2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.
After years of delays, in part thanks to COVID, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures finally opened last fall in Los Angeles, giving the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire another major museum. Across the street is the Petersen Automotive Museum, which was unveiled in the summer of 1994. It’s a beautiful place as well, but whenever I drive by it, I never think about the historic cars inside. Like a lot of Angelenos who lived here in the late 1990s, I still think of it as the place where the Notorious B.I.G. was killed.
Christopher Wallace’s 1997 was going to be huge. Riding the success of his 1994 debut, Ready to Die, the New York rapper was set to release his much-anticipated follow-up, Life After Death, a double album whose lead single “Hypnotize” dropped at the start of March, eventually becoming his first No. 1 hit. About a week later, Wallace (better known as the Notorious B.I.G.) was leaving a party at the Petersen Automotive Museum around 12:30 a.m. on March 9th. That’s when tragedy struck. As the Los Angeles Times later put it, “Police believe someone in a dark car pulled up alongside the passenger side of the GMC Suburban in which he was riding and fired several shots inside.” He was declared dead about 45 minutes later. He was only 24.
In that L.A. Times piece, an LAPD spokesperson said, “We’re not ruling out anything at this time. … It could be anything. It could be a gang, it could be ties to something, it could be a random shooting. We don’t know.” But most industry observers wondered if Biggie’s murder had been retribution for the killing of his rival, 25-year-old West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur, who had been gunned down in Las Vegas on September 13, 1996. Regardless, the Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death was released on March 25th, its brilliance and its dark chronicling of a violent world both harder to take in light of his untimely demise. Critics raved, the album eventually went 11-times-platinum, and the world mourned the young man who might have been hip-hop’s finest rapper ever. “People have been calling me up crying. … Every phone call is someone crying,” Def Jam head Russell Simmons told the L.A. Times.
Popular music has often served as a way for artists to grieve one of their own. Commodores’ “Nightshift” was a salute to (among others) Marvin Gaye, who had been shot dead by his own father. Neil Young and R.E.M. both wrote songs eulogizing Kurt Cobain after he committed suicide. But no musical tribute was ever as popular — or as contentious — as the one that Biggie’s close friend Sean Combs composed for his fallen comrade. Piggybacking off another immensely popular song, “I’ll Be Missing You” remains a divisive smash.
The song’s origins stem from the final album that the Police ever made. As they were working on 1983’s Synchronicity, frontman Sting was coping with divorce by writing a suite of songs about his inner turmoil, delivering bleak looks at romance with titles like “King of Pain” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” But Synchronicity’s signature track was even grimmer. “I think it’s a nasty little song, really rather evil,” Sting once said on stage when discussing “Every Breath You Take.” “It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership.” And, indeed, the song twisted the conventional notions of romance and devotion into something that sounded stalker-ish. Coldly delivering lines like “Oh, can’t you see / You belong to me? / How my poor heart aches / With every step you take,” he played a man who couldn’t let go — who wouldn’t let go — of his ex. “The tune itself is generic, an aggregate of hundreds of others, but the words are interesting,” Sting once said of “Every Breath You Take.” “It sounds like a comforting love song.”
The stripped-down beauty of “Every Breath You Take” belied the tension within the band, which would result in them breaking up a few years later. In fact, the song had been conceived in the midst of a fractious recording session. “It was crap until I played on it, and then it emerged,” guitarist Andy Summers later said. “I went in, and of course I had my Police guitar style down; it was very simple chord sequences, standard pop, and I laid that track down, virtually in one take. I just knew what to do with it.” Those slinky chord changes helped give the tune its obsessive, mournful quality, lending this tale of romantic discontent a stately grandeur. “Every Breath You Take” was ominous but also incredibly catchy, giving the English trio their only No. 1 on the U.S. charts, making it the de facto song of the summer of 1983.
Sean Combs and Christoper Wallace met nine years later. The fledgling producer had read about this up-and-coming rapper named the Notorious B.I.G. in The Source, which declared, “His rhymes are fatter than he is.” Intrigued, Combs called Biggie up. “The first thing that I remember was how big and Black he was,” Combs once recalled, later adding, “This is during the time of Al B. Sure and LL Cool J. Dark skin wasn’t in. He was beyond dark-skinned. I remember him sitting down and he really didn’t have anything to say. So you have this big guy who has this in-your-face rap attitude, but was quiet.”
