Deathdays aren’t usually cause for celebration, but in the case of Christopher Wallace– better known as Biggie Smalls– it only makes sense to organize an art show dedicated to the late rapper around the afterlife. Without it, 20 Big Years would have denied the necromancy that runs throughout the life work of Notorious B.I.G. (his mere two studio albums are a clear sign that his life was cut too short), and that has come to define his persona after death. Even if all these ghosts still give his fans the willies. As one visitor, pointing to an altered version of Barron Claiborne’s famous photo of Biggie wearing a crown, said to her friend: “That one with the skull–it’s so morbid, but so deep.” (The friend agreed.)
Naoufal “Rocko” Alaoui, the founder of the Brooklyn-centric arts Spread Art NYC and curator of the three-day show, had a more positive take on the occasion marking 20 years since Biggie’s violent death by drive-by shooting during a visit to LA– a case that remains cold, since the murderer responsible for the four bullets that ripped through Wallace’s body has never been found by the police. “This is the message: that Biggie never died,” Rocko explained when we stopped by on Sunday. “His legacy lives on. His music lives on.”
You could pretty much say that about any dead artist whose records continued to sell posthumously. But for Biggie, that statement is true to the extreme: four #1 hits after death, as well as remix albums and duet tracks, ensured that B.I.G. was not only not forgotten, but lionized as a influential hip-hop legend who’s consistently named “one of the greatest rappers all time.” Even in life, Biggie was surrounded by death. Both his debut album Ready to Die, and the follow-up Life After Death (released just days after he was murdered) are replete with rhymes informed by the years he spent running the streets and hustling for survival.
Bleak as Biggie’s themes might be, Rocko is right– his music really has lived on, and has even taken on a double life of its own as both pop music with mass appeal, and authentic rap from the mean streets, back when they were really, really mean.
On March 9, New York State Assembly Member Hakeem Jeffries tweeted, “Proud to rep the neighborhood that gave the world Brooklyn’s finest” and later on read Biggie’s rhymes on the house floor as a way to honor the rapper who he said is “gone but never forgotten.”
— Hakeem Jeffries (@RepJeffries) March 10, 2017
Beyond politicians trying to win cool points with their younger constituents by appearing authentically versed in hip-hop culture, Biggie is beloved all over the world. “We’ve had people come from all walks of life,” Rocko explained of the crowd showing at the exhibition. “We have people coming from Israel, from France, from Iowa, different towns. It’s not what people think of Biggie. Biggie was loved by so many people.”
That much was clear from the dozen or so artists whose work was on view (and many more who weren’t officially included in the show, but who brought their work in anyway– everything from old photos to sculpture). So many of the images were familiar, either drawn from existing photos of Biggie, or as explicit references to his lyrics– a wide-angled painting of a cushy green couch, and another of a Super Nintendo console and its iconic grey-purple-and-black controller, its cord tangled to spell a hidden message–”It was all a dream.”
Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis,
When I was dead broke man, I couldn’t picture this
50-inch screen, money-green leather sofa,
Got two rides, a limousine and a chauffeur
But at the same time, there were revealing moments when confidants and old friends shared small stories and snippets of memory so that Biggie gave way to Christopher Wallace. Biggie’s collaborator DJ 50 Gran was there opening night, as was the rapper’s original Bed-Stuy OGB crew.
Even though Konstance Patton, the personal assistant and wife of photographer Barron Claiborne, never had direct contact with Biggie, she shared stories first told to her by her husband, after explaining that for years she’d been completely unaware that the now iconic image of Biggie– one that appeared again and again in work throughout the show– with his head cocked to the side and topped with a golden crown, was her husband’s own. “Because of this image, now we remember him as a king. And so many times people are like, ‘Oh he’s a gangster.’ It’s like, no, he’s a brio. He’s a person that was in the communities”– which, she said, is exactly why she wanted to return the favor. “My goal was to give him the image back because it’s been replicated so many times. It’s so important to our history, and not just hip-hop history, but our history. He’s like Bob Marley, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe. He’s an icon.”
In a way, the entire show was about giving something back to Biggie by bringing it all home, back to the same place that gave birth to the rhymes and beats of B.I.G.’s iconic sound: Bed-Stuy. Naturally, Rocko chose the neighborhood as the location for his massive, 40-foot mural which he completed in 2015 and dedicated to Biggie. He maintains it is “the biggest” Biggie mural “in the world.” And, can you believe it, the design was also based on Claiborne’s photo. “He always represented Bed-Stuy, so it was just right to have the mural in his neighborhood,” Rocko said.
Likewise, the gallery show had to be in Bed-Stuy– even if Spread Art, a street-art-centric organization, is better known for their summertime block parties and Bushwick murals than they are for art-schmoozing indoors. And there’s no better place to have an art show like this than at Bishop Gallery, a local’s local spot that was opened in 2012 by Erwin John and Stevenson Dunn, two Bed-Stuy natives. Even their slogan (“Keeping the art world in check”) is a little bit Biggie. But no matter how much that projection– a grainy, 1991 video of Biggie rapping out front of a familiar deli at the corner of Quincy and Bedford– seemed like a natural fit for the gallery, the artwork on view was as straight-from-the-streets as it gets.
During the exhibition, Stevenson Dunn stood in the gallery’s separate front showroom, talking to a group of visitors, having just pulled out a painting by the artist Jules Arthur— a head-to-toe portrait of Biggie in full royalty regalia. It was much larger and sleeker than anything that was seen in the main room. (It was also stunning.) “The artists in there, those guys are 95 percent street artists,” he said. “You know that one with the dice? The paint dried in the gallery.”
Meanwhile, Rocko seemed unsure of the gallery environment. “I created Spread Art NYC to give back to the community,” he said. “Even the name of the organization was inspired by Biggie saying, ‘Spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way.’ It’s all love.” And if one person at the show embodied that message the most, it was Rocko. I asked him to share his personal connection to Biggie. He sighed, and looked off into the distance. “I was born in Morocco, as a kid I was a B-Boy,” he recalled. He moved to Spain, making a home in Grenada for a while, but the United States is what called him. “New York was like a magnet. When you’re a kid you wanna come to New York, you wanna experience where all this b-boyin’ started— the Bronx and all that.” But Brooklyn was a different story. “Brooklyn!” he gasped. “It was like the coolest place. So I came here.” And after a few trials and setbacks, he nearly went home to Spain to finish his degree in pharmacology. But Rocko decided to stay.
He admitted that the show might not be all that appealing for people who aren’t the biggest fans of Biggie– who these people are though, I have no idea. Rocko laughed. “As Biggie says, ‘If you don’t know, now you know’.”