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"Flamboyant:" How Rap Legends Remember Big L 20 Years After His Death

Twenty years after the murder of bubbling rap legend Big L, VIBE assembles a who’s who of rap staples to celebrate his life and discuss his legacy.

“L would tell me, ‘Look, man, I have half a day on Wednesday.’ So I’d go get him from school and hang out with him.” – Lord Finesse

This bit of benevolence is, admittedly, an atypical foray into the narrative of Lamont “Big L” Coleman, a rapper whose barbed bars and withering wit would slay friend and foe alike. But very little about the lamentably short life of Big L makes sense: the prodigious rhymes; the unwavering voice; the bionic cadence; the relative anonymity outside diehard circles; the untimely and unsolved death.

So, this lawful incursion by Lord Finesse, himself a general fittingly crossing a river – in this case, The Harlem – marked a territorial shift from rap’s cradle into affiliated incubator. But, quite appropriately, it was the metaphorical shift that rang truest: the passage of knowledge from sage to scion. “When I first heard L, I saw the future,” Finesse reveals. “If that was him imitating what I'm doing, then I’m blown away because of how good he was at that age. Like, I found the next dude. So I took him everywhere, and he watched my career unfold in real time: If I had an interview, he was there. If I had a show, he was there.” Indeed, he was: Funkmaster Flex recalls a show at the Apollo Theater in March of 1992, seeing a then-17-year-old L perform as a guest of Lord Finesse.

Though just 24 at the time of his slaying, and having unearthed only the tip of a creative iceberg, Big L managed to leave a Titanic wake. To celebrate his life, and to answer some of the questions still lingering now 20 years later, VIBE assembled a who’s who of rap staples: Diggin’ in the Crates architects and primary L producers Lord Finesse and Showbiz; D.I.T.C. compeer O.C.; radio stalwarts Funkmaster Flex (who admired the ascent of his fellow Bronx bomber, Finesse), DJ Eclipse, and Lord Sear, also a Harlemite; Sauce Money, himself a fierce MC who came up with famed Big L frenemy Jay-Z; sonic savant DJ Premier, whose throaty “Big L rest in peace” mantra kicks off Gang Starr’s “Full Clip.” Regrettably omitted: DJ Premier’s Big L impersonations, the rapid-fire articulation employed even, as Preem attests, when L was having a conversation.


Showbiz: Let me put it this way. Sometimes I used to have MCs who thought they were real nice come through the studio. I would sneak off and place a call to Big L, to have him pop up and embarrass them on the mic—to the point they didn't want to rhyme no more. “These guys think they nice, let me call L, like ‘I got 500 for you right now,’ he like ‘bet.’” I never used to want to, you know, tell dudes they was trash. I just would put 'em against Big L so they could see for themselves.

Lord Sear: The wordplay. The way he put words together. Take any topic. If he was going to rhyme about buying a drink at the bar, he would start with going up to the bar and flip it to: getting your girl, having her sit down while he plots “I’m gonna rob this person of everything he got,” going back to the chick, then leaving the spot with her in the whip; f***ing her; breaking out, going back to the club, rocking the party, bagging another chick. He had it like that and it all made sense.

Funkmaster Flex: People can get mad at me for saying this, but he was the best lyricist at the time. He was a better lyricist than Biggie and Jay-Z. He just didn’t have the marketing and promotion. Let me go on the record and say that. It’s the truth.


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Bars for days! Harlem Legend! BigL! Via: @laurensjdrawings

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Sauce Money: Big L was a monster. He had this voice that just cut through the music. I’m not even talking about his wit; let’s talk about his tone first. Now you factor in the flow, the wittiness, the cadence, he was almost like a shark. The perfect killing machine.

DJ Eclipse: He made the incredibly complex look effortless. Even moreso, he had that aura about him. You knew you were around royalty, you were around greatness. Every time he made a radio appearance, it was tape-worthy. He was who everybody wanted to see and hear; anybody he brought with him was secondary.

Premier: His best attributes were his voice and his delivery. I’m into voices and his sound was so New York. He was a wordsmith but it’s also how you say it. That’s how you convince people you’re dope. When Rakim spits, he’s so convincing that he’s not to be fucked with on the microphone. Big L had the same type of confidence. You need that to reign in a gladiator sport.

Finesse: His wit and his imagination in putting rhymes together. He'd take a punchline and go left field with it; you wouldn't even see it coming. From a lyrical standpoint, those are the most incredible punchlines. The key is to make you rewind. Big L’s rewind factor made you go, "Goddamn, wait up, he said what?" And you have to go back. You have to. He took the time to make it rhyme flawlessly and it’s just so masterfully put together.


