Two decades later, the title of the Notorious B.I.G.’s 1997 album “Life After Death” still conjures grim memories of the killing of its creator, who died 20 years ago Thursday in an unsolved drive-by shooting near the intersection of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.
But “Life After Death,” which came out mere weeks after the rapper was killed, gets at something else too, and that’s the way several key samples on the album helped extend the lives of the tunes from which Biggie and his producers borrowed.
The most prominent, of course, is “I’m Coming Out,” the 1980 Diana Ross banger that provided the exuberant backing track for “Mo Money Mo Problems.”
Did Ross’ song, a collaboration with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, require assistance to survive the end of the disco era? Maybe not: “I’m Coming Out” reached No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and it’s since become known as an anthem for the LGBT community.
But “Mo Money” actually charted higher, topping the Hot 100 for two weeks in 1997. Zoom ahead to 2014 and it’s easy to assume that when Ariana Grande sampled “I’m Coming Out” for her “Break Your Heart Right Back,” the young pop star was in fact paying homage to the Notorious B.I.G. track she almost certainly heard as a little kid. (Childish Gambino basically confirms that idea in his guest verse, where he spells out his nickname just as Biggie did his.)
The same goes for the recent animated movie “Trolls,” which had Zooey Deschanel’s character rapping — well, after a fashion — over the groove from “I’m Coming Out.”
If “Life After Death” kept Ross’ already-strong song in circulation, the rap album did more for Herb Alpert’s “Rise,” which forms the basis of Biggie’s song “Hypnotize.”
The famed trumpeter’s song was a hit when it came out in 1979, climbing all the way to No. 1 and winning a Grammy Award for pop instrumental performance. But “Rise” had more or less faded from view before “Hypnotize” brought it back from the grave (and back to the top spot on the Hot 100).
And as with “Mo Money Mo Problems,” Biggie’s sample became a rich source for musicians going forward, including R&B singer Monica, who used it in her 2002 track “I’m Back,” and Bell Biv DeVoe, whose new reunion album contains a song that echoes “Hypnotize” the same way “Hypnotize” echoes “Rise.”