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Notorious B.I.G: Life, Death, Rhymes


The rapper Biggie Smalls grew up Christopher Wallace in Brooklyn with a hard-working, middle-class mom and sterling elementary school report cards.

At 17, he dropped out of school. Dealt crack. Did jail time. Made a hip-hop music demo. Signed with Bad Boy Records. Became “Notorious B.I.G.,” famous hip-hop star, and died in a hail of bullets at 24.

A new film looks at the life and death of Biggie Smalls. This hour, On Point: We’ll talk with its director, George Tillman Jr., and with hip-hop scholar Tricia Rose, about looking at Biggie and hip hop in the age of Obama.

You can join the conversation. Were you big on Biggie? Are you still? Have you seen the film? And where does hip hop go when there’s an African American in the White House?


From Los Angeles, we’re joined by George Tillman Jr., director of the new film “Notorious,” about the life and death of Biggie Smalls. Tillman was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and studied film at Columbia College in Chicago. His 1992 short film “Paula,” about a 17-year-old African-American single mother, won the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Student Academy Award and the Black Filmmakers’ Hall of Fame Award. He went on to direct the feature films “Scenes for the Soul” in 1995, “Soul Food” in 1997, and “Men of Honor” in 2000.

And from Providence, Rhode Island, is Tricia Rose, professor of Africana Studies at Brown University and author of the books “The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop — and Why It Matters” (2008) and “Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America” (1994).

More links:

Update: You can read the latest on the release of the Smalls’ autopsy here

See the official “Notorious” site. Also worth visiting is MTV’s main B.I.G. page.

You can watch the film’s trailer here:

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  • Joe B.

    Hip-hop is boring, lame, and depressing. It promotes thugishness and violence towards women.

  • Emily

    Hip-hop is a culture that involves more than rap music. Most would say it doesn’t involve rap music at all. To lump all “hip-hop” together is as naive and uninformed as assuming everyone who listens to reggae smokes marijuana or everyone who listens to country has a pick-up truck with a shotgun under the seat. I expected more from WBUR listeners.

  • james

    this director of the movie seems to know little about the impact of the images of black people he is propogating in the media. how sad that such an uncritical attitude is behind this ridiculous movie. black people should be ASHAMED to propogate this violence and misogyny. it’s embarrassing.

  • Pat

    I was wondering what the professor thinks about this argument:

    Black music nowadays is not as good as black music from the past. Artists like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Duke Ellington were inspiring artists who were dedicated to their crafts. The most popular black artists today are people like Lil’ Wayne who boast about cranking out hundreds of generic tracks a year. These folks will not be remembered 50 years from now as anything but superficial entertainers.

  • shaka

    “rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live”…with that being the argument, rap is reflective of all states of hip-hop. hip-hop cannot be defined and big and pac b/c it’s bigger than them. i feel poorly for all americans who think those two are what rap and hip-hop are. you have to think of artists like ATCQ, De La Soul, Pharcyde, Niamaj, The Roots…

    this conversation would be much better served by hosting KRS-ONE who has lived virtually every aspect of hip-hop that you can live…

  • Roanne

    I grew up in NYC and Boston, totally immersed in hip hop. As a strong female, I was drawn toward more political and female rappers. I was always offended by and questioned rap messages and rappers that treated girls/women so poorly. I disliked Biggie SO much. I would look around me in total disbelief that the girls around me would recite his raps. I believe that Biggie was one of the rappers that glamorized the degradation of women. I’m used to being a solo voice amongst my peers but find it incredibly sad that Biggie was so successful and still being honored as a great rapper.

  • bill

    thanks Tom for trying your best to pull something out of this guy (and if he says “you know” one more time I’m gunna scream! – forget trying to put EVERYTHING African American into the big picture – especially this.
    My daughter wants to see this movie in the worst way … my challenge is that she must view “Bird” and have an adequate understanding of real talent before wasting time with pop culture puddles such as this.

