In honor of what should have been Lamont Coleman's 40th Birthday, Complex explores one of hip-hop's greatest unfinished legends, Lamont "Big L" Coleman.
“5 slash 3-0 slash 7-4 a lil bro was born with the mind of a psycho” —Big L, “Devil’s Son”
“Big L scared me to death. When I heard that on tape, I was scared to death. I was like there’s no way I can compete if this is what I gotta compete with.” —Nas
“He was a very talented writer. I think he had the ability to write big records and big choruses.” —Jay Z
“Take some Big and some ’Pac/And you mix ’em up in a pot/Sprinkle a lil’ Big L on top/What the fuck do you got?” —Eminem, “Patiently Waiting”
Who was the greatest rapper of all time? When the never-ending debate resumes—from barber shops and street corners to online chat rooms—the same litany of names comes up again and again. You've got your living legends—Jay Z, Nas, Eminem, Cube—and your fallen heroes—Biggie, 2Pac, Big Pun, and almost always at the end, Big L.
If L comes up as an afterthought, it's not for lack of skills. During his 24-plus years on earth, the Harlem rap prodigy left behind a painfully small body of work: just one album, a handful of singles and freestyles. Yet on the strength of these recordings he is consistently mentioned among the greatest of the greats. But of course the music only tells part of the story.
This past Friday marked what would have been the 40th birthday of Lamont “Big L” Coleman. He didn't live to celebrate this milestone because he was murdered in an unsolved shooting on the very same block that raised him, 139th St. and Lenox Ave, a block he famously dubbed, “The Danger Zone.” Unlike many who came up on that block, Lamont Coleman used his talents to travel the world and achieve a kind of immortality through his art.
While many hip-hop fans are well versed in the late MC's small discography, they are largely unfamiliar with Lamont Coleman himself. That’s about to change. To commemorate L’s short but impactful life, Complex spoke with the select few who knew him best to get to know the man behind the myth.
Lamont’s close childhood friend, T.E. “Jewlz” Farer, director of the forthcoming documentary, Street Struck: The Big L Story, shared some exclusive photos and videos. L’s oldest brother, Donald Phinazee, granted us a glimpse inside the rhyme book of the self-proclaimed “most valuable poet on the M.I.C.” And partners in rhyme like Lord Finesse and Fat Joe of the Diggin In The Crates crew opened up to share stories that they've never told before. In the famous words of DJ Premier, “Big L, Rest in Peace!”
As told to Jesse Gissen
T.E. “Jewlz” Farrar - Close Family Friend and Big L Documentarian
Donald “Big Don” Phinazee - Brother
Alexis “Pucci” George - Close Friend
Lord Finesse - Mentor and D.I.T.C Affiliate
Fat Joe - D.I.T.C Affiliate
Rich King - Flamboyant Entertainment Co-Founder
Ron Browz - Producer, Flamboyant Entertainment
Bobbito “Kool Bob Love” Garcia - Co-Host, The Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Show
Damon Dash - Co-founder, Roc-A-Fella Records
Faith Newman - Former A&R, Columbia Records
Kurt Woodley - Former A&R, Columbia Records
Three-year-old Lamont (center) at home with his brothers Donald and Leroy.
GROWING UP ON THE BLOCK
Don: Lamont was a fat little boy. That’s how he got the name 'Mont Mont,’ cause he was a chubby little thing. And every little thing he do or every little thing he don’t do, he used to get on my nerves. I was the oldest, then Leroy, and L was the baby. He looked up more to Leroy. Him and Lee was together all the time. We all shared the same room and we would all watch over him, cause he was the little one.
Jewlz: I knew Lamont from just our families knowing each other well. Your family knows their family and then all of a sudden you’re cousins.
Damon Dash: I knew Big L before the rap. He’s from 139th St. and Lenox and even though I was born on 109th and First, I’ve always considered 142nd St. and Lenox my block. Cause from about 15 and on I was on that block every day. And we was always kinda cool with each other.
Don: Our block, [139th and Lenox Ave,] was the block. Everybody was family ‘cause we were so close. You grow up, you get to know people. These blocks in Harlem the buildings was right there [side by side], so you scream from the windows. You get your ass whipped from somebody down the block before you even get home. Shit, we was struggling just like everybody else, but my moms was doing what she was doing in the street. She was running numbers, she was doing her thing. So we had a lot of nice things.
Big L's aunt Gilda "Pinky" Terry, who raised him as her own son.
Lord Finesse: His mom was a number-runner. But in the early years and then the later years she was a church-going woman.
Don: She was the best! She was the president of the tenants' association and the block parties was on after that. She’d get the food, cook, everybody’d come out. She started going to Great Adventure with the kids from the block. She would pay for everyone. Then we started goin' to Florida, Walt Disney.
Pucci: All of us are from the block. You go back to the block parties with Pinky [L’s mother]. I remember when I was smaller. The whole block shut down!
Don: We grew up in a two-bedroom apartment. My moms had her own room. We had bunk beds and Lamont's bed had the pull-out joint. We had a new bedroom set like every two years. We had a new living room set every year. We had the name chains with the ring and bracelet when we were like 10.There was a lot of jealousy but we didn’t see it like that back then though.
Jewlz: As a kid, you don’t look that deep into it. You got a pair of sneakers that's new and I don’t have em, I step on your sneakers, like, "Yo, fuck your sneakers."
Big L at age 3 in B-Boy mode.
