Respect. It’s something everyone strives for. For a young Notorious B.I.G., early esteem came during summer trips.
“I would save up money every year to take my son and myself to Jamaica,” Voletta Wallace says in the recently released Netflix documentary Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell. “He loved Jamaica because they spoiled him rotten.”
In particular, Biggie, who would have been 49 today (May 21, 2021), spent extensive time with his mother’s brothers in her Trelawny, Jamaica, hometown. During these trips, a young Christopher Wallace was exposed to a different world than the one he experienced in his native Brooklyn. He was around different people, new music, and a vibrant indigenous culture.
“He loved hanging out with his uncle Dave,” Voletta says in the doc, “because Dave was a musician and he would take him to these joints where they play their music and he saw when he became famous [that] Dave was going to be part of his crew.”
A local reggae singer, Dave, incorporated a young Biggie into his routines. Big’s uncle Lou was a guitarist that Biggie admired.
“When they were together, they were always playing their reggae music,” Biggie’s mom said to Entertainment Weekly. “He really got a kick out of that and looked forward to those moments. I wasn’t part of that ritual, but I would see them sitting out on the veranda or outside on the rock listening and playing music. As he got older, Dave would take him to a little club in the district where they played and he enjoyed this so much."
Reggae stayed with the young artist, literally and figuratively, when he was back on his Brooklyn block.
“Every summer, Chris would come back from Jamaica,” Hubert Sam, Biggie’s childhood friend who knew him when Biggie went as MC Cwest, says in Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell. “Chris would bring back some Jamaican slang and music that we didn’t listen to – rock music, reggae, country.”
That disparate musical foundation presented itself once Biggie started making his own material. He showcased and paid homage to his heritage on his debut album, 1994’s landmark Ready To Die. Biggie features female reggae artist Diana King on the LP’s “Respect.” She reworks Pan Head’s “Gun Man Tune” into her own rowdy refrain, which is featured as “Respect’s” chorus. King also intros the song and performs by herself over the song’s final minute-plus.
In his lyrics on “Respect,” Biggie imagines what happened during his birth, when he says he almost died. When he finally arrives into the world, the doctor christens him a “bad boy,” a nod to Puffy’s Bad Boy Entertainment, to which Biggie was signed. On “Respect,” Big also traces his early drug dealing days, the conflict his illegal activities generated between his mother and him, and how to survive in the streets. Biggie closes out his lyrics with an ode to a popular Jamaican saying when he says, “Respect to the macks in the Acs/To the freaks in the Jeeps/Lick shots to my peeps.”
Biggie also incorporates a Jamaican accent into some of his delivery on the menacing “Machine Gun Funk.” A few lines into the third verse, he raps with an accent as he pays homage to Cutty Ranks’ popular 1992 song “A Who Seh Me Dun” when he says, “The rocket launcha/Biggie stomped ya/High as a muthafuckin’ helicopta.”
As much as reggae was part of Biggie’s musical foundation, there’s another less obvious genre that informed Ready To Die. “He said, ‘You know. I can’t sleep without country music on,’” Biggie’s friend Hubert Sam says in Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell. “We were like shocked.”
While Biggie’s uncles exposed him to reggae, his mother did the same with county. “Back home in Jamaica, there’s a certain time in the morning that on the radio you’d hear country and western,” Voletta Wallace says in the doc. “I’m a country and western person. I’m a ballad person. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be listening to rap music.”
One of the hallmarks of country music artists is their willingness to look at their lives in an honest, unflinching way.
“Ever since I was a little girl I liked stories," Voletta said in the Entertainment Weekly interview. “So when I first heard country music, what I liked was how it told a story through music — they were touching and heart-wrenching. That was it for me; I'm a country girl at heart. I became very attached to the beautiful voices and the stories they were telling. When he was a little boy and was growing up, I always had the radio on and tuned in to the country music station. I love my Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings. He listened to it all with me because he had no other choice. [Laughs]."
The songs of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings contain stories of heartache, struggle, and the importance of friends. That type of songwriting permeates throughout much of Ready To Die.
“Juicy” blends Big’s love for rap and his burning desire to live the life of an international superstar. Much of the rest of Ready To Die isn’t as optimistic, though. “Me And My Bitch,” for example, details the unbreakable bond between his woman and him. She is killed, though, in what was an apparent attempt on his life. Then there’s the bleak “Everyday Struggle,” which examines Big’s feelings of living a stressed-filled life with no money and a baby on way, while the album-closing “Suicidal Thoughts” takes things to the extreme, as Biggie laments his disappointing life before pulling the trigger on himself.
The stark country songs Biggie listened to during his formative years likely influenced him. Reggae’s vibrant rhythms did as well, as did the legion of rappers Biggie referenced and his producers sampled throughout Ready To Die, from Heavy D to Dr. Dre. In all, it adds up to a masterful debut LP that showcases rhyming and storytelling at its best, thanks in part to both reggae and country music.