  • SnowOwl

    Hip hop is like any other music genre, there is good and bad. Personally, I think that there are some amazing artist, and yes, they are artist. What they have to say breaks my heart but makes me proud that someone out there is saying it like it really is and isn’t afraid that they won’t make millions for portraying the pimp and hoe lifestyle. For example, Immortal Technique in his song “Peruvian Cocaine”

    “I’m on the border of Bolivia, working for pennies
    Treated like a slave, the coca fields have to be ready
    The spirit of my people is starving, broken and sweaty
    Dreaming about revolution (REVOLUTION!) looking at my machete
    But the workload is too heavy to rise up in arms
    And if I ran away, I know they’d probably murder my moms
    So I pray to “Jesus Cristo” when I go to the mission
    Process the cocaine, paste and play my position”


    The Blue Scholars in their song SelfPortrait

    “The water is the heart, its rainin when its beatin
    In the city that I sleep in I’m dreamin while I’m awake
    The miserable escape but they’re too high to ponder faith
    But who am I, to use their plight to illustrate a rhyme
    With everything around me that I’ve never had to live
    But I observe the inner qualities to serve the people properly
    Tell them that their freedom isn’t found in private property
    Prostitutes are more than just the folks who sell their bodies
    See this shit applies to those whos souls are a commodity
    I can hear the colony callin me back to be
    The bullet in the belly while they lock, load, and squeeze

    Rebel with a pen lettin off buckshots in threes
    Rewriting what it is into what it ought to be
    They made a mockery out of the possibility
    But under constant revision is the poem that I be”

  • Kristina

    Tom, thoroughly enjoyed the diversity of people calling in to share their impressions on the film and the presidental election.

    I encourage you to invite Tricia Rose back to your program to commit on other topics. I feel that she contributed well balanced insite.


    White woman living in MA.

    From Providence, Rhode Island, is Tricia Rose, professor of Africana Studies at Brown University and author of the books “The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop — and Why It Matters” (2008) and “Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America” (1994).

  • frances

    the lady professor should have been given more time. the music and movie excerpts got in the way of the comments she was making. the people need to hear a voice of wisdom like that lady not all the music we have already heard. i’m disappointed in onpoint show for doing that to the professor. she was interesting and clearly had a lot of heart and a lot to say.

  • Ezra Parzybok

    Hip Hop as an art form has been around for a generation. People who still believe it is all about violence and misogyny have neglected to engage with the art form on any other than a superficial level- which is what they’re accusing Hip Hop of being. The stereotype of Black men in America is that they are criminals but we know that this is a stereotype. Thus we will still stereotype the art that black men produce. There’s is plenty of positive Hip Hop.

    As a white, 34 yr. old father of two, I will also say that I have no problem with lyrics that portray what is actually happening in areas of the country (and world) that most people have never been. The language they use is often metaphorical. A rapper who is rapping about violence is an artist who HAS risen above it. He or she is in the studio making music- they are not on the street.

    The more people withhold love from Hip Hop, the more glaring their denial of what happens in American ghettos today. And for the people I know who actually live in ghettos- Hip Hop is often the only thing they have that makes them feel happy, or inspired to carry on in a society who shuns them.

    Regarding Obama- yes it’s important that the Fugees created his favorite Hip Hop song!- but his actions will show whether or not he can connect with the Hip Hop generation in a “real” way.

  • http://www.thebridgepai.com zack worrell

    Joe B.-

    You obviously know very little about hip-hop culture, where it came from or what it stands for OUTSIDE of mainstream entertainment and media. Your narrow view most likely stems from your near absolute lack of knowledge of true hip-hop culture. I am not trying to judge you, but your statement is so vague and full of generalizations. Maybe you should spend more time understanding the deeper sense of the culture before you say such ignorant things.

    The hip-hop that you speak of is not hip-hop at all. It is a form of class and racial warfare filled with violence and sexism, produced, funded, and directed by greedy music executives. It is one of the saddest forms of cultural hijacking and manipulation and you bought into it hook line and sinker. Get an education before you profess.

    Real hip-hop is about communities, brother and sister hood, love and caring, health and humanity, art and creativity through expression, education and information, and of course a sense of hope.

    True Hip-Hop will be lost if we do not protect it, nurture it, teach it and embrace it.

    Skinny white guy

  • Christina

    Professor Rose was fantastic!!! THANK YOU, Professor Rose!

  • Salma from Cambridge

    I tried to get my comments on the air to draw attention to the effect of hip hop on the young oppressed people of the world. Palestinians in the West Bank, Israel and in Gaza have been inspired by American hip hop and rap artists and learned from them how to express their oppression, joblessness, lack of attention from the Israeli government to the the young Arab Citizens, and even the attacks on the Palestinian Ghettos in Israel with drug to break the fabric of that society.

    American hip hop groups like Truth Universal and Sess 4-5 from New Orleans, have joined in a commemoration of 60th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba. Palestinian American artist Iron Sheikh in Michigan often performs in fundraisers for African American issues.

    Hip Hop Artists like Mosdef, Cannibal Ox, Taleb Kweili have all sung for Palestinian rights and liberation to name a few.

