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How the Unsolved Murder of Notorious B.I.G. Became an Obsession-Worthy Mystery for the Ages

The death of Biggie Smalls, coming six months after the murder of friend-turned-rival Tupac Shakur, ushered the rap game and its East Coast-West Coast feud into the national spotlight

By Natalie Finn Mar 09, 2020 5:50 PMTags
Notorious B.I.G, Biggie SmallsDes Willie/Redferns

On April 12, 1997, Life After Death hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album sales chart, skyrocketing from No. 176 in the course of a week—the biggest one-week leap ever in the chart's history.

Prompting the meteoric rise of the double-disc release, still the third best-selling rap album of all time with more than 10 million copies sold, was the arrival into the mainstream consciousness of the artist responsible, Notorious B.I.G., who had been murdered on March 9, 1997, at the age of 24, two weeks before Life After Death's release.

Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls and born Christopher George Latore Wallace at St. Mary's Hospital in Brooklyn, was already a hip-hop mega-star, his 1994 debut Ready to Die also cited as one of the most influential releases of its time, having shifted the epicenter of the rap world back to the East Coast—where it arguably stayed until alternative capitals of the hip-hop world started cropping up in other regions of the country in the late 1990s.

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Shocking Pop Star Deaths

But Biggie's murder, coming six months after rival Tupac Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas, propelled the late rapper, his label Bad Boy Records and its founder Sean Combs (Puff Daddy back in the day, Diddy now), and the concept of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry into the center of the pop culture universe, turning gangsta rap from a specialty genre into the stuff all the kids—including the white ones in the suburbs—were listening to, on CD and Top 40 radio.

Here's betting (going by personal experience) that half the teenagers who were snatching up copies of Life After Death in the summer of 1997 didn't know much about what had happened to Notorious B.I.G., or maybe even that he was dead. They just knew that they were loving the likes of "Hypnotize" and "Mo Money Mo Problems." (Just as Tupac's "California Love" became a SoCal anthem for the blissfully unaware as much as it did for the rapper's die-hard fans.)

Subsequently, Puff Daddy & the Family's No Way Out, anchored by the massive Police-sampling hit that was "I'll Be Missing You," featuring Biggie's widow Faith Evans—the first rap single to ever debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100—also became one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time.

Obviously the lyrics that were Biggie's trademark—all about pushing drugs, packing heat, rolling in new money and defying the specter of death that loomed over those who lived the hardcore life but chose to live fast and maybe die young anyway—proved eerily prescient.

Even before the funereal imagery of Life After Death, in which Wallace looked to be already in mourning for himself as well as serving as his own undertaker, he was already akin to a ghostly presence weighing in from the afterlife after the disturbing climax of the final track on his '94 debut Ready to Die, a gunshot that connotes the artist committing suicide.

And while being a talented artist cut down violently at such a young age, on the precipice of super-stardom, would have been enough to have ensured Wallace's place in music history, no one has ever been charged in his death.

His murder following a party at the Petersen Automotive Museum—which still sits there unassumingly at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles—remains unsolved and conspiracy theories abound.

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images; Jane Caine/ZUMAPRESS.com

One theory—detailed in the 2011 book Murder Rap: The Untold Story of the Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur Murder Investigations by retired LAPD detective Greg Kading—is that Death Row Records founder Marion "Suge" Knight was behind Biggie's murder as direct retribution for Tupac's infamously still-unsolved slaying, and that Combs orchestrated Tupac's murder and was therefore unwilling to aid the investigation into Biggie's death.

Shakur had accused Wallace and Combs of being involved in the 1994 armed robbery at Manhattan's Quad Studios in which Shakur was shot and robbed of $40,000 in jewelry. (Both Biggie and Diddy denied involvement and no proof ever surfaced that they were.)

The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, ran a series in the early 00s on the murders that included reporting that the Crips had killed Shakur in retaliation for him attacking one of their members in Vegas and Biggie, perched in a suite at the MGM Grand, had promised them $1 million and supplied the murder weapon. (Knight was linked to the rival Bloods.)

