A Sad Refrain

updated 03/24/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/24/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

AT 6'3" AND WEIGHING UPWARD OF 300 lbs., gangsta rapper Christopher Wallace—known to fans as Notorious B.I.G. or by his street handle Biggie Smalls—cut a menacing figure onstage and off. But the former crack dealer and ex-con, who recounts his life of crime on his hit 1994 debut album, Ready to Die, could tremble when he thought about, the dangers he faced. "I'm scared to death," the former resident of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant area said to the Chicago Tribune in 1994. "Scared of getting my brains blown out."

On March 9, two weeks before the release of his prophetically titled second album, Life After Death...'Til Death Do Us Part, the fears of one of rap's most innovative stars were realized. After an appearance at the Soul Train Awards in L.A. and following a post-awards party at the Petersen Automotive Museum, Wallace, 24, sat in the front passenger seat of a GMC Suburban on Fairfax Avenue listening to a tape of his new album. Shortly past midnight a dark sedan pulled up, and Wallace was showered with fire from a 9-mm. handgun.

Wallace was pronounced dead soon after arrival at L.A.'s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Outside the hospital, his estranged wife, Faith Evans, 24, herself a rapper and mother of his son Christopher, 5 months (Wallace also has a daughter, T'yanna, 3, from a previous relationship), wept uncontrollably. Police have assigned 20 detectives to the case and have identified as many as 200 witnesses but at press time were certain of one thing. "The way it went down," says the L.A.P.D.'s Lt. Ross Moen, "it was a targeted hit."

The killing was a chilling replay of the Sept. 7 shooting of rapper and actor Tupac Shakur as he rode in a car after a Mike Tyson bout in Las Vegas. Shakur, 25, died of his wounds a week later. Former friends turned bitter rivals, the two rappers were the central figures in a feud much publicized in the music press between rap's East and West Coast factions. "I think, to some extent, this was a retaliation for Pac's death," Chaka Zulu, a cousin of Shakur's, told the Associated Press. "I don't think it came out of Pac's camp though. I think it came from people that are caught up in the hype of the East Coast-West Coast thing." Bill Stepheney, a New York City producer (Public Enemy), sees a much larger problem: "You cannot divorce Biggie's death from the normal violence that exists every day for black young men."

Either way, another creative force has been stilled. "What you have are two of our biggest stars killed—shot down—within six months," says Dominique DiPrima, a deejay at L.A.'s KKBT-FM, where calls from distraught fans swamped the switchboard. "This is out of control."

Certainly, Wallace would have agreed. The son of Voletta Wallace, a Brooklyn preschool teacher and single mom (his father left home when he was a baby), Wallace embarked on the life of a thug early on. "From the age of 12," he told Billboard in 1994, "I was hangin', doin' basic street s—t, robbing, stealing, selling drugs." At the same time, a quick wit and a gift for rhyme made him a leading street-corner rapper. But it wasn't until he was busted for dealing crack at 17 and did a nine-month stint in jail that Wallace turned to music in earnest. "You cannot sell drugs," Wallace says in the just released hip-hop documentary Rhyme & Reason. "You will eventually die or go to jail."

Instead, Wallace rapped about the life in Ready to Die, his mostly autobiographical cycle of cautionary songs about a ghetto crack dealer who is driven to suicide. The album sold 1.5 million copies and established Wallace as an acclaimed new voice in hip-hop. Among his friends and admirers, Wallace once counted Shakur, who grew up in The Bronx but based his career in L.A. The two had a falling out after Shakur accused Wallace of copying his style and setting him up for a 1994 robbery outside a New York City recording studio during which Shakur was shot several times. After recovering, Shakur seemed to respond to a mocking Wallace track titled "Who Shot Ya," on his own 1996 album All Eyez on Me, in which he made veiled claims to have slept with Evans. Wallace denied Shakur's accusations in an interview in The Source published the week of his death: "I ain't never done nothin' wrong to Tupac."

Wallace, despite his split with Evans, seemed upbeat in recent days. Convinced that his new album would secure his place at the top of the rap heap, he told Billboard he favored one cut: "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Kills You)." The track, he said, "brings to mind the expression, 'You'll miss me when I'm gone.' "

STEVE DOUGHERTY
JEFF SCHNAUFER, IRENE ZUTELL and LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles and ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABRERA in New York City

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