By Rob Kenner
Today marks what would have been the 44th birthday of Christopher George Latore Wallace, better known as The Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls. As most rap fans know, Wallace’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet on March 9, 1997, and the greatest rapper who ever lived died before the age of 25.
Over the years most of Wallace’s music industry friends have paid tribute to the legendary emcee and shared memories of the time they spent with him. Last night at the Barclays Center, Puff Daddy, Faith Evans, Lil Kim, Mase, The Lox, and Busta Rhymes kicked off a 25-date Bad Boy Reunion tour—Jay Z and Mary J. Blige even made guest appearances. The crowd bought shirts emblazoned with Wallace’s face and sang along to some of his best loved songs. Without Wallace it’s hard to say whether Bad Boy Records—or the Barclays Center for that matter—would have even existed.
In the early 2000s, I ran the books division at VIBE magazine, where I had the privilege of editing Unbelievable, the only proper biography of Christopher Wallace, the man—as opposed to Biggie the rap star. The book’s author was Cheo Hodari Coker, a veteran rap journalist who profiled Biggie early in his career and also conducted one of his last extensive interviews before the rapper’s tragic death. Cheo did literally hundreds of interviews for the book, which became the basis for the film Notorious, whose screenplay he co-wrote.
It was a complex story to tell. Biggie’s rhymes were so vivid because he truly lived the life he rapped about. Although Christopher was an excellent student and a devoted son to his single mother Voletta Wallace, he eventually turned to the street life, providing for his daughter T’yanna by selling crack before he found a way to live a better life, going from negative to positive by virtue of his lyrical gift.
One day while we were still working on the book I received a letter stamped with marks indicating that it was sent by an inmate from a correctional facility. The handwritten letter inside was from one Robert Cagle aka Zauqael, who said that he had read VIBE’s coverage of Biggie’s early life—particularly the time he spent hustling in North Carolina just prior to his deal with Bad Boy coming through. (For hustlers in New York going to smaller towns down south meant less competition and higher profit margins.) Cagle said that if we wanted to learn more about Wallace’s life before the fame—and how he first got the name Biggie Smalls—we should speak with him. So we arranged a time to do a phone interview from prison and the following conversation took place.
We did our best to verify the things Zauqael said but nobody else in Wallace’s life was really aware of his movements in North Carolina. Cagle’s criminal record and timeline did check out perfectly and the details felt so real that we decided to include some of what he said in the book. The rest of the transcript has never been published before today. While the rest of the world celebrates Biggie’s birthday, here’s a side of Christopher Wallace that few people ever knew.
Hey Zauqael, thanks for reaching out. What made you decide to write us that letter?
I read the story where Big was talking about how he met an entourage in North Carolina and how the day he left, all of us got arrested. People have heard that story, but nobody knows the details, because none of them was there. It was only me, Sharif, my little brother Jazell, and Big. So it was only four of us. Lil’ Cease and Big D and all them wasn’t down there. Me and him was tighter than that. It’s no benefit really for me [telling this story] from here [in prison]. What I wanted them to know is… since we talking about his life, I wanted people to know about his time in North Carolina, because that was a part of his life. And that played a big part in his becoming a rapper.
Did you know those Junior M.A.F.I.A. guys from Brooklyn?
When I stopped in Puff’s studio in midtown, I had ran into ’em one time. That was right after he did the episode with Martin Lawrence. That was the last time I was in there with him. And then I got arrested. So I was incarcerated when Big got shot in Los Angeles.
When did you and Big decide to make the move to North Carolina?
Big was in North Carolina before me, and he had got into some trouble, so he left. During the time he had left, I came down and got established. And it just so happened that one of the individuals that worked for me was Big’s old friend who worked for Big to slang drugs for him. But Big had left because he got in trouble of some sort down there. So he waited till the heat died down. When Big came back, the dude that he was coming back for, he was already working for me—and we was doing pretty good at the time.
So that made you partners.