"It was so ridiculous," Biggie's mother, Voletta Wallace, told Rolling Stone in 2010, recalling the Times article. "My son is Notorious B.I.G. If my son is gonna go to Las Vegas, don't tell me nobody didn't see him."

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Stars' Memorable True Crime Roles on TV

Moreover, with Wallace's death coming just two years after the O.J. Simpson trial and five years after the acquittal of four Los Angeles Police Department officers in the beating of Rodney King, distrust of the LAPD remained high among minority communities. The tentacles of the Notorious B.I.G. investigation would also reach into the LAPD's infamous Rampart scandal of the late 1990s, when Rafael Perez, himself a dirty cop, alleged that more than 70 officers who worked the anti-gang beat were guilty of planting evidence, stealing drugs, unlawful beatings and shootings and more while working within a largely Hispanic community. Twenty-four officers were ultimately punished, but only five fired outright. Detectives linked Perez to Knight and Biggie's death, but the theory went that LAPD brass wanted to keep Perez out of further trouble so he would be a better witness in the corruption case.

A wrongful death lawsuit Voletta Wallace and various relatives filed against the city in 2002, claiming investigators had covered up information about LAPD involvement in her son's death, ended in a mistrial in 2005—but not before a judge ordered the city to pay Wallace's family $1.1 million in sanctions. Voletta refiled in 2006 and the case was dismissed without prejudice (meaning it could be refiled) in 2010.

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"I trusted everyone [before Christopher's murder]," Voletta told Rolling Stone. "I trusted the Los Angeles Police Department. I had to believe that they wanted to find out who the murderer of my son was. I had no idea there were such powerful forces involved in all of this."

Her lawsuit had also originally named ex-LAPD Officer David Mack, who was also implicated in the Rampart investigation and had been linked to Knight and Death Row, and his associate Amir Muhammad, whom police suspected had pulled the trigger on Biggie, but they were dismissed from the complaint before it went to trial.

"What I need from this lawsuit is that the person or persons who murdered my son are brought to justice," Voletta also said, insisting her suit wasn't about the money, although music industry experts had projected the lost earnings from Notorious B.I.G.'s death to be upward of $300 million. "What I need from this lawsuit is honesty. What I need from this lawsuit is to show that humans have integrity, show that they're not cowards, show that they're not liars, show that they care about the truth."

Jim Smeal/WireImage

Combs has adamantly maintained he had nothing to do with Tupac's murder. He was at the Vibe Magazine party at the museum the night Biggie was killed, and they left at the same time, Combs getting into his car, a white Suburban, and Biggie settling into the passenger seat of a green Suburban being driven by Gregory "G-Money" YoungJunior M.A.F.I.A.'s James "Lil' Caesar" Lloyd and Damien "D-Rock" Butler were in the back seat.

"As we were driving, [from] my car], I heard shots ring out," Combs said in an interview on March 28, 1997, his first time speaking out. "At first I just thought it was someone shooting in the air, and just human reaction I immediately ducked...Everybody in my car ducked down. Then I heard somebody yell, 'They shot at Biggie's car.'" He shook his head. 

"And then I just jumped out of my car and I ran directly to his car, and all the doors were open. He was hunched over and I was just there, I was talkin' to him, and the security officer that was driving my vehicle, I told him to just jump in [Biggie's] vehicle and just try to rush him to the hospital. And that's what we did."

Wallace was pronounced dead at 1:15 a.m. at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, which is less than two miles away from the museum. At least seven witnesses contributed to a police sketch artist's detailed drawing of the shooter.

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Biggest Unsolved Murder Mysteries
Mitchell Gerber/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Combs recalled the last thing Wallace said to him before the shooting was that he couldn't wait for his second album to come out: "He just felt that when the album came out, it was going to clear up a lot of stuff because over the past few years people have been talking about him in records, there had been so-called controversy. And he had wanted to represent on his album of not even feeding in toward that negativity, and he felt proud that he didn't do that. He'd also did a tribute record to California called 'Going Back to Cali' and he had just felt, you know, that once the album came out, a lot of fans would understand that he wasn't on that [feud] B.S.

