I feel silly telling this story. I mean, it’s just a belt. But it matters to me.
The story begins in 1997 at The Source magazine.
And it starts with Rigo “Riggs” Morales.
Last week, Riggs was named senior VP, A&R and artist development at Atlantic Records. Over the past 20 years, Riggs has signed and guided dozens of platinum-selling acts, from Eminem to Wiz Khalifa and Janelle Monae.
He is an accomplished executive, respected by his peers and musicians. But 23 years ago, he was a writer and editor at The Source magazine. And he was over it.
After a few years at the red-hot center of hip-hop journalism, he felt like he wasn’t getting the right support. Or the right promotions. Months later with a new title — associate music editor — he made it clear that he wanted to be the music editor, which was the number two job at the magazine. Instead, he was given yet another new title: senior associate music editor. “You know what that stands for right,” he said to a coworker. “It spells out S.A.M.E. New title. Same responsibilities.”
Riggs was ready to go. He was close to everyone in the office and had started his career as an intern at the magazine. But he still knew he had gone as far as he was willing to go. The announcement was made that he was leaving, and some of his fellow writers were stunned. Riggs was an institution. He shrugged when people asked questions. “It’s just time,” he would say.
Riggs had an actual office, a rarity for most of The Source employees. When you walked in, there was a left turn to the subdued advertising and marketing side of the office, where the publisher, Dave Mays, held court in a quiet back lair. Make a right turn instead, and there was a cacophonous bullpen. There were a few dozen writers, editors, and assistants all blaring music, from Wu-Tang to Buju Banton, some from cushy window offices facing Park Avenue South, some facing the back of a co-worker’s head in a cubicle dump. There was no peace and no privacy. And you would think headphones had not yet been invented.
The cubicles were affectionately known as The Projects, a nod to their cramped space. The offices lining the walls that led to the editor-in-chief’s office were known as The Condos. The fire escape, known as The Porch, was used for midday vices, including shots of Hennessy and smoking blunts. The other tenants in 215 Park Avenue South did not appreciate it and complained often.
The Source, born nine years earlier in a Harvard University dorm room, had moved from Cambridge to New York City, first to a scrappy space with hardwood floors on Broadway, then to the Projects and Condos corporate building off Union Square Park. By 1999, Jann Wenner, owner of Rolling Stone, had offered to buy the title after seeing its astronomical double-digit growth on newsstands and subscriptions in less than a decade. The publisher, Mays, declined.
Riggs’ condo was piled high with hip-hop memorabilia, submissions for the magazine’s Unsigned Hype column, dolls, cassettes, magazines, and posters. Over the course of a week, he slowly and methodically packed up his office, parceling out some goodies to random co-workers and boxing up the rest.
When he was done, there was only one item left in the office. Something he could neither give away nor take himself.
Riggs asked around to find out who would be moving into his office after he left. He called and said to come by his office when they had a chance. He had an extremely important message for the new associate music editor. He waited.
That new editor? That was me.
Ending up at The Source magazine was nothing short of a miracle. I have the background — born and raised in East Orange, New Jersey, adjacent to Newark, home to groups like Naughty by Nature and Redman. I’m hip-hop by osmosis. I was too young to ever have made it to clubs like The Zanzibar and Club 88 at their height. But I was steeped in hip-hop, all the way back to finding the smooth grooves on the blacktop of my street so my six-year-old self could roller skate to “Rapper’s Delight.” It would feel like a rink — not just a random pothole-filled street on the good side of the ’hood.
The year 1988, a banner year for hip-hop, did not move me. I bopped to Big Daddy Kane’s Long Live the Kane debut but crushed on him more than his music. As a child of the NOI, I respected Public Enemy but didn’t buy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back with my meager allowance. I mean, come on, Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel had just dropped too!
Truth be told, my life changed forever when Mariah Carey released Vision of Love during my senior year.
