Big L, Rest In Peace

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10 years on, the story of THE most forgotten about, most passed over emcee when everyone does their yearly anniversary shout outs. March 9th for Biggie, September 13th for 2Pac, and February 7th and 10th for Pun and Dilla respectively are the dates that seemed to be burned in everyone’s memories, evident from the numerous online shrines, tributes, anthologies and best-ofs that pop up every year around those dates… but who REALLY remembers February 15th? And more poignantly, who REALLY realizes just what Hiphop lost that day?

The Life and Rhymes of Lamont Coleman
By Erik Thomsen

€œWe cappin €™ you, kilo capital, Harlem USA € €” Cam €™ron

The story of Lamont Coleman started off one warm spring day in what is now referred to as the Danger Zone. On May 30th 1974, the last of three children was born to Gilda Terry in Harlem, New York. She would name him Lamont, but by the end he would come to be known as Big L, a name to go down in the hip-hop history books. Lamont was never physically Big as a child, his nickname was Little Lamont, and like most great emcees a lust for hip-hop flourished at an early age. Lamont was always known as a joker, from cracking corny puns to his aunts and uncles as a child to spitting slick lyrical verses.

Cameron Giles was among those who knew him best, €œHe was mad funny :that €™s why when he rhymed, he had a lot of slick sh*t to say. I wanted him to be on my next album. He was never on that hatin €™ sh*t. I €™ll always have mad love for him. €

As an adolescent Lamont grew up listening to the talents of Run DMC, Cold Crush Four, and Big Daddy Kane, eventually, he started to mimic his favourite rappers. For all his life Lamont lived on 139th Street and Lenox Avenue he would learn to rhyme in the park near his house at 104th West 139th Street; he would spend hours there trading rhymes with friends to pass the time. Eventually, while attending Julia Richmond High School he was given an alias; Big L, to spite his childhood nickname, he stood only five foot eight inches tall.

L describes his lyrical growth, €œI started writing rhymes in 1990 and was in a group called Three The Hard Way, but they wasn’t serious so I went solo. Then I started winning rap contests and battling everybody in my ‘hood and roastin’ em. €

Infact L would win more sanctioned freestyle contests than any other Harlem emcee in the 1990’s. L kept perfecting his natural talent and by the time he was seventeen years old he was fast approaching the line that divides pastime and profession. His lyrics defined by the world around him gave insight into fabled Harlem shootouts and legendary Harlem street life.

€œYo L, I ain’t got to tell you what to do :man, just lace them niggas € €” Ma$e

In the early 1990 €™s Big L formed a crew known as €œChildren of the Corn € when he asked several friends from a local Harlem rap crew called €œCaged Fury € to join up, Mason €œMurder Mase € Betha, Cameron €œKilla Cam € Giles, and Cam €™s cousin, Derek €œBloodshed € Armstead were among those who joined. A young Darrell €œDigga € Branch did producing for the crew, which created over thirty-five street hits, and Herb McGruff also lent his talent to the COC. Both Mase and Cam were aspiring NBA players when Big L showed them the way of the mic. In fact, the only one who at the time was actually taking professional rapping seriously was L. Lamont was also the first to be signed when Columbia picked up his four track demo-tape. As high school neared an end the COC crew became weaker in it €™s central members when Cam and Mase both went to college and eventually signed their own record deals. The seams began to come undone, Murder Mase was signed to Bad Boy and eventually helped put Cam on Untertainment Records. Both artists shortened their tags; Killa Cam €” Cam €™ron, and Murder Mase €” Ma$e. Anything that was left of the COC crew was destroyed in 1996 when Bloodshed was in a horrible and fatal car accident in Harlem. If you listen to recent material put out by Cam, you will still here him talk about his fallen comrads.

From €œI Love You € on €œDiplomatic Immunity € [2002] Killa spits: €œ…Have visions of Gotti, visions of lottie, pictures of Blood, scenes of L… €

In July of 2003 Six Figga Ent. released a 21 track COC Collector’s Edition Compilation, many of the tracks were previously never heard by the public.

€œI €™m tryin €™ to make CREAM and that €™s that € €” Prodigy of Mobb Deep

When Big L was still in high school he caught the attention of Lord Finesse in the back of a New York record store called €œRockin €™ Wills €. Finesse along with Diamond D, were the founders of the DITC clique. L €™s first professional appearance came on the B-side of €œParty Over Here € by Lord Finesse in 1992, the song was called €œYes, You May € remix. Soon L officially became a part of the DITC crew which featured some of the best New York producers, deejays, and emcees on the mic, members came from several boroughs bringing to life the true sounds of New York hip-hop. The members of DITC included; O.C., Lord Finesse, Diamond D, Showbiz, A.G., Fat Joe, Buckwild, and Big L. His early successes in DITC lead to his signing with Columbia in 1992. Astoundingly, all it took was a four song demo tape showcasing tracks such as the horror-core establisher €œDevil €™s Son € and of course the €œYes, You May € remix. His first 12 € single was released in 1993 and in 1995 the critically acclaimed €œLifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous € was released.

