By Rob Markman, with reporting by Nina Diaz
When the Notorious B.I.G. died on March 9, 1997 the hip-hop community suffered a devastating blow. Big’s friends and family were shaken by his death, but his friends and colleagues like fellow Brooklyn rapper Jay-Z were also deeply affected by the loss. In a 1998 interview with MTV News, Jay-Z explained how Big’s death affected the shape of his sophomore album In My Lifetime, Vol. 1.
“A lot of different songs were influenced by what was happening. ‘City Is Mine,’ the first verse, you could just hear it. I think two hooks on there came from songs that he had previously recorded,” Jay said of the LP that he dropped eight months after his friend passed away.
Vol. 1’s “City Is Mine” served as a letter to the deceased. On the song’s first verse, Jay raps, “What the deal, playboy? Just rest your soul.” From there, Jay vows that “a world with amnesia” wouldn’t forget Biggie’s name, and then he proceeded to take Big’s reins as the rap king of New York.
Though there were some bright moments on Jay’s first Def Jam release, songs like the Kraftwerk-sampling “(Always Be My) Sunshine” were few and far between. Jay’s experience in the studio was different from when he crafted his 1996 debut, when he had B.I.G. to help push his artistic boundaries.
“The album to me — this album wasn’t fun to me like Reasonable Doubt, because it was like, it seemed really slow to me, and I didn’t set out to do that, just looking back now and listening to it now,” he said somberly in the 1998 interview.
Big wasn’t physically in the studio; Jay revealed that the only song the Brooklyn Don got to hear and give feedback on from Vol. 1 was the dark and brooding “Streets Is Watching.” Still, Big was well-represented on the album. Aside from “City Is Mine,” Big got a special shout-out on “Friend or Foe ’98,” when Hov famously offered to throw some ice up to heaven for “the nicest MC.” Jay also recycled Biggie’s rhymes on the hooks to “Face Off” and “Real N—az.” The Sauce Money-assisted “Face Off” borrowed its chorus from Biggie’s intro ad libs on his 1997 album cut “Nasty Boy,” and “Real N—az” got its hook from a freestyle B.I.G. did over a string of Dr. Dre instrumentals before he passed. Then there was the melancholy “Lucky Me,” on which Jay briefly speculated on his own death and questioned if fame was all that it was cracked up to be. “There’s a lot of emotions on the album, and that was definitely influenced by what was goin’ on and what had happened,” Jay-Z said.
On Wednesday’s “RapFix Live,” Lil’ Kim spoke on the Notorious One’s relationship with Jigga. “He and Jay-Z just had this adorable friendship — it was the cutest,” she said. “They were so competitive with each other, but it was such a friendly competitiveness, and I loved it, because that’s how it’s supposed to be when you like somebody.”
When B.I.G. passed, that friendly competition was lost. “I don’t have anyone to bounce off of, you understand? We bounced off each other like, ‘Oh that was crazy; I gotta make something crazier.’ When you don’t have that, you don’t have that gauge,” Jay said. “It’s just hard to adjust; you have to find other ways to motivate yourself.”
Hov seems to have adjusted just fine. When Biggie died in 1997, Jay only had one album under his belt and was on his way to releasing his second. Now, 15 years later, Jay has built a career that is unmatched with 11 solo albums and a number of collaborative releases with R. Kelly, Linkin Park and Kanye West. But back in 1998, Jay could only use one word to describe Big’s legacy: “Unparalleled. There’ll never be another person to come along to fill that void.”
Join MTV News as we celebrate the Notorious B.I.G’s life on the 15th anniversary of his death. From now through March 25, we will be rolling out exclusive and commemorative content from Biggie’s closest friends, collaborators and biggest fans. To join the conversation on Twitter, hit @MTVRapFix using the hashtag #biggie15.