Behind any great musician is a great team, and Notorious B.I.G. was no exception. From Diddy to Mister Cee to DJ Premier, the visionaries who helped Big reach the top are now legends in the game. And behind the scenes, Mark Pitts, Biggie's former manager, was just as instrumental as these icons in overseeing Big's career. In the years since his death, Pitts has gone on to become President of Urban Music at RCA/Sony and founder of ByStorm Entertainment, which manages J. Cole and Miguel — but his early experiences with Biggie are still guiding him to this day. After watching the beef between Big and Tupac spiral out of control, he played mediator between Jay-Z and Nas and helped squash their epic war of words in 2005. Around the same time, he teamed up with Big's mother, Voletta Wallace, to relaunch his dormant clothing line Brooklyn Mint. A few years later, he served as co-producer of the acclaimed 2009 Biggie biopic, Notorious. And now, 15 years to the day after Big's tragic murder, Pitts is still helping to keep Big's legacy alive. Here, he sits down with BET.com to remember some of Big's highest and lowest moments, his life and death, and most of all, his indelible impact, both on hip hop and the people around him.
How did you first meet Biggie? What was your first impression of him?
I started working with Big when I was working with Puff at Uptown and he was just starting his Bad Boy imprint. I was his assistant, intern, whatever. [Biggie] had a meeting with Puff and I remember him sitting in Puff’s office. I came into the office and he was just sitting there, and it was the first time I laid eyes on him. He had on these big army fatigues, hoodie, dark glasses, and I just didn’t know what was going when I walked into that office. He had just such a big persona. It was scary [laughs] — just seeing this big dude sitting there with a hood on. It definitely made me stutter-step.
Did you have any clue about the level he would reach?
Not at all. I wish I could say that. I wish I could say, “Hell yeah I knew.” Anyone that says they did, I’ma look at them sideways. You couldnt’ve known. You knew he was special, but to the level of how special he was and the impact he had on people, I had no idea. I still get choked up when I hear people talk about him, when they tell me how they look at him. [I remember] being behind the booth and controlling the music while he was performing and watching people gravitate to it. Every moment felt like that first time. I’m still in awe, honestly.
You spent a lot of time in the studio while Big was making classic material. What are some of your favorite memories of him recording?
I have a couple. The first time I seen him go in without writing [down his lyrics], when I personally noticed it, was when he did the [DJ] Premier joint, “Unbelievable.” I remember being at D&D Studios and the beat was on, and you know, Big had rolled up and he was smoking and then he sat back — I almost thought he was falling asleep. He laid back for a minute like he was passing out, but then all of a sudden he was like, “Ight, let’s go.” And he went in the booth and killed it. I was like, “Get the f--- outta here.” I’ll never forget that moment.
In Notorious, Biggie and Diddy butted heads initially about making his music more commercial. Is that how it really went down?
Well, that brings us to my second most memorable moment in the studio, which was “Juicy.” Biggie had his street thing, but rhyming on records that had more commercial appeal was a struggle back then [in hip hop]. Nowadays it ain't that way, now [rappers] do too much of that if anything, but at the time it was a struggle. When he went in, like in the movie, he struggled with doing those type of records, but when he did “Juicy” and he started seeing the reaction to it, it just kicked in. He was very smart. He was like, “Oh sh---, I know what I need to [do].” From that moment, he grew — he went to another level of maturity. There was no more having that struggle. He had a way of doing [commercial music] without losing himself. That was part of the beauty of him. I always say, if he was gonna eat crab legs, he was going to get him some Red Lobster. He ain’t gonna go to the foo-foo spot on Fifth Ave. That’s just who he was.
When did you start to realize that his music was going to have such a long-term impact?
I hate to say it, but when he passed. I remember I was out for the first time at a club after he had just died and they were playing his music, and I just realized, this is classic. It was still that feeling you get when you hear something for the first time. The times have changed, but that feeling still hasn’t changed.
What's your recollection of the night Big passed?
