How 'Ready to Die' turned Notorious B.I.G. into an icon

Biggie Smalls was the "illest" long before he died on March 9, 1997.

That's an important distinction to make. Rarely does an emcee move to the forefront of the greatest rapper of all time discussion with such a limited output.

Biggie arrived like a true force of nature. He was unlike anything hip-hop had ever scene.

Even before his proper debut, promotional single "Party and Bulls***," along with guest appearances on tracks from Super Cat and Mary J. Blige, wet fans' appetites for the next great emcee.

Then of course, there was B.I.G.'s opening verse on Craig Mack's "Flava in Ya Ear" remix, which showed he could hold his own with anyone, including LL Cool J and an emerging Busta Rhymes.

If there were still any doubts about how much of a godsend Puff Daddy's new Bad Boy Records signee was, they were laid to rest once "Ready to Die" arrived in September 1994.

Vinyl copies of B.I.G.'s landmark debut will be restocked this Thursday on the 20th Anniversary of his death.

Recording sessions for "Ready to Die" took on a mythical like retelling, whether it was Biggie's ability rifle off bars without writing anything down or Puffy having to beg B.I.G. to rap over a sample of Mtume's "Juicy Fruit."

Recording sessions for "Ready to Die" took on a mythical like retelling, whether it was Biggie's ability rifle off bars without writing anything down or Puffy having to beg B.I.G. to rap over a sample of Mtume's "Juicy Fruit."

"Ready to Die" sold a modest 57,000 copies in its first week of release. But the success of "Juicy" would push the album to gold status in just two weeks. Subsequent singles "Big Poppa," "Warning" and "One More Chance" (Remix) would have "Ready to Die" double platinum in barely over a year.

To be honest, "Ready to Die" wasn't all that original. Dr. Dre pushed gangsta rap to new heights with 1992's "The Chronic." Redman showcased mind-bending lyrical skills on "Whut Thee Album" the same year. Wu-Tang Clan redefined the art of the gritty rap album a year before "Ready to Die" with "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)."

Meanwhile, Nas had dropped what might be the greatest rap album of all time with "Illmatic" just five months before Biggie's debut. Wu members Raekwon and Ghostface would famously get into Nas' ear, claiming Biggie had ripped off "Illmatic's" album cover.

Still, a star is born moments were rare in hip-hop at the time, especially on the East Coast. "Illmatic" barely sold and the Wu-Tang Clan wasn't entirely accessible to mainstream audiences.

Thus, Biggie had the overwhelming persona New York needed. His voice was commanding, his rhyme skills uncanny. His ability to take words that didn't rhyme and meld them together would become the envy of many a future emcee.

What's, perhaps, most interesting about "Ready to Die" now, is that it doesn't fit the mold of a mainstream hip-hop album. Biggie was from the streets, which shows on the album's first three post-intro tracks.

"Things Done Changed," "Gimme the Loot" and "Machine Gun Funk" are impressive, yet vulgar lyrical onslaughts. Even the explicit version of the album was slightly edited to remove lyrics about stealing a ring from a pregnant woman or killing the police.

You have to get halfway through "Ready to Die" before you find true mainstream appeal. The album's center, anchored by "Juicy," established the Notorious B.I.G. as a star suburban white kids would get behind.

Think of the fact that "The What" features the album's only guest rapper in Method Man, the one Wu member who had become a mainstream fixture. Even "Me & My Bi***" comes off as an endearing love song for the times.

"Big Poppa" radiates with an Isley Brothers sample and trademark lines ("I'm gon' go call my crew, you go call your crew. We can rendezvous at the bar around 2") that would consume MTV's playlist throughout 1995.

In just 17 tracks, Biggie had become a rap phenomenon. His desire to stay true to himself, a former drug dealer who went from "ashy to classy," inspired the streets. But his willingness to listen to Puffy's mainstream direction made B.I.G. pop star.

Follow up singles like the scathing "Who Shot Ya?" and the "One More Chance" remix would further cement Biggie as New York's top emcee and place him at the center of the budding East Coast/West Coast beef, which would eventually lead to his murder.

That's not to say B.I.G.'s status wasn't elevated after his death. His masterpiece double-album "Life After Death" arrived a few weeks after his murder. Though, "Hypnotize" had already become his biggest hit to date.

Yet, it's "Ready to Die" that sits atop the Notorious B.I.G.'s legacy. Because of Wu-Tang and Nas' work, there still would have been future albums like Jay Z's "Reasonable Doubt" or Mobb Deep's "The Infamous."

But, for a while there, "Ready to Die" became the standard every great rap album of the 1990s was held up to. Even future releases from Nas ("It Was Written") and Raekwon ("Only Built for Cuban Linx") seemed to emulate B.I.G.'s style to some degree.

There has never been any question about Biggie Smalls' place on hip-hop's Mount Rushmore, whether he lived or died, or stopped making albums on his own volition before the end of the 1990s (which he was rumored to be planning).

Twenty years after his death, B.I.G.'s status as the "illest" continues to loom large, a stunning accomplishment for an emcee who died way too young.

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