"Flamboyant:" How Rap Legends Remember Big L 20 Years After His Death
“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.
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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.
ON HIS ATTRIBUTES:
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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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.
ON HIS DISPOSITION:
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.
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Big L With Mase, Herb Mcguff, Took Da Boss September Of 95 #bigl#classic#139andlenox#hiphop#harlem#nyc#boombap#eminem#biggie#jayz#tupac#goat#halloffame #ditc #harlemsfinest#90s#oldschool#rare#legend##eastcoast#rapgod#nfl#vintage#hiphopculture #dangerzone #rip #throwback#music#mvp
ON WHAT WOULD’VE BEEN NEXT FOR L:
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.
ON THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.’S “ONE MORE CHANCE” REMIX, WHICH FAMOUSLY – AND SUBSEQUENTLY – USED THE SAME SAMPLE OF DEBARGE'S "STAY WITH ME" AS DID L'S SINGLE "M.V.P."
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.
ON HIS DEATH:
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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