The Notorious B.I.G. spoke up in the studio, and after signing to Combs’ Bad Boy label, he released Ready to Die, a dynamic, funny, stark collection of songs about survival, drug dealing and bragging about being a world-class lover. At a time when L.A. and Death Row were becoming hip-hop’s epicenter, Ready to Die and Bad Boy shifted the geography, bringing rap back to its New York home. Soon, a bitter rivalry festered between the two coasts and the two labels, escalating when, during the 1995 Source Awards, Death Row label head Suge Knight declared to those in attendance, “If you don’t want your CEO dancing in all your videos … come on over to Death Row,” a swipe at Combs, who often popped up in his rosters’ videos.
Both labels were instrumental in popularizing gangster rap, a hip-hop subgenre that chronicled (some would say glamorized) the criminal life, but when Shakur and Biggie were both shot dead, a musical style that was often waved away as being mere fantasy suddenly felt painfully, horribly real. But for Combs, Biggie’s death wasn’t just a great personal loss, it also a reminder of his own sad past. Combs’ dad, a drug dealer, had been shot dead when the boy was only three. “Sometimes you can’t just answer why things happen but I definitely think the route I went on — staying out the streets and hitting my books and trying to be somebody — I think he played a role in that,” Combs later said.
Working under the name Sean “Puffy” Combs,” he’d produced tracks for Biggie and TLC while building up Bad Boy’s roster, preferring to be the man behind the scenes. That, however, didn’t stop him from adding background vocals to hits like “Hypnotize,” which led to jokes like the one Knight lobbed at him in 1995. Rightly or wrongly, Combs wasn’t viewed as an artist — more like an impresario who tried to hitch his wagon to more talented rappers, riding their coattails and elbowing his way onto their albums. But after the Notorious B.I.G. was murdered, Combs wondered if he wanted to bother making music anymore.
“I was ready to quit,” he said on Netflix’s Hip-Hop Evolution. “I wasn’t gonna put out any more [Bad Boy] records.” Friends noticed he’d lost a lot of weight and was distraught. “I was like the walking dead,” he told Billboard. “I wasn’t talking. I wasn’t doing anything.” His focus turned to putting together Biggie’s funeral, but he was also thinking about what he could do musically to pay homage to his fallen friend. “One of my acts made a tribute record,” he said, referring to the Lox’s “We’ll Always Love Big Poppa.” “I said, ‘I gotta do this, too.’ I felt it was something that would help me.”
Soon after, Combs flipped on MTV, which was playing the video for “Every Breath You Take.” “That’s always been one of my favorite songs,” he told Billboard. “It’s always made me cry. It always made me think of my father, in a good way.” Sting has often lamented people’s misinterpretations of the Police’s biggest hit, amused when fans tell him they played it at their wedding. But Combs had a different emotional connection to “Every Breath You Take” than most, reminding him of the dad he never knew. For him, it was a song about loss, and it offered a clue to how he could eulogize Biggie.
“I just took it as a sign,” he said on Hip-Hop Evolution. “Sometimes you just need that little bit of light to be able to express yourself. … [T]he best thing I could do was not give up. I was down, and I was out, but I wasn’t finished. All I could do was get up and start to fight. That’s the way Big would’ve wanted it.”
Recording as Puff Daddy, Combs came up with a series of lyrics in which he’s talking to the Notorious B.I.G., telling him how much his death has affected him. “I was so used to talking to [Biggie] every day,” Combs said in the Billboard interview. “I missed that. So when I made the record, I was finally able to talk to him. That’s all it was, a conversation.”
“I’ll Be Missing You” snags Summers’ guitar riff, with Combs laying out his sorrow on top.
Seems like yesterday we used to rock the show
I laced the track, you locked the flow
So far from hangin’ on the block for dough
Notorious, they got to know that
Life ain’t always what it seem to be
Words can’t express what you mean to me
Even though you’re gone, we still a team
Through your family, I’ll fulfill your dream
In the future, can’t wait to see
If you open up the gates for me
Reminisce some time, the night they took my friend
Try to black it out, but it plays again
When it’s real, feelings hard to conceal
Can’t imagine all the pain I feel
Give anythin’ to hear half your breath
I know you still livin’ your life after death
Combs recruited the Notorious B.I.G.’s widow Faith Evans, a singer on the Bad Boy label whose 1995 debut Faith had gone platinum, to do the chorus, tweaking Sting’s ode to obsession and turning it into a prayer of devotion.