"He was just trying to make good music and represent for everybody as a whole internationally—east, west, Europe, Africa, wherever they was from that wanted to listen to his music and wanted to feel his point of view. He just wanted to accept them."

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Mysterious Hollywood Deaths

While his music did indeed cement Notorious B.I.G.'s legacy as a hip-hop great, his tragic demise turned his rather short life story into an epic that people continue to talk about, 23 years later.

Phil Caruso/Fox Searchlight

In the 2009 biopic Notorious, the rapper's actual son, Christopher Wallace Jr., portrayed him as a child and Jamal Woolard played him as a young man, while Derek Luke played Combs, Anthony Mackie portrayed Tupac and Angela Bassett was Voletta Wallace. Both Combs and Voletta were among the film's producers.

City of Lies—a film based on Randall Sullivan's book about the investigation, LAbyrinth, and starring Johnny Depp as Russell Poole, an LAPD detective who worked the case and came to believe Suge Knight had ordered the hits on Shakur and Biggie, with the help of David Mack in the latter—was made but shelved a month before its 2018 release date in the wake of a spate of bad publicity for Depp, including a lawsuit filed by the film's location manager, Gregg Brooks, accusing the actor of assault and battery on the set. A trial date has been set for May 11, 2020. Depp's attorneys have said he only confronted Brooks verbally, and in defense of a woman he felt Brooks was behaving badly toward.

Meanwhile, Suge Knight, who was in prison when Biggie was killed—and is in prison now after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter in a fatal hit-and-run—was never charged or named as a defendant in any civil suit filed by the Wallace family.

CPR/Dunkin D/Vasquez/FAMEFLYNET

Poole quit the LAPD in 1999 and died in 2015 of a heart attack at 58 (according to the Los Angeles Times, he collapsed at the L.A. County Sheriff's Department's homicide bureau while discussing an unspecified cold case); the hip-hop community mourned him online as someone who had tirelessly sought justice for Biggie.

When Poole had tried to track down Orlando Anderson, the Crips member who was widely believed at the time to have shot Tupac and had testified on Knight's behalf in the assault case that supposedly got Shakur killed, Anderson turned up dead, as did a potential witness.

"It just seemed incredibly convenient," Poole told Rolling Stone in 2010. "The best witness and main suspect in the murder of Tupac, both shot dead, while the case remained unsolved."

The USA limited series Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., from American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson executive producer Anthony Hemingway and Suits producer Kyle Long, starred Jimmi Simpson as Poole and Josh Duhamel as Greg Kading, who wrote the 2011 book alleging the massive conspiracy involving Combs and Shakur, Knight and the LAPD.

Combs told LA Weekly when it wrote about the book in 2011: "This story is pure fiction and completely ridiculous."

Related: Tupac Shakur Part 1: 22 Years After the Unsolved Shooting

A task force of LAPD detectives and agents from the DEA and FBI was formed in 2006. Voletta Wallace was suing the city at the time and Kading wrote, "it came as no surprise that the brass wasted no time in putting together a task force to finally solve the 9-year-old case, find the killer, and hopefully exonerate the police in the process."

Kading, who alleged the LAPD had taped and written confessions pertaining to Biggie's murder, wrote that he was removed from the task force in 2009 and the rest of the team was dissolved in 2010, prompting Kading's retirement from the force after 22 years.

Kading also slammed Poole's theory of the case—Mack in league with Knight—as being just a tiny fraction of what was really going on.

Needless to say, any new film or TV show about the murders has plenty of plot points to follow, characters to introduce and theories to probe.

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True Crime on Film

And then, of course, there's Biggie's tangible legacy—his music and his family.

Bad Boy Entertainment released Born Again, compiled mainly from previously unreleased early recordings by Biggie fleshed out with new beats and guest rappers, in 1999, and in 2005 Biggie's vocals were combined with verses from the likes of Eminem, Jay Z, Missy Elliott, Mary J. Blige and Nas for the album Duets: The Final Chapter.

