Refocused and full of determination, Charli says she’s got what it takes to rock the mic right. B.I.G.’s former mistress, Ms. B-More, has returned to the rap game. Give her one more chance.
FROM THE MOMENT she popped onto hip-hop’s jumbo screen, people have hated on Charli Baltimore. “Who does that bitch think she is?” chickenheads clucked in 1996, staring intensely at the notorious ‘Get Money’ video. Featured as Big Poppa’s latest red-bone sweetheart, the former Tiffany Lane was introduced to the perils of Black planet pop when it was believed that she was merely a faux-Faith designed to diss Big’s estranged wife.
Forget the fact that the fat mack strolling on stage with Puffy was a serious womanizer who had documented his erotic exploits on tracks like ‘Fuckin’ You Tonight’ and ‘Nasty Boy’ — his femme fans still perceived this light-skinned cutie to be the enemy.
“And the worst part of it was. I wasn’t even trying to look like Faith,” laughs Charli. walking through the streets of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. It’s an unseasonably warm day two weeks before Christmas 2001, and Charli has just spent the afternoon searching for a gift for her husband, Dreece. Married since July, Charli still radiates a newlywed glow. Colorful lights flash in storefront windows, while lumberjack-looking White boys hawk pine trees on concrete. Although ma constantly fights the model thing, Ms. B-More walks down these dirty streets as though they were a runway. “Big had asked me to dye my hair brown, but I had never been in a video before, so I didn’t realize it was that deep.”
Yet those waters were shallow compared to the flood of despair that would come later. From the nigga’s other chick-on-the-side, Lil’ Kim, to roaring radio gossip mongers, to the average Gucci girl in the streets, nobody was checking for Charli. “It’s hard to change what people think about you,” she explains. After signing her first record deal with the now defunct Untertainment Records, the wrath became even more intense.
“Because Charli was once Big’s woman, people think she’s just a fine bitch that can’t write and doesn’t know how to spit,” screams Irv Gotti, CEO of Murder Inc. His 28th-floor midtown office, with its boxes of promo products and piles of papier, is a study in controlled chaos. “Of course she’s pretty and guys want to fuck her,” he says, “but folks need to let go of the preconception that she is wack. Charli can rap as good as any nigga.”
Gotti had already worked with Chuck, a nickname her home-boy Jadakiss laced her with many moons ago when she was in the process of recording her unreleased Untertainment album, Cold As Ice, in 1999. “When Un [Lance Rivera] reached out to me to produce tracks. I thought we were going to be working with ghostwriters. I had no idea of the talent she possessed.” A former Bed-Stuy blunt buddy of Biggie’s, Un had signed Charli the same year his boy was blasted. Although Un tried to make a name for himself as an executive, he is better known for being the victim in the Jay-Z stabbing case.
While many thought Charli would never get another chance at hip-hop stardom, she has been able to rebound from the edge of rap oblivion. After her Untertainment deal dissolved, the Philly dime signed up to be a part of Gotti’s slaughtering crew. Her smooth vocals can be heard on Ja’s latest single, ‘Down Ass Bitch’, the third single from his multi platinum disc Pain Is Love.
Hungrier than ever, Gotti refers to Charli as Starvin’ Marvin. “Charli has a star quality, and with some real music and street records, we can take her to where she wants to be. In the past she has been dragged through the mud, but I plan on consecrating the music. Believe me, that chick has some stories to tell.”
Dressed stylishly in heels, a denim skirl and a black leather coat, Charli pushes her shocking red hair back and explains. “No matter how many interviews and talking-tos I do, I’ve never felt as though people have really known me.”
Although she was bom in Philadelphia, the young Tiffany Lane was reared a country gal. “I was raised in Jackson, Tennessee,” she giggles. Walking through the door of the chic eatery Jezebel’s, she remembers, “We used to eat barbecue squirrel, rabbit and catfish. Those were the foods that I liked.” Although never one to cultivate many friendships, the young Charli was far from shy. “I was always writing poems. There was one that I wrote when my dog Gypsy died. It got published on the kid’s page of the local newspaper. I put a lot of thought into my ideas, but I could write them quickly. That is something that’s true even today. When my father died from cancer a few years ago, he had a box full of my old poems. He even had a couple folded up, all wrinkled and tearing, in his wallet. Now I only write poems for my husband.”
While her love for textual poetics taught her writing discipline, it was the bark of Big Daddy Kane that encouraged Tiffany to start scripting rhymes. “My rap name was Poison T.” she says, cracking a smile “When I was 11 or 12, I used to battle the boys in the schoolyard of Agatha St. James. Big Daddy Kane was my hero in those days, so when I spit, I tried to sound like him.” Of meeting him years later, Charli recalls, “I got so nervous I could hardly talk to the nigga, but he’s the reason I started rapping in the first place.”
After we wait a few minutes, the Jezebel’s hostess guides Charli and I across the parquet floor to our table. With its ornate crystal chandeliers, the restaurant is a froquont watonng spot for the likes of director Spike Lee, who hired Charli for his last feature, Bamboozled. “This has become my favorite spot,” she says, sitting down. Borrowing different decorative styles to create a singular aesthetic — abstract paintings hang from the walls and a white back-porch swing is suspended from the ceiling — the joint is a step removed from the hip-hop madness perpetrated at places like Justin’s. True to her roots. Charli orders a seafood appetizer and blackened catfish.
