In the Issue 30 of The Source, writer Matty C chose to highlight a then unknown Biggie Smalls in the coveted "Unsigned Hype" section of the publication. While the Brooklyn MC was still two years away from releasing his iconic debut, Ready to Die, his demo tape — which was recorded in the basement of his friend DJ Hitman 50 Grand's apartment — already showcases the verbal dexterity and supreme confidence that the King of New York would become known for.
As part of a recurring series that explores the demo tapes that took MC's from unknowns to superstars, we begin with none other than Biggie Smalls.
Stretch & Bobbito 1991 Freestyle
Biggie first appeared on The Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Show in 1991 on 89.9 WKCR-FM, from a basement station at Columbia University. At the time, the show had a demo challenge that encouraged unsigned acts to send in their tapes. Then, they'd turn to the phone lines to do decide who should get the spotlight. When Biggie references "Bronx Zu," at the beginning of this interview/freestyle it's the name of the group (GB and J Budhas) he lost out to in the contest.
"Biggie was pissed off that they beat him, so that’s why he came up and he was like, 'I want to set the record straight,'” Bobbito Garcia recalled to Red Bull Music Academy. "He actually wanted to battle them live in the studio, that’s why he came up there. I mean, artists used to come up to our show very focused. You know how before a basketball game, when the team is with the coach in the locker room and they’re like [closes eyes and shakes head in concentration] That’s how artists would come up to our station."
Bronx Zu's Home Alone demo can be heard at the 19 second mark in the above clip. Their style seemed to be something of a cross of what would be come aural trademarks of groups like De La Soul and The Pharcyde.
This freestyle is indicative of early Biggie works like "Party and Bullshit" which exude confidence and energy. It was clear even at 17-years-old that he could command the mic like no other over classic Cypress Hill production.
Those that knew Biggie best described him as a large man draped in camouflage fatigues, a bandana, and Timberlands — who despite his menacing presence — loved to joke around.
DJ 50 Grand was the neighborhood DJ who grew up near Biggie. A mutual friend, D-Roc, suggested he should be Biggie's DJ.
"I went to the basement at my crib, we made about four demos and it went from there," he told The Fader. "After we finished making money, we'd go get beer, weed, some movies and just get in the basement and make tapes for the rest of the day and night. That's where it went down after the money was made. He taught me a whole lot. He changed me. Breaking down songs, he knew what he wanted, how he wanted it."
DJ 50 Grand was 21 and Biggie was 15 at the time.They hustled together on Bedford and Quincy and would spend a lot of time fresstyling and barbecuing outside of a pool hall.
His early demos formed the seedlings of the process he would carry over in recording his two albums. Biggie liked the improvisational nature of Hip-Hop. He didn't stew on concepts. Rather, he let the energy of the studio and his own spontaneity pilot him.
"The first time I was in the studio with him I realized he didn't write, said Wayne Barrow, Biggie's co-manager. "I'd never seen anyone do that before. It amazed the heck out of me. At that point I'd be in the studio with some of the greatest artists, but I've never seen no one on either side of the spectrum—whether it be the R&B side or the hip-hop side—be able to create the type of songs that he created from his mind. No pen, no pad. Getting in the booth and just laying it down in damn near one take. :
His 50 Grand demos featured Biggie rapping over familiar beats like Big Daddy Kane's "Ain't No Half-Steppin'" which later became known as his "Microphone Murderer" freestyle. In other songs, one gets the sense that Biggie was paying homage to the styles of artists like Ice Cube and Chubb Rock who seemed to have a knack for being equally skilled — but also playful — with their rhymes.
“Macs and Dons” is a unreleased reference track that Biggie recorded for fellow Brooklyn rapper Shelton-D. "Can I get with Ya" finds Biggie flipping "Apache" which would later become "Cam I get With Ya" featuring Lil' Cease of Born Again.
Biggie fans will also notice that he recycled a few bars. Notably on "Biggie with the Hype Shit" he raps, "I smoke weed like Tony Montana sniffs the yayo" which was used on "Come On" featuring Sadat X which was first unreleased (and produced by Lord Finesse), and later used on the same track name and produced by Clark Kent off Born Again.