BROOKLYN, N. Y. -- It was too cold to play street football the way Christopher Wallace once did, too cold to hang out on the stoop as he used to, but the biting wind rushing down St. James Place kept the dozen blue and white carnations at his memorial looking freshly picked.
The makeshift memorial had been fashioned on a cardboard box next to the steps of Wallace’s former apartment building. The flowers’ vitality was an illusion, because, like all living things cut from the earth, they would soon be as dead as the young man whose picture they framed.
Illusion is what fed and ended the brief career of the rapper Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls, the person Wallace became when a microphone was in his hand. His life as the Notorious B.I.G. was driven by images of gleaming cars, abundant women, enemies left bleeding, champagne swigged from bottomless bottles -- all of it a moneymaking mirage created by record lyrics and music videos.
Those words and pictures were profitable beyond Wallace’s dreams, the way out of this neighborhood -- a struggling but solid section of New York City -- and into the boundless life of a true “playa.”
He turned tales of a hungry, poor childhood into music that commanded performance fees of up to $20,000 per appearance. Cars he eventually got, and enough Dom Perignon to fill a Jacuzzi, but he had little time to enjoy it. At 24, he was rarely without bodyguards, even when he was shot early last Sunday morning after a party in Los Angeles. Police are considering several leads but there have been no arrests.
Wallace died elsewhere, and in the past year his mail went to a comfortable condo in Teaneck, N.J., but he never really left this neighborhood. Tomorrow, his body will return in the lead hearse of a funeral procession that will carry him through these streets for the last time.
Last Thursday, kindergarteners from Young Minds, a nearby private school, were paired off in a quiet, orderly column as they strode down Wallace’s block toward the memorial to learn a lesson during their midday recess.
``He used to go where you go. He used to pick up his cousins right at Young Minds,’‘ said teacher Linda Scott, directing nearly 30 pairs of eyes to look at and remember what could be their last and most enduring image of the Notorious B.I.G. No hot tub, no women, no car, just a somber, jowly man staring lifelessly from a magazine photograph with an expression too sad to be called a scowl.
The children were a little more silent as they walked away.
The playa. The ``I’ve-got-it-like-that’‘ mantle of invincibility. All of these Wallace publicly paraded, but privately knew were the elements of a profitable hoax. He was a minor crack dealer as a teen-ager (``I had to find the buried treasure / So grams I had to measure’‘), but only a small-timer whose lack of clout resulted in several months of jail time.
For 20 years, the artful boast has been a rich lode of material for rap lyrics and is considered part of an oral tradition with parallels in Africa and the Caribbean. In the genre’s mid-1970s ascent, rappers staged public ``battles’‘ in school yards and community centers, each attempting to better the other with words.
So from the start of his own rap life in the early 1990s, Wallace manufactured an image of wealth and power, of ``C-notes by the layers’‘ and living in ``mansions and Benzes.’‘ The braggadocio on his first album in 1994, the million-selling ``Ready to Die,’‘ was a necessary part of the act, like the snarling game face of a football lineman.
These were also the images that rapper Tupac Shakur cloaked himself with, until the front abruptly ended six months ago. Shakur, whose life seemed to fluctuate between poet and petty hood, died in a drive-by shooting on the Las Vegas strip.
The two had a very public long-running feud that has fueled speculation about a war among ``gangsta’‘ rappers -- on the one side, East Coast friends and proteges of Wallace, on the other, Shakur’s West Coast label mates on Death Row Records. No one is sure whether the murders are related, but many rappers are beginning to consider seriously the possibility that rap battles have turned real.
Another possibility, raised by Time magazine last night, was that the Crips, a West Coast gang, may have had a role in the deaths of both rappers. Time did not give a source for its report.
On New York radio station Hot 97 last week, Ice-T -- a veteran of gang battles on both coasts -- said that he was scared for the first time in his life. Death Row rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg canceled several dates on a tour scheduled to start this week. Nas, New York’s new rap kingpin, was warned by both rivals and friends not to travel to the West Coast.
The slayings of two of rap’s most prominent stars may do what rap foes such as former Secretary of Education William Bennett and C. Delores Tucker, chairwoman of the National Political Congress of Black Women, could not.
