Most people know that the Notorious B.I.G. was discovered by The Source through our Unsigned Hype franchise, but did you know that the first major label that Christopher Wallace aka Biggie Smalls was signed to was Uptown Records?
Back in the day, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs had just become the A&R at the Hip-Hop label. In the March 1992 issue of The Source‘s Matty C selected Biggie’s demo to be his monthly selection for Unsigned Hype. Produced by DJ 50 Grand, the epic three-song demo, was the first move in the Brooklyn emcee’s meteoric rise. Once Puff got this joint it in his hands it was a wrap — he signed him as an act to the flyest crew in rap music at the time.
The first Uptown joint Bigg was featured on was a song off of Heavy D & The Boyz’s Blue Funk album called “A Bunch of Niggas” released in January of 1993. It was a natural pairing. The elder statesman understood Big in a way that perhaps none of the artists on the label did. Both plus-sized, lady lovers, and gifted emcees, there was a chemistry that came through on the record.
It was not a single but was a chance for Puff, under the express permission and supervision of his boss André Harrell, to showcase HIS artist. The jawn that he was going to be his urban muse and key to his success.
Most people think that it was “Party and Bullshit” that was Big’s first single on Harrell’s Uptown, but that came a little later in 1993 on the soundtrack for the Uptown film, Who’s the Man?.
1993 was a BIG year.
Others might remember the “Dolly My Baby” the remix as an early jam for Big. While that is arguably the second time we heard Clinton Hill’s emcee on wax, this was not an Uptown release. On the dance hall tinged Hip-Hop track, he was surrounded by Mary J. Blige and Puffy the biggest personalities associated with Uptown (outside of Harrell), this song was released on Columbia in 1993.
This was a tricky time … it was that period when Puff was severing his ties with the midtown based label and starting his own label, Bad Boy. Bad Boy was the label that would give us the classic album, Ready to Die, a record that was supposed to be released on Uptown.
Russell Simmons, a person with an upfront seat with a box of popcorn for the whole movie, told the story to the New York Magazine what happened:
“André cultivated Puffy. And Puff was a genius. But Puffy also seemed like a trouble magnet. He was getting into fistfights constantly, constantly. He was a young kid; he needed management. André would be like, ‘Yo, Puff, you can’t beat up people and do this and do that!’ André stood by Puffy through a lot of shit.”
Russell would know. He had to “Puffy” André back in the day.
Ready to Die should have come out on Uptown Records. Some of the album was recorded with that intent. But RTD was not an Uptown record. It wasn’t the vibe or the flow of that Harlem/ Bronx cool. Big brought that Brooklyn blast to 729 7th Ave. Let’s not get it twisted; the first label to have a regular FOI detail as security, the Uptown space was known for getting busy but the energy that Biggie brought was next level and Puff was the stamp that allowed it to go as far as it did.
So when those first songs where brought to the Uptown team and then to Harrell, he had to pump some breaks. It seemed according to the lore of the day, Puff was getting just as wild as the stories that his artist rapped about. #PartyandBullshit
“When I fired him, it was like I had an artist in the building,” Harrell told The Wall Street Journal. “‘Cause Puff as an executive – he was a really artistic guy – he can make videos, he could style. I started to branch out into movies and television. So then Puff wouldn’t really listen to anybody but me. So my full-time job became managing Puff. And I was doing other things. Even when I let Puff go, he was always on payroll. I never stopped paying him until he found his next spot. His artists were still getting per diem. Because I didn’t do it to hurt him, but I knew it was time for him to grow. And the only way he was going to grow was he was going to have to have the same kind of corporate conversations that I was subjected to. And then he would understand what he could and could not do.”
“Whereas I had Heavy D – who was more like a happy, female-loving, uplifting, celebratory artist – Puff’s ‘Heavy D’ was Biggie Smalls,” Harrell says. “Biggie Smalls was more in the streets – telling street stories. Biggie Smalls ended up becoming my favorite rapper of all time. I told Puff, ‘you need to go and create your own opportunities. You [sic] red hot. I’m really letting you go so you can get rich.’”
There would have never been a Biggie, as the world knows him, had it not been for Puff getting to do what he does and André Harrell opening his doors and his wallet to the vision.