"The Chris I knew was a good guy," jazz artist Donald Harrison, who met Wallace as a teenager in Brooklyn and schooled him in diction and phrasing, told NPR in 2010. "He wasn't the guy who did all these things [the crimes he rapped about]. He was really looking for love and acceptance at the end of the day. That's what he was looking for. And he paid a price for looking for love."

Mark Davis/BET/Getty Images for BET

Faith Evans, the mother of Biggie's son, joined Diddy, Ma$e and 112 on stage for the Bad Boy family reunion at the 2015 BET Awards, where the set list included "Mo Money Mo Problems."

"I'm sure there are youngsters that've heard [Biggie's music] for the first time recently that can certainly agree [how good it is]," she told Fuse last year. "It sounds like it very well could've been released right now. His style is still so ill. He's still the greatest to me."

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Christopher Jr. graduated from high school in 2014 and Evans, says he absolutely reminds her of his father.

"I mean, he looks a lot like him, just a lighter version," she also told Fuse. "He does little things that he wouldn't have remembered his dad doing, like the way he rubs his nose, or the way he flicks his toes together, or the way he has his sinus issues like his dad. [Even] the sounds he makes, it's so strange. He stands like him. You know, but other than that, he has a really sly, low-key sense of humor too, and very sarcastic, just like his dad."

Thanks to @hot991 #Albany for having me! #TKAI May 19!

A post shared by Faith Evans (@therealfaithevans) on

In 2016, T'yanna Wallace—Biggie's daughter who was born in 1993, the year before he married Evans—put Diddy on blast on Twitter for not securing tickets for her for the Bad Boy reunion concert at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, where her dad was going to be honored. "his bad boy concert is for my dad's bday but I got NOT ONE TICKET. just wanna point that out," she wrote. "Haven't spoken to puff in years, I guess that's why I didn't get a ticket to the concert. Puff does nothing for my family. Tired of lying for his lame ass!"

Diddy got in touch and the tweets were deleted, with T'yanna writing, "Me & puff talked, a lot of things were cleared up & everything is LOVE!!  So everybody can calm down....Honestly just happy things were addressed. That convo needed to happen fo real."

"I already had tickets to the side for the family, of course," Combs clarified what happened with T'yanna during a sit-down with Hot 97. "People were notified. They didn't notify her. We don't have no problem. Sometimes, you gotta understand, in this new social world that we live in, there's a part of the generation, when they really get upset about something, sometimes that's what they do. I called her. I let her know that I love her."

David Corio/Redferns

BET marked the 20th anniversary of his death in 2017 #Biggie20, with B.I.G.-themed programming, and the network spearheaded the social tribute "Kick in the Lyrics," featuring Remy Ma, Fat Joe, Trey Songz, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, The DreamSyd, Jason Derulo, Dej Loaf, Method Man and more giving their take on Biggie's hit "Juicy."

The Brooklyn Nets honored the city's fallen son during a game against the Knicks, while Spread Art NYC hosted a multi-media tribute to Biggie at Brooklyn's Bishop Gallery, organized by Naoufal Alaoui and Scott Zimmerman, the street artists responsible for a mural of the rapper at Bedford Avenue and Quincy Street.

Can't Stop, Won't Stop: The Bad Boy Story, a documentary chronicling the legendary label's 20-year history, had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2017. B.I.G. obviously played a huge role in that story.

And ever since her son died, Voletta Wallace has been keeping a close watch on his legacy and his estate, trying to be discerning when deciding what to lend Biggie's name and beats to and what might sully his musical reputation.

"If I see something that's going to belittle his integrity or his memory, I won't do it," she told Billboard.com in October 2016. "It has to do with principles, morality and honesty."

Voletta said that there was a petition circulating to rename St. James Place, the Brooklyn street her son grew up on, to Christopher "Notorious B.I.G." Wallace Way.

"There's a lot of politics behind it, but there is also a lot of love behind it, and from what I gather the people are behind it," she said. "I would like to see that done."

The corner of St. James Place, between Fulton Street and Gates Avenue in Clinton Hill, was officially renamed last June. Voletta Wallace, his son C.J. and daughter T'yanna were all there to celebrate the unveiling of the street sign.

(Originally published March 9, 2017, at 5 a.m. PT)