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."

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.

Success has splashed some, and drenched a select few, of the MCs who once congregated in the park at 139th and Lenox. Most of those original nine have dissolved into obscurity altogether. Mase was a superstar who called it quits and found religion before he went nova. Cam'ron is well on his way to stellar status. But you still don't really know Big L—he's just another name to flip past in the rap section at your local store, another R.I.P. at the end of someone else's song. Maybe now that hip-hop is outselling country, Lamont Coleman's brand of the music is dead. But if it is, you should know that Big L's hip-hop was what gave life to that rap song on the radio that makes you feel so good.

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