Notorious B.I.G.: Bigger Than Life
Label: Rugged/Image Entertainment
Author: Steve 'Flash' Juon
It's been over ten years now since Christopher Wallace, b.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G. departed
from this Earth. Nothing can change the fact that his children no longer have a father, his
mother no longer has a son, and one of hip-hop's most charismatic entertainers will never
be heard from again. Actually the latter part of that's not true at all. Since Biggie's death
rap fans have heard from him over and OVER again. Not counting
"Life After Death," which was already finished and
scheduled for release 15 days after his death, Biggie has had FOUR posthumous
albums for Bad Boy Records. There's endless debate
about whether this is fitting tribute or shameless exploitation, but there's little doubt the
well from which to draw new material has run dry. One album rearranged his guest appearances
from other people's songs to make them his own. Another envisioned the rapper as Frank Sinatra,
doing duets with people he'd never even met. Add a re-release
of his first album and a greatest hits package and
it's pretty evident that his label has done just about all they can do; there is no new material
left to be found. Theoretically they could still continue to spin things out further with a
series of poorly done remix albums a la 2Pac but hopefully
Bad Boy has the good sense to realize those were in bad taste. It's hard to imagine what more
can be said or done. His life is over, his posthumous recording career is over, and all that's
left now are his family and his hip-hop legacy.
And yet here we have a new DVD entitled "Bigger Than Life." A sticker on the front of the
shrinkwrap promises "previously undisclosed video from the night of his murder." The back cover
has a large bold quote from Jay-Z: "Seeing this made me miss Big." Honestly he hardly needs this
DVD to remind him how much he'd miss B.I.G. The two recorded songs together (legitimately, not
posthumously) and were friendly rivals for the title "King of New York" in hip-hop popularity.
We'd all rather have Biggie alive today, competing with him and 50 Cent to see who can sell
the most CD's, then doing an all-star remix together that gets widely bootlegged online.
The quote is useless, the sticker is shameless, and one wonders what could be on this
DVD that we don't know and haven't already heard. There is of course only one way to answer
that question - peel off the shrinkwrap, pop the disc out of the tray, throw it in and push
play. Let's see what Image Entertainment can
do that Bad Boy couldn't.
"Who is Biggie Smalls?" A variety of entertainers attempt to answer the question posed at the
opening of this DVD, including Common and Method Man. From there we go to a tape playing various
messages left on a machine as the one and only important fact of the whole introduction flashes by:
"narrated by Big Daddy Kane." That to me is a bigger (pun intended) selling point than either the
sticker on the front or the quote on the back. I'd be much less ambivalent about ANY
DVD project just knowing the rich deep intelligent baritone of Kane was keeping things in order.
Method Man states the obvious - Biggie was a "fat ugly motherfucker" but that his personality
and aura were so strong you couldn't help but love him for who he was. We hear a few words from
Biggie himself stating if you want messages, go to your parents, but if you want liquor and head
he's the man to talk to. A montage of Biggie images flashes by before Kane tells about the birth
of a hip-hop legend in Bedford-Stuyvesant back in 1972. The camera switches to one of his childhood
friends, a man named Hubert Sam, who lets us know Biggie was a born leader of men. If the story
he relates is straight up fact, Biggie had his friends organized like a rap group by first grade,
with everybody knowing their nickname in the crew better than their own birth name.
The interviews with childhood friends and members of Junior MAFIA continue. Hubert tells us
that when you were in his mother's home, you knew just how Jamaican her home was - the smells
and the sounds. Biggie tells us she was "proud of a nigga" even though she had to raise him by
herself and he didn't always make it easy. Cheo Hodari Coker appears to tell us how Biggie
always wanted her to love him and never be mad at him, and how he'd stay on the phone for hours
at a time until she'd accept an apology if he made her upset. All the friends talk about
how wearing the Catholic school uniform made you a target, so after school they'd take off
the uniforms and hang out on the block having fun. Michael Bynum: "The school thing wasn't him
from a long time ago." Eventually this turns to stories of Biggie slinging crack rock on
the street, which Biggie himself confirms by saying "the community wasn't on our side, but
we had to eat, my daughter had to eat." So far this DVD is exceeding expectations - the video
quality is high, the people telling stories knew Biggie personally (not just because of the
music industry), and interspersing the footage with clips of B.I.G. and shots of his neighborhood
really set the mood. If the interviews were done in a studio it wouldn't feel right so director
Peter Spirer wisely chose to film everyone on the same New York streets Biggie called home.
