What’s the Big City Without Biggie? A Mural of the Rapper Is Kept Alive

On a gloomy morning in Brooklyn, a crowd gathered on the street under a familiar face. A mural of the Notorious B.I.G., the rapper also known as Biggie Smalls, loomed over them, stretching across a three-story building. They hopped out of cabs to snap pictures and touched the wall, whispering, “Thank you.” Some left roses. One person left an empty bottle of Hennessy.

The streets around the mural in Bedford-Stuyvesant, like much of Brooklyn, have transformed into something vastly different since a young Biggie walked them more than two decades ago. But when proposed changes to an apartment building threatened to erase the mural, the resistance they sparked and the crowds they drew were a reminder of how strong a connection Biggie still had with his old neighborhood 20 years after his death.

“He put Bedford-Stuy on the map,” Katrina Canedy, a local fan, said. “I didn’t care if I wasn’t getting any of his money. I felt rich through his music.”

The mural, depicting Biggie in a gold chain and crown, was painted in 2015 by Scott Zimmerman and Naoufal Alaoui from the art collective Spread Art NYC. They chose the corner of Bedford Avenue and Quincy Street because the rapper was filmed freestyling on a nearby sidewalk when he was 17.

The owner of the building recently said he planned to remove the mural as a part of renovations. That caused an uproar this month, with a petition and a flurry of Instagram and Twitter posts drawing the support of the Brooklyn Nets, the rapper T.I. and other hip-hop artists. Last week, a spokesperson for Spread Art NYC announced that the landlord had relented.

A mural of the rapper Biggie Smalls, who grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, was painted on a building at the intersection of Quincy Street and Bedford Avenue two years ago by Spread Art NYC. Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute

“I felt like someone just stabbed me in the chest,” Mr. Alaoui, known as Rocko, said of the moment he heard about the proposed removal, “because this wasn’t just us.” He said that he and Mr. Zimmerman, known as Zimer, had not signed the mural because “so many people deserve the credit, like his friends and his family and the people who grew up with him.”

Biggie, who was born Christopher G. Wallace, grew up on St. James Place in what is now considered Clinton Hill, near the border with Bedford-Stuyvesant, the neighborhood he is typically associated with. He sold drugs as a teenager, but at 15, he shifted his focus to music. His first album, “Ready to Die,” sold about 57,000 copies in the first week after its release in 1994, helping to vault him to fame. He received four Grammy nominations during his career — including for the album “Life After Death,” which was released roughly two weeks after he died — but he never won.

Biggie was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1997, at the age of 24, while he was in Los Angeles to promote his second album. People filled Brooklyn streets to watch his funeral procession, crying and stretching to touch the hearse.

The outpouring surprised many in New York who had not grasped the reach of his music. To his fans, the scope of the grief reflected the impression he left on hip-hop and, especially, on Brooklyn, which he had depicted so vividly in his songs.
“It was the local boy made good,” said Joseph Schloss, who teaches at Baruch College and studies hip-hop in social, political and cultural contexts. “One of our own was successful. It’s pride. It’s hope for yourself.”

People left candles and cards under the mural. One note read, "While we never met, your stories and flow gave me hope of making it out of Bed Stuy." Alexandra Moreo/NYT Institute

For Dr. Schloss, one song in particular stuck out: “Juicy,” Biggie’s debut single. In it, Dr. Schloss said, he noticed a deeper meaning behind Biggie’s lyrics. “It was about a guy making it, but there was always this melancholy aspect to it,” he said. “In the world he lived in, most people’s success doesn’t last, so that’s just part of the deal.”

But on the corner in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the mural was a sign of how his legacy had endured.

Emanuel Perry, like many around the neighborhood, grew up listening to Biggie. The quality of hip-hop, in his estimation, has diminished in the years since Biggie’s death. “They don’t have the essence, the heart,” he said, “that key ingredient.”

Ms. Canedy can be driving down the street, she said, and if a Biggie song comes on, she still gets goosebumps. “I have to blast the song,” she said. “I get excited! I feel like I’m Biggie!”

He continues to influence up-and-coming hip-hop artists in Brooklyn, some of whom were children at the height of his career. “He personified Brooklyn,” said Najee James, a 27-year-old rapper. “You relate to him so much.”

The artists who created the mural think the fight to save it showed that, as much as Brooklyn had changed, Biggie’s legacy could not be scrubbed away.
“I feel like he is still here,” Mr. Alaoui said. “It’s hard to think of New York City as missing Biggie. I don’t feel like he’s absent, partially because of the mural and partially because his presence is still around.”