Ken James recalls, €œI worked his project when I was in promotions at Columbia and had the opportunity to bond with him. He was an extremely nice kid and hella talented. I remember once taking L, the Fugees, Schoolly D, Jamalski and NaS through the Bay area in a 15-passenger van on a promotional run. Somebody had a cassette with beats on it. I popped it in, cranked it up, and a cipher started. Big L ripped it and everybody’s mouth hung open. €

In early 1995 Big L appeared on €œThe Stretch & Bobbito Show € to promote his first upcoming LP, other guests included a then unknown Jay-Z, who was also featured on €œLifestylez of the Poor & Dangerous. €

€œThe album sold pretty good. It did well, extremely well when you take into account that it didn’t get much airplay or videoplay but peoples still sent out and supported it. If you took the promotion and videoplay away from some other artists, they couldn’t sell what I sold. It sold just by word of mouth. People were like, €˜Big L is hot, we like him €™, not because the label put me out there or supported me € L recalls vividly in a Hip-Hop Connection interview.

In 1996 soon after the release of the album, L left Columbia whose lack of publicity was the reason that this glorious 12-track LP generally sold with lackluster. Along with the promotional problems, the people who knew L best at Columbia started to leave, €œI was there with a bunch of strangers that didn’t really know my music € he remembers. It got worse at Columbia as the hot-shot A&R’s wanted to push him in a direction he didn €™t want to go, and so he left.

Distraught, L wanted to take a break from rapping as expressed by his good friend Showbiz from DITC, €œAfter the whole thing with Columbia, he didn’t even want to rap anymore :He said that he didn €™t feel it anymore, that he had lost the fire. €

€œI know this game got valleys and peaks € €” Jay €“Z

Even with his problems Lamont would always find time for others, and through this find a way to feel better.

€œHe would always be out in the street :He €™d be listening to the young cats rhyme or talking to the youth in front of his building. When it came to L there were just ups, no downs. € Lord Finesse reminisces.

Eventually, L rediscovered his passion as he started dropping rhymes once again for DITC. Here he would lyrically rip tracks such as €œInternationally Known € and €œThe Enemy €. In 1997, L was even voted the illest emcee of all-time on Hip-Hop Connection €™s distinguished chart. At this point DITC would start work on their greatest project to date, €œWorldwide €, simply classic tracks such as €œDay One € and €œThick € would be produced. L would also tour the globe with members of DITC, most noticeably the Amsterdam Concert with A.G. in which both performers premiered unheard material. The scheduled release date for €œWorldwide € was supposed to be sometime in the second quarter of 1999. After L €™s death it was pushed back to 2000 because DITC went back to the lab for one more track. It’s title would be €œTribute €, it would be eerie without exception and would be without question one of the illest tracks DITC has ever put together.

From €œTribute € on €œWorldwide € [2000]: €œYour memory will be hauntin €™ to minds of cats out there that didn €™t want you to shine / they ain €™t know, but I know, and you €™ll forever be / Big L, Corleone, Mister M.V.P. € €”Lord Finesse. DITC is still diggin €™.

€œA lot of niggas got on f*ckin €™ wit L € €” Stan Spit

Before L died, he was in intense negotiations with Roc-A-Fella records. After being approached by Damon Dash, L initially declined a record deal because Damon was reluctant to sign his affiliate McGruff and his protégé C-Town.

In the words of Dash, €œHe was being an entrepreneur about his music, I watched him press up his own vinyl and he was puttin €™ himself in the studio. He was on his way to becoming not only a rapper, but a young executive. €

How many people would turn down a major record deal by a premier record label because they wouldn €™t sign his friends?

L did, and on the €œLyricist Lounge Vol. 2 € [2000] on a track called €œStill Here € with C-Town himself, L spits: €œMy underground niggas, yall can shine with me / I got my own label now, so yall can sign with me, yall can take it from the bottom and climb with me / that’s fine with me, that’s how it was designed to be. €

Big L would then form his own record label calling it €œFlamboyant Entertainment €, and was preparing a promotional party for it when his life was taken. According to the Miami Herald the identification photograph used in the murder investigation was the very same picture on the promotional flier. Before his death, talks between L and Dash had not halted, in association with Flamboyant Entertainment, Roc-A-Fella would be signing L, C-Town, and McGruff to a deal which would form a legendary rap crew called €œThe Wolfpack € which would include one more member, Mr. Roc-A-Fella himself, Shawn €œJay-Z € Carter. In the end it seems as though it was not meant to be, the deal was merely days away from being sealed when tragedy struck. The death of Big L seems to have had a negative affect on the careers of McGruff and C-Town. Both as the case with L were weeks away from stardom, and both unlike Big L seem to have dissolved into the shadows.

€œThe hood die young, they say the good die young € €” A.G.

