When it comes to running the estate of her son, The Notorious B.I.G., Voletta Wallace has a simple formula. “If I see something that’s going to belittle his integrity or his memory, I won’t do it,” she says of posthumous projects involving the rapper (real name: Christopher Wallace, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in March 1997, just 16 days before the release of his second album, Life After Death, which has sold 5.3 million copies, according to Nielsen Music). “It has to do with principles, morality and honesty.”
Those criteria have helped Wallace, 63, keep her son’s legacy alive and avoid much of the exploitation and over-saturation common with celebrity estates — particularly one as valuable as Big’s. Commonly referenced as one of the greatest rappers of all time, Big died at age 24, just six months after the murder of onetime friend-turned-rap-rival Tupac Shakur.
But Ms. Wallace hasn’t done it alone; her team includes Big’s widow, Faith Evans; his former manager, Wayne Barrow; her attorney, Julian Petty of Nixon Peabody; and merchandising manager Rick Barlowe, who previously worked with Shakur’s estate. In the past, the team has partnered with Mezco Toyz for an action figure; with Zingy to create a mobile game; with Sprite to license his lyrics for an ad campaign; and with Taco Bell for a commercial that remixed his hit “Big Poppa.” The estate’s clothing line, available in retailers from H&M to WalMart to Forever 21, does “major numbers,” Barlowe says, declining to give specifics. (An audacious proposal for a Biggie-themed online poker casino was scrapped some years ago.) But the estate’s biggest achievement to date, according to those who run it, was the 2009 film Notorious, which told the life story of the rapper from Brooklyn who became an icon before his 25th birthday.
“You can get more from the film than from the clothing line, or a one-off deal with Pepsi, or a deal with a big brand,” says Barrow, who managed Big throughout his short career. “Those are about The Notorious B.I.G. The film was about Christopher Wallace.”
Now, as the 20th anniversary of Big’s death approaches, Wallace and her team are teeing up projects. They include a documentary created by Evans and featuring footage of Big in the studio and at home, along with a companion album called The King & I consisting of duets with Evans, remixes and unreleased verses (both are scheduled for March 2017); an animated series, Think B.I.G., produced by Mass Appeal and airing on TBS, which will focus on his life as told through his own lyrics (says Barrow: “It’s King of the Hill meets Fat Albert”); and a hologram, developed in conjunction with ARHT Media.
But there have been challenges along the way as well, not least from unlicensed merchandise bearing Biggie’s likeness flooding the merch market, the litigation for which Petty likens to “whack-a-mole.” The hologram was supposed to be part of this summer’s Bad Boy reunion tour but never materialized. Meanwhile, some fans criticized holograms of deceased icons such as Shakur and Michael Jacksonas being more eerie than thrilling. “I remember when my son passed away, as a mother I heard horrible things,” Ms. Wallace says. “But you just have to focus on the positive. That’s why the hologram came about — because I believe there are people out there that want to see it.”
For now, the hologram is set to be part of the first video Evans releases from The King & I, and could be used in a live setup as well. But its practical applications go even further. “Hypothetically, if a brand wanted to use it in a commercial, to sponsor a tour or an idea, if it was something in the neighborhood where he grew up or in a venue that was familiar to people or his lyrics — we’re thinking from that perspective,” Barrow says. “We have the opportunity to take him to places that he’s never been before, but where he’s revered nonetheless: Japan, China, London.”
Still, Ms. Wallace and her team try to keep the focus on one thing: maintaining Big’s legacy, for him and for the sake of his two kids, T’yanna, 23, and CJ, 19. But there’s one thing she still wants to accomplish that has remained out of reach. “There is a petition in Brooklyn to rename St. James Place to Christopher Wallace Way,” she says, referencing the street where she raised her son. “There’s a lot of politics behind it, but there is also a lot of love behind it, and from what I gather the people are behind it. I would like to see that done.”