The Notorious B.I.G.--the pen name of rapper Christopher Wallace--was killed in a drive-by shooting 19 years ago this week, at age 24. His first album, Ready to Die (1994), remains beloved by fans and critics. The anniversary of his passing provides a timely excuse to explore what made Biggie Smalls such a superb storyteller.
What's more, there's a lot businesses can learn from emulating B.I.G.'s narrative techniques (perhaps with fewer expletives, depending on the business). To my mind, the most pertinent is B.I.G.'s ability to create convincing tones and settings for his stories.
The final, haunting song on Ready to Die, "Suicidal Thoughts," is one such example. To listen to this song (warning: explicit content) is to believe that the singer/storyteller is really going to shoot himself, largely because of all the sonic scene-setting which takes place before B.I.G. raps a single word. The effect is startling.
At the start of the song, you hear seven digits dialed on a telephone, followed by a phone ringing twice. Next, you hear Sean Combs, the album's producer, answering "Hello?" in a groggy voice. Then there's a low-thudding base, an organ-like sound, and a rapid tick-tocking. In the same tired voice, Combs incredulously asks B.I.G., "Do you know what time it is?" As if to say: Why on earth would you be calling this late?
More hauntingly, Combs knows without asking that it's B.I.G. who is calling; he knows that his tortured artist of a friend would be the only one possibly calling him at such an ungodly hour. At the 36-second mark of a song that is less than three minutes long, Combs asks, "You all right?" The listener still hasn't heard a word from B.I.G.
All told, nearly one-quarter of the song's running time is devoted to setting the scene. When B.I.G. finally starts rapping, the listener is already hooked on the drama. Over a hard drum beat, B.I.G. explains his existential woes, while in lower tones, in the background, you continually hear Combs urging him not to do anything foolish. At one point B.I.G. says:
All my life I been considered as the worst
Lyin' to my mother even stealin' out her purse
Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion
I know my mother wish she got a [expletive] abortion
She don't even love me like she did when I was younger
Suckin' on her chest just to stop my [expletive] hunger
I wonder if I died would tears come to her eyes
Forgive me for my disrespect forgive me for my lies.
Lines like those illustrate the level of B.I.G.'s distress. When the song culminates in a gunshot, the thud of a body hitting the floor, Combs' screams, and a recorded operator-voice saying, "Please hang up, and try your call again," you feel as if B.I.G. has really done the deed. For in the song, he has. And that's how his first album ends.
The lesson here--setting aside the rawness and the graphic violence--is the importance of establishing the tone and setting for the story you're going to tell.
In the business community, Patagonia, the $575-million outdoor apparel and gear maker based in Ventura, California, is about as far from Biggie Smalls as you can get. But the company is similarly skillful in its storytelling. For instance, Patagonia regularly commissions documentary filmmakers to make movies that support the company's numerous nonprofit causes, plus serve as original content for its websites and social media channels.
One of those causes is environmental activism. Last year, Patagonia released The Fisherman's Son, a 29-minute documentary about Chilean surfer Ramon Navarro's rise from humble beginnings to the peak of the surfing world. The film was also about Navarro's growing influence as an activist preserving a surf spot on Chile's coastline from commercial development.
If you watch the first few minutes, you can see how Patagonia's film--like B.I.G.'s "Suicidal Thoughts"--skillfully sets the scene and tone for the topic before the formal telling of the story begins. Navarro speaks of his earliest memories while dazzling Chilean nature shots fill the screen. Somber music plays in the background. There is not one mention of surfing until the 3:42 mark of a film that's under 29 minutes. It's all backgrounding for the sake of contextualizing Navarro's personality and emergence.
So if you think of Notorious B.I.G. as just another famous rapper who passed away, you should think again. He possessed a filmmaker's ability to tell stories. And he used his words and all manner of audio technique to paint pictures with his songs.