From the Archives: Notorious B.I.G.: ‘You Start Living Too Fast’

The Notorious B.I.G in his Los Angeles hotel room on February 25, 1997.

The Notorious B.I.G in his Los Angeles hotel room on February 25, 1997.

(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)

It's just after the Soul Train Awards ceremony Friday night and the Notorious B.I.G. is leaning on the couch of his Westwood hotel suite, watching the tape-delayed show on television.

The 6-foot-3, 380-pound rapper, who is sharing a room-service sausage pizza with two homeboys from his old Brooklyn neighborhood, is waiting to see himself present an award to singer Toni Braxton.

"There's not enough Biggie on the screen," he says with an effusive, full-bodied laugh as he comes into view. "I'm not gettin' enough shine."

At the podium with other artists from his Bad Boy record label, B.I.G. is wearing a gold chain with a large likeness of Christ on the pendant--glittering diamonds in place of the thorns.

It's a surprising image, given the violent controversy around the Notorious B.I.G., one of the biggest stars in the gangsta rap galaxy.

In the hotel room, he nods when the chain is mentioned. He then shows the week-old tattoo that adorns his right inside forearm. It's a quotation from 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 . . .

B.I.G., whose real name is Christopher Wallace, was proud of the tattoo, but he never got a chance to show it much--or explain how it symbolized the changes in his life.

A little more than 24 hours after watching himself on television, camera crews were on their way to a Wilshire district parking lot to report on his tragic end in a drive-by shooting. The 24-year-old rapper was gunned down by unknown assailants moments after he left a party to celebrate the Soul Train Awards.

It was an eerie reminder of the way his onetime friend-turned-bitter-rival Tupac Shakur was murdered six months and a day earlier on the Las Vegas Strip.

When asked Friday about the Shakur shooting, B.I.G. was philosophical about the dangers of the fast-lane, gangsta-rap lifestyle.

"When you start making a whole lot of money and you start living too fast, it's up to you to slow yourself down," he said. "You can't be getting drunk, smoking two or three ounces of weed a day, and [having sex] with all these different females. Something's bound to happen.

"I was living like that for a second, but I had that car accident," he says, referring to a Sept. 13 accident on the New Jersey turnpike where his left leg was broken in three places. "I was in the hospital for two and three months and it gave me a lot of time to think about my life and where it was headed. I said to myself, 'B.I.G., you're moving too fast. When you get back on your feet, it's time for this [expletive] to change.' "

He looks down at the his tattoo on his right inside forearm and reflects.

"This is to reassure myself that whatever goes wrong, no matter how bad things seem, God is right there for you, you know? As long as you believe in him and his strength--all these jealous people, all these sharks . . . He'll stop all of that. He's going to find the road for me to take to avoid all of those obstacles, and take me where I'm going."

"What I'm doing 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 road."

Two weeks before the Soul Train Awards, B.I.G., the self-proclaimed king of New York rap, was reclining Lawrence of Arabia-style in a cloth tent near the pool of Beverly Hills' Four Seasons Hotel on this warm afternoon.

At his side was a tall glass of frosted lemonade and a pager that buzzes frequently with Valentine's Day wishes. A marijuana cigarette, rolled in coarse, cigar paper, dangled from the rapper's mouth, and he casually projected pungent smoke into the sunshine.

The spoils came from being one of the biggest stars in rap, someone whose records make the fans jump on the dance floors and race to record stores. As he bragged on "Juicy," the hit single from his 1994 platinum debut album "Ready to Die," B.I.G. used his considerable rapping talents to move his street-corner crack dealer past into a high-profile lifestyle in music.

"Look at all of this," the rapper said during the interview with a customary laugh, marveling at his posh surroundings, not the Brooklyn streets where, he said, he sold drugs, robbed subway riders and dodged rivals' bullets. "It feels like a few million miles from Brooklyn."

Things indeed had been going his way.

His former wife, fellow Bad Boy recording artist Faith Evans, just had his son, Christopher Jr. The rap groups most closely associated with him, Junior M.A.F.I.A. and Lil Kim, both have hit albums in their own right.

He was looking forward to more B.I.G. excitement when his new CD, a double album ironically titled "Life After Death," hit the stores on March 25. Unless the release date is held up by Bad Boy and Arista Records, it is likely to enter the charts at No. 1.

Yet, there were problems in his life.

Even before he broke his leg in the accident and had to undergo two months of muscular therapy in a hospital, B.I.G. was arrested for the possession of various handguns and 50 grams of marijuana. He also faced assault charges from a 1995 incident in Camden, N.J.

Was he worried about the gun and drug charges, which could mean up to 18 years in prison?

The mammoth man stared at the flowers outside of his cabana, admiring their bright hues, and breathing in the aromas.

"I just need to try my best to prove my innocence. That's all," he said finally. "As long as God is in your corner, you don't have to be afraid of [expletive]."

B.I.G. repeated this more positive outlook, one that is reflected on his new album.

"I call the album 'Life After Death' because when I was writing stuff like "[expletive] the world, [expletive] my Mom and my girl' on 'Ready to Die,' I was dead, yo. There was nothing but anger coming out, about everything.

"But now, I can't do that no more. People know that Biggie ain't on the corner selling drugs. Why would anyone want to hear about that? I got other problems, now."

For someone with a "notorious" reputation, B.I.G. proved surprisingly disarming during the two recent interviews. He had a great sense of comic timing and sensitive childlike eyes that would often brighten during conversation. He chuckled when asked if it's better to be loved or feared.

"I'm a nice guy, but the fear keeps everybody on their toes. People sometimes mistake sweetness for weakness. You never want anyone to know everything about you. It makes you too easy to classify."

But he acknowledged, as a Gemini, the other side of his personality--the tensions and darkness reflected in his earliest music.

B.I.G.'s debut album caused a sensation among critics and rap fans. It's only natural, in retrospect, that B.I.G. and Shakur became friends because their histories seemed so similar. In fact, they probably influenced each other as artists.

"Ready to Die" was a gripping portrait of a desperate, angry young man who had been raised without positive role models and was trying to find his balance in life. It tells of a man who feels trapped in a threatening and indifferent society. At the end of the album, the narrator feels so guilty about the life he has led that he picks up a gun and blows his brains out.

The album made him wealthy and respected, but it didn't erase his troubles. One of his best friends, New York rapper Randy "Strech" Walker, was shot to death and B.I.G. had the near-crippling car accident.

The new album, he maintained Friday, is work of a changed man.

"[My friends], we all have kids now," he said as the award show ended. "These aren't the same brothers on the corner, not caring about living or dying. I wanna see my kids graduate, I want to go to my daughter's wedding and my son's wedding, and I want to watch them get old. You're not going to get to see that if you're out there wilding."