    Even and in Gaza there are rap and hip hop groups, like Gazesta, P.R. (Palestinian Rap) and R.F.M. (Rap Fi Medinahti)

    At the Boston Palestine Film Festival this past year, the film “Sling Shot Hip Hop” was presented with quite a few African Americans present. The film featured the Palestinian hip hop group DAM from Israel among many others. http://www.slingshothiphop.com/

  • Martin A. Thiel

    Once again I keep hearing sophistic comments to explain the problems inherent in our culture today relating to the black family. Barack is an “everyman” and represents an amorphous image or model to which almost anyone can relate. I keep hearing that his status as a “fatherless” child somehow proves that it was not important to his psyche or to other black men who are so commonly in the same boat. Liberals would sidestep the fact that Liberalism as promoted by “The Great Society” ruined the black family even more than the institution of slavery which first treated blacks as commodities rather than as individual human beings with inalienable human rights bestowed by our Creator. We paid women to remain single as they couldn’t collect their entitlements if they actually got married or got a good job. In return liberals got a class of dedicated supporters willing to trade life on one plantation for life on the government plantation. Like Esau they are selling their birthright for a bowl of porridge. It is ironic that this like abortion rights is promoted as true freedom and now as a substitute for true morality as our new leader promotes publicly funded abortion, stem cell research and all manner of libertarian behavior as a “good” to be desired. I would gladly support a black candidate who espouses my Christian Conservative principles. Obama is anything but that. MA Thiel MD FACS (757)254-1795

  • jane

    tom, based on my own feelings and what i’ve read here, i think you owe it to your listeners and to professor rose to have her back on your show as a singular guest so she can talk about the ideas she began to speak about here. i am going to find her book as i found her insightful and provocative. i am a daily listener and i hope she will come back on after being somewhat rudely undermined by the intense focus on the director tillman (who offered little insight) and the poor (but popular) musical interludes.
    hip hop is a topic that many of us need to learn about and the professor has a lot to teach.

  • Ezra Parzybok

    I’m listening to this in my high school art class and ironically the students are complaining that they’d rather just be listening to Hip Hop. This is the power of Hip Hop. It speaks to my inner-city students more than a conversation about it ever will- regardless of the lyrics. Are my students somehow to blame for their taste?

  • Rick

    Biggie Smalls. Oh Please. Why does anyone think the life of this fat P.O.S. needs celebrating. He had the brain power to become a family doctor and chose, instead to dump his school life in favor of poisoning his community with crack. Black folks fret over the effects of racism on our lives and worry about the KKK. So while the KKK is spewing garbage on the internet where no one sees it unless they look for it, fat tumors like biggie get their “street cred” doing REAL damage to the collective body of African America.

  • Anne-Marie

    This guy did not live the painful life of a poor Black kid from the ghetto-usually have limited options.

    He was a MIDDLE-CLASS kid whose parent had the means to afford PRIVATE catholic school as well as pay for graduate school. His mother is a teacher with an advanced degree and we are to believe that his only options in life was to be a thug and sell drugs?

    If that’s the case, we might as well stop wasting government money on LOWER-CLASS Black children. How embarrassing to be a teacher and have a high-school dropout for a son?
    The general public has been guilted into the belief that poverty and racism lead to crimes like drug-dealing and thus we should cut Black males some slack and let them out of jail. We forget that GREED and laziness is usually the main reason for criminal behavior. Why work 40hrs/week at a bank for low wages when you can rob the bank in 40 min. and walk away with millions of dollars?

    It’s sad that this guy not only used his community to profit from the drug trade, he also profited from poor kids who bought his music believing that he was “just like them”. Were he White, there would be a riot in the street over such deception.

  • http://www.onpointradio.org janiqua

    i think dat da niggsa dat killed him is sum haten ass bitches on mi!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • kerrie

    Professor Rose’s comments were extremely sharp and insightful. Her critique of Notorious was exactly the kind of valuable, thought provoking feedback that the director George Tillman needs. Unfortunately, I don’t think that he really understood her comments or her analysis of his film.

  • http://www.berealrecords.com BeRealRecords

    I just did a web search for Niamaj and this link came up. I’m giving away 10 retail CD’s of Niamaj’s album, It’s About Time, to the first who e-mail back. CD + Shirt, available in mens and womens sizes.

    P.S…I’m with Joe B. on this one:

    Real hip-hop is about communities, brother and sister hood, love and caring, health and humanity, art and creativity through expression, education and information, and of course a sense of hope.

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