It’s been two full decades since Biggie kicked in the door of the Hip Hop landscape with Ready To Die simultaneously changing the East Coast Rap game while creating two megastars out of the aforementioned and Sean “Puffy” Combs. Puff had just come off being fired from Uptown/MCA since, it seemed, he was only in the service of his own ego. But his most recent acquisition, a cherubic super-emcee by the name of The Notorious B.I.G., was still signed to the label that Andre Harrell built though they obviously did not know what they had. Like the Europeans that robbed the sliver of land that would eventually become Manhattan, Puffy practically got B.I.G. for free from Uptown/MCA as the coffer seemed full of surefire talents the likes of Mary J Blige, Jodeci, and Heavy D and The Boyz.
Little did they know that the guy from “Party And Bullshit” was a bona fide star who’d combine the storytelling of Rakim with the quips and charisma of LL Cool J mixed in with the hardcore edge of N.W.A. Then, after a chance encounter and pure hustle, Puffy finally found his way to Clive Davis’s Arista where he got the deal of a lifetime and a chance to start his fledgling company, Bad Boy Entertainment. Hunkered down in his basement—and after saving Biggie from a few decades behind bars—the newly created company that would affectionately become known as Bad Boy would put all their chips behind the young gun and Combs’ unflinching enthusiasm.
On September 13, 1994, after a lead single that featured a syrupy Mtume sample of “Juicy Fruit” and a B-side that held the sonic gold that was Premo’s “Unbelievable,” Ready To Die was released into the wild. It didn’t jump off immediately, though. It’s first week it only sold 57,000 units, but that would soon change with an Isley Brothers sample and a famous first line, “Will all the ladies in the place with style and grace…,” anyone? The Grammy nominated single propelled the album into the stratosphere, and cemented B.I.G. and Puff’s legacy for all time.
Super Accountant Bert Padell Vouched For Puff To Clive Davis
For better or worse, Sean Combs will always be linked to his near perpetual ability to write checks with no regard for who writes the rhymes he occasionally spits. Even back then it was all about the benjamins. The reason why B.I.G. knew about Bert Padell on 112’s “Only You” remix? Padell was helping Puff count his stacks way back in the day.
“All I knew was that Puffy was a young, black entrepreneur whose credentials were told to me on the phone by Bert Padell, Puffy’s [then] accountant,” Clive Davis told VIBE magazine in a September, 1996 interview.
For all the champagne, jewelry, Timbs and furs, Bad Boy’s formation was rather swag free. The iconic label began with some conversations between an accountant, a record label executive and a hungry intern. Take that.
Biggie & Craig Mack Were The Foundation For A Sweet Deal
None of us knew it at the time, but a lot was riding on Ready To Die. Puff probably wanted to make a great album because he was an egomaniac with an inhuman work ethic, an awesome ear for music, and an uber capitalist. And Biggie was capable of delivering that album because he was a great emcee. But if you subscribe to the theory that the ‘90s were the beginning of Hip Hop’s emphasis on commerce, then you can remove the great artistry of Biggie’s debut and see why it needed to win for financial purposes, too.
According to VIBE (citing Forbes), Puffy was given $10 million to start Bad Boy along with a 50% ownership stake in the label. The deal allowed the newly christened king of Bad Boy to buy back his master recordings and buy out Arista’s 50% stake in the year 2003. By 1999, after Notorious B.I.G. was murdered, his classic debut had already been certified quadruple platinum. How much would you like to wager that Puff bought back those masters?
Mixer/Engineer “Prince” Charles Alexander Voiced B.I.G.’s Dad
Aside from one of Puffy’s unnamed, eager, and presumably down for whatever friends (we’ll get to her later), engineer “Prince” Charles Alexander was arguably Ready To Die’s unheralded best supporting actor.
“First of all, I’m the father on the intro…And the guy at the end, the guard that lets them out of jail…that was me also,” Alexander revealed to XXL.com as part of a March 9, 2013 tribute package to The Notorious B.I.G.
Say what you will about Sean Combs, but the man clearly had a vision. The intro provided a window into B.I.G.’s (and by extension Hip Hop’s) birth from the Superfly, blaxploitation era through the formative years. And what card carrying B-Boy or B-Girl can’t relate to a rebellious phase that left at least one parent equally as exasperated as Alexander playing the role of pops?
“Gimmie The Loot” Was Improvised Experimentation
When Kendrick Lamar brought the reign when spitting as his squirrely voiced younger self on “Backseat Freestyle” we were impressed at the improvisation, but we’d heard it before. On “Gimmie The Loot,” B.I.G. rapped as a completely savage, completely separate person out to get the booty by any means, enshrining the stickup-kid mentality for all time with “you ain’t gots’ to explain shit, I been robbin’ motherfuckers since the slave ship!” This practice would soon be mercilessly crushed by one Rudolph Guiliani, the swaggering cowboy that swept into office by running on a, “These negroes have gotten out of control” platform. But the Notorious one’s depiction was so raw it shocked even Easy Mo Bee.
“I ain’t never worked with nobody that really spit that hard before,” Mo Bee said. And the rhymes perfectly complimented what Easy Mo Bee called a “demure, laid-back, really spacey and open lawn that Biggie could just spit all over.”
“Warning” Was Originally Made For Big Daddy Kane
That this beat could have possibly been for someone else is almost too much to bear, but Big Daddy Kane could have absconded with this one into the night.
