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'Biggie' doc offers intimate look at rap legend from his inner circle

Brooklyn's favourite son is the subject of an intimate documentary titled ‘Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell’ that draws upon candid interviews with his closest family members and friends.

Fans displays a T-shirt tribute to rapper Biggie Smalls, aka The Notorious B.I.G, on 18 March 1997 as people lined the funeral procession route through his old neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Picture: JON LEVY/AFP

NEW YORK - The Notorious B.I.G., the rapper whose deep-bellied delivery thrust hip hop forward and earned him designation as one of rap's all-time greats, has proven a fount of fascination since his shock murder at age 24.

Now Brooklyn's favorite son is the subject of an intimate documentary titled Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell that draws upon candid interviews with his closest family members and friends, set for release on March 1 via Netflix.

The feature-length look into the astronomic ascent and heartbreaking death of the artist born Christopher Wallace comes nearly a quarter-century after he was gunned down in a drive-by shooting as he visited Los Angeles on March 9, 1997, having released just one studio album - Ready To Die - in his lifetime.

Its sequel, Life After Death, came out 16 days after the rapper's slaying.

The estate-approved film, co-produced by his mother, traces Biggie's brief but explosive life: a Catholic schoolboy raised by a Jamaican immigrant in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood, who went from king of the corner selling crack to overnight rap sensation with indelible influence.

It renders a sympathetic portrait of a man who desired the trappings of fame and success but also security for his family, an artist's artist whose creative energies made him the pride of his city.

"He had a life that had such a profound effect," said music mogul and documentary co-producer Sean Combs, who then went by Puff Daddy and now is known as P. Diddy.

"It really gave birth to the future of hip hop."

BEBOP FLOW

Featuring sweeping pans of 1980s and 1990s New York, Biggie also takes viewers to Trelawny, Jamaica, the home of the musician's mother Voletta that he visited each summer as a child, where his 96-year-old grandma still resides.

WATCH: Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell trailer

His friend Hubert Same described how a young Biggie would return from those trips to the Caribbean with different types of music - country, reggae and funk - and new sounds that helped him develop a producer's ear for beats and rhythm.

Donald Harrison, a neighbor, mentor and jazz saxophonist, recounted Biggie crafting rhymes that mirrored the snare drum of a bebop beat, training that played into the artist's singular viscous flow.

"You can hear that Notorious B.I.G. was accenting those notes and rhyming in a way that exudes all the finer qualities of a bebop drum solo."

"It's incredible."

The documentary also parses Biggie's seedier side, with frank interviews from the friends he made as a teenager in their years together selling drugs.

Seeing his protege's focus divided, Diddy describes asking Biggie to choose between music and the quick cash made dealing.

A friend, Damion Butler, recalls a story of Voletta cleaning her son's room and scraping a plate of crack into the garbage, asking: "Yo, why are you leaving all these hard mashed potatoes in the plate?"

The rapper's mother describes her son kneeling at her bedside one morning and telling her he was going to chase a future in music.

"And who is gonna help you, Christopher?" she says she asked.

"He said, 'This guy named Puffy,'" Voletta laughs. "God damn Puffy."

'ICON OF THE WORLD'

The shooting death of Biggie's friend Olie is among the threads that carries the documentary from the rapper's humble beginnings to the top, shock and grief that "shook" the artist in a way that his friends and lovers said overwhelmed him again when fellow rap icon Tupac Shakur was murdered in 1996.

The popular narrative says the pair were slain as part of a beef between their labels, but some music historians believe the coastal rift was exaggerated.

The documentary plays it down as rumour-fuelled, as did Biggie in footage of his final interview in California on 5 March 1997.

After dismissing chatter over a rap clash as hearsay, Biggie says his plan is to "continue to keep makin' those songs that make you dance and make you groove and have kids".

"We're just gonna do our thing forever," he vows. "Forever and ever."

His grandmother remembers learning of his murder - which remains unsolved - on television, with Biggie's mother saying she was numb the day of the funeral.

It was the epic procession that took her son's body across New York and drew thousands into the streets that drove home for her just how adored he was.

"Every once in a while it hits me that I won't see my little buddy no more," says the jazz musician Harrison.

"It's great to see Biggie's murals all around the neighborhood," the artist's mentor continues. "And to see how far he has transcended into the psyche."

"He's an icon of the world now."