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Notorious BigHannah Fincham

The hidden story of Notorious B.I.G’s “Who Shot Ya?”

Biggie released the controversial B-Side less than two years before his tragic death – now known as the most contested diss track in rap history

According to Jay Z, Biggie and his release of “Who Shot Ya?” stopped time. “You’re just as good as your competition around you. You know when someone else pushes you to really step your game up? That song, it was so crazy. It just had an effect on everybody. The world stopped when he dropped “Who Shot Ya?” he told MTV.

“Who Shot Ya?”  was released 20 years ago today. Appearing on the B-side to The Notorious B.I.G.’s third single “Big Poppa”, the track has become one of the most contested and controversial in rap. While arguments still rage over the intentions, it was instrumental in hotting up the East-West feud. Despite – or maybe even because of – this, the five minutes and 21 seconds of the track made hip-hop history. Imitated countless times, bettered never, a cipher classic and boom bap high-watermark, here’s our guide to the most influential B-side in rap. 

THAT BEAT, THOSE KEYS

Before Biggie’s irresistible flow starts, even before Puff Daddy intros the tune, comes the beat. The man behind the beat is Nashiem Myrick, one half of the Hitmen, Bad Boy Records’ inhouse production squad.

Former managing editor of the source, Combat Jack, summed up the extraordinary beat: “Nashiem was such an ill producer for how he came up with the beat. When I first heard it…my mind couldn't comprehend how otherworldly the track sounded. Listen to them keys drop made me feel like I was tripping on dust, and I never smoked or inhaled dust in my life”.   

At the core of the record is David Porter’s "I'm Afraid the Masquerade is Over", a 1971 Stax / Volt classic. Porter is one of rap’s most sampled artists – Drake, Wu-Tang and even Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” use his songs. “This record is probably one of the hip hop templates. It’s been used about 10 times at least.”. Nashiem explained to Dubspot, “Basically the drums are already in the record.  We started to mix one night, and Puff said, ‘where is the rest of the track?’ I said ‘there’s no more track, its just a loop!” This is where the second sample originated.  “Poke from the Trackmasters came through and give me drums that fit so lovely, fluffy drums that just put right in the mix. Then drums are knocking. Perfect situation, with those drums.” 

“I'm Afraid the Masquerade is Over”, is also used in GZA's “Duel of the Iron Mac”, "It’s Over”, by Ghostface Killah, “ILL Bomb” by Funkmaster Flex and Big Kap and “It’s Over”, by Freeway.  In turn, over 50 songs sample “Who Shot Ya?” : “Ether” by Nas, and “Brooklyn” by Mos Def being the most popular. 

IT WAS MEANT FOR MARY J BLIGE 

In the birthing stages of the song, “Who Shot Ya?”  was initially created as an interlude for Mary J Blige's album, My Life. However it was rejected as being too violent for an RnB album – unsurprising, really, considering that the outro is “Can’t talk with a gun in your mouth, huh?” and features Biggie boasting about toting Glocks at christenings. However, the two would later collaborate with each other on Mary J Blige’s single, “Real love”. 

WHO HIT YA UP?

So, it’s a nasty-ass song, and it's got an incredible beat. “Who Shot Ya?”  captures Christopher George Latore Wallace – who is, lest we forget, widely remembered as the greatest rapper ever – at the height of his powers, claiming his crown as the King of New York. But what really, really takes “Who Shot Ya?”  a step further is what happened over in L.A.

Biggie’s onetime pal, and the most hands-down transfixing MC out of the west (if not the best), Tupac Shakur, was shot in late 1994 during a robbery at a Manhattan recording studio, which ended with Tupac recovering from gunshot wounds in hospital. It was noted that B.I.G came into the studio twenty minutes later, yet managed to remain safe. Not least, by Tupac himself, who didn’t exactly love the timing of “Who Shot Ya?”  released two months after, saying to VIBE: "Even if that song ain't about me, you should be, like, `I'm not putting it out, 'cause he might think it's about him.' "

Tupac’s next tune was as unequivocal as responses come. “Hit ‘Em Up”, with its lyrics, “Biggie, remember when I used to let you sleep on the couch? 5 shots couldn't drop me : I took it and smiled. Now I'm back to set the record straight. With my AK, I'm still the thug that you love to hate and we bust on Bad Boys, niggas fucked for life”, are pretty unguarded as to Tupac’s feelings – and even, perhaps his intentions.

TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA  

On September 13, 1996, Tupac’s car was shot up in Las Vegas. On March 9th, 1997, Biggie was caught in a drive-by in L.A. Neither of these titans of hip-hop survived.  

In a grim twist on Biggie’s song title, both cases remain open and unsolved. This was partially due to suspicious concealment within the police force. Allegedly, former Los Angeles Detective, Russell Poole was pulled away from important leads within the case as it began to point toward members of the police and their connection with Death Row Records, Tupac’s label, and its former founder, Suge Knight. In Broomfield’s documentary, Biggie & Tupac, it’s heavily suggested that Knight had a personal vendetta against Tupac, and murdered Biggie in order to divert attention away from himself.  

Arsenio Hall, a friend of Tupac’s who was with him during the night of his death told Rolling Stone, “Law enforcement around the country weren’t big Tupac fans. I'm absolutely positive they know what happened. This is America. We found Bin Laden. I believe that if Justin Bieber had gotten shot in Tupac’s car, we’d know more.”

In 2005, meanwhile, a judge dismissed Biggie's family's case against the city of Los Angeles, claiming that evidence was knowingly mislaid. The case was dismissed in 2010, as the story of the song continues to mystify.