O.C.: Exactly how he spoke and behaved in his every day is how his music came across. His shit sounded gangster but he was often joking; he was a funny, ironic dude. It was humor and he would take real-life situations and turn them into jokes. He had this genius about translating and interpreting what he saw. He’d sit around, laugh, joke, snap on people—but at the same time, he’d be soaking all that shit up. “Ebonics” is the best example; he took every slang word popping at that time and put it into a song. And if you listen to that record, every line is put together perfectly. The verses align perfectly. Ain’t no such thing as a perfect record—but it is.

Finesse: Demeanor? Comedian. L was straight comedian.

Showbiz: There wasn’t one time that L didn’t come around without a joke. I don’t know about no quiet Big L. I didn’t know that dude. And even though L was mad funny, he was sharp. He wasn’t the type to take 100 takes in the studio; L would know exactly what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. He’d go in there and do that joint in one, two takes tops. L didn't drink, smoke, none of that shit. His mind was always sharp.



O.C.: The next album on deck after [O.C.’s own] Jewelz was supposed to be me and L. Showbiz had seen our chemistry on my single, “Dangerous.” So, without us knowing, he put a plan in motion: he told us to meet him at his spot around the corner from Harlem Hospital. He dropped a bag of money in our laps like, “Y’all gonna do this album. Let’s get to work.” The money caught us off guard, but we had big-ass smiles on our faces, like, “Shit yeah, let’s do it.” “Get Yours” was the first track we worked on; it wasn’t designed for the soundtrack [to the Jet Li movie Black Mask, on which the song appeared]. It ended up being the only song we got done. That experience always left a question mark over my head: how the album with L would’ve come out.

Funk Flex: [on the notion that L was going to sign to Roc-A-Fella Records] The Roc wouldn’t have been the best thing for him—matter of fact, I believe the Roc was gonna shelve L if they signed him. They were never gonna put that project out. They were scared of him. He was on that freestyle where he spanked Jay-Z, remember? [the legendary 7-minute freestyle between L and Jay-Z on The Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Show on WKCR, for which Lord Sear was present. That back-and-forth was an extension of previous rhyme battles in Harlem]. I dare anybody to tell me different.


Finesse: Of course, I think they jacked L. There was no doubt about it because that was L’s record, period: Everybody knew that. But that’s how B.I.G. was; if he wanted something he'd be direct about it: “I'm gonna take it and I'm gonna flip it my way.”

Funk Flex: Man, I remember this now! I remember being in the [legendary nightclub] The Tunnel when “M.V.P.” was starting to bubble. The guys from Bad Boy were in there every week and noticed that record gaining momentum. That sample was cranking in the clubs and it was such a big deal that L had it first. If you remember, the original album version of “One More Chance” was completely different. So Bad Boy jacked that DeBarge loop and remixed “One More Chance” on the fly. And I remember [L’s label at the time] Columbia telling me that was the last straw for Big L because Bad Boy stole his thunder, like ‘We don’t know how to combat this; they’re running with our loop.’

Showbiz: You might not believe this, but both L and I agreed that “One More Chance” was one of the best rap records ever. It was definitely a jack—Big L was performing with Biggie at a number of shows by this point. But Biggie took it, flipped it…and bodied it. Even L had to give it up to him; he was literally like “That’s the best rap record I ever heard.” In fact, and this goes against what people think of L’s “underground” identity, but L wanted to make those kinds of records. He wanted to rock, he wanted to go mainstream, he wanted to sell records. He knew he could do it all: ‘I'll burn you with lyrics, I can make boom-bap, I can make commercial.’ But he also knew he would have to find other producers to do it. I wasn't doing that shit.


DJ Premier: I had this girlfriend visiting from Japan and we were actually having sex at the time. Cell phones had just started to appear but we all still had pagers. We were doing our thing and the phone kept ringing and the pager’s buzzing. I’m like ‘something’s wrong’ but I’m also focused on trying to turn her on. I called my man and he’s like, “Please don’t tell me Big L is dead.” So I called Finesse and his girl at the time picked up, told me he was sleeping. I was like “Aight, cool,” thinking it meant good news. Then she told me the truth: they’d heard L had died and Finesse didn’t want to talk to anybody. But when he heard it was me on the phone, he picked up. He said Showbiz actually rolled by and saw his body still lying there. It broke me up; it broke my heart. Still some of the most devastating news I’ve ever received.