It started out such a good night. We were at the club, and we usually aren’t the last ones to leave, but this time was different. There had been so much attention and nonsense on all that East Coast/West Coast bulls-- we were dealing with. It felt good for the first time to be out in L.A. and feel the love. He felt the love; it felt right. I could’ve closed my eyes and been anywhere in the world; we could’ve been back home. We really wanted to make that come across in the movie. I remember we were all leaving at the end of party, and I was in a limo, not Big’s truck, and I heard the shots. I remember pulling up to a police officer and him saying that Puffy got shot. So I’m rushing to the hospital thinking it was Puff. There was already a lot of people outside, and they pulled me in and that’s when I found out it was Biggie. It was me, Puff, Lil' Cease, Damien [“D-Roc” Butler] and Faith sitting in a room. The doctor came in and asked us how long did we wait to call the ambulance, and at that moment I knew. I just knew. They were asking that question to find out his time of death, or to see if they could’ve saved him. I knew then that he was dead.
Do you have any regrets? Do you ever wish you had done anything differently?
If I could say we were fueling it, or that we didn’t try to reach out to 'Pac, [I would] — but it takes two. As a man, as a manager, as a big brother, as one of the important people in his life, I felt like I guided him as best as I could. I can’t say what I would do different ’cause I probably would’ve done the same. We were like, “Stay on point, don’t feed into it.” If I was the one saying, “f--- that, you need to be doing this,” I would have a lot of regrets, absolutely. But I remember when they announced that 'Pac died. It was a Vibe [magazine] party and I remember Keith Clinkscales, who was the head of Vibe at the time, made the announcement that 'Pac passed after he had been shot a few days earlier. And I remember calling Big to let him know and you could hear him crying; he was f----- up. He didn’t understand how it had come to that. We were in defense mode; there was definitely no aggression on this side. We weren’t going after them. It was like with Nas and Jay: When I sat them down, after they got past the issues, I remember them sitting together and they were quoting each other. Regardless of all the bulls---, they were fans of each other. You could see the respect and appreciation. And it was the same thing with 'Pac and Big. I remember when we heard [“Hit ‘Em Up”]. We was at the Total video shoot, and I remember Big was sitting in the car with Cease playing it, and Big was laughing. He had to laugh ’cause it was funny, and it was still dope regardless of everything. It was like, this is f----- up—but real talk, s--- was hot. You know what I mean?
You guys never really responded to that record. What was the internal discussion like in terms of deciding how to react to 'Pac firing shots? Was it hard not to fight fire with fire?
It was like, You can’t dignify it. You can’t let it get it out of hand 'cause we don’t know where it will stop. We have a responsibility. Let’s just keep doing what we do. Just keep doing music and try our best to ignore it. Let’s prevent it from progressing. Puff was definitely like, “Do not f--- up your money.” He was pushing Big to focus and telling him it was not worth it. Big had his moments like any person, but at the end of the day he understood.
Biggie's arguably the most influential rapper of all time. How do you think he changed hip hop?
He was like a movie director. He just painted pictures. He has timeless songs. The way he articulated his words was timeless; it’s gonna live on forever. And he was one of the first artists with a movement; he had a movement mentality. He had a restaurant that was about to open, he had the clothing line [Brooklyn Mint] he started. He had so many things he was about to do. And that impacted a lot of these MCs that’s out today. Jay, and a lot of other artists, they do the rap thing, but they are becoming moguls. And even though we didn’t get there, our blueprint was definitely there. Big pioneered [having] commercial appeal but still being hip hop. Big definitely pioneered that. I don’t want to take it away from other people who attempted it, but in my opinion, for lack of a better word, it was corny, whereas Big made it cool. Big made it possible for the Jays and the Puffs, and then the next generation of rappers, the Kanyes, got it from them — it’s like a chain reaction. Big definitely opened the door.
If Big was still alive what would he be doing? What would his position in the game be?
Well, look at his peoples. Jay is on top. Puff is on top. Ain’t nobody f------ with them. I don’t care if someone sells three times as many records as them — they’re not going to be able touch what these guys are doing. He’d be right there. Big would be like what Magic Johnson is for basketball [laughs]. If you watched him at the All-Star Game, he’s still the man in the basketball world. He’s that dude. Magic is the s--- regardless of what he’s been through, and even though he’s not on the court with the young guys, the respect and the involvement in the game is still there. He’s doing s--- in the community, he’s got the restaurants, the movie theaters. That’s what Big would be like. He’d still be making records though — he’d just be like the Godfather.
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(Photo: Johnny Nunez / WireImage)