Rap performers and their record labels are feeling heat over the images they distribute; if not for self-preservation, the industry may be motivated to clean up its act by the desire to preserve its future audience.
Marsha Wallace, 9, the rapper’s cousin, returned to St. James Place from school on Thursday and wearily told strangers a story she had repeated often since his death. ``It came on the news over and over and my aunt was crying, too. She went to see if he was OK, but he wasn’t.’‘
Rap is built on images because so much of city life is. Young men walking home from Boys and Girls High School, a 30-minute walk from St. James Place, wear massive jeans and bulky, oversized jackets that give the slightest frame a hulking silhouette. It’s a protective display that creates the illusion of size, the way a cat arches its back when threatened. For some, their billowing shirts and jackets also offer concealment for more protection, a gun.
At 6-foot-3 and 300-plus pounds, Wallace didn’t need to add to his physical size, but he did want to embellish his stature in the gangsta world. St. James Place is in the Fort Greene neighborhood, on a stable block on the fringe of a historic district. The area has an artistic history: singer Betty Carter, pianist Cecil Taylor, actor Wesley Snipes, singer Lonette McKee, jazz musicians Branford and Wynton Marsalis, author Richard Wright and actor Mickey Rooney have all called Fort Greene home.
Wallace, however, adopted as his hometown the larger and tougher Bedford-Stuyvesant, a few subway stops from St. James Place. It appeared a wise move: Expand the base and get more local support and potentially national recognition.
``He represented Bed-Stuy to the fullest,’‘ said Fred, standing on Malcolm X Boulevard across the street from the El Hajj Malik El Shabazz Public School. The teen-ager was wrapped in a bulky Triple Fat Down jacket and paused several times to check his beeper. ``But, y’know, a lot of people out there worried about getting it to the head.’‘
The 79th Precinct’s 38 murders in 1996 -- second highest in the city -- reflects the vision of Bed-Stuy that Wallace exported to the world. There are several housing projects, among the roughest in the city. An Acura with tinted windows flies up Malcolm X Boulevard far faster than the speed limit. Several of the small ``grocery stores’‘ are fronts for over-the-counter marijuana and crack sales.
But a few blocks from Fred and his friends are rows of elegant brownstones. A bed-and-breakfast operates on McDonough Street, and extensive renovations are under way at several addresses on the street.
This is the Bed-Stuy of Spike Lee films, the middle-class enclave of professionals and young couples, according to Elizabeth Wright, director of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Resource Center. She said she understands why Wallace’s songs represent the rougher side of the community.
``This is what the kids know. His music told about what life was like to him,’‘ she said. ``This music is a way for kids to get out of poverty, but now they’re getting snuffed.’‘
A five-minute walk from St. James Place, along the busy Fulton Street commercial strip, some blocks have as many churches as candy stores. The St. John F.B.H. Church of God of the Americas, the Way of Holiness Church of God Pentecostal, and New Paradise Baptist Church, all within 50 paces of each other, all presumably have the the same intention of spiritual uplifting.
Wallace’s mother is described by friends as a devout Jehovah’s Witness. It’s probably tough for institutions that deal in the concept of faith to compete with something as tangible as the black Lexus with gold three-spoke rims, low-profile tires, trunk-mounted subwoofer speakers, and leather interior idling near a West Indian beef patty store on Fulton Street. It’s a playa’s chariot, a car representative of the lifestyle Wallace sought with his second album, ``Life After Death.’‘ It is scheduled to be released on March 25 and even before his death, it was one of the year’s most anticipated rap discs.
Sherry Wilson drove slowly down St. James Place, then stopped in front of the memorial. She had bought Wallace’s first album and will probably buy the second. ``I didn’t know him, but I knew his songs. I just lost a brother, too. Shot in the back. Killed on Nov. 6. Didn’t even see what was coming.’‘
Throughout his neighborhood, blocks of posters promote ``Life After Death’‘ with Wallace’s cover photo from the April issue of Rap Pages magazine. A golden crown angles off the left side of his massive head, the image of a dour monarch. The posters are glued by the hundreds all over this corner of Brooklyn, on so many walls, doors and fences that for months Wallace’s mother will find them impossible to avoid.
Sadly, in none of the pictures does her son smile.