When the lanky teenaged Tiffany returned to illy Philly to attend high school, she transformed from daddy’s adorable little lady to wild child in the city. Almost overnight, Tiffany grew up. “I try to make a point of talking to young girls today, because I know what it’s like to be a teenage girl,” sighs Charli. “I became this off-the-hook kid who preferred hanging in the streets.” By the age of 15, her first daughter, India, would be born. “I was abused by her father, told I would never amount to anything by people, but I was determined. I still went to school, then afterwards I worked in a clothing store called City Blue until I graduated.
“Later, I went to Peirce Junior College to study [being a] paralegal,” she says. It was during that time that Charli met her second baby’s daddy. Another do-wrong brother who was more talk than action, he stranded his woman when she was still pregnant. “We were supposed to be engaged, but he left me with nothing. I had no money; I was walking to school without a coat. To this day, I don’t know how I did it.’ As though on cue, the restaurant’s sharp-dressed piano player starts tinkling the melancholy melody of the Tin Pan Alley classic ‘Misty’.
The meeting of Tiffany Lane and Christopher Wallace has become the stuff of hip-hop mythology. Indeed, it’s the kind of black tale that other women wish would happen to them, but almost never does. “He had done a show in Philly, and I asked if I could take his picture,” remembers Charli, sipping a glass of iced tea. “But he snatched the camera from my hand and said. ‘Let me take a picture of you instead.’ We became mad cool friends after that.
“Big wasn’t like a lot of guys I’ve met,’ she says of his inviting her to New York for one of R Diddy’s infamous parties. “He was really funny and crazy, but his mind was so deep. Most niggas don’t even know how to talk to women. They throw line after line just trying to get some ass, but Big was different. I’m not sure if I can translate his spirit into words, but sometimes I wish we had just stayed friends instead of developing a relationship.”
“Was it ever an issue with him being married?” I ask.
“He was separated by the time we got together, but Big was the epitome of drama. Being with him was like being in some soap opera. He was like a fucking rock star. Big was the John Lennon of hip-hop,” Chuck chuckles. “He could have any woman that he wanted, so it was off the hook. I was still a little wet behind the ears when we met, but I’m dry now thanks to Big. I would never have the tolerance now.”
“What kind of drama?”
“There were so many girls,” she recalls. “They didn’t care who was standing next to him. If they wanted to flash their tits or pull up their skirts while wearing no underwear, that’s exactly what happened. Sometimes he looked more scared of those girls than I was. Once Big told me, ‘Oh, that’s so-and-so’s girlfriend, but she wants to fuck me. So I’ll fuck her. too.’ Of course we had our fights, but I had to accept the fact that that was just him. It’s impossible for any man to be around that much shit and not test the waters.”
Yet once the sad-eyed Tiffany revealed her inner-raptress to the microphone king of New York, her life would change again. Dubbing her Charli Baltimore after the rogue broad in The Long Kiss Goodnight, Biggie encouraged his lover to sharpen her skills. He listened to her rap over the telephone, interrupting her only to give advice. “He was serious about me becoming an artist,” she confesses. “The best lesson I learned from Big was, it can always be better. I remember how much he would listen to Ready To Die before he went into the studio for [Life After Death]. You and I might consider Ready To Die a classic, but Big always felt he should have gone.one step beyond.”
While every rap fan has speculated on certain hip-hop what-ifs, one can only imagine the impact that Big’s dream-team supergroup, The Commission, might have had on the music. The group was to have featured himself, Jay- Z and Charli rocking the mic. “Big didn’t give a fuck about no rap niggas, but he did have respect for Jay,” she says. “He was cool with everybody, but Big knew he was the illest. I was around when they recorded ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’ for Jigga’s album, and you could just see the admiration he had for Jay.”
In 1996 and 1997, Charli was surrounded by death. First her father died of cancer, then a boyfriend killed himself, and finally, a few weeks before Biggie was tragically gunned down, another of her friends was shot five times in the back. At that point, Biggie invited Charli to chill with him out in Cali. “My best friend had just been killed on Valentine’s Day, and Big asked me to come out to where he and Puff were filming the ‘Hypnotize’ video,” recalls Charli, her voice gloomy. “He helped me get my mind off of my own miseries, and then the day after I flew back to Philly, he was killed.”
Finishing her delicious meal, Charli orders a hot tea and a shot of Hennessey from the white-shirted waiter. “I want people to understand I’m serious about this rap thing,” she explains. “All the stuff that happened when I was signed to Untertainment, all the bad press, all the negativity and all the people screaming ‘You’re wack!’ is what has made me focus on my rap career. I could do the model thing, be on [The New York Post’s] Page Six every day, but I’m a rapper first. Murder Inc. is a label for underdogs, and I’m the biggest underdog of them all.”
© Michael A. Gonzales, XXL, April 2002