Page last updated at 09:57 GMT, Thursday, 12 February 2009

The life and times of Biggie Smalls

Notorious BIG aka Biggie Smalls
Notorious charts Biggie Smalls's rise from Brooklyn drug dealer to hip-hop star

by Kev Geoghegan
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Nearly 12 years since four gunshots ended the life of Christopher Wallace, better known as rapper Notorious BIG, a new film looks back at the life of the larger-than-life music star.

At the height of the east coast-west coast hip-hop feud, which had already claimed the life of his one-time friend Tupac Shakur, BIG - or Biggie Smalls, as he was known to his fans - travelled to California to promote his second album, the prophetically-titled Life After Death.

He would not live long enough to see it released just 16 days later.

Minutes after leaving a party, Biggie, 24, was gunned down in a car passenger seat, leaving behind a grieving mother and wife, a daughter and an unborn son.

In just a few short years, the Brooklyn musician had gone from teenage drug dealer to one of the brightest stars of the American rap scene, to the morgue - another victim of the escalating violence between rappers from either side of the same country.

Angela Bassett and Voletta Wallace
Bassett (l) met Biggie's mother, Voletta Wallace, several times before filming

No-one has yet been convicted of either his murder or the death of Shakur, but documentaries, books and magazine articles offer differing theories as to who is responsible, and why.

The film Notorious does not speculate, choosing instead to focus on family life, friendships and the rapid rise of a rapper regarded by many as the greatest of all time.

The movie has been made with the permission of Biggie Small's mother, Voletta Wallace, who shares a producer's credit.

"It was very painful to find out certain things about your son that you never knew," says the single mum, who raised her son near the tough neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, New York.

"But if I had left them out, it wouldn't be his life."

Drug dealing

A bright student with a hulking figure - he was 6ft 3in and weighed more than 21 stone (133kg) - the young Biggie dropped out of school as a teenager when he learnt he was to become a father.

Biggie swapped the schoolroom for a street corner to sell drugs. One of the scenes in the film shows Biggie's fellow drug dealers expressing shock as he sells crack cocaine to a heavily pregnant addict.

Jamal Woolard
Jamal Woolard put on four and half stone to play Biggie Smalls

His mother admits her son had a dark side which needed to be explored.

"I wanted this to be real, I did not want to obliterate the negatives and focus on the positives," she says.

"You have to put in everything, so we can all learn from it."

Angela Bassett, Oscar-nominated for her role as Tina Turner in 1993's What's Love Got To Do With It, plays his strict, church-going mother.

"I'd heard her speak and I'd seen her on television. I just watched her.

"She has a lot of heart, a lot of soul, a lot of passion and a lot of fire," says Bassett, who met with Ms Wallace several times before shooting began.

Central to the film, says Bassett, was the relationship between mother and son: "He had a stage persona, but it was interesting to get to know him through the eyes of his mother.

"To see how loyal he was, how respectful he was; how he knew right from wrong and how he eventually got back on the right road."

Boot camp

Biggie as a boy is played in the film by his real-life son Christopher Wallace Jr.

But to play the physically imposing adult Biggie, the film's producers went closer to his roots and found a newcomer who hailed from Biggie's "hood".

In his debut performance, Jamal Woolard is the man who breathes life into the rap legend. Given a crash course in acting at New York's famed Juilliard school, Woolard - who raps under the name "Gravy" - learnt to walk, talk, rap and even stand like Biggie.

The experience was dubbed "Biggie boot camp".

"I was very familiar with Biggie, 'cause I'm from Brooklyn, it's my hometown - so I definitely identified with him all the way.

"From day one, I was always in character, I never stopped on set and even at home, I was always in character."

Biggie and Tupac

Helping Biggie make the transition from hustler to artist was his friend, producer and mentor Sean "P Diddy" Combs, played by Derek Luke in the movie.

Pledging to make the talented 19-year-old a millionaire by 21, Combs - then known as Puff Daddy - was true to his word.

Luke admits he was conscious of how Combs, the executive producer of Notorious, would view his performance.

"I had a talk with Sean before we even started. I was like, 'Man, I don't look like you'. But he was convinced that I was the person to do it.

"After the film came out a couple of weeks ago, I got a call from him and he said his son was gonna give me a call because he was very impressed.

"That was cool."

The subject of who killed Biggie and Tupac, who was shot dead six months prior to Biggie, remains a mystery.

At the time, east coast and west coast artists were using songs to snipe at one another, and were involved in some very public disputes.

Notorious reflects on Biggie and Tupac's failing relationship without laying the blame squarely at anyone's door, though Biggie is completely exonerated - perhaps unsurprising given Combs and Wallace's involvement.

In the years since the shootings, the feud has died down, but the film may inadvertently reignite old flames.

A man was shot at a recent screening of the film in the US, but director George Tillman is keen to play down any link.

"It was very surprising," said Tillman. "I don't think the film had much to do with it."

"For me, it's a very positive film. It deals with family, it deals with friendship, it deals with a young boy becoming a man - all very positive.

Notorious is released across the UK on 13 February.

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