Of Mics and Men in Harlem

The Tragedy and Legacy of Big L

Only a select few noticed when a triggerman shot Lamont Coleman dead in front of the stooped brownstone apartment building where he grew up. His death was a blurb on MTV, a half-page obituary in a handful of hip-hop magazines. After all, Lamont Coleman was only Big L, the man who guided the first steps of gold-plated rapper Cameron "Cam'ron" Giles and the multiplatinum phenomenon known as Mase. Big L never topped the charts, but upon his death he was still far beyond random rhymes bouncing off benches and trees in the park.

He was a chapter in an ongoing saga, the story of Harlem. He took two aspiring NBA players at Manhattan Center High School and showed them another way out of Harlem besides the ball and the hoop. One found his way to fame through his best friend; the other reached hip-hop's pinnacle, then threw in the towel to follow God. Both have new records out this summer—as, posthumously, does Big L himself.

Like most MCs, Coleman started rhyming during his adolescence, dropping rhymes on the stoops of Harlem Village apartment buildings and later in the halls of Julia Richmond High School. It was here that he earned the name Big L, for his lyrical prowess—he stood about five foot eight. The words he scribbled in class notebooks bore daily witness to the menagerie of images filling his brain. He wrote about the bloody shoot-outs and drug deals on his street corner, the piercing hunger that accompanies poverty, and the fathomless camaraderie between friends that is a signature part of ghetto life.

Coleman's vivid couplets earned him a place as one of the youngest members of D.I.T.C. (Diggin in the Crates crew), a squad of rappers and producers who held an imperial reputation in Harlem's early '90s hip-hop scene. After several cameos and one 12-inch single, L signed to Columbia in 1992. His first album, fittingly titled Lifestylez Ov Da Poor and Dangerous, was released in 1995. From the moment he signed his contract, L wasn't just dreaming of expensive cars and jewelry—he was also looking at the future. In the park at 139th and Lenox Avenue he cleared a cipher for a crew of neighborhood MCs in hopes that someday they too might sip the nectar of stardom.

Hip-hop is all about crews. Since the music's beginnings, neighborhood MCs, DJs, graffiti writers, and breakers found safety in numbers and created sanctuaries from the gang violence, unemployment, and destitution that inundated their lives. At its best a crew is a unit overflowing with love and loyalty; at its worst, it devours itself. Even with an album in the racks and a video on BET, Big L spent hours trading verses in the neighborhood park. Through his rhymes and encouragement, L was a role model who proved that rapping could be more than just something to pass the time.

"L was the first one to get on [to be signed by a record label] on the rap tip," the narrow-eyed Cameron Giles says between bites of a chicken wing in the black marbled conference room of Untertainment Records. "Me and Mase didn't know anything. We was in high school trying to go [to] the NBA while he was taking it seriously as a career. There were about nine of us at first. But [eventually] we all split up until it was me, my cousin Blood, who [later] passed away, and Mase."

Calling themselves Children of the Korn, Killa Cam, Murder Mase, and Bloodshed recorded more than 35 songs. But signs of trouble emerged when Cam and Mase left Harlem for respective stints at Navarro and SUNY Purchase colleges, then escalated when Mase signed a solo deal with Sean "Puffy" Combs's Bad Boy Entertainment. Cam'ron and Bloodshed encouraged Mase to be a Bad Boy while they continued work on their Children of the Korn album. But production came to a permanent halt in April 1996, when a car in which Bloodshed was a passenger crashed in Harlem, ending his life.

Despite this tragic setback, Big L's future should have been bright. He had protégés signed to two major labels, and Lifestylez Ov Da Poor and Dangerous had captured the rawness of Harlem street life with 12 glamourless stories told from the point of view of one who had survived them. Its bass-riddled beats and portraits of a world dominated by heists and hits spelled out a clear message—L was rhyming to escape gritty realities that were simultaneously being mimicked by suburban kids who didn't know any better. But since suburbia wasn't buyinghis album in bulk, L was dropped from his label and returned to Harlem's streets disillusioned and uncertain about his career. "After the whole thing with Columbia, he didn't even want to rap anymore," Showbiz, a member of D.I.T.C., remembers. "He said that he didn't feel it anymore, that he had lost the fire."

L might have been down in the eyes of the suit-and-tie A&Rs at Columbia, but his spotless rapport with his community kept him afloat. "L was the man," Cam'ron reminisces excitedly. "If he wasn't out on the block, nobody knew how the block was going to function." "He would always be out in the street," Lord Finesse, the rapper who gave L his first recorded appearance, remembers. "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."

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