I opted not to mention that during my interview at The Source in the summer of 1999. I know now that my boss, Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, was not looking for me to be a hip-hop head. He had plenty of those. After a decade of having writers who were fiercely loyal to the culture, he wanted to expand. The music department — all male for years — needed some feminine energy. And it wouldn’t be the end of the world if her first love was R&B.
Some of my future co-workers weren’t so sure about that.
I came in as a staff writer, and I kept my head down and wrote my ass off. Riggs was one of the first to officially acknowledge me. I was headed to the bathroom. He sped past me on a scooter and yelled out something that sounded like, “That story was dope, yo.” He was gone, back in his office, before I could respond. But he’d cleared the air. If Riggs was acknowledging my existence, it was okay for the other writers and editors to do the same. I started to get a “hey, what’s up” from a few folks. Occasionally.
A few months later, I went undercover as a high school student for a story on a young rapper named Lady Luck who was signed to Def Jam while still in high school. Her label would not let me go to school with her, so it was decided that I would dress down and sneak into school to get color for my story.
At this point, Big was the biggest rapper on the planet. The idea that he would be walking around with a fake leather belt that was falling apart was perplexing and hilarious.
I bought a pair of overalls, a red Jansport backpack, and a crisp pair of white Air Force 1s, the first I’d ever owned. I changed in the bathroom and made a point to walk by Riggs to see if he would notice. He didn’t say a word and kept walking. Finally, I called out to him, and he did a double take. He circled me, nodding approvingly. He gave me a single warning: not to get a speck of dirt on my sneakers before the first day. No self-respecting high school kid would show up on the first day of school with dirt on their sneakers.
I listened to Riggs’ advice, not for the last time, and all was well.
The next time — and last time — I listened to Riggs, he was calling me into his office, the one I was moving into, on his last day.
Riggs was a jovial guy. He was hip-hop down to a cellular level — but he didn’t take himself or the culture too seriously. He smiled. Which was rare in late ’90s hip-hop. The scowl was the rule, not the exception. I had learned to keep my normally chipper personality a bit muted.
When I stepped into his office, I was immediately thrown off. He wasn’t smiling. He was packing up last-minute things and not making eye contact.
“Hey, close the door. And have a seat.”
All I could think was: Did they tell him to fire me when I thought I had his job?
“Look at the door,” he said.
On the back of the door was a peeling pleather belt. The belt was so long that although the buckle was nearly at the top of the door, the end of the belt was almost to the floor. I looked back at Riggs for an explanation.
“It’s Biggie’s belt.”
I looked closer and shook my head in disbelief.
“Yeah, it is. Look at the notch. That’s where he had to close it.”
I took the belt off the hook. It wrapped around my waist several times, and I saw the well-worn notch that had been punched in with a sharp edge. Whoever that belt belonged to was huge.
“This is really B.I.G.’s belt?” I asked Riggs. “How did it get here?”
And then Riggs told me “The Legend of the Biggie Belt.”
In 1997, Big came up to the office. He was being fitted for a photo shoot and had to take off his belt. It was raggedy, and Riggs and a few other folks were clowning him about it. At this point, Big was the biggest rapper on the planet. The idea that he would be walking around with a fake leather belt that was falling apart was perplexing and hilarious. Big’s alias was Frank White, from King of New York! Christopher Walken’s character would never wear a belt like that. Riggs told him to toss it. Big said no. He told Riggs to hold on to it and that he’d come back to the office and pick it up.
Instead, a few weeks later, on March 9, 1997, Big was shot in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. While sitting at a red light, the shooter fired from an Impala into the passenger door of Big’s GMC Suburban. Big was hit with four bullets. He was pronounced dead shortly after.
Riggs left the belt on his office door. It didn’t feel like a monumental relic or symbol of hip-hop history. It wasn’t one of Big’s infamous Coogi sweaters or the Versace sunglasses that he wore or shouted out in his rhymes. It was a no-name brand size 52 belt. And yet, Riggs decided it needed to stay in that spot.
“That belt doesn’t leave this office,” Riggs said to me.
