STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The latest installment of our series "50 Great Voices" features a man who recorded under the name the Notorious B.I.G. People knew him as Biggie Smalls, or Biggie. He was murdered when he was 24 years old. Yet he's one of the most revered, emulated and biggest-selling rappers in the game.
Here's NPR's Frannie Kelly.
FRANNIE KELLY: Biggie's voice doesn't sound like anybody else's. It's plummy, wheezy, humid. It sounds like it comes from deeper in his chest than other people's voices.
(Soundbite of song, "Hypnotize")
THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G. (Rapper): (Rapping)) Timbs for my hooligans in Brooklyn, dead right. If they head right, Biggie there every night. Poppa been smooth since days of Underroos. Never lose, never choose to, bruise crews who do something to us. Come on. Talk go through us. Do it...
KELLY: He learned diction and phrasing from jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison, when Biggie was just a teenager in Brooklyn and still went by the name Chris Wallace.
Mr. DONALD HARRISON (Saxophonist): The first time I spoke with Chris - the Notorious B.I.G. - he was on the stoop and I was passing by, and he just said, hello. He was a lot younger, but he wanted to learn about music. And that was magic words to my ears.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KELLY: Harrison wanted to make his neighbor a jazz musician. He gave him homework, made him learn how to scat a Cannonball Adderley solo and listen to Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald.
Mr. HARRISON: We worked on various tonguing and speed and agility, so that each note comes out. You have to slow things down - really slow - and take the time to phrase each note.
(Soundbite of song, "Juicy")
THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: (Rapping) It was all a dream. I used to read "Word Up" magazine. Salt 'N Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine; hanging pictures on my wall. Every Saturday, Rap Attack, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl, I let...
KELLY: Biggie started rapping with his friends Sam Hubert and Mike Bynum when they were around 10 or 11 years old. Hubert met Chris in day care. He became Big's D.J.
Mr. SAM HUBERT (DJ): We tried to go to the studio at the age of, I believe, 13. My man Mike's dad dropped us off. It was crazy. You know, people don't know that he really did take it serious at a young age, really being focused on getting as good as you could. You know, so all of these things were a part of Chris' early development. You know, when he was MC CWest, you know, and it was like he was on a quest to become the greatest of all time.
KELLY: Hubert says even after all that hard work - and despite his obvious talent - Big lost focus for a while.
Mr. HUBERT: He was on course to just be a brilliant student, college grad, possible doctor, lawyer, whatever. I mean, but the pull of the streets, it grabbed him. By 16, he was already gone - neck deep in it. So him and his mom had a big fallout because he basically stepped off the path.
She was a teacher. She wanted him to, of course, go to school. What are you gonna do? Go out to the corner every day and bring him in the house by his ear? It's not going to happen.
KELLY: Big dropped out of high school after his freshman year. He reportedly began selling drugs, but he kept practicing.
Here is at 17, freestyling on the street, in Brooklyn.
(Soundbite of song, "Guaranteed Raw")
THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: (Rapping) Jewels and all that, my clothes is all that. Chumps stepping to me, that's where you took your fall at.
(Soundbite of cheering)
THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: (Rapping) B.I.G. without burner, that's unheard of...
KELLY: A local D.J. named 50 Grand made a mix tape for Big that ended up in the "Source" magazine's "Unsigned Hype" column. Puff Daddy heard it, and eventually signed Big to a deal. By 1993, he had a song in the movie "Who's The Man?"
(Soundbite of song, "Party and [Expletive]")
THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: (Rapping) Hugs from the honeys, pounds from the roughnecks. Seen my man Sei that I knew from the projects. Said he had beef, asked me if I had my piece. Sure do, two .22s in my shoes. Holler if you need me, love, I'm in the house. Roam and strolling see what the honeys is about. Moet popping...
KELLY: With the wit and presence like that, Biggie put other rappers on notice. But what he had more than anything else, was flow. That's how rappers pace the voicing of their lyrics. They choose a rhythmic pattern to match each beat.
Rapper AZ - not Jay-Z - met Biggie when Big was rapping on street corners. He describes flow this way.
AZ (Rapper): Flow is like water. It's like current. The fluidity of your words and how you can slow it up, pick it up, chop it up, because it's the structure of the words. Flow is a beautiful thing.
KELLY: AZ says you can hear that on a song called "Warning."
(Soundbite of song, "Warning")
THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: (Rapping) Who the (beep) is this, paging me at 5:46 in the morning, crack a dawning? Now I'm yawning, wipe the colds out my eye. See who's this paging me and why. It's my (beep) Pop from the barbershop, told me he was in the gambling spot and heard the intricate plot. Some people want to stick...
AZ: I don't care where, what part of Earth you're from, when you listen to it, the dialogue is slow enough for you to digest it. He gives you a descriptive image of whats going on in your head. And when you actually tell a story and being descriptive, that takes talent.
(Soundbite of song, "Warning")
THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: (Rapping) They heard about the pounds you got down in Georgetown. Now they heard you got half of Virginia locked down. They even heard about the crib you bought your moms out in Florida, the fifth corridor. Call the coroner. There's gonna be a lot of slow singing and flower bringing if my burglar alarm starts ringing...
KELLY: Biggie so impressed his peers in the mid '90s that almost every New York rapper has recorded a song that includes a shout-out to him.
(Soundbite of various rap songs)
Unidentified Man #1: Brooklyn, New York City, where they paint murals of Biggie.
Unidentified Man #2: Right here, Big. Your boys sitting on top like a (unintelligible) Bed Sty, fly, Bushwick, six.
Unidentified Man #3: Flow (unintelligible) like the memory of my (unintelligible) Biggie.
Unidentified Man #4: Payback. Who shot Biggie Smalls? If we don't get them, they go'n get us all. The greatest rapper of all times died on March 9th. God bless his soul, rest in peace, kid. It's because of him...
AZ: Big influenced a generation. This whole generation took pieces and bits of - everybody took a piece out of Big that's on the charts right now, everybody.
KELLY: And he only released two albums. On some of his songs, Big tells true stories. But on some of them, he spins the kind of Homeric tales of street lore that you can hear in a lot of rap. There's violence, guns, drugs.
Mr. HARRISON: The Chris I knew was a good guy.
KELLY: Donald Harrison.
Mr. HARRISON: He wasn't the guy who did all these things. He was really looking for loving and acceptance. At the end of the day, that's what he was looking for. And he paid a price for looking for love.
KELLY: Biggie was shot to death on March 9th, 1997, only six months after Tupac Shakur was murdered. The two rappers had been friends, and there's a lot of speculation that their killings were connected.
Big's friends still have a hard time talking about the music he made. After all, in a way, their friend lost his life because of rap.
Mr. HUBERT: I can't wear a Biggie T-shirt; you know that, right? That's not -the pain is deeper than just, you know, it's just - what you could even imagine. It's not on the surface. You know? So...
KELLY: Sam Hubert says if Big had lived, the rap game would be very different today. He was so young, just starting to push the boundaries of his genre and starting to tell stories about people whose voices don't get heard.
As AZ says, at the end of the day, rapping is about bringing people into your world. That's what Big used his voice for.
Frannie Kelly, NPR News.
(Soundbite of song, "Everyday Struggle")
THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: (Rapping) I hear death knocking in my front door. I'm living every day like a hustle. Another drug to juggle, another day, another struggle...
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And Im Renee Montagne.
(Soundbite of song, "Everyday Struggle")
THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: (Rapping) I'm living everyday like a hustle. Another drug to juggle, another day another struggle. Right...