The pain of losing a beloved entertainer, particularly a young artist, is born of the sorrow of lost potential.
The creative journey is shunted. Thousands of performances go unperformed. Dozens of songs go unwritten and unsung.
“What might have been” is one of the saddest concepts humans wrestle with, but the art can live forever, meaning there’s a limitless potential audience.
In a way, it’s sad if a kid from, say, Tulsa, discovers the rhymes of The Notorious B.I.G. in 2023, because he’ll never have a chance to experience seeing Biggie drop verses live. But in another way, what a beautiful thing: the emotion and the connection is as real to our hypothetical Oklahoman as it is to anyone else the first time they hear “It was all a dream/I used to read Word Up magazine.”
Fans — old and new — can consume the art endlessly. YouTube puts videos a click away. Digitization means the music can live to be discovered again in 2023, 2043 and 3003.
What could never be replicated is that ineffable quality that elevates live performance, that distinct but indescribable something: that thing that makes experience more valuable than mere consumption.
But how can that be offered for Biggie, an artist shot dead in 1997, already a giant but with no way of comprehending how deep and broad his influence and impact would be? Technology provides the answer.
In December, Meta — in conjunction with Biggie’s estate, which has been fiercely guided by his mother Voletta Wallace — produced a concert in a specially constructed part of the metaverse known as The Brook, a recreation of Biggie’s beloved Brooklyn in the early to mid-90s. The show, titled “Sky’s The Limit,” included performances from Diddy, The Lox, Junior M.A.F.I.A. members Lil Cease and Latto, Nardo Wick, DJ Clark Kent and Eli Fross.
And it included Biggie himself, in full-size lifelike photorealistic VR avatar form.
It’s a creation of Elliot Osagie’s Willingie Inc., and like so many great stories, it begins with Dionne Warwick.
A music lover — although his tastes run more to Miles Davis than Biggie Smalls — a “math guy” and software engineer, Osagie was always looking for ways to connect his two passions. He, for example, helped get Warwick on social media (however, he does not take credit for Warwick’s mesmerizing Twitter account. He only got her set up on Facebook). He then worked on an album with her son Damon Elliot, and with that connection Osagie met Mark Pitts, the former Bad Boy Entertainment executive and RCA Records president whose relationship with Biggie began in 1993.
Osagie started creating an online presence for Biggie, pushing content to YouTube and social media.
“Biggie was unique because it was a culmination of all my skill sets,” Osagie tells Pollstar. “In many ways, I became his digital identity. It was crazy. It was a massive thrill in the beginning and fans were flooding in and we started thinking about things to do with the audience.”
Fans, new and old, were clamoring for more Biggie, but there was only so much to give.
“I was running out of stuff. The audience was growing with billions of views,” he says. ‘The content was so limited; it was hard to continue posting the same 50 pictures or four or five music videos.”
There was only one album, Ready To Die, released during his life (Life After Death, chillingly, was released 16 days after he was shot).
In 2017, A&E released the film Biggie: The Life of Notorious B.I.G and Osagie helped design the Brooklyn Nets “Brooklyn Camo” jerseys that paid homage to the rapper.
Biggie’s audience was growing. His legend was growing. The world needed more Biggie but there was only so much to give.
“After being in it for seven or eight years, I realized there was more I could do to connect what I do with Biggie, as long as it went through the correct channel,” Osagie says.
That channel is, of course, Mama Wallace.
“We want to build a digital version of your son and have him live in a digital world” is not a normal conversation. There’s no roadmap for it.
But Osagie said he’d already built a tremendous amount of trust with Ms. Wallace, enough that she understood he wouldn’t cut corners or make her son a caricature. Any change to the design of the avatar had her approval, every step of the way.
But even with that blessing and guidance, Osagie recognizes that creating Biggie is a burden and a responsibility. To many people, the Biggie avatar will be the only real way to interact with and experience him and a creator has to nail the authenticity.
“For it to actually connect, you have to balance who they really were with how they were perceived,” he says.
Even he had a vision that Biggie was a gangster and a humorless tough, but the reality is that he was whimsical and clever. All of that had to come across in the avatar and in The Brook.
The concert and the world it occupies was critically acclaimed, one of the successes of the sometimes turbulent debut of Web3, drawing nearly 70,000 views through Oculus and via Biggie’s Facebook page in its first weekend alone.
And if it works for Biggie, it can work for virtually any other artist. Osagie says Biggie has changed the game for what’s possible for legacy artists and how and where their legacy lives.
Posthumous success is nothing new — most of Otis Redding’s classic catalog, for example, was released after his death — but the metaverse gives fans ways to experience artists in ways that would have been inconceivable in the past. More prosaically perhaps, it gives those artists’ estates new ways to monetize their catalogs. But Osagie also sees an educational value.
“I want to take this formula to educate younger generations and people globally,” he says. “Access to technology gives you the ability to experience what it’s like to see Jimi (Hendrix) perform. Billie Holiday isn’t just a picture on the wall and you can feel what it’s like to be at a smooth Sade concert. There’s part of it that always looks at education … like introducing Miles Davis to this generation of musicians.”