I didn’t know Big at the time. He came down with a girl, and she was the one who was holding the stuff for Big. She came with him on the bus. He had came down with nothing big, that wasn’t really no problem as far as interrupting my situation. But at the time, I didn’t want the worker to work for him. So I said, “This is what you do: if you can find somebody else that can work it off, then do it like that.” And what had happened, the individual that he got, Biggie gave all of his stuff to the guy and the guy ran off. So Big was stuck.
I felt bad ’cause it was my idea for him to get somebody else. At the time, I was staying with a chick, but I stopped staying with her. So we went and got a hotel. He got a room, I got a room. I said, “Listen I feel bad about this. So what we can do is, you send the girl home, and you stay down here with me.” And that’s what happened. I gave him a few hundred. She left. Boom. So he stayed down with me. And in the process of him staying down, I was still doing my thing.
I was older than him, and he looked up to me in many ways like a big brother. I didn’t come to know him through music. I didn’t look at him as a star. I looked at him as my man.
I didn’t come to know him through music. I didn’t look at him as a star. I looked at him as my man.
What was the difference in your ages?
I was like maybe 28, and he was like 18.
Why did you trust him?
We met, and we was dealing with a negative situation. I didn’t know him. As I was getting to know him, he was very funny. He wasn’t on no thug stuff. He was a good dude, man. All the way around, man. All the way.
Was Big rapping at all during that time?
Back when Big first came down I didn’t know he could rap. How I found out he could rap… Back then it was different. The drug game was kinda big at the time. And at that time, everybody thought they was a rapper. I thought I was a little rapper. You know, I wrote a couple of rhymes back then. When I say it the first time, it sound good. But when you only got one rhyme and you keep saying it, then people start to realize you wack. So the rap game wasn’t really that promising to me because I didn’t have the talent for it.
When we was in the hotel, that’s when we spent a lot of time together. We didn’t want to go on the block, so we stayed in the hotel most of the time. So what had happened was, we was watching [the 1975 movie] Let’s Do it Again, and he was telling me that his name was Big, and he could rap. He didn’t make a big deal out of it. He just said he can rap. And everybody knows how to rap, you know? So we were watching Let’s Do It Again in the hotel and one of the characters was named Biggie Smalls. I said, “Listen, ain’t you say your rap name is Biggie?” I said, “No, listen. That’s a better name for you right there.”
And he said, “Yeah I like that.” Because it was gangster, plus it was funny.
Did you ever hear him rap?
Even at that time, I said, “Son is nice, but we drug dealers right now.” I was keeping it real. Let’s keep it moving.
Sometimes we would be in the car, and records would play and sometimes they would have a long instrumental at the end before it goes off. So I’d say, “Yo Big, hit something.” Then I started seeing how nice he really was. But back then, again—we drug dealers. You know what I’m saying?
What years are we talking about?
We’re talking about from the end of ’90 to mid ’92—all in that era right there.
Were you staying in North Carolina permanently?
We bought a house together down there. And the address if you want to quote it is 2700 Alpha Drive. I’ll never forget it. That’s where we lived at.
See, as we started getting more involved, we started seeing a lot more money. So now, we starting to get business-minded. And we starting to hear Biggie more often. He’s in the house, he’s writing. Not that we was taking it seriously, but we just had so much time. North Carolina’s nothing like New York, where you can just go to 42nd Street and have fun. It’s kind of boring during the weekdays. Most of the time we shopped, hit the malls and things like that. But when we was in the house, he stayed writing.
Did he have a notebook?
Yeah, he had one of them black old notebooks with the little white spots on it.
You know when I really knew he had talent? There was a club down there called the Zoo, and one of the girls that was at the counter liked me. Anyway, we went to the club, and when we came in there, they already knew we was from New York, so that gave us like a gold medal as far as that was concerned. This girl really liked me so I said, “Listen, I got my man in here—he rhyme, I rhyme, you know what I’m saying? Can we do a little something?” She went to the manager, and he said yes. So I gave the mic to Biggie. It was a cordless mic. He started rhyming and they went crazy. The club wasn’t like a stage. It was a regular club. But when he was rhyming, no one could see him cause we stayed right near the DJ booth where they handed the mic to us. When he touched the mic, everybody wanted to see. He ripped it and they was going crazy. That’s when I really knew that he had the talent.
