With all due respect, the month of February may not be the best time to hang around any rapper, what with a frequent number of artists, producers and hangers-on not making it through Black History Month alive. The obvious downside is that many of them (save for a “bling handler” or two) had promising careers ahead of them that unexpectedly ended. Yet it is only from death that many purveyors realize their significance.
As hip-hop has already mourned the losses of James “J Dilla” Yancey and Christopher “Big Punisher” Rios, there was another “Big” rap artist whose legendary status remains evident, as witnessed by the most recent hilariously nonsensical beef between 50 Cent (who ironically is the protege of another deceased legend, Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell) and his understudy, Cam’ron.
Lamont “Big L” Coleman was equal parts freestyle king, storytelling genius and punch line specialist. And while he was the recipient of more press than Soundscan sales, his reputation far preceded any Billboard chart position. Sadly, a week before he was reported to sign to then-conglomerate Roc-A-Fella Records, he was brutally gunned down just blocks from his Harlem home. But to those who knew him and knew of him, Big L wasn’t more than just a hometown hero, he was a legend in his own right.
Born and raised in the section of Harlem known as the “Danger Zone,” Lamont Coleman was always the comedian, known for cracking jokes among family members and friends. “He was mad funny…that’s why when he rhymed, he had a lot of slick sh*t to say,” good friend Cameron Giles remembers. “He was never on that hatin’ sh*t.”
Those jokes would transform into rhymes. Inspired by the likes of Run DMC, Cold Crush Four, Big Daddy Kane, Lamont would go on to develop his own innovative style, eventually adopting the moniker “Big L” (ironically considering the fact that he only stood 5’8”).
“I started writing rhymes in 1990 and was in a group called Three The Hard Way, but they weren’t serious so I went solo,” Big L says. “Then I started winning rap contests and battling everybody in my ‘hood and roastin’ em.”
It was in fact his freestyling prowess that attracted the attention of Diggin’ In The Crates co-founder Lord Finesse, who debuted L on the 1992 remix to “Party Over Here” and included him into the crew of the broad range of rappers and producers that includes underground mainstays like O.C. and Diamond D and now commercial hit makers like Buckwild and Fat Joe.
In 1993 Big L signed to Columbia records and released his first single, Devil’s Son, but the song was banned from radio due to then-controversial lyrics like “I pistol-whip the priest every Sunday.” Because of the animosity of the song, L’s debut album, Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous, was hardly promoted and didn’t make a dent on the Soundscan charts, despite early appearances by Jay-Z and Cam’ron. Eventually, he was dropped from the label.
After the album, Lamont returned to his Harlem roots, teaming with Cam’ron, Cam’s cousin Bloodshed, McGruff and Murda Mase to form Children Of The Corn. Although the crew were close to signing a deal, Bloodshed was killed in a car accident in Harlem, while Cam and Mase would leave to pursue basketball careers, eventually signing solo deals.
Big L founded his own label, Flamboyant Entertainment, and released the classic street singles Ebonics, Size ‘Em Up and Flamboyant. The enormous buzz garnered from the songs attracted the attention of Roc-A-Fella Records’ Dame Dash and Jay-Z, and were in talks to sign Flamboyant Entertainment to the Def Jam giant. Unfortunately, Lamont was killed February 15th, 1999, just days away from signing the deal to make it official. Those songs would make it on to his posthumous sophomore release, the gold-selling Rawkus Records release, The Big Picture.
Like most tragic hip-hop cases, Big L was yet another in the long line of artists who unfortunately pass on the verge of success. Considered by most to be the most underrated lyricist, Big L was an unheralded New York legend in a long list of Harlem rhyme slingers, and his impact continues to affect the rap game today.