The Biggie We Never Saw

By Abe Beame

Photo: Al Pereira/Getty Images

In February of 1997, Christopher Wallace left New York for the last time. Against dire warnings from friends, family, and business interests, he flew to California to shoot the video for “Hypnotize” and promote his new album, Life After Death. His final two interviews there, with Joe Clair on Rap City and at San Francisco’s KYLD, were heavy. Big is all business, pitching his new project before being asked to reflect on the drama with his recently murdered friend turned rival Tupac Shakur: “Just because that man had a beef with me, or I had a beef with him, that don’t mean you can’t like me.” Biggie sounds defensive, morose, subdued, like he’s trying to move past a dark chapter in his life. It’s reminiscent of the interview that opens his posthumous album Born Again, when he’s asked where he sees himself in ten years: “I don’t think I will see it. For real dog.

This is the Biggie we all knew. On the record, and on records, he was world-weary and cautious — an old soul who could clearly see tragedy coming for him. He was alive for only 24 years, very few of them as a famous person. And he didn’t die with an extensive unreleased back catalogue like 2Pac, who was able to demonstrate a range Biggie never got the opportunity to show. As a result, in the nearly three decades since his murder, every waking moment of Biggie recorded on a mic or shot on tape has been scanned, refashioned, and remixed ad nauseam. For Biggie scholars, it can be sad and frustrating, like we’ve reached the limits of history.

That changes with It Was All a Dream, a new film from journalist, author, and documentarian dream hampton. The movie, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in June, showcases the Christopher Wallace we had mostly only heard about from his friends and family. Unlike the (very good) 2021 documentary I Got a Story to Tell, dream has the advantage of real-time footage, taken by the filmmaker herself. What makes hampton’s footage especially remarkable is we’ve never seen Biggie younger — as a goofy, sweet, obnoxious, very 20-year-old Brooklyn jerk with his guard down. One moment he’s an emotionally immature, controlling boyfriend to Lil Kim; the next he’s on a prehistoric cell phone making wildly inappropriate jokes and dumping an entire bag of weed into a blunt. It is as heartbreaking as it is endearing. Watching this version of Biggie is like Sam Neill and Laura Dern seeing their first brachiosaurus.

Hampton’s film was compiled from footage she took between 1993 and 1995, when rap journalism was still in its nascent stages. During the 1980s, the genre was covered in the press infrequently, if at all. When it was, it was often by rockist music critics who had only a passing familiarity with the scene, resulting in clunky, clueless criticism or reporting. Hampton was different: part of a new generation of voices born and raised in hip-hop. Early in the film, Chris Wilder, then–managing editor of The Source, puts the moment in perspective to her: “Thirty years from now, if hip-hop comes and goes, people will look to The Source to see what happened. We’re documenting what’s going on right now.” Few took this message to heart like hampton. While reporting some of rap’s formative early-’90s profiles, the aspiring documentarian had her camera out, recording constantly.

The era also gave hampton a level of access to some of rap’s biggest stars that would be inconceivable today. On-camera, they speak candidly and act naturally, unconcerned with their public perception. The footage makes It Was All a Dream an incredible archive dump. The digital rough-grain filter of her handheld camera pulls us back to a time when rap was on the precipice of transitioning from a grassroots, underground art form to a corporate cultural institution worth billions. The film’s charm is in its subjects’ un-media-trained intimacy. From the backseats of Eclipses and Accords, their ashtrays choked with roaches, you can hang out with Big or Method Man or spend studio time in L.A. with young Dr. Dre, Snoop, or Warren G.

But the true star is Biggie, who gets the bulk of screen time (and whose “Juicy” lyrics lend the film its title). Over a brisk 80-minute runtime, Biggie nerds and completists see historical gaps filled and his character fleshed out. In a studio session with Lord Finesse, Big is an absolutely ruthless critic. Finesse plays him a beat he’s not feeling, and to explain what he doesn’t like about it, Biggie raps sarcastically, making fun of it by playing a Native Tongues–style conscious rapper. It’s extremely funny, but it also serves as a commentary on the militant “keep it real” wing of hip-hop, then embodied by fellow Brooklyn native Jeru the Damaja, who had engaged in a cold war of sublims with Big. On “One Day,” Jeru flipped Biggie’s “Just Playing (Dreams)” for an allegory about rap falling prey to materialism — a popular critique that often fell on Bad Boy during that period. Big responded on “Kick in the Door,” but the interlude in the studio with Finesse gives more context to how Biggie felt in the moment about what he saw as corny, crunchy rap.

Over the years, we’ve heard dozens of testimonies from Biggie’s collaborators about his near-mystical writing process. But in the film, we actually get to watch Biggie working, and the footage is revelatory. We see him in the booth kicking a rough draft of what became the “MSG Freestyle”/“Come On” verse over the “Suicidal Thoughts” beat, laying backing vocals for the St. Ides commercial, and briefly throwing in a snippet of his guest verse on Pudgee Tha Phat Bastard’s “Think Big.” These moments further affirm the miraculous perfection of Big’s debut album, Ready to Die. Rather than writing full songs to specific beats, Big’s unusual composition process means these blocks of verse were just floating around in his head waiting for the right place to drop in.

It Was All a Dream also illuminates one of the “lesser” beefs in Big’s career: an internecine squabble with the Wu-Tang Clan. Hampton’s coverage helps clarify the comparably minor feud and speaks to what would become a crucial aspect of Big’s character: how he dealt with and thought about conflict with other artists. The film appears to occur during the moment Raekwon and Ghostface took a cheap shot at Biggie on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, when Ghost called out what he saw as the similarities between Illmatic’s album cover and Ready to Die’s. Later in the film, Big is seen riding around listening to “Ice Water” off Cuban Linx. It’s an incredible act of private magnanimity — that even though he was dissed on the same album, Big still recognized and appreciated Raekwon and Ghost’s artistry. It’s also an echo of the artist who went to California in 1997 in search of closure and an overall testament to Big’s character — like how he never responded to Pac’s “Hit Em Up” and forbid his team from doing the same. The born peacemaker always believed he could make things right with his former friend.

The film closes in Philly with Big and his entourage getting kicked out of a hotel. Everyone, including Big — who had the No. 1 single in the country at the time, with “Player’s Anthem” — is understandably upset. Resigned to their fate, Big spits a snippet of LL Cool J’s “Rock the Bells” and then does the bankhead bounce, which gets his entourage laughing and moving. It’s the same device the biopic Notorious mined to great effect, in which Biggie beatboxes to make whoever is mad at him laugh and get himself out of trouble. To see this piece of lore confirmed in the moment is why It Was All a Dream makes for such a compelling document.

Ultimately, hampton’s work is an argument posed to all culture journalists: that writers have a debt to the historical record to capture as much as possible when working on a profile. In Biggie, we have a subject who was often portrayed, both in the media and in the version of himself he decided to face publicly, as one type of person. This is both his right and unsatisfying for those looking for a greater understanding of the man and his work. It Was All a Dream adds to what I fear may always be an incomplete record, but hampton’s incredible trove of footage gives us reason to hope that there’s still more of Christopher Wallace living somewhere out there to discover.

Originally Published: