25 Years Later, Easy Mo Bee & Mister Cee Recall Making Biggie’s Ready To Die (Video)
This week (September 13) marks the 25th-anniversary of The Notorious B.I.G.’s debut album, Ready To Die. Part of Bad Boy Records’ “B.I.G. Mack” campaign, Biggie Smalls and Craig Mack took the fledgling label to new places in September of 1994. Since its release, Biggie’s breakthrough LP has been certified six-times-platinum and is remembered as a turning point album in Rap history.
Although Biggie was murdered more than 22 years ago, those who worked on the album are celebrating this important milestone and participating in its remembrance. With support from Faith Evans, Rhino Records is re-releasing Ready To Die as a limited-edition 7″ 45RPM record box set (via Get On Down) including liner notes by author/journalist Kathy Iandoli. Meanwhile, Amazon Music produced an eight-minute documentary that includes music from the album as well as rare Biggies interviews and photographs. Producer Easy Mo Bee, mentor Mister Cee, as well as journalist-turned-biographer and Notorious screenwriter Cheo Hodari Coker and former Arista Records executive Rob Stone appear.
The short opens with Easy Mo Bee recalling the early ’90s, and driving Biggie around New York City in his Acura for a creative retreat. The two Brooklyn, New Yorkers would take extended trips through the five boroughs to build ideas. Biggie would rhyme in the passenger seat while the DJ/producer/MC who’d worked with GZA, Big Daddy Kane, and Miles Davis maneuvered the Japanese luxury car. Mister Cee, Kane’s DJ, who co-executive produced Ready To Die, recalls Biggie’s shyness in the early 1990s. While he was an imposing and recognizable figure in various sections of Brooklyn, Christopher Wallace appeared timid when he was not spitting raps.
Cee breaks down how through a one-take demo tape, he was able to get Biggie into The Source, in the then-coveted “Unsigned Hype” column. Journalist Matty C. would eventually write about the lyricist. When burgeoning Uptown Records music executive Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs called the publication, he asked Matty his opinion of ideal talent. The writer pointed Puff’ to Biggie. In turn, history was made, especially at a time when the exec behind Jodeci and Mary J. Blige was reportedly seeking “hardcore sh*t” in the mid-1990s.
The doc recalls Biggie’s fight to stay pure to his Hip-Hop roots. Mo Bee was brought into Uptown as an early producer to work with this new act. Soon after, he and Biggie began recording. The active producer recalls the album’s title track being the first record. He also explains how that song’s jarring bars were deep, personal revelations for Biggie. True to the lyrics, B.I.G. told his concerned producer that he was, in fact, expecting a child, and coping with worries surrounding his mother’s breast cancer diagnosis. E.M.B. insists that Biggie was not beckoning death, but wanted to speak his truth in his biggest musical opportunity to date. The documentary also praises the creative hands of Mister Cee, who also remains a top party DJ after years in radio. Mo Bee and Cee recall the technique used to create part of the chorus in robbery-anthem “Gimme The Loot.” Notably, these two men with roots in ’80s Hip-Hop worked together in creating a sonic foundation for the Bedford-Stuyvesant MC.
The hardcore parts of the album were completed when Biggie was at Uptown. Then, the subsequently-fired Puffy eventually secured his label through Arista distribution, and was able to bring the re-named Notorious B.I.G. with him. The doc’ examines how after Puffy eventually touched the foundation by Mo Bee, Cee, DJ Premier, and others, it became a creative compromise.
“The chemistry Biggie had with Easy Mo Bee, you end up making special records with that. Then, at the same time, Puffy adds that gloss,” Cheo Hodari Coker says. “Ready To Die was more like Biggie wanting to make the hardest possible record, ever—and Puffy saying, ‘Alright, let’s just make it 85%-the-hardest-record, ’cause we’re gonna need 15% to sell this thing.'” Coker echoes that point, claiming that Biggie was resistant to singles such as “Juicy” and “Big Poppa.” In the end, the MC agreed with his mentor. As a caveat, he insisted on releasing his choice of songs as singles to follow. Cheo says that post-album single “Who Shot Ya” is an example of that negotiation surrounding rollout. B-sides to singles were often the kinds of records Biggie liked, while the videos were testaments to Combs’ vision. Cee says he encouraged the MC he mentored since the early ’90s to listen to the hot-handed exec. “He was reluctant to do what Puff’ was asking. I was relaying that to Big, ‘just trust the process.'”
Twenty-five years later, Ready To Die stands tall as a cohesive and thematic body of work that ushered Gangsta Rap and nimble lyricism to an evolving mainstream.