“Not under any circumstances,” he continued. “It stays right there. Right on that hook. Unless Big himself comes here to get it, it doesn’t move.”
“I got it.”
“If you move offices or if you leave The Source, the belt stays here. You can tell the next person who moves in here.”
Riggs left. I moved in the next day. And for my time in that office, I can’t say I thought about the belt much. I could only see it when my door was closed, which was rare. And there was so much going on at a place like The Source, there was little time for reverie.
But I touched it absentmindedly from time to time. And I did break the rule just once and told the whole story to my friend Paul from high school. His wide-eyed and slack-jawed silence reminded me how special it was to have such a tiny piece of history in my office.
I never moved the belt. I rarely thought about the belt. And then, one day, something weird happened.
I woke up one morning, the sun heavy on my face. It was that in-between moment when your eyes are still closed but your brain is waking up. I yawned, opened my eyes, and expected to see my roommate’s cat at the foot of my bed. But I wasn’t in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I wasn’t in the three-bedroom apartment I shared with Dylan and Amanda.
I was in a hotel room in San Francisco, California, after spending a week following The Lox on a college tour. I was so exhausted from constant traveling and writing that my brain had me back home a full day before I would be there.
It was time to leave The Source. The job was a dream come true, but I was ready to find a tiny corner of the world and sit with my laptop and churn out some books.
When you go undercover as a high school student, attend The Source Awards (which ends with you dragging your eight months’ pregnant co-worker to a bathroom to hide from Suge Knight’s crew), then go undercover as a stripper at Magic City in Atlanta — and then spend time with DMX in New York, then Cash Money in New Orleans, then Ruff Ryders in Yonkers, and then chase down Mase in Times Square when he retires from rapping — and when all those things happen in the same three-month period…
Yeah. It was time to pack up the office. And make a phone call.
After I gave notice, my boss asked me to make a recommendation for my replacement. It wouldn’t be my decision, but my thoughts would make a difference.
I called Jermaine Hall. Jermaine has been my friend for 20 years, yet I’m not quite sure how we met. I know I briefly dated a friend of his in the late ’90s. We may have met that way. But I remember that when I was leaving The Source, he was one of my go-to writers. I invited him for a pre-interview and then told my boss he’d be perfect.
On my last day in the office, I was packing up, and I’d asked Jermaine to come by before I left for good. My condo, like Riggs’ before me, was a hot mess. Books, magazines, clothes, empty Henny bottles. The Source was nothing if not a good time.
Jermaine looked around with wide eyes and found a place to perch.
“Look,” I said. “Behind you.”
Jermaine turned and his eyes followed the belt from the top of the door to the floor.
“Is that a belt?” he asked.
“It’s Biggie’s belt,” I said.
“Yeah, right,” said Jermaine. “How would Big’s belt be in here?”
“In 1997, Big came to the office,” I began.
I finished the story Riggs told me the year before. And like me, Jermaine was stunned. Jermaine has been a Bad Boy stan since Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear.” He would go on to interview every artist on the label, including three stories on Puff, one being the legendary Playboy Q. And yet, with all of his interactions with the label, he’d never seen Big perform, never interviewed him. Like me, he came into journalism right on the cusp of the deaths of Pac and Big. Everything dealing with those two was a hushed whisper by the time we came into the field. Some of our fellow writers had video of Big, some had cassette tapes of interviews, some had hung out with him, some had helped put him on. But the writers who came after 1997?
We had a belt. A size 52 pleather belt.
After I told Jermaine about the belt, I gathered the last of my things and bounced. It was August 2001.
I’ve been a freelance writer, author, and journalist ever since. And after I left The Source, I never thought about the belt at all. A few years after I left, I got my first book deal, collaborating with singer Faith Evans on her memoir, Keep the Faith. Even during a year and a half of interviewing Faith about her relationship with Big, including their tempestuous, drama-filled marriage, I never told her about Big’s belt. It never came to mind.
“That belt doesn’t leave this office. … Unless Big himself comes here to get it, it doesn’t move.”
