The Story Of Biggie’s Ominous Life After Death Photo Shoot Is Told By The Photographer

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On March 25, 1997, The Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous album, Life After Death, dropped. In one of the eeriest examples of art imitating life (or is it the other way around?), the album’s title, artwork, and much of its track list dealt with foreshadowing mortality. On the LP cover, Biggie posed with a hearse which sported his initials on its license plate. It was a dark, slightly macabre concept that all too sadly proved to be way too real, and the late Christopher Wallace’s death came before he was able to explain to his fans the thinking and meaning behind the iconic photography.

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However, in a feature for the Undefeated, photographer Michael Lavine provided an in-depth look behind the curtain of the Life After Death photo shoot, which he said happened under the watchful eye of Sean “Puffy” Combs. As he tells it, “Puffy was very demanding. I hired a location scout to find a graveyard. I took photos up to Puffy’s office and he was like, ‘These are terrible! Find a better graveyard!’” Find a better graveyard, they did, though the shoot had to be pushed back a full day. Nevertheless, the artwork as envisioned by Bad Boy was executed, though not without a lengthy permit process, last-minute location changes, and stolen equipment.

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The photo shoot at the Cypress Hills Cemetery on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, New York, was scheduled for January 24, 1997. Biggie, whose leg had been seriously injured in a car accident several months before, had a slight hobble to him as he navigated the scenery with a cane. Cold, grey weather provided a perfect backdrop for the shoot, but Lavine says he was pretty much left to his own devices when it came to all other elements that day. “I didn’t pick his clothes, and I didn’t decide ‘cemetery.’ I was told, ‘Get a hearse.’ That’s all the direction I got,” he remembers.

But that isn’t to say Puff wasn’t heavily involved, says Lavine. In fact, as he recounts, “Puffy kept jumping in. He was like a guy who wanted to be in the picture. He would literally be getting in a lot of the shots with Biggie.” Amid all of the chaos of a domineering executive producer, making a scene at a graveyard, ensuring the smoke machine was functioning properly, and proper attention to styling Biggie, nobody realized that a bag with $15,000 worth of camera equipment had been stolen from Lavine’s truck outside his Fifth Avenue studio earlier that day. “The last thing he wanted was Biggie or Puffy to be aware that anything had gone awry,” he says. Besides, he had other distractions on his mind.

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His creative intuition led him to feel like “[the shoot] wasn’t rendering right in my mind. I wasn’t happy with how things looked,” at which point he opted to go scouting on his own, “until I found this amazing spot at the top [of the graveyard].” The location suited his vision perfectly, and so, he says, “Puffy, Biggie and I got into my Ford Explorer” to visit the second location. There, he snapped some photos of the rapper “standing in front of what appear to be endless rows of ghostly tombstones.” Lavine remembers of those photos “It takes you out into a different realm because it’s black and white, his outfit looks like it’s from the 1800s and his eye is like jacked over. It’s a powerful presence. It makes you feel like he works there, or presides over all those souls. It’s like his home.”

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Of course, Lavine was deeply affected by Biggie’s death so soon thereafter. “That’s one of the things that’s so powerful about the photos. That changed the whole dynamic pretty radically. You have a photograph of a man in a graveyard who died violently weeks later — it makes the image more emotionally laden. … It’s not just a photo.”

#BonusBeat: On what would have been The Notorious B.I.G.’s 45th birthday, Puffy and Biggie’s son, CJ Wallace, premiered the trailer for the forthcoming film Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story last night (May 21) at the Billboard Music Awards.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story will debut on Apple Music on June 25.