnotize,” was played at least 20 times during the event, each time getting a bigger reaction. Life wasn’t perfect, Wallace still needed to mature and evolve, but that’s all part of being blessed with air in your lungs. His life was trending in a direction he was proud of and excited about. Wallace would make every moment matter because he knew how precious it was.
The fire marshal shut the party down early because it was too crowded. But Wallace was happy as he sat in the passenger seat of his GMC SUV. “Going Back To Cali” blasted through the speakers as his childhood friends, D-Roc and Lil’ Cease, celebrated as they rolled to the corner of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard.
March 9, 1997, much like Sept. 13, 1996, holds a deep significance in hip-hop culture. The dates not only mark the death of two of rap’s most prolific emcees, but in some ways, the events were also the beginning of the end of the ongoing coastal war.
Around 12:45 that morning, Wallace and his friend were sitting at a red light just outside of the museum; they’d decided to head back to his hotel to keep the party going. While they waited, a dark Chevy Impala pulled up next to the rapper and the driver fired his automatic pistol, hitting Wallace four times before speeding off. Though Wallace’s entourage quickly drove him to a nearby hospital, the rapper was pronounced dead at 1:15 a.m. Twenty-five years later, his slaying remains unsolved.
While it is terribly unfair that Wallace has been referred to in the past tense just as long as he was in the present, it is important to note how much he truly loved his final days. A little over two weeks after his slaying, Life After Death sold 690,000 copies in its first week; three years later, it was certified diamond, making it one of the bestselling rap albums of all time. On the song “Sky’s The Limit,” Wallace shared a moment that later almost sounded like a eulogy.
“To protect my mission, my corner, my lair/ While we out here, say the hustlers’ prayer,” he rapped. “If the game shakes me or breaks me/ I hope it makes me a better man.”
This is the direction he was moving in. In a parallel universe, maybe, just maybe, he gets there, too.