A Story to Tell... and it’s a Biggie

The Notorious BIG (Biggie Smalls) was one of the greatest of rappers, says Stevie G in his Downtown column
A Story to Tell... and it’s a Biggie

The Notorious BIG (Biggie Smalls) and the documentary I Got a Story to Tell shines a light on his legacy.

The Notorious BIG (Biggie Smalls) was one of the greatest of rappers, and the documentary I Got a Story to Tell, on Netflix, is the latest film to shine a light on his legacy. Previously, we had a generic effort with the Notorious biopic, and we also had the Biggie and Tupac documentary by Nick Broomfield, which focused on the media-fuelled beef between the two slain greats.

There have been other features, too, but I Got a Story to Tell is altogether a more organic project. It brings Biggie, as an artist, ‘back to life’, and the focus is more on his surroundings and close friends than on the glamour and glitz, which came only at the end of his short life.

The story is told through the eyes of Biggie’s childhood friends, his mother, and some other important musical figures, such as Mister Cee and Puff Daddy. The authenticity of these people can’t be questioned, and that adds real intimacy. It’s not just a bunch of music journalists talking about Biggie, but people who were actually there. Their pain is still evident and there’s lots of footage of Biggie himself, captured by his pal D-Roc in casual moments on tour, when he’s relaxed and with his crew.

The interviews and this footage power this impressive documentary, and it becomes very apparent that Biggie was a product of this tough, inner-city environment. I Got a Story to Tell delves into his background, exploring his mother’s upbringing in Jamaica and her own challenges in bringing him up on her own in a new country. His impact only became apparent to her when the streets of Brooklyn filled up on his funeral, and the documentary also illuminates her perspective and the darker things that were happening when Biggie turned from an innocent kid into a street hustler.

The hustling life is presented without judgement or moralising, but it rarely ends in success and longevity. It’s just such a shame that having finally escaped this life, Biggie was gunned down on the eve of his second album.

I Got a Story to Tell doesn’t waste time speculating on the who or why of his death, but it’s hard not to feel that both Biggie and Tupac became victims of situations they didn’t really want. Sure, the lifestyle was glamourised and both were guilty there, too, but the real gangsters were operating on a much higher level and these two became pawns in the game.

For hip-hop, much soul searching followed the years after they both died, and things definitely improved, though the common goal became making money more than anything else. Both rappers were approaching their peak and still very young, but both had their best years well ahead of them, too. The raw street life on show here is a million miles away from the fantasy life that Biggie sought to lead, and he was still dealing drugs on the streets even when his first records were blowing up.

The hip-hop landscape of the mid-1990s soon changed, and some of Biggie’s final hits armed Puff Daddy for his own quest for commercial domination, and within years hip-hop and R&B were the biggest forces in music.

The music lost some of the street credibility and raw production values, and the footage, much of which we’ve seen before, of Biggie battling on the streets with other MCs, is a throwback to much simpler times. These times still exist, but there are other ways to rap success now, too, and many rappers far less skilled than Biggie can become a lot more famous overnight.

I Got a Story to Tell does a great job in documenting the man behind the mic on some of raps greatest ever moments, and it does so without resorting to gimmicks or any tabloid sensationalism.

Biggie certainly was a product of these tough streets, and though he was far from perfect, it’s hard not to feel that he didn’t have too many other options. His talent and skills and hustling gave him a way out from an even more dangerous hustle, but, sadly, he didn’t even live till he was 25, and was killed by gunshots on the eve of his second album in March of 1997.

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