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A B.I.G. Life Writ Large In 'Notorious'

<strong>'The Shot Heard 'Round The World':</strong> <em>Notorious</em> screenwriters Cheo Hodari Coker and Reggie Rock Bythewood at the Los Angeles intersection where Christopher Wallace was fatally shot.
Corey Takahashi for NPR /
'The Shot Heard 'Round The World': Notorious screenwriters Cheo Hodari Coker and Reggie Rock Bythewood at the Los Angeles intersection where Christopher Wallace was fatally shot.

A new biopic about the life and early death of a multiplatinum rap star revives the story behind one of Los Angeles' most famous unsolved murders: Notorious is the saga of Christopher Wallace — the man who'd make his name as the Notorious B.I.G.

In 1997, Wallace was leaving a party at L.A.'s Petersen Automotive Museum, near the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, when the driver of a Chevy Impala pulled alongside the rapper's convoy, pulled out a pistol and fired.

In the hip-hop universe, says Notorious screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood, "it really was like the shot that was heard around the world."

From Catholic School To Chart-Topping Star

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a film co-produced by the subject's friends, his business associates and his mother, Notorious portrays Wallace as a complicated character: a young Brooklyn hustler, then a budding rap star, then a bona fide national celebrity who was always loyal to his mom.

Bythewood's co-writer, Cheo Hodari Coker, followed the rapper's rise, reported on his murder for the Los Angeles Times, and was the last journalist to interview him at length. Like many others, Coker is still affected by Wallace's death.

"How does a Catholic school kid who's a straight-A student become, you know ... a drug dealer, [then] almost by accident become a rap legend, go through all the trials and tribulations of being a superstar ... and then right at the moment he gets it all together it gets snatched away?" he asks.

A Singular Style, And A Lasting Influence

On a recent afternoon, a longtime Biggie fan steps off an L.A. city bus near the scene of Wallace's murder.

"He wasn't just a hardcore rapper," says Marlon Blakley. "People loved him. He was funny. He even says, 'I'm ugly, but women still love me. I'm ugly as hell — but I got Gucci to the socks.'"

For Coker, lyrics like that one — Blakley was paraphrasing from Biggie's radio remix of "One More Chance" — are what continue to distinguish him from other rap stars.

"He's relevant to hip-hop in the same way that Charlie Parker or John Coltrane is relevant to jazz," Coker says. "Or the way that Michael Jordan or Dr. J are still relevant to basketball. ... He put a mark on it, and a certain signature, that is just indelible."

Wallace's influence echoes in the work of pop stars like Sean "Diddy" Combs — his former producer — and Jay-Z, a fellow Brooklynite who's carried on the B.I.G. formula of wit and verve, combining champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

B.I.G.'s celebrity in the mid-'90s came with what the rapper called "Mo' money/mo' problems." His career peaked at the height of what Bythewood calls the "media-induced 'East Coast-West Coast war'" between East Coast rappers and West Coast rappers.

It was initially a war of words and styles. Tupac Shakur represented the wild West Coast sound; B.I.G. was East Coast tradition.

But when Shakur was robbed and shot at a New York recording studio in 1994, the competition, which had primarily focused on record sales, took a menacing turn. Shakur claimed that members of Wallace's camp were involved.

In 1996, Shakur was shot again, fatally this time, in Las Vegas. Six months later, the Notorious B.I.G. traveled to L.A. to promote and work on his music, and to attempt to ease tensions between the East and West Coasts. He was killed soon after.

Notorious doesn't ignore the grittier aspects of Wallace's 24 years, but it does emphasize the positive perspective of family, friends and fans, many of whom are still waiting for an answer to his murder.

"I hope, if anything, this movie spurs interest ... to demand that his murder be solved," Coker says.

So far, however, this is one movie without a Hollywood ending.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corey Takahashi