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In the early months of 1999, Jay-Z and Damon Dash paid weekly visits to the Harlem home of Lamont Coleman, a/k/a the rapper Big L, in an attempt to persuade him to sign with their Roc-A-Fella record label. One of L's two older brothers, Donald Phinazee, says he repeatedly turned down their advances out of loyalty to his friends: "Jay-Z wanted to sign him, but Lamont wanted them to also sign McGruff and C-Town, other rappers, as part of the deal. They didn't want them."
Soon, Jay-Z would catch a ride to pop-culture ubiquity, commercial riches, and an r&b superstar wife. L was left behind on the block, to catch nine bullets while handing out flyers to promote his own label, Flamboyant Entertainment, on West 139th Street between Lenox and Fifth—an area he'd christened "the danger zone." L's murder remains unsolved, as does his potential: A new posthumous project, Return of the Devil's Son, underscores his thrilling talent but doesn't reveal whether he was soon to follow Jay-Z into the mainstream.
Big L was just 24 years old when he passed away, but his life was nevertheless a rich hip-hop experience. Phinazee recalls him picking up a microphone and mimicking other rappers' rhymes when he was five, sneaking him into the Beacon Theatre date of Run-DMC's King of Rock tour when he was nine, and, along with their other brother, Leroy, styling themselves after Harlem's Phase II Crew as the Lil' Phase II Crew, cheekily adding the prefix Lil' to each member's name. (L became Lil' Mr. Shades.) At the time, L's ambit and ambitions were local—the Lil' Phase II Crew performed outside their building, No. 126 on 139th Street, leaving the original trio to take over a nearby park—and it took a figure from the Bronx to propel his career.
A respected producer and rapper with a knack for crafting rugged but funky beats, Lord Finesse heard Big L rhyming over loops of songs by Otis Redding and the Emotions in Rock 'N' Will's record store on 125th Street. Taken by his cocksure confidence and ability to coin animated punchlines, Finesse invited him to the studio to appear on a remix of his 1992 single "Yes, You May." It was as if a stick of rap dynamite had been lit.
"We saw him in the studio and were like, 'This kid is ill!' " recalls DJ Premier, who produced songs on Finesse's debut album, Funky Technician, and whose group Gang Starr's "Full Clip" has become the official Big L tribute. "Then he did 'Devil's Son' with [producer] Showbiz and we were like, 'What the fuck is wrong with this kid? He's demented!' "
That song is exemplary New York rap for the era, with Show's crashing drums and discordant horn samples provoking Big L to embark on a misanthropic rampage that makes Eminem's shock shtick seem cherubic: "It's Big L and I'm all about taking funds/I'm a stone villain known for killing and raping nuns/A-yo, I even kill handicapped and crippled bitches/Look at my scalp real close and you'll see triple sixes." In rap's braggadocio canon, its coarse vulgarity makes it sparkle quite beautifully.
New York was on an upswing of hip-hop health at the time: The Wu-Tang Clan had reasserted the city's dominance after Dr. Dre and Snoop's West Coast gangsta follies, while Nas and the Notorious B.I.G. were staking early claims to greatness. With his street savvy and entertainingly uncouth style, Big L seemed a shoo-in for success. But after a series of delays, his debut album, 1995's Lifestylez ov da Poor and Dangerous, failed to translate talent into sales. Phinazee characterizes the album as "the one that didn't do very good," and blames the label, Columbia, for its performance. The lack of a hit-maker behind Big L offers another explanation.
Big L could hold his own lyrically with the era's two breakout stars, the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z. The latter even features on "Da Graveyard" from L's debut, delivering a performance remarkable only for sounding like he's enunciating rhymes as if walking barefoot over hot coals. But Biggie had Puffy behind him, and for every street-centric song ("Warning," "Unbelievable") there was a saccharine commercial equivalent ("Juicy" and the "One More Chance" remix, which sampled the same break as L's own "M.V.P."). As hip-hop folklore is fond of relaying, after recording a scrupulously underground ode to the tensions of the drug game with Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z lucked out at the last minute by including the radio-friendly "Ain't No Nigga" with Foxy Brown. Jay's astute ear for crossover sounds has blossomed ever since. But Big L aligned himself with the Bronx-based Diggin' in the Crates (D.I.T.C.) production unit—a move that guaranteed him unimpeachable hip-hop credibility but little likelihood of a mass hit.
Showbiz has said that Big L felt disillusioned with music after Lifestylez. Phinazee says that at the time of his death Big L was "hustling." Estranged from his brother while locked up in Rikers Island, Phinazee spoke to him two days before he died: "I kept calling him, telling him to stay away from this area." He adds, "If I was in the street, I would have got the story; I'd have knew who did it, and I'd have did whatever I'd have did."
But the years leading up to L's death also suggest he was re-evaluating his craft. He recorded "Ebonics," a spectacular rhymed decoding of street lexicon that D.I.T.C. member Buckwild says took L two years to write. From the same period, "The Heist" suggested he had added to his stash of audacious punchlines the skill of tightly written crime narratives. The fruits of that period were eventually collected as the semi-posthumous Big Picture project, which fused verses recorded before he passed with new input from close artistic associates.
That album went gold, but its piecemeal process leaves the nagging pang that L's true voice was yet to come. Largely culled from 1995 recordings, Return backs up his rhyming proficiency, but doesn't offer a clue to his next move. Had L lived a few more weeks, he may have acquiesced to the Roc-A-Fella deal. Simply being around Jay-Z, and an expansive range of producers, might have been all that was needed to push Big L to a wider audience. The idea of a rapper who once warned "step to this and get an ass-whoopin' like Rodney King got" ultimately recording with Chris Martin is no more far-fetched than the '96 model of Jay-Z, all snide murderous brags, recording with the Coldplay frontman.
Big L's career may have ended as an ellipsis, but those fortunate to work with him are resolute in their assurance of his potential. "If Big L were around today, he'd have been huge," testifies Premier. "Jay-Z and them all knew—Big L would have been high up with them on the scale of greatness."