Every step I take
Every move I make
Every single day
Every time I pray
I’ll be missin’ you
Thinkin’ of the day
When you went away
What a life to take
What a bond to break
I’ll be missin’ you
In the weeks and months following Biggie’s murder, anger, sadness and confusion reigned. While the authorities struggled to find any leads — the case remains unsolved — Life After Death went to No. 1, and Combs’ solo single “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” which liberally sampled “The Message,” ruled radio. (“Hypnotize” would soon replace “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” at No. 1.) Then, in late May, Combs unveiled “I’ll Be Missing You,” which instantly went to the top of charts, staying at No. 1 for 11 weeks, making it the de facto song of the summer of 1997.
Andy Summers, the man whose guitar laid the foundation for “I’ll Be Missing You,” had no idea about Combs’ song. As he recalled in 2012, “It was actually my kid, who was 10 at the time, said, ‘Hey dad, there’s some girl on the radio who’s playing you guys!’ I went into his room and listened to his radio, and I was like, ‘This is me, what the fuck is this?’” Soon, “I’ll Be Missing You” was inescapable, becoming a way for Biggie’s fans to mourn him. “I’d be walking round Tower Records,” Summers said, “and the fucking thing would be playing over and over. It was very bizarre while it lasted.”
The guitarist didn’t mince words about how he felt about Combs’ song, saying in the same interview, “That was the major rip-off of all time.” Summers wasn’t alone in feeling that way: As sincere as Combs’ vocal performance was, that’s how unimaginative “I’ll Be Missing You’s” arrangement seemed. This had long been Combs’ M.O., essentially grabbing a famous track and laying some new verses on top of it. Bad Boy may have been extremely commercially successful, but outside of Biggie, not a lot of its artists were respected by rap purists. DJ Shadow, whose groundbreaking record Endtroducing… had come out the previous year, once said, “I wanted to challenge people [with my music]. That’s what I understood hip-hop to be. If your mentor is Puffy, you have a certain mentality. If you grow up on Afrika Bambaataa or Grandmaster Flash — people who were trying to break down boundaries — you have a different mentality.”
Combs, who would have yet another No. 1 hit in 1997 guesting on Biggie’s “Mo Money Mo Problems,” Life After Death’s second single, had no illusions about the depth of his skill set. “For the record, I can’t say I’m the best producer out there,” he told Billboard, “but I feel like I’m one of the best entertainers. When I’m producing a record, I’m not doing it selfishly, like I have to come up with this monumental new form of music. I’m just trying to make you dance. I make music because I want to make people dance.”
In that light, the simple, shameless mawkishness of “I’ll Be Missing You” made sense: Combs was someone who only knew how to approach music as a crowd-pleaser, tapping universal sentiments through ultra-accessible melodies. And even if he was an artistic lightweight, “I’ll Be Missing You” helped him move out of the shadows and embrace a rap career. “That song really kinda saved my life,” Combs said in the Netflix series. “Before that, I was really kinda nervous about being an artist; Big was pushin’ me as far as being an artist. I felt like I’m a really good hype-man. But I remember recording ‘Missing You’ and just knowing that it was gonna change hip hop. Because hip hop wasn’t really vulnerable. … People may have considered it not gangsta or not keeping it real. I didn’t really care about any of that; I just wanted to express the pain.”
Combs exaggerates his song’s uniqueness — plenty of hip-hop artists, including the Notorious B.I.G., had written vulnerable songs about loss and love — but it is true that there had never been a rap track that had been that emotionally effusive and connected with such a large audience, giving voice to a collective grief in a pleasing package that was comforting yet familiar. “I’ll Be Missing You” was expert karaoke, and yet the anguish coursing through the song was undeniable. In the same year that a reworked version of “Candle in the Wind” would go on to be another of 1997’s most massive smashes, tearfully mourning Princess Diana’s death in a car crash, “I’ll Be Missing You” turned the radio into a public wake. You could sneer at the song, but you couldn’t sneer at what it represented to so many who loved Christopher Wallace, even though they’d never met him. Other than Combs, probably not a lot of people cry over “Every Breath You Take,” but it’s a good bet many listeners got weepy hearing “I’ll Be Missing You.”