O.C.: He was the youngest, so naturally he was like the little brother. Nobody expected that. It derailed the collective, put a black cloud over us. He was on his way to greatness. People tend to forget that the streets and the music business crisscross. And sometimes you get caught up. Some people are lucky enough to get past it. L wasn’t. Everybody was like, ‘See, I knew he was a gangster.’ Oh, so that’s why you murder somebody? You ain’t even know him! That’s why a lot of this R.I.P. stuff isn’t genuine, man.

Showbiz: We were all just numb. That was the last thing we expected. No one could have dreamed that L would be killed. Like, I went to see the body right after he got killed, I seen him there on the ground. The thing about it is this: you never meet someone with that type of creative source. I've never met anyone that brilliant at doing what he did; I’ve never heard it done that way. And I was just looking at him on the ground and thinking, ‘This shit is a shame, like how could a guy with this much talent be lying here?” The world didn't even get to see the full talent on display. L was in a class by himself. It was just crazy.


Lord Sear: We need to talk about Big L more—not just on his birthday or the day he died. We need to hear his catalog more. We need to do a Harlem thing, with him leading the way: Harlem rap and what it meant to the culture. Everybody wanted to come to Harlem. Harlem was that shit.

Sauce Money: He’s the Gale Sayers of hip-hop: a short career but brilliant. He could’ve been one of the greats because he showed you those flashes of brilliance—who he could’ve been had he not been cut down before his time. He didn’t even scratch the surface of who he could’ve been.

DJ Eclipse: We were seeing L stand out as the go-to guy from the crew and you felt that presence. We all felt like he was on the verge: the guy who could balance what was going on in the streets, in the underground scene, and in the major label market. He was going to get to the mainstream and be like, “Yo, this is how it’s supposed to be done. You don’t have to sacrifice credibility or leave behind your standards.”

O.C.: L had his own path that people would’ve gravitated towards, pockets for different audiences. But these days, you got assholes online saying “He was cool but he was underground.” Shit, he sold half a million records dead! His album went gold before he was cold! Half a million records is not underground.

Showbiz: Lord Finesse never told me to look at another MC before L, and he hasn’t told me since. That sums it up.


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CAN'T BELIEVE IT'S 20 YEARS... We Miss You BIG L. Flamboyant 4 LIFE. Harlem's Finest. D.I.T.C. LEGEND! R.I.P.

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'The Last Train To Paris' Turns 10: Revisit Diddy's Aug./Sept. 2010 VIBE Cover Story

YOU EVER WATCH a control freak mellow out? It’s fascinating. When said micromanager is Sean “Puffy” Combs, it’s an enlightening ordeal altogether. Sitting at trendy Asian eatery Philippe Chow in New York City, two days before LeBron James announces that he’s taking his show to South Beach, Combs has talking points: impact and legacy. “This ain’t a regular run,” says Combs of his two-decade laundry list of accomplishments. “I’m saying that in the most humble way possible. I’m me and I’m seeing it. Most times the impact of what you do you don’t even live to see it.”

He’s the only patron seated for the evening, lounging at a table that comfortably seats eight. This is clearly a Sean John zone. His voice remains even, but the arrogance skyrockets. “It trickles over into sports. It goes into the way the free agent negotiations are going. [Athletes] have that belief. But that level of confidence as Black businessmen wasn’t really there. Unforgivable swagger. That shit wasn’t there.”

Translation: Sean believes that his ambition has been infectious. In his “humble” opinion, his drive has taught the have-nots that not only can they have, but they can be gluttonous and acquire wealth rather than riches. Will it ruin his day if people don’t agree? Not really. But he’d still like the legacy to be accurately documented. His reactionary reflexes have given way to him thinking long term, which could be why he’s unfazed by trivial shots like 50 Cent’s claims of having nude pictures of his artist Cassie. He’s more interested in guiding careers—Rick Ross, Red Cafe and Dirty Money, among them. And really, he’d like to do square biz and have your kids’ kids respect him like his contemporaries admire Warren Buffet. That would truly be money in the bank. In the meantime, he wants to mellow with a plate of chicken satay and talk Diddy legacy.

VIBE: You have said that rap’s heavyweight class consisted of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Drake. Do you still believe that?

Diddy: Definitely. I feel like Drake is somebody that entered professionally in the heavyweight division. He didn’t come in as a middleweight, he didn’t come in as a light heavyweight, he came in as a heavyweight. He’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with for a while. He is the definition of a new age musical rapper . . . going forward a lot of rap artists are going to have [singing and rapping] in their repertoire.

What’s the ranking in that heavyweight division?

Jay, Kanye, Wayne, and Drake.

Jay still No. 1?

Hands down as far as worldwide impact and due to this last album [The Blueprint 3]. He’s moved up in the rankings.