And then, in 2009, I saw the trailer for the movie Notorious. I didn’t plan to see the film — after writing the book with Faith, I was a bit too close to the story.
But the belt popped into my head for the first time in nearly a decade.
I called Jermaine. At this point, Jermaine was long gone from The Source and had moved on to Vibe, where I wrote for him often.
“Where’s the belt?” I asked Jermaine.
I held in an internal scream.
“Big’s belt! I told you what to do with it!”
Jermaine was silent and then remembered.
“I did what you told me, Aliya! I told Gotti, don’t touch it, don’t tell anyone. Pass it on. I swear.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. And here is where it gets weird. Or rather, here is where I get weird. After Jermaine told me he passed the story of the belt, I wanted to know where it ended up. At that point, it had been 12 years since Big gave it to Riggs. And 10 years since Riggs entrusted it to me.
I wanted to know what happened to that size 52 peeling piece of pleather. I felt like I had a responsibility to Big, to Riggs, to The Source to keep it safe.
But I couldn’t find Jonathan “Gotti” Bonanno. Jermaine told me to look for Thomas Golianopoulos, who’d worked there at the same time. It just so happened that I ran into Thomas at an industry event a few days later. I turned on my camera phone and asked him point-blank: What happened to the belt?
Thomas told me that when he started at The Source, Gotti told him about the belt. He looked up at it, took in the story, and vowed to keep his mouth shut and keep it safe.
Thomas was only in the office for three months. He told me a woman named Kimberly Burgess moved in. I found her on Facebook and looked her up.
“Yes,” she said, “Thomas told me about the belt. I didn’t touch it. I didn’t tell anyone. I followed the rules. I wasn’t there very long. But when I left, I told the next person. His name is Joel Randell. You’ll need to find him to see what happened.”
Riggs. Me. Jermaine. Gotti. Thomas. Kimberly. Joel.
At this point, I got chills every time someone told me “I did what Riggs said to do.”
Why do I care? Here’s the best way I can describe it. In January of 1977, I was three years old. I was a precocious kid, and I loved to be in grown folks’ business. But for a week straight, there was something going on at my house that I couldn’t quite understand. First, my dad came home early each day. And there were people crowded around the television: friends and family and some people I didn’t know. There was electricity in the room — with a slight tinge of fear. I didn’t want to watch what was on television every night that week. There were weapons and whips and crying and strange noises.
It was the miniseries Roots, the film version of Alex Haley’s magnum opus. It would take me many years to understand why my people were so invested in the miniseries. This was not just a film. This was unanswered questions about life — all of our lives. What a privilege to know where you came from. To know your people going back generations. When I finally read Roots, I cried at the part where he names his ancestors from Kunta Kinte down to himself.
I can’t go any further than great-grandparents on both sides. And I’m not even sure what’s accurate. And as for physical things, I have even less. I have my grandmother’s wedding band, which I wore as my own. And that’s it.
Most Black folks don’t have stories. We don’t have heavy Bibles handed down through generations with words like begat and betrothed. We have oral histories, often flawed.
My dad died three years ago. I handled it like the true stoic I am. No tears. But a few months later, I found his wallet and went through it. And my college ID was in there. And I wept. For 30 years, he’d kept his own relic close by. Even though I saw him all the time, he wanted this small piece of plastic nearby every day. It was as new as the day I thought I lost it.
Things matter. We give things value.
Joel Randell was hard to find. I stalked him on social media, posting to his wall, sending him DMs on every platform. A friend of mine told me to let it go. The story of the Biggie belt was cute. It had lasted from Riggs in 1997 for a decade. It’s okay to let it go.
I didn’t let it go.
I asked a mutual friend to reach out to Joel. He finally called me, apologizing for ignoring what seemed like spam. He told me that on his very first day at The Source, he settled into his office and closed the door. He was filling out paperwork from HR when there was a knock. Gotti walks in, no eye contact, splitting a blunt with his nails. He closes the door.
“What’s your name?” he says.