Were you there the night when Puffy called cussing him out, telling him to come back to New York?
Yeah, Puffy called. It was his moms telling him that Puffy called, and telling him that he needed to come to New York. This was way down towards the end.
So when he started talking about Puffy working at Uptown records, my other partner would say, “Listen man, if that’s the case, when we need to clean the money up, let’s do it through Big. But Big was like “Nah,” because he was actually seeing money. We doin’ our thing. We go to the club, it’s like we’re celebrities. He had celebrity status in a different way. So when Puff started calling the house, he was like, “I ain’t fucking with this shit.”
At the time, we was like, “Yo son, you need to try to get that, because this might be the way out when we ready to be easy.”
So when his moms called, he wanted one of us to go as a manager when he went up there. But I said I needed them down here. You can handle it. If things get major, then…
The morning he went to NYC, that’s when we all got arrested.
We go to the club, it’s like we’re celebrities. He had celebrity status in a different way. So when Puff started calling the house, he was like, ‘I ain’t fucking with this shit.’
The next day?
The same day. Big left that morning and we got arrested that afternoon.
Did you get arrested by a few cops or was it a major raid?
It wasn’t a raid at the house. What it was was, a friend of mines was dealing with somebody. He must’ve got in trouble. So he called and said that he wanted something. So when we went, we made the sale. He got the thing, and then we headed more into Raleigh. So we look out the window and we see one sheriff car which didn’t really alarm us, then we see another, then we see another.
Now in North Carolina, it’s not like New York where you see police cars constantly like that. So when I see more than three or four, you know it’s not because they just doing routine. You understand what I’m saying? When you see four or five, they here for a reason.
So they pulled us over. They made us come out the car. They searched our car. They found a couple things in the car. The car that we had was a rented car. The rental car had our address. They searched there and found more. The whole charge is on my record. I was the only one to do time outta there.
Yeah, they gave me five years for intent to sell cocaine, maintaining a dwelling and maintaining a vehicle, and simple possession. They gave me five years for everything but I only did a year and a half because they got a serious good time law down there. And being that I was wanted in New York, they said, “We might as well send him to New York.”
So what happened when you got to New York?
I was hollering at Big when I got to New York. He had already did “Party and Bullshit” and he did some shit with Heavy D. And the Ready To Die record didn’t come out. I was in Tower Records when he was having that signing. I was sitting right next to him. That’s the day I met Mark Pitts—his manager—me and Mark are still cool. And Puffy was there. But I seen Puffy before, so it wasn’t no big thing with him.
What did you think seeing your friend succeeding in the rap game?
I was really happy for him, but you wanna know the funny thing? Before he came out with that album, I think Craig Mack’s album came out. I went to Craig Mack’s release party or I think it was a party for Easy Mo Bee, the dude who produced the track. And I seen Biggie there, and when he came up to me—you know, I seen the success that Bad Boy was doing, and I’m hearing all the work—and he was asking me for money. And I just couldn’t understand it.
At the time I guess the girls were starting to know who he was. So he wanted to take a girl out, so he asked to borrow $1,000 from me. And I was questioning him. I said, “Well where is all the money? I seen you doing things.” And he was saying that he was doing promotional tours and right now he’s not seeing no money.
So I said, “OK, no problem.” You know I’m hitting him here and there, blah blah blah.
Were you in New York when Pac was shot in Quad Studios?
Yeah I was. [Big and I] had a little discussion on that too. He was basically saying he had nothing to do with it. Me and him had a relationship outside of Junior M.A.F.I.A. so our relationship was a little more close, because we actually lived together in the same house.
So you don’t believe the allegations about him being involved Pac’s shooting in ’94?
No, not at all. Not at all. And that’s from somebody who’s lived with him. We lived in the same house. I know Big’s character. You know, rapping and how you portray an image to relate to the fans is totally different than a person’s real personality. When I had a chance to talk to him, he was like, “You know I wouldn’t do nothing like that.”