People don’t realize that you two are friends and not just industry acquaintances.

Over the years as we’ve grown, Jay and I have needed each other. We’ve needed to be able to pick up the phone and call somebody that can understand what each other was going through. We needed each other to motivate each other; we needed each other to push each other. We needed each other to support each other and also to challenge each other. He’s definitely been a great friend to me. There’s never been anything that I’ve asked him to do or he’s asked me to do that we really haven’t done for each other.

Give an example of when you had to pick up the phone and call Jay for assistance.

I wanted to do something game-changing with Sean John. And I just picked his brain. I did [a fashion line] before him but I think that business-wise he did a lot of things better than me. He picked the right time to get out and get his check, to sell his company. We sat on the phone and talked about itŃput our egos in our pockets. I didn’t see Sean John versus Roc-A-Wear. I just saw that my man over here is doing it [and I had] a couple of offers for Sean John. It was a beautiful conversation, ‘cause we’re sitting down at this restaurant and we’re talking about apparel. We’re not talking about music. It was a beautiful moment. Two quarter-of-a-billion dollar companies—just getting advice from your competitor. It was something that you heard rich White boys do.

Dr. Dre said that the last beat that floored him was “All About the Benjamins.” How does that make you feel?

It’s humbling. I was in the studio with Dre the other day. He started working on a record for me. Watching him as a producer is watching greatness. We had a lot of similar traits. It was like looking in the mirror. He would ask questions like, “How you feel about this?” People don’t really understand true producers want to know how you feel about things. We are some of the most observant people on the planet.

You’re a lot more into the music now than the last time we spoke.

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Are you feeling more comfortable writing on your own?

Yeah. I learned a lot more. I feel a lot more confident and free. On this album, I wrote like maybe two or three records by myself. But I still like writing with somebody. It helps me. Not using it as a crutch, but I get better results from co-writing; having my own feelings and thoughts, and, you know, getting some help with it. I love the feeling of collaboration, community in the studio. I don’t like being the mad scientist and being in the room by myself.

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Desus & Mero Bless A Bronx Bodega With A Year's Worth of Rent

You know them as the hosts of the hit Showtime series Desus & Mero, aka "the greatest show in late-night history, featuring only illustrious guests." These days you might catch them chatting with President Obama, but  Bronx natives Desus Nice and The Kid Mero have never lost touch with their roots as the Bodega Boys.

"On our first podcast me and Mero used to have to ride the train back afterward," recalls Desus. "And basically our conversation on the train sounded exactly like the podcast. And somebody was like, 'Yo, they sound like two guys you hear in the bodega.' Which was true, because when you hear guys in the bodega, they talk very passionately about things. They may not have all the facts, but they're talking with their hearts."

"Their confidence is strong!" adds Mero with a laugh.

"That's just us," says Desus. "We're raised in bodegas. Probably 90 percent of the food we grew up eating was either our mother's cooking or chopped cheese sandwiches."

"Facts," Mero confirms.

Ever since the pandemic hit, New York City's community bodegas have served as a lifeline by providing New Yorkers with daily necessities, especially in neighborhoods where door-to-door gourmet food delivery is not an option. But staying open hasn't been easy—the daily risks of doing business under threat from a deadly virus—not to mention a spike in robberies and violence—has made running a bodega very challenging, to say the least. But day in day out, in good times and bad, they find a way to keep their doors open.

"If your block is the solar system, the bodega is the sun," says Mero. "The hood orbits the bodega."

So when the makers of Pepsi cola decided to give back on the bodega owners who provide life-giving sustenance and ice-cold soda to NYC's five boroughs, they reached out to the Bodega Boys as their official goodwill ambassadors. Today Desus & Mero appear in a short film called The Bodega Giveback, which highlights the way one Bronx bodega overcame extreme hardship—and the way Pepsi is helping them keep going after 2020 comes to an end.

For Juan Valerio and his son Jefferson, the proprietors of JJN Corp Deli & Grocery in the Bronx, 2020 has been a horrible year. Juan still remembers when he came to America with his father in 1990. "To buy a bodega at that time was well over $100,000," Juan recalls in the short film, which you can watch above. "It was a dream that seemed unreachable. I never thought I would achieve it. And now this is what I do. My whole life is here."

Then in April 2020, tragedy struck when Juan's father lost his life to COVID 19. For the first time in three decades, the bodega had to close its doors down briefly. "It’s something very powerful to lose what you love the most in a split second," Juan recalls with emotion as his son comforts him with a hug. "Life goes on. And I decided to come back because he always taught me to work. To stay closed was disrespectful to him."