Kane tells us that Biggie knew the corner of St. James and Fulton well, but so did the police,
so Biggie had to keep moving further and further away from his home turf. Ironically doing so led
him further into the hip-hop game, as he linked up with 'D-Roc' Butler and a rap crew called
the Old Gold Brothers. Over and over people doubted his rap skills, thinking he was just the
extra extra large and in charge street pharmaceuticals man. We hear from Kevin Griffin and
DJ 50 Grand, other people who were rapping with him, and Biggie says he knew that he couldn't
sell drugs forever because you'd die or end up in jail for life. They all take about standing on
the street corner, drinking and smoking, and when everybody was amped up they'd go in the
basement and 50 would record Biggie freestyling over instrumentals. Even then as an unknown in
the rap world he was the star among the OGB. 50: "Two records, a mic, that's it. No studio."
DJ G-Dub talks about how they'd just set up speakers and an open mic outside on the street,
and how "the fat guy with the lazy eye" would captivate people and draw crowds in the hundreds
just to hear him rhyme - nobody could touch the mic after him.
From this point on you probably know the rest of the story. Biggie and 50 Grand recorded a
demo, Matty C put him on blast in The Source in the "Unsigned Hype" column, this lead to another
demo which Sean 'Puff Daddy' Combs heard, Combs signed him to Uptown, he had a few records there
before Combs got terminated from the label and started his own label Bad Boy. The DVD has many
of the players involved, including the aforementioned Matty C, talking about how it all went down.
Everybody talks about how Puff Daddy worked on his image, making sure the six foot tall three
hundred plus pound MC got across as being suave, while Easy Mo Bee and Common put over how
incredible his flow and ability to spit "just like he talked" was. Kane tells us Biggie stayed
close to his Jamaican roots by going with his moms back to Jamaica every summer. USC professor
Dr. Todd Boyd gives us some perspective on how Biggie took what other people would perceive
as negative and turned it into a positive, putting it out there that he was a "heartthrob
never, black and ugly as ever" yet still stayed "Coogi down to the socks." Method Man talks
about how that personality and confidence had him getting more women than better looking dudes.
Faith Evans and Lil' Kim are certainly the proof of that.
Without detailing every minute of this 101 minute DVD, Peter Spirer does a surprisingly good
job of telling Biggie's story all throughout the 1990's. The interviewees are well chosen, the
footage matches up with the parts of his life that are being detailed, even the friendship and
later rivalry with Tupac Shakur is surprisingly well organized and thoughtfully put together.
There are times this can seem to drag on a bit given this documentary is nearly two hours in
length, particularly for those of us who remember the Biggie story from day one (I still have
the issue of The Source he was featured in from way back then). As for the "previously undisclosed video"
there's not much to say. We see brief bits of him at the Vibe afterparty, interviews with
witness, and the big deal unseen shit is someone's home movie of Biggie's entourage leaving
the party. The camera is out of position to see the car that pulled up alongside his SUV
and the person holding it doesn't have a steady hand anyway BEFORE the shots
are fired - but you do hear the gun pop. In the end it's not as though we witness the murder itself
taking place. If such video did exist, they'd have used it to catch the murderer, and even if
it does exist I'm glad to not watch it - that's not something I really want to see.
There's not much to the extras - a
short video called "live from Bedford-Stuyvesant" which shows one of the block parties where
Biggie freestyled on the street, about 8 minutes of footage total. There's a photo gallery
but photos of Biggie are not hard to come by - he's one of the most recognizable MC's in
hip-hop history. Other than that "Bigger Than Life" gets a surprising thumbs up. For those who
have never heard all the details though or who don't know why Christopher Wallace became "Bigger
Than Life" after his death, you'll see just why he was so beloved and popular not only in his own
neighborhood but by music fans around the world.
Content: 8.5 of 10
Layout: 7.5 of 10
TOTAL Vibes: 8 of 10
Originally posted: September 25, 2007