So what did Sting think of Combs’ hit? For a few years now, there’s been a belief that, because Combs didn’t get permission to sample “Every Breath You Take,” the former Police frontman sued and was awarded all of the publishing royalties for “I’ll Be Missing You.” (In some versions of this story, Sting supposedly receives $2,000 a day from Combs’ song, although that appears to be a misunderstanding of the supposed fact that “Every Breath You Take” brings in that much money on a daily basis from royalties.) Whether or not that tale is apocryphal, Sting didn’t seem too troubled by Combs’ version not to appear with him at the MTV Video Music Awards in September, lending his brooding vocals to the track.
Both Biggie and Combs, now going by Puff Daddy, remained popular for the next several years. Puff’s 1997 album No Way Out, which contained “I’ll Be Missing You,” went quintuple-platinum, remaining his bestselling record. A year later, he was teaming up with Jimmy Page for “Come With Me,” an equally shameless theft of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” for that terrible rap-rock contribution to the Godzilla soundtrack. (Inexplicably, it hit No. 4 on the Billboard charts.) Meanwhile, the Notorious B.I.G.’s archives were raided for successful posthumous releases such as 1999’s Born Again and 2005’s Duets: The Final Chapter.
But in the case of Biggie, his recorded output constitutes only part of our ongoing fixation with the late rapper. His unsolved murder, paired with Shakur’s unsolved murder, became a subject of endless fascination, inspiring the 2002 documentary Biggie & Tupac by documentarian Nick Broomfield, who’d previously made Kurt & Courtney, which pursued the rumor that Cobain’s widow Courtney Love had orchestrated her husband’s death and made it look like a suicide. Just as infamously, a long-in-the-can thriller, City of Lies, starring Johnny Depp as an LAPD detective trying to get to the bottom of the Notorious B.I.G.’s shooting, was finally released last year. In 2009, a Biggie biopic, Notorious, which starred Jamal Woolard, was a modest hit — and then Woolard reprised the role in the 2017 Shakur biopic All Eyez on Me. The two titans of 1990s rap have been gone for decades, but their lives (and the awfulness of their killing) still resonate.
Back in 1997, it was easy to roll your eyes at “I’ll Be Missing You,” which felt lazy in its sampling — not to say baffling in its decision to take a song about a stalker as the basis for a memorial for someone taken far too soon. But over the years, the song’s impact can be felt not just in its impressive chart run but in the small ways that individuals find themselves connecting to it on a personal level. Look on social media, and you’ll find tweets from people who either want “I’ll Be Missing You” played at their funeral or who have heard it at a funeral. Indeed, Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau listed it as his top song of 1997, admitting that the tune “didn’t hit me full on until I lost a dear friend in November.”
Although Combs wrote “I’ll Be Missing You” specifically for Biggie, the lyrics were general enough that practically anyone could retrofit the meaning for their own grieving process. Indeed, when BTS did a cover of “I’ll Be Missing You” last year, it no longer felt like a tribute to the Notorious B.I.G. It sounded like a standard tearjerking ballad, appropriate for any solemn occasion.
None of this would have been imaginable to Sting 40 years ago when he was working out a straightforward idea for what would become “Every Breath You Take.” “I thought I was just writing a hit song,” he said, “and indeed it became one of the songs that defined the 1980s, and by accident the perfect soundtrack for Reagan’s Star Wars fantasy of control and seduction.” Sean Combs didn’t hear any of that — he heard sadness and fragility.
Andy Summers, who often feuded with his bandmate when they were making Synchronicity, was more magnanimous years later about “Every Breath You Take.” “It’s stunning in its simplicity,” Summer allowed, although he also threw in, “It does have a great guitar part. I’ll take credit for that.” That guitar part was so seductive, so enigmatic, that it could mean anything. Obsession. Romantic longing. Beauty. Ugliness. “I’ll Be Missing You” might have been a blatant rip-off, but Combs found a new way to hear a riff we’d sworn we’d heard so many times: In his hands, it was an elegy. At last, “Every Breath You Take” was finally a proper love song.