March 31, 1997 12:00 PM

YOU COULD TELL BY HIS FUNERAL that Biggie Smalls was a complicated man. In 24 years he had already packed in three lives—as a shy, overweight kid, a small-time crack dealer and a renowned rap artist—and two nicknames: Besides Biggie, Christopher Wallace was, of course, also known as the Notorious B.I.G. At his wake hip-hop singer Faith Evans, Wallace’s estranged widow and mother of one of his two children, belted a gospel tune while his rumored girlfriend, singer Lil’ Kim, listened. And then there was the matter of his message. Wallace, who was shot dead on March 9 as he sat in a car in L.A., called his albums Ready to Die and Life After Death…’Til Death Do Us Part. But his fans took away more from his music than danger and morbidity. Last week, as they waited for his hearse to pass, two little girls sat on a car roof across from the Brooklyn apartment where the late rapper had grown up, clutching a sign that said: WE LOVE YOU BIGGIE, SAVE OUR YOUTH. STOP THE VIOLENCE.

If anyone were able to stop the violence, last Tuesday’s funeral would have been a good place to start. Just around the corner from Wallace’s childhood home, a scuffle broke out between police and mourners minutes after the motorcade passed. Fans had been dancing on parked cars, and the NYPD moved in with pepper spray and nightsticks. The result: several minor injuries and 10 arrests, including that of a New York Times reporter charged with disorderly conduct (police claim she pushed an officer; she says she was inadvertently maced). “Damn, they’re arresting that white lady,” noted one astonished teenager, as the reporter was led away in handcuffs.

The brief fracas, however, was the single sour note in an emotional celebration that began with a private service at a funeral home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. As Wallace lay in an open, extra-large mahogany casket, dressed in a white double-breasted suit and a white playa hat, 350 mourners—including Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Flavor Flay Sister Souljah, members of the Fugees, Salt-N-Pepa and Junior M.A.F.I.A.—gathered to pay their respects. Wallace’s mentor and confidant, Sean “Puffy” Combs, delivered the eulogy, and his mother, Voletta Wallace, read from the Bible. The service’s program quoted the slain rapper on the penultimate day of his life: “I want to see my kids get old.”

That wasn’t to be. Yet, along the cortege route, the mood was festive as several generations gathered on brown-stone stoops across from a makeshift memorial decorated with candles, CDs and photos of the star. “They’re here to express love,” said Brooklyn resident Carol Williams, 25. “It’s like when John F. Kennedy passed on. Biggie may not have been presidential material, but to the extent that he was able to come from this way of life and succeed, he means a lot to people.”

Those who had gathered discounted speculation that a feud between New York and California rappers linked Wallace’s murder to that of Los Angeles-based Tupac Shakur last September. “There is no East-West Coast thing,” said Rachel Berihu, 24, who recently moved from L.A. to New York City. “This isn’t the result of music, it’s the result of black-on-black crime.” A report in The Los Angeles Times indicated that Wallace may have been murdered by one of the Compton Crips—the very gang he’d used as West Coast bodyguards—over a financial dispute.

Yet whatever the circumstances of his death, for many people Wallace remains a hero for symbolizing what is possible. “It’s not good to glorify gangstas,” said Cordell Patterson, 26, as he watched the rapper leaving his old neighborhood one last time. “But he showed a lot of people from the streets that you can change. And he was trying to make the biggest change of his life right at the time of his death.”

JOSEPH V. TIRELLA in New York City

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