The songs that made the Notorious B.I.G. famous were the ones he didn’t even want to record.
“Juicy” and “Big Poppa” were the hit singles off of Biggie’s first album, Ready to Die. These were the songs that got the heavyset 22-year-old Christopher Wallace on MTV. The infectious hooks brought listeners in. What won them over was the warmth in Biggie’s voice, a sound that made him both relatable and totally unique.
But the teddy bear image that came through in those songs wasn’t the whole story. Biggie had started dealing drugs as a 13-year-old, dropped out of school at 16, and spent a few years hustling in his hometown of Brooklyn and in Raleigh, North Carolina. When he rapped about that life, he was speaking from experience.
“Big didn’t even like ‘Big Poppa.’ Or ‘Juicy,’ ” producer Nasheim Myrick, who worked closely with B.I.G., said. “You know how long it took him to do ‘Big Poppa’? That’s the last joint I think he did for that album.”
Biggie still thought of himself as a street hustler, and he wrote verses for the beat that reflected where he’d come from and what he’d been through.
He collaborated with Myrick on a song called “Who Shot Ya?” It was released late February 1995, as a secondary B-side to “Big Poppa.”
The story Biggie tells in “Who Shot Ya?” is simple and brutal. Someone’s out to get him, but Biggie gets the drop on his foe.
Niggas wanna creep, gotta watch my back
Think the Cognac and indo sack make me slack?
I switches all that, cocksucker G’s up
One false move, get Swiss cheesed up
The song ends with a violent skit:
Can’t talk with a gun in your mouth, huh? Bitch-ass nigga, what? [gunshots] Who shot you?
“Who Shot Ya?” was an instant classic, and it showed the rap world that Biggie wasn’t just a good-natured player. It also thrust Biggie and his crew into the middle of a conflict they wanted no part of.
“Who Shot Ya?” came out a few months after Tupac Shakur was shot five times by unknown gunmen in the lobby of Quad Studios in Manhattan, where his friend Biggie Smalls was recording.
When the song dropped, Tupac was incarcerated in Rikers Island jail after having been found guilty of sexual abuse. He was hurt and suspicious; he already wondered if Biggie and Puffy knew who’d attacked him—or if they might have been involved.
Now Biggie was putting out a song called “Who Shot Ya?” in which he cast himself as a gunman.
So was it really directed at Tupac?
Myrick says no. “We have no reason, no motive, at all, to have set Pac up. What’s the motive? What’s the issue? It’s no issue. So, nah,” he said.
But Tupac couldn’t be sure. That’s how beefs tend to escalate: with a series of ambiguous provocations.
When Tupac was being carried out of Quad Studios on a stretcher, he’d stuck up his middle finger. Biggie and his crew thought that gesture was directed at him. Tupac thought that maybe “Who Shot Ya?” was Biggie’s response.
Tupac told Vibe magazine that he was still in pain from the injuries he’d suffered in the Quad shooting and that he was having nightmares. The message was clear: What he’d been through wasn’t a performance, as he’d been accused of. It was real.
But people who read the Vibe story didn’t focus on Tupac’s personal torment. They seized on what Tupac said about the ambush at Quad Studios. Tupac told Powell that Biggie and Puffy might have had something to do with it.
Tupac described the night in vivid detail: the army fatigues his assailants wore, which made him think they were Biggie’s security guys. The way they kicked and stomped on him as though they were mad at him. How Puffy wouldn’t come near him afterward.
The story was incendiary. But why, in Tupac’s mind, would Biggie and Puffy have had it in for him? What was their motive?
The article came out around the same time that Tupac’s third album, Me Against the World, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
Vibe reached out to Puffy and Biggie for comment, but they declined to respond. According to longtime friend Chico Del Vec, Biggie wasn’t happy.
“He was upset because he like, yo, he was being accused of something he ain’t do,” Del Vec said. “Big was like, ‘You know what? This dude is not coming clean with us about anything. So what I’mma do is just stay away from it.’ … And Puff is like, ‘Yo, you know what? Let’s just do this music, man, and stay focused.’ ”
It became increasingly hard to focus on music, though. The whispers about Biggie and Puffy’s involvement in Tupac’s shooting never went away. And “Who Shot Ya?” clouded the picture.
Biggie and Puffy decided that they needed to defend themselves. In the August 1995 issue of Vibe, Biggie said he wasn’t involved in the Quad shooting and that “Who Shot Ya?” wasn’t about Tupac. He also told Vibe that the next time he saw Tupac, he wanted an apology. Puffy said that Tupac “got a lot of people in a lot of bullshit with that interview.”
But this back-and-forth wasn’t just about Biggie, Puffy, and Tupac. A personal beef was quickly turning into a regional one.
This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to Slow Burn Season 3: Tupac and Biggie now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And to hear the interviews we just couldn’t fit into the main episodes, join Slate Plus.