"He had to shut down for a little bit," says Desus. "But then he reopened cause the community needed him. Cause the lockdown a lot of stores closed down. And in the Bronx, you can't really get stuff delivered. And he's the hub. We heard stories of what he did, so we were like, how can we give back to him? Shout out to Pepsi with the Bodega Giveback. And just giving him a year's rent—that's the most amazing thing you can give a bodega owner. Shout out to Juan and his son. The look on their face when they really get it—you see the appreciation."

"It really hit home," said Mero. "Cause it's like, we're children of immigrants. So that could have been us—if we didn't get seen by the right people and put in the right positions, we coulda been workin' alongside our dad at a bodega. And then watchin' your grandfather pass away and then comin' back because you know how important you are to the community. Like, that's really selfless. It's just a dope story. And those stories occur all over the place, it's just people don't see them. Cause they don't get exposed on a national level. But a brand like Pepsi can put that on a national stage and be like,  "Yo, look—this is a mom and pop establishment for real. And these are the small businesses that you supposed to be supporting."

The release of The Bodega Giveback kicks off a larger holiday giveback from Pepsi this season that includes cash gifts to bodega owners and consumers across NYC's five boroughs.  “Pepsi has so many longstanding bodega partners in New York City,” said Umi Patel, CMO of North Division, PepsiCo Beverages North America. “They are not only pillars of the community, but they have gone above and beyond to take care of their loyal customers during the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have worked around the clock to stay open, filling shelves to ensure their customers, friends, and family have the essentials they need to stay home and stay safe. They have even shifted their businesses to meet the needs of the community, offering new delivery options, adding crucial items like masks and gloves, and more, all while dealing with their own personal challenges of the pandemic. We are proud to do our part in giving back to these unsung heroes.”

From now until December 20, Pepsi will also be surprising customers at local bodegas across the five boroughs by gifting pre-paid credit cards of up to $100.00 per customer.

As Juan says in the film, "one hand washes the other, and with both, we wash our face."

Check out our full convo with Desus & Mero above and the short film, The Bodega Giveback.

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Level Announces Their 'Best Man 2020 Awards' Featuring Entertainment Elite to Everyday Kings

It is a hard feat for media brands to survive the content landscape these days. To pull off the incredible undertaking of informing an audience as a new publication in the digital space is damn near impossible, yet the team at Medium's Level has done just that. To celebrate making their mark as a one-stop information shop for black men with their one-year anniversary this week, the team of bright and witty editors has launched their first annual Best Man Awards 2020.

The plan to honor the brand that started in December of 2019, focused on the interests of African-American males, has expanded into encompassing the efforts of a few good men during this mess of a year that is 2020. In doing so, those that broke through barriers of personal pain, new business frontiers, and support of others are highlighted and given the rightful pedestals to gain well-deserved props.

Of the 12 awards, esteemed gents like Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, and D-Nice are saluted as Quarantine Kings for their Verzuz and Club Quarantine (respectively) social media music creations that entertained the masses during the dogged days of our universal shut-down. There is also a heroic soul of a man who protected a black woman and her family from the surrounding presence of racist neighbors on his own time and dime. They have an award for Father of the Year, where former NBA all-star and champion, Dwyane Wade shines as a glowing example of understanding and ushering in new ways of parenting in today's society.

With the awards being a noble move towards giving Black men some much-needed praise in 2020, Level made sure to round up the last 365 days with themes on "The State of Black and Brown Men" as well. Essays that cover the realms of political ideology, coping with covid among Blacks health care workers,  how Black men fell short of protecting Black women, and exploring what Black men see when they look in the mirror (a piece that is a user-generated content driver/audience-led convo). All hard topics that need to be detailed, yet are rarely in a space for deep-dive convo.

Helmed by former VIBE editor-in-chief, Jermaine Hall, Level's editors explain their thoughts on the special coverage and celebration of their one year old brand:

“With the Best Man Awards, we wanted to lean into people who are doing incredible things to support society and publicly thank them. Anthony Herron, Jr is a hero. He stepped up to protect someone he didn’t know because, as he saw it, harassment is unacceptable. LEVEL wanted to make sure he received a nod for his heroics. But there are also several celebrities who are doing things outside of their jobs. D-Nice, Swizz, and Timbaland helped us cope through music. And it wasn’t a paid gig for any of them. They responded because people needed help healing so they provided care. That’s a strong attribute of the LEVEL man. It’s certainly is the definition of men being their best selves."

Click here to read about these individuals and learn more about the Best Man Awards 2020. Excelsior to Level.


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