Of Mics and Men in Harlem

The Tragedy and Legacy of Big L

Time healed Lamont Coleman's Columbia blues, and he went to work on new material, making guest appearances on underground records and producing masterful cuts like "Ebonics," a rapid-fire track that perfectly translated ghetto terminology into standard English over a sampled horn and drum loop. L also founded Flamboyant Entertainment, an independent label through which he planned to distribute the kind of hip-hop that sold without top 40 samples or r&b hooks. But the 23-year-old's dreams were thwarted by the bullets piercing his head and chest on the night of February 15. Police have since arrested and charged Gerard Woodley, 29, with murder in the second degree; the Daily Newsreported that Woodley had a beef with an imprisoned brother of the rapper. "I had been with [Coleman] two days before, listening to beats at his house," Finesse says. "His time was coming, but it was cut short."

"Big L was living proof that no matter how many knocks you take in this industry you can still rise from the ashes," says Datwon Thomas, associate music editor at XXL. "He got dropped from Columbia and looked at it as a lesson. He just sat back and plotted, and with everything that he was working on, he was about to do something great."

Back in 1996, while L was rebuilding his plans in the shadows, Mase and Cam'ron were continuing to rise in the ranks of the local hip-hop scene. "When I saw him and Cam together they were two peas in a pod," says Minya Oh, associate editor at Vibeand a Harlem resident who has watched their careers flourish. "They both had the big 'Harlem World' tattoos, and when I saw them together I realized that Mase had a partner in crime." The pair had the potential to bring L's legacy to the forefront of hip-hop. But someone missed a turn.

Murder Mase shortened his tag to Mase when he signed with Sean Combs in 1996. He traded in street stories for rhymes about expensive cars, precious metals, and sexual conquests, themes that uncreatively became the commercial norm as hip-hop moved into the age of the champagne-wielding player. Mase penned much of the six-times-platinum event No Way Out, Combs's Bad Boy compilation masked as a solo album, then followed up with Harlem World, his own debut, which has sold more than 4 million copies to date.

Meanwhile, in 1997, bad grades and a basketball knee injury returned Cam'ron to Harlem after less than two years of college. He briefly played the drug game until Mase introduced him to Bad Boy No. 1, the Notorious B.I.G., and Biggie's partner Lance "Un"Rivera. Rivera quickly signed him to his new Untertainment label, where Cam unveiled his debut, Confessions of Fire, in April 1998. The album went gold with the help of the summer club hit "Horse and Carriage," featuring a sung chorus by Mase.

The two b-balling best friends had commercially surpassed their mentor L's achievements, but not without compromise. Distance developed between the two most successful children of the park, a distance aggravated by the virulence of the record industry. Hiphopsite.com reported rumors that Mase and Cam'ron were at odds over money issues surrounding Mase's guest vocals. The industry "definitely affected our friendship," Cam'ron says. "We started out rhyming together and we never did a song together, as in rap together [once we got signed]. It's like me and Mase is the same type of person. That hurt us more than it benefited us, because it was an ego thing."

But Mase swallowed his ego on April 20 of this year when he announced to the world that he had chosen to retire from the rap game "to follow God." Mase's decision came around the same time that Bad Boy CEO Combs was arrested for assaulting Interscope executive Steve Stoute. "This [the business] isn't real, and I gotta deal with reality," Mase told Newsweek. "It's my time to serve God in his way. There's no other way to stay true to the game—the real game of life. There's something else out there for me to do."

The news blared through every major newspaper in the country and flashed across MTV, after L's death had been practically ignored only two months before. But Cam'ron admits that since Mase's retirement decision the two 22-year-olds have talked more, in hopes of repairing their friendship. "I've been speaking to him ever since he stopped rapping," Cam says. "I don't want him to quit, but he knows what's best for him. I think he'll come back and rap, but if he don't, he don't."

Flamboyant Entertainment is slated to release new Big L material, in the form of several 12-inches that will start hitting the streets later this summer. This may give the hip-hop nation one more chance to give props to an artist whose work didn't comply with the flat and friendly statutes of commercial radio. If L's talents go unrecognized by the masses even after his death, it would be yet another example of an audience being led away from its musical roots and into the puffy clouds of crossover.

June 15 marked the release of Double Up, tentatively Mase's final hip-hop effort, and one which ironically attempts to return to Murder Mase's tales of inner-city crime and punishment just after Mason Betha has turned to God—the album was on tape by the time he made his announcement. Cam'ron's sophomore CD, Sports, Drugs, and Entertainment, is also scheduled for late summer, promising listeners another dose of the clever punch lines, humorous skits, and club-friendly beats.

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