The Notorious B.I.G. was not a man who was shy about his love of taking tokes of the marijuana smoke. Neither is the late rapper’s son, CJ Wallace. That makes a move into the cannabis industry seem like a natural step for the 22-year-old actor – but equally, he knows he has to do right by the name of his father.
“I was thinking: how do we do it, other than just putting Biggie on bongs and Biggie on blunts?” he tells me. “Other than that, how do we really do it?”
We’re gently baking in the sun outside Wallace’s business partner Willie Mack’s home in the Los Feliz neighbourhood of Los Angeles. The pair met in May last year, after Wallace had wrapped shooting the third season of horror spinoff series Scream. He was on the hunt for someone who could help him use the Notorious B.I.G. name for something more than a cheap branding exercise. Mack, with a long background in cannabis marketing, was the man for the job.
“When I heard he didn’t want to do Biggie blunts and bongs I was like: ‘Thank God!’” says Mack with a laugh. “I’ve worked in cannabis for a minute, and I’ve had to talk a lot of people off a lot of bad ideas.”
Wallace and Mack discussed the opportunity they saw for a cannabis company that would be as concerned with promoting creativity, health and social justice as it would be with the workaday business of selling weed. The result is their newly-launched brand Think BIG, a collaboration with California-based organic cannabis farm Lowell Herb Co, and their first THC product: a limited-edition pack of seven pre-rolls. Wallace got his wish, and Biggie’s name isn’t even on the packaging. Instead, their hand-picked hybrid of Orange Sherbet, Banjo and Rattlesnake Sour Diesel strains is called The Frank White Creative Blend.
“I remember hearing my dad say ‘Frank White’ and not understanding it as a kid,” says Wallace of the alter-ego that Biggie adopted from the 1990 Christopher Walken gangster film King of New York.
“Before I even knew it was a movie, it was just this ghostly figure of ‘Frank White’. For me, being a kid and hearing my dad’s lyrics I was always scared of him!” he says seriously. “Then as I got older, understanding who Frank White was gave me more pride in how my dad was able to create two egos and really become the King of New York. It’s totally carried through time. Any Biggie fan knows Frank White, and [even] the people you have to explain it to get it immediately, like: ‘Oh, shit, that’s dope!’”
Wallace was just five months old when his father was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles in the early hours of 9th March 1997. He was 24. Biggie’s death came three years after his debut album Ready To Die, released 25 years ago next month, had become an instant classic, spawning hits like Juicy and Big Poppa. Along with Tupac Shakur, also killed in a drive-by a year earlier, he was considered one of the defining rap voices of his era.
The following year Wallace’s mum, R&B singer Faith Evans, married Todd Russaw (he’s still close to Wallace and is another co-founder of Think BIG). The family then moved to “the Country Club of the South”, suburban Atlanta, where they lived in a gated golf course community alongside Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Usher and several members of soulful boy band 112.
Evans – who released the 1997 smash Biggie tribute I’ll Be Missing You with Puff Daddy and was signed to his Bad Boy label at the time – built a recording studio in the basement. Readers perhaps won’t be surprised to learn that, from a young age Wallace, was accustomed to the scent of marijuana smoke – and was well aware of the role it can play in the creative process.
“We lived there when I was between three and six,” recalls Wallace. “I grew up with both my younger brothers and my older sister. For us as siblings, we always wanted to be in the studio. We’d hear all the music from upstairs and be like: ‘We gotta go down there!’
“I remember sneaking into the room and they’d be smoking. They didn’t know we were in there so it wasn’t like they were blowing it in our faces, but we were always around it and smelling it and just being in that energy.”
Wallace started smoking cannabis shortly before he turned 16, the summer after his first year of high school. “It was with the close guy friends that I always hung out with. It was just around! I didn’t really understand at the time, but I was also self-medicating. My parents had gone through a divorce, and being around that and seeing how it took place definitely did something to me. I mean, I still need to go to therapy. But don’t we all?”
Alongside his own nascent toking, Wallace began to see the drug in a whole new light when his youngest brother Ryder was diagnosed with nonverbal autism. Having access to medical cannabis transformed his life.
“We started using CBD and THC products with him,” recalls Wallace. “It was almost simultaneous that I started using it and he started using it. For me, it was for recreation as well as for medical use, and for him it was purely for the health benefits.”
“Thankfully we’d moved to LA by then. If we’d been somewhere like Arizona or Texas he would have had to use opioids,” he points out, highlighting those states’ ongoing prohibition of medical marijuana cannabis. “My mom was always against that. CBD and THC have always been the first choice for us.”
As much as cannabis connected Wallace with his younger brother, he also felt it helped him commune with the memory of his father. He learned that they’d both started smoking at around the same age. “Dad would go to Jamaica every summer – he loved it out there. I’ve heard all the stories. His favourite strain was Lamb’s Bread, which was also Bob Marley’s favourite strain. He really used to smoke a lot, like Snoop,” he says with a knowing smile.
“He would end studio sessions if there wasn’t any more to smoke, and if his guys couldn’t come through for him, he’d fire them. Even his best friends! So he was very serious about it. No nonsense at all. I think I’ve adapted a few qualities of his!” he adds, laughing.
Like a vastly disproportionate number of young black men, Biggie Smalls was at one point arrested for cannabis possession. This is where the social justice element of Think BIG comes in. Wallace and Mack have both seen first-hand how calculatedly racist drug laws target black communities.
“It’s always been about race,” avers Mack. “You had all this propaganda that became part of the culture around cannabis being this really harmful thing, and then you add to that the policing of it and that removes people from communities. Then you destroy communities because families and fathers and kids are now in jail.”
The pair hope that Think BIG can be a positive force for change in America’s slow journey to a less racist future. They’re giving a proportion of the proceeds from The Frank White Creative Blend to The California Prison Arts Project, and they’ve also been working with lobbying groups like the Marijuana Policy Project.
“We’re still fighting for federal legalisation,” points out Mack. “And we’re trying to figure out how to think bigger around the problem of not just people in jail, but what happens to the people who are already out? This is a bigger problem than just people needing to get out of jail. It’s about criminal justice, social justice, economic justice and political justice. We’ve got to fix the problem here and then help fix the problem that we, as America, helped create around the world.”
Needless to say, addressing this critical issue of social justice has not entirely been seen as a priority by most of the other cannabis start-ups who are right now scrabbling to capitalise on California’s green rush.
“It’s so easy to forget how things start when it doesn’t concern you,” says Mack. “So many people in the cannabis industry are people coming in new who have no connection to the history of it. They’ve never known anyone go to jail. They’re like: ‘Let’s start a cool brand and make a bunch of money!’ That’s great and all, but there are still people sitting in jail. People are still dealing with this on a daily basis. Not just black people, but people of every race and every culture. That’s not OK.”
By combining their love of smoking weed to enhance creativity with their understanding of the medicinal benefits and the need to work towards social justice, Wallace and Mack seem to have found a way to use the Notorious B.I.G. name for something more worthwhile than just flogging bongs and blunts. Next they plan to roll out a full Frank White line, available online from the start of 2020. Wallace is pretty sure Biggie would’ve gotten a kick from seeing the name Frank White on a packet of pre-rolls.
“He’d definitely love it,” he says with palpable pride. “My mom loves it. She’s super supportive. So does my grandma and the whole family. Nobody really expected me to do this. They were like: ‘Damn, we thought you were just getting high!’”