“I need to tell you about this belt,” says Gotti, as he rolls his blunt.
And at that moment, in March of 2004, Joel became the seventh Keeper of the Belt. He was gone a few months later. The Source was going through a round of internal and external issues, from budgets to staffing woes. Joel bailed for a position at Star and never thought about the belt until I called him five years later.
Here, it gets murky. A dude named J. Pablo was at the office at some point. I think I spoke to him about his involvement as a Keeper of the Belt, but I’m not even sure. Here’s what I know. The Source left 215 Park Avenue South in 2005. Most of the people I’d worked with were long gone. I had stopped writing for the magazine and didn’t even look for it on newsstands. Because of all the drama surrounding it, I didn’t even list it on my resume anymore.
But I remained a proud writer from The Source, surrounded by people I admire and still do. My first editor-in-chief Selwyn and his replacement, Carlito Rodriguez, both write for film and television. If you look at a single masthead from my era, the list of accomplished writers is telling, from writer Ta-Nehisi Coates to filmmaker Erik Parker. It’s a special place.
Robert “Boo” Rosario was an assistant in the music department when I got there. Boo was unapologetically hood, rough around the edges, and very loyal. If I ever went to an event, party, concert, or listening session, I looked around for him. If he was there, I could truly relax. Nothing was happening to anyone at The Source if Boo was in the house. And it would be a guaranteed good time.
Well, after I left and over the years, Boo got a few promotions. When The Source moved, it was his job to pack up any vacant offices. He headed straight for the office with the belt.
There was someone in there. A staffer who had learned the story. He was slowly rolling up the belt and trying to dip out. Boo stopped him.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Boo asked.
“Oh, come on, Boo,” the staffer said. “It’s just a fucking belt. Maybe we’ll get a few bucks on eBay. I’ll split it with you.”
Boo snatched the belt and packed it away with his things. And he carried that box to the new office in his own hand. Boo became the eighth (or maybe ninth) Keeper of the Belt.
The Source continued to become unstable. Every day Boo went to work, he felt it could be his last. One day, after a screaming argument with one of the owners of the magazine, Boo left for the day but then came right back, got the belt, and then went home. Just a hunch.
The next day, all the codes were changed, and security would not let him in. He was never able to get anything from his office.
But he had the belt.
Boo made his way back to Philadelphia, stored the belt in a firesafe box, and told no one about it. A few years later, he heard that I was looking for him. At first, he wouldn’t tell me that he had it. He just said he knew where it was and that it was safe. Then I heard him opening something in the background, and he told me yes, he had his hands on the belt.
“I’m holding it right now,” Boo said to me back in 2009. “It’s a size 52. Damn. I never look at the belt. But I just went into the firesafe box to check on it while I’m on the phone with you. And I just got a chill. I’ve always taken care of the belt. But I’m just realizing. Damn, this is really Big’s belt!”
That was in 2009. I may or may not have shed a tear. From 1997 to 2009, the belt was kept safe by eight (or nine) Keepers of the Belt who had no real reason to do so. Except that sometimes value just is.
It’s now been 20 years since Riggs told me “The Legend of the Biggie Belt.” I called Boo a few days ago. I was thinking maybe he could come up to New York and we could do a shoot with the belt. I haven’t seen it since I left The Source. Jermaine is my boss these days as editor-in-chief here at Level. Joel lives in Barbados. Kimberly and Thomas said they’d try to come by.
But the belt? Well, Boo moved around a lot over the past decade. It’s still in the firesafe box. But he left it with his mom when his living situation was very unstable. And moms move things. We know the belt is there, but Boo wasn’t able to find it right away. By the time you read this, he’s probably found it.
It’s the anniversary of Big’s death. I wanted a big, splashy photo of the belt to accompany this story. I don’t have that. I just have the goosebumps that I get every time I think of eight (or nine) people, over the course of a decade, holding on to a peeling pleather size 52 belt. Like it’s a grandmother’s wedding band. Or a child’s college ID card. Or just a tiny bit of hip-hop history.