“I get to that [“Warning”] beat,” said Easy Mo Bee, “and say, ‘Yo Kane, that’s Isaac Hayes. That’s your shit.’ He said, ‘Play the next beat.’” No shade to Kane, but we’re glad he did. It led to one of the most classic first lines of all-time in, “Who the fuck is this / Pagin’ me at 5:46 in the mornin’, crack of dawn and now I’m yawnin’ / Wipe the cold out my eye…” Of course, after B.I.G. laced the beat with a tale of how old friends turn to enemies lamenting, “Damn, now they wanna stick me for my paper,” hindsight became 20/20 and Kane said he’d never heard the surefire hit.
“Later he argued me down saying, ‘No, you didn’t play me that beat!’ [Laughs]’”, said Easy. “But I did. What people don’t know is that beat was made for Kane. I can pull the disc out with that beat, and it still has his name on it.”
Sometimes Biggie Did In Fact Write His Lyrics
Legend has it that the late, great Christopher Wallace either was or eventually became so proficient with his 16s that he walked into the booth and spit album-worthy rhymes based on a mix of freestyles and previously memorized lines. No pen, no pad, no problem. Perhaps that’s true, but one Ready To Die collaborator confirms that at least one rhyme was indeed written down.
“Contrary to what everybody thinks, Big sat there and wrote his verse on paper,” Method Man told Complex in an October 2011 interview. “I sat down and I wrote my shit on paper. The reason I know this is because he told me, ‘I need you to say this line right here.’ I was like, ‘What line, Big?’ He was like, ‘I’ve got more Glocks and tecs than you / I make it hot, niggas won’t even stand next to you.’ I was like, ‘I got you.’”
So while rappers are going out of their way to spit subpar rhymes off the dome and from their smartphones, it probably should be noted that one of Hip Hop’s more memorable collaborations was done the old fashioned way—with legal pads and ink pens. We’re just saying.
Puffy Likely Asked Easy Mo Bee & Pete Rock To Make “Juicy”
Have you ever wondered why B.I.G.’s hit single “Juicy” has such a mythology behind it? As with most things surrounding Ready To Die, it begins with one Sean “Puffy” Combs. In an interview from the DJ Premier & Pete Rock: A Legendary DJ Battle (Round 1) bonus DVD, Pete Rock recounts the tale of sampling James Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit” in his crib with both B.I.G. and Combs present. But Soul Brother #1 wasn’t the only person who was approached.
““Juicy” was the song I didn’t want to do,” Easy Mo Bee revealed to HipHopDX. “Puffy asked me first. He said, ‘Yo, Mo. Loop up that “Juicy Fruit” joint by Mtume for me.’ And I just looked at him like, ‘You serious, man?’ If you were just looping, you weren’t really working.”
Eventually, Jean-Claude “Poke” Olivier of Trackmasters and Combs split the credit for the version of “Juicy” we all know and love.
Diana King Had Never Met Nor Heard Of Biggie
Unpopular opinion alert. Of the two artists on this song, Diana King is the most hardbody of the bunch, and it’s not really a contest. Don’t let her petite Jamaican patois fool you. As one of 15 children who pretty much willed herself into the industry on pure hustle alone, King went from a homeless teen to a backup singer for Shabba Ranks to a bona fide soloist. She’d damn near seen it all except for one thing.
“I had never even heard of [Notorious B.I.G.], because I actually thought that he would have been there,” King told radio host Dave O during a recent interview. “That was my first experience where you could do a song with someone and never meet them. I met Puff Daddy because he was the producer.”
One other random fact to note: Tone, who made the beat as part of Trackmasters has never been a fan of the track or of King for that matter.
Puff Alleges The “Friend Of Mine” Interlude Really “Went Down”
We hear from a timid female, the beat to Biggie’s “Respect” fading into the background. Immediately intrigued, our ears perk up. At this point, what she’s referencing is anything but ambiguous. We are all on the same page, collectively—and somewhat disappointingly—conceding that the track is likely to end on a fruitless note. There is no way we’re about to listen to B.I.G. get the super dome treatment.
Thankfully, New Jack City co-writer Barry Michael Cooper was willing to ask the tough questions. In a 2009 in-person interview with Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Cooper straight up asked Puffy the question that had been on Ready to Die listeners’ minds since its release.
“Yeah…At this point, at least I’m pretty big….it was like whatever Hype Williams video on steroids on a daily basis…We was just having fun making interludes,” Combs confirmed. “That was a joint that I just wanted to make authentic, so I had a friend of mine there who, you know, made sure my friend [B.I.G.] was alright. And they became friends.”
Myth confirmed! The original Teflon Don (sorry, Ricky Rozay) truly was a Rap god. Not only did he create one of the greatest Rap albums of all time, but he also created that album with a 30-second clip of him getting blown like a palm by a cool breeze. A true inspiration to us all.
Bonus: “Unbelievable” Was A Last Minute $5,000 Favor To B.I.G.
Consider the notion, just for a second, that this masterpiece was a last minute favor to Biggie by Premo, and you’ll get an idea of just how much this classic was meant to be:
“The album had actually been turned in,” said Preem in DJ Premier & Pete Rock – A Legendary DJ Battle (Round 1) bonus DVD. “And it was already ready to go. He called me, and this was when I was charging a decent fee. The checks were good. B.I.G was like, “Yo man, I got $5,000. Can you do this song for me?”
It all ties together. He narrowly avoiding his North Carolina drug ring getting ambushed by authorities. Or how Puffy blowing up his pager and cursing him out—as well as a fairly large check—are what brought him back to NYC to begin with. As with all things, timing is also everything. Look at how many people happened to be at the height of their abilities at the time. DJ Premier whipped this up last minute for B.I.G for five stacks because just like ’90s NBA, ‘90s Hip Hop was absolutely loaded. Of course, it more than paid off, as “Unbelievable” instantly became another classic notch on both artists’ belts and a signature addition to the album.
Additional reporting by Dana Scott, Andre Grant, Omar Burgess, and Daniel Witcoff.
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