But by the fact that Biggie was in [Quad] studio at the time, it made [Pac] speculate that he had something to do with it. I met Pac before. Through Big. We was in the Club USA.
When I met Pac I was so amazed at his character from the parts he portrayed. Cause he was a really nice dude. Really genuine, really open. And I seen at that point how easily he would let someone come in, especially when you was introduced by somebody else.
Did you notice any changes in Biggie as he achieved more success?
I was running into him in the Tunnel, and he was mad at me cause I wasn’t keeping in contact with him. But he had so many people around him. He had 15, 16 people around him. You gotta understand that even though we was from New York, I met him in North Carolina. So we grew together down there. So it was different because me and him didn’t really have no obstacles. We didn’t have our girls down there with us, interfering. It was like being in a college dorm setting like, but in a house, and just learning different things about each other.
It was a real big brother relationship. The funny part about it is a lot of rappers talk about the drug situation and going out of state, and none of them was down there. And that’s what really bugged me out. None of ’em never was down there. I don’t know how they getting these stories and none of ’em was ever down there.
So you knew pretty much everyone that was operating down there?
Exactly. So when they was trying to talk about what he did. I was like, “Yo, y’all don’t even know the half.”
And I ain’t gonna lie, when we was down there at first, we was in a situation. I hate to talk about it over the phone, but I like to give realness to let people know that he wasn’t no sucker neither. And some of the things he talked about he really did. You know?
We was in the hotel [Laughs], one of the hotels we stayed in. And at the time, you gotta understand—even though I felt bad about the dude running off, I felt like I was obligated to a certain extent. And like I said I was still just getting to know him, still feeling him out. I don’t know if I might show my money, he might rob me. I didn’t really know.
So he was like, “I need some money man. I can’t wait.” So I’m saying, you know, my stuff’s out there, we gotta wait. He said to me, “I’m tired of waiting. I’m going down and and and… and rob the hotel.”
I said, “What?”
He said, “Yeah I’m going down there and rob the hotel.”
I said, “Man listen, you can’t go like this. You gotta have a game plan.”
He said, “Man I’m going down there.”
You’re laughing as you talk about it.
Lemme tell you something. He had the best sense of humor that I’ve ever known from an individual. This dude was hilarious. Nothing was serious to this dude. Everything was a joke to him.
So he’s saying, “Gimme something so I can go down there and rob them.”
I said, “Listen man, you crazy?”
He said, “Man I’m gon’ do this. Either you goin’ with me or you not.”
So I said, “Yeah I’ll go with you.”
So I opened the back door of the hotel, put a garbage can down there. We went in there and… Yo, this is the funny part, right: [Laughs] He caught himself jumping over the counter—big as he is—and couldn’t get over the counter. He didn’t swing or hit the man, so the man was real cooperative. But he couldn’t get over there. So he had to stop and go all the way around ‘cause he couldn’t jump over. But he attempted. So he gets back down, he goes around, and we do what we gotta do.
Now mind you we stayed in the same hotel.
Wow. Are you serious?
Yeah, we stayed in the same hotel. So we go back like we’re going out the back way. But we go up to our room.
Ten minutes later we come downstairs like nothing happened. So we see the guy, and the police was there and everything. So we was like, “Hey what the hell is going on?” He said, “I don’t know, some guys come in here and they robbed me. Did y’all see anybody?”
Big was like, “Damn, ain’t no protection in here?” So we acting like we scared now.
He didn’t recognize you?
No, he didn’t recognize us—we had hoodies on. I would think he would, but when you scared sometimes you don’t really look like that.
What other memories do you have of Christopher Wallace, as opposed to Biggie?
When we used to go shopping, everybody used to get their own shopping cart. Big’s cart was just as big as everybody else’s. But the shit he used to get—all the Häagen-Dazs, you know what I’m saying? His room was the closest to the kitchen. And everybody had a different cabinet. So his cabinet would go the quickest out of everybody.
