In Search of Biggie: Justin Tinsley on His New Biography

LJ talks with Justin Tinsley about his new biography It Was All a Dream: Biggie and the World That Made Him.

When Justin Tinsley received an email inquiring if he would be interested in writing a biography of Christopher Wallace (aka the Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls) in honor of what would have been the rapper’s 50th birthday, he was immediately intrigued—he’d always been a fan and wondered if there was anything new to say about the artist. It Was All a Dream: Biggie and the World That Made Him (Abrams) not only reflects on Biggie’s life and musical contributions but also captures the essence of the man, thanks to the human-interest angles that Tinsley brings to all his writing.

Growing up in the 1990s in Virginia, Tinsley developed a lifelong passion for sports and music, due in part to the influence of his beloved uncle John, who helped him recognize those realms’ beauty and ability to elevate participants, particularly Black people. “I knew early on I wouldn’t be Michael Jordan,” Tinsley recalls, “but the art of storytelling captured my imagination.” While sneaking off to listen to the rap music his mother disapproved of, Tinsley became a devoted fan of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace—he still vividly remembers hearing the news of their assassinations, defining moments in music history and in Tinsley’s own life.

Fast-forward more than two decades and Tinsley is a successful sports and culture writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated. He spent much of the early 2020 COVID pandemic researching the man he thought he knew everything about."At first I felt like I could’ve written it off the top of my head, [Biggie] was a big part of my life for so long, but quickly I realized I didn’t really know him,” Tinsley admits. After searching thousands of archived articles, reading the other biographies of him, and “going down the rabbit hole of YouTube,” Tinsley had the bones of the story: Wallace went from “an honor roll middle school student to crack dealer to high school dropout…to aspiring artist to the biggest name in the game.”

Tinsley’s interviews with those who knew Biggie changed the course of the book. Particularly impactful to Tinsley’s biography was Biggie’s childhood friend, Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Chico Del Vec, who was “open, forthcoming, and transparent” and whose emotions were still raw years later; “grief doesn’t have a time stamp,” Tinsley says. He found Biggie’s friends and associates were willing to talk with him to ensure the story was told accurately and respectfully. All who knew Biggie spoke of his pride in his children and the value he placed on fatherhood—he wanted to be the father he never had. Here was the human interest Tinsley sought. He wrote what would be the biography’s final chapter first: a moving interview with C.J. Wallace Jr., Biggie’s son, who doesn’t remember his father but considers him his guardian angel. C.J. has made it his life’s work to fight for “global cannabis legalization, police and criminal justice reform, and economic investment into communities most harmed by cannabis prohibition,” and he fittingly named his organization Think BIG.

Tinsley believes that Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, was his greatest influence: she devoted her life to “keeping him from stepping off the stoop; she kept him in check for the first 13 years of his life.” But like all parents, she had to eventually let go and allow him to make his own mistakes, Tinsley says; it was then that society took over and Wallace became “another soldier in a decades-long war.” Tinsley points out that “none of our lives happen in a vacuum,” and Wallace succumbed to neighborhood pressures to sell drugs and participate in gang activities. Eventually he became part of the East Coast/West Coast war. He was rumored to have been involved in Shakur’s death, but Tinsley vehemently disagrees: “He had absolutely nothing to do with it.” Tinsley adds, “He went to L.A. on a diplomacy trip—he just wanted to show L.A. he truly loved them.” Instead, he met his demise, six months after Shakur’s death. Tinsley hopes that readers of the biography come away with a better picture of the man—“not just, ‘He was born, sold drugs, had a beef with Tupac, and died.’ Biggie Smalls was just one element of who Christopher Wallace was. He was an icon, but he was still trying to figure out who he was. He was only 24 when he died. He made great music but was still trying to figure out his true purpose.”

As for rap music, Tinsley believes it will keep evolving. “It is one of the most influential art forms and has ways of improving continually. It continues to realize how much power it has and how it can change the world.”

Tinsley too is evolving. After promoting It Was All a Dream, he will continue recording his podcast (30 for 30’s The King of Crenshaw); he so “enjoyed the process of writing this book [that he] would love to make this a career” and will keep seeking opportunities to “teach and captivate people.” With his exceptional ability to bring his subjects to life and find the aspects of their stories that make them accessible and relatable, Tinsley undoubtedly has a long career ahead of him.

Lisa Henry is a public librarian in Missouri who writes music and performing arts reviews for LJ.

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