Big L was murdered at 8:30pm on the evening of Monday, February 15th 1999 in front of 45 West 139th Street Harlem, New York. He lived just houses away at 104 West 139th Street. The shooter was one whom Lamont Coleman had known since he was a child. Nine bullets to the head and chest ended the life of a man whose lifetime work was days away from being rewarded. Gerard Woodley of Brooklyn, a man who once sat beside brothers Lamont, Leroy, and Donald to eat, a man openly invited into Terry €™s household, shot L several times in the chest to make certain his death, then, to ensure that there would be no open casket funeral, shot him in the face. The ruthless and violent nature of this crime is even surprising to a city where murder is a common occurrence. This callous crime was committed against a childhood friend. Woodley, who was 29 at the time of the shooting had already been arrested earlier that year with Donald Phinazee, and faced federal drug charges for trafficking cocaine. Woodley was held without bail for the murder of Lamont Coleman, but according to Dan M. Rather, assistant district attorney, he could not be charged because there was insufficient evidence, however, the investigation does remain open. Gerard Woodley is not where he belongs, he is currently free, and he probably will remain that way. He served a brief sentence around the time of L €™s murder for an unrelated charge of one count of distribution and possession with intent to distribute cocaine base.

Lamont €™s lifeless body was found outside the Delano Housing project, which was only a block from the very park were he got the gift of gab. Ironically enough, the place where he learned to rhyme, and the common things he spoke of, was what consumed him. At L €™s funeral at the George Washington Bridge dozens of hip-hop €™s finest attended, members of DITC, and other stars such as Cam €™ron and Ma$e were eager to pay respects to their long time friend. The calls would come in that night, offering condolence, from across the world. It appears that Big L was more than just Harlem €™s Finest.

€œIt €™s not your enemy who gets you it €™s always your own people € €”NaS

The facts are undisputed, however, the explanation is indefinite. What was the reason for the death of Lamont Coleman? The answer is simple: no one willing to tell knows. The theories of his death go from glamourous gangland warfare to a random mistaken identity. One story, as told by an ancient Source Magazine, involved Big L himself as a key figure in an infamous Harlem murder. It would be a case of conflict within the NFL (Niggas For Life) crew, of which all people in this story were members. In this theory Gerard Woodley €™s good friend, simply known as €œReggie € was gunned down under the instruction of Big Lee aka Leroy Phinazee, one of L €™s two brothers. The night Reggie was gunned down, L supposedly placed a large gold chain around Reggie €™s neck, as he continued to say, €œYou look ill in that €. The shooter was instructed to blast the guy wearing the gold chain. The crime unfolded as planned and eventually word came to Woodley that Lee was the mastermind. As a result Woodley made a plan to kill Lee, however, since Lee was in jail at the time, he was untouchable. In Gerard €™s mind he planned to do the next best thing, murder L himself. Note that this is a theory, and the truth behind it is uncertain; also note that L never had a criminal record.

Other stories of L’s death involve unknown beefs between Woodley and Lee, unrelated to Big L. These stories involve, drugs, money, and robbery. Keep in mind that Woodley, Lee and L were all in the NFL crew, and had all been seemingly good friends. The original theory was that Big L €™s murder was a mistaken identity, this because L had no known enemies. The mistaken identity theory can be dismissed because the identified shooter was in the same street crew as L. As you know no one has ever been charged L €™s slaying (Woodley was released because the state felt there was not sufficient evidence), therefore, no one has legally been held accountable, like the killers of other fallen emcees such as Biggie and Pac, L €™s killer is still at large.

€œSevere facts have brought this rap game to near collapse € €”Guru of Gang Starr

As possibly the greatest tragedy of all: a sign of what could have been. Less than a month after the release of €œThe Big Picture € it went gold, selling over 600 000 copies. That golden record to this day sits on the wall of his mother €™s apartment unchanged by time. If you seriously listen to the tracks L put out, you know that each word connects with the next and each line connects with the next, so fluidly, that you will realize that most emcees don €™t have this explosive talent. Time still moves slowly as the block of 139th Street and Lenox Avenue is occupied by a new generation. If you listen hard you will always hear the echo of a lost voice in Harlem €™s Danger Zone, a voice that stands out over all other casualties of the shady Harlem streets. If you can hear it, you know that the voice is as inspiring as it is talented. Ultimately, it serves as an invisible memory to the one whom speaks it. His product still looms, and will loom for long after we fall ourselves. You hear it everyday in the lyrics of many artists, more artists than anyone can know. It is easy for one to think about what might have been, what new LP we might have in our record players or what the number one debut would have been on this week €™s charts. At Terry €™s home, a trophy her son won at the famous Harlem landmark, Apollo Theater serves as one of many great memories. A nearby closet holds old notebooks and scrap paper filled with the unread scribbled thoughts of a legend. The same legend that is credited with catapulting Cam and Mase to fame. The same legend whose slick delivery, and tight lyrical style have left many heads stunned in sheer amazement. The same legend considered by many to be the most underrated lyricist of all time. The very same legend that was immortalized by his talent but mortalized by his human.

Rest in Peace Lamont Coleman 05/30/74 €” 02/15/99

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