I liked ice cream but I wasn’t the type to eat it so fast. So if we went back to the store, mines would still be in there. So he used to eat my shit thinkin’ I’m not gonna get it because I don’t eat it like they did. My ice cream could stay in there two weeks and I might not never even go and touch it or even get it out the freezer or nothing. But he made sure if I did go to touch it, that it would feel like there’s ice cream in it. He had the shit stuffed with bread.
So I looked, I say, “Yo—What the hell is this shit?” I knew exactly who it was, man. I said, “Yo Big, what the fuck man?” He said, “Aw man, I didn’t want you to get mad.”
I said “Yo, you is a greedy fat fuck.”
Everybody used to have to put names on their shit because of him, man.
He would eat it all?
He was playing no games.
We used to eat out a lot too. In North Carolina they got Shoneys and Perkins… And you know the funny thing? Remember when he wrote that rhyme [in “Big Poppa”] about taking the girl to the hotel and eating “a T-bone steak, cheese, eggs, and Welch’s grape?”
We used to go to this place called the Waffle House and they used to have the steak and eggs and all that. And then another thing, we used to go to the House of Pancakes that was located near NC State. And we used to get a carafe of grape juice with the cheese and eggs and the T-bone steak.
We used to go to the House of Pancakes that was located near NC State. And we used to get a carafe of grape juice with the cheese and eggs and the T-bone steak.
Were there other songs of his that you can recognize where the lyrics came from?
I was so into doing what I was doing then, I never looked at what he was writing. Like I said, he was just my man who knew how to rhyme. I didn’t see his real talent until he started making records. When you just hear dude rhyme, he nice, but you don’t think his talent is so extraordinary because you’re not really focused on that. And plus, I’m not no producer. I’m not no Puff Daddy or none of that. So it don’t look as good to me as somebody who’s really into that.
I listened to a lot of his rhymes, but I can’t remember none of them word for word. But when he was writing them and I was listening to some of the songs, I could relate because I remember those are some of things that we used to run into.
What was you guys’ dress code at the time?
I’ll never forget. This was Big’s favorite thing: the Champion sweatshirt, and you remember the hats where it tied at the top and it was the same color as the sweatshirt? That’s what he was wearing at the time. It looked like one of them knitted hats. But at the top you would tie it. And he used to buy the Champion sweatshirts with them hats. That was his whole get-up.
My getup at that time was Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, Banana Republic. I did a lot of Polo. He wasn’t into that. You have to understand he was a big guy so a lot of stuff wasn’t…
They didn’t make it in his size?
Was Biggie a rapper who hustled, or a hustler who rapped?
I would say both, because he really did the hustling thing. You know what I’m saying? He really did that. In all aspects. He did a little bit of drama like I said the thing that happened in the hotel. He wasn’t a punk. He was definitely both. He lived and seen most of the life he talked.
What about the whole player persona? Was that really him?
I remember one time I came out there and two girls was out there fighting over him. I had just bought a fish sandwich. The doors open, and the next thing you know two girls is fighting. So he’s screaming at me, “Zauqael, come on man.” I said, “I ain’t trying to put this sandwich down.” He had these girls going crazy.
Did he have a hard time getting girls in North Carolina?
I think so. He wasn’t into them.
When we was in North Carolina, I never seen him approach no woman. I think his self-esteem as far as women was concerned wasn’t as great as it was with me. I was light-skinned and slim and all that, and I’m on some old, fly-guy stuff. He wasn’t really like that. And at the time he was still young, you got to remember. He was mature in some aspects, but as far as women he wasn’t into that like that.
Did Big make the right decision going into music?
[Exhales] I think… I would say he made a good decision because that’s something he wanted to do. He was having fun. But he thought he was worth more than he was getting at the time. I stopped at the studio one time, and he didn’t say it out direct, but he was saying you had to be careful in this game, and he was working on getting a lawyer and trying to renegotiate his contract at the time. And he was getting ready to do Junior M.A.F.I.A.
So did he make the right choice? If he never left North Carolina, he might be coming from the system like me.
And people might not know his name.
But then again he might have been alive. So who knows?