Jewlz: He was always a fan of horror movies and he was into real morbid shit. Like, somebody grandma would be walking and they going across ice and they fall. Like, why would you laugh at something like that? If he knows who that person's grandson is, he would bring that up later and snap on them.
Pucci: He would go pick that person up, go get her bags and everything, but later he would laugh about it. He was that type of nigga.
Don: Lamont was adopted if you dont' know—from my uncle. He came back from the Army—that war shit, he was done. The name Coleman came from his mother. We can’t find her. We don’t know who she is. We’ve never met her. He found out [he was adopted] when we started growing up, getting a lil' older. I think he was 14 when we started fuckin’ with him hard, teasing him. Pretty much he’d just brush it off. He ain’t get mad or go cry in the corner or nothin'. We was men. Fuck all that.
Don: I loved Run-D.M.C. I bought two tickets for the King of Rock tour and the person I bought the ticket with reneged. So I got back to the block and I really didn’t wanna go by myself. [Lamont] was playing in the park as usual. I said, “Fuck it, you wanna go to a concert?” He said “Yeah!” He didn’t even know who the fuck it was. It was ‘85. He was young but I snuck him in. I paid the dude at the door. We was the sixth row back from the stage. When they started—"I’m the king of rock, there is none higher!”—everybody jumped up. I look down and Lamont’s like [mouth open, completely mesmerized.] That was it.
[Later on] Momma bought us DJ equipment. I was the DJ and L was 5 years old, he was the rapper. We used to bring the DJ equipment out to the stoop so lil' bitches would come up the block. I’m doing shit [on the turntables] and Lamont grabbed the mic and started doing Big Daddy Kane shit. He liked Kane so he had known all his rhymes. Eventually I started getting real good [with the DJing] so Lamont started saying more and more Kane shit.
Jewlz: My man D-Wiz, he used to rhyme, so they would have ciphers on the block. Whenever they would have people competing, Lamont would always see the battles [and] he would say, "Yo Dave, come down the block. They battling, I want you to rhyme." L just had the enjoyment of watching the whole exchange go down. [Sometimes] he would [join in and] say a Big Daddy Kane rhyme that nobody ever heard. So the people were like, "Oh shit."
Don: Meanwhile Leroy was beatin' niggas up. He was mean with his hands, man.
Jewlz: Lee was the most notable scary guy amongst groups of scary guys. You know how your brother or your dad is your first superhero? So, if everybody in the neighborhood is in awe of your big brother, you become in awe. You feel like you're part of this privileged class because, "This is my big brother. This is my house."
Don: I was the oldest but everybody thought my other brother Lee was the oldest because he was really dangerous. He never smiled; he never laughed.
He was known as Big L the Rapper. He always was nice. He was the guy in Harlem that was the best rapper on Lenox. There wasn’t nobody else but Big L. —Damon Dash
Jewlz: Through many times of L coming to get D-Wiz to rhyme, L would eventually say, "Yo, I wanna rhyme." So he was like, "what do I need to do"? [D told him to] get a notebook and just start writing.
Damon Dash: He was known as Big L the Rapper. He always was nice. He was the guy in Harlem that was the best rapper on Lenox. There wasn’t nobody else but Big L.
Jewlz: L would always have a notepad with him where he would be around people We would always snap on the block. Always! People would always say some real slick shit. Like all 139th, 140th cats was always trying to one-up you, by saying something that was slick and that slick statement had to be enough to make the person that its being said against to shut up.
Rich King: The shutdown!
Don: The snappin’ was building a lot of his vocabulary.
Lord Finesse: That’s where a lot of stuff comes from. He’ll hear somebody say slick stuff and rewrite it in his phrase. That’s where the funniest punchlines come from: “A girl ask me for a ring and I put one around her whole eye.”
Jewlz: He started writing and he rhymed for D-Wiz and me. We took him to my man Short Man’s home studio. Short man was a guy who was like a staple producer in Harlem. He [worked with] Teddy Riley. It was like a kid who fights on the street but now he’s going to the boxing gym, so a trainer can put it into a form. He was on his “Wax on, wax off, Daniel-san” shit.
One of Big L's rhyme books.
Jewlz: During that time, around age 17-18, me, D-Wiz, and Short Man are now taking L along to different open mic events along 125th St. Sometimes we would be at the back of the Apollo, when major artists would perform and we would say, "Yo, listen to my man Big L he could rhyme, he’s nice." Some of them would listen and some of them would say "He’s dope but he rhymes too hard, we don’t know what we could do with him." Then some would say, "I’m just an artist on a label. I don’t really have power on my own yet to be able to put him anywhere. But he’s nice."
Rich King: Personality wise, he was reserved. But when he was rhyming, he was crazy. He had those two sides to him.
Jewlz: Sometimes he would be a lil' bashful. And we kind of broke him out of that. We would be like "Yo, listen L, you are talented. There’s nothing that could hold you back except for you. We can talk and bring you to somebody but until what we say matches to your actions when you rhyming it’s not gonna matter. You have to break out the shell and show them why we think you’re nice and why they should sign you."
Finesse: I met Big L at Rock ‘N’ Will’s [record store on 125th]. I was over there doing an autograph signing. I’m in there and he comes in with his boy and he sends his boy over like, “My man want to rhyme for you.” I’m looking like, “Yeah, aight.” Matter of fact, I'm about to give them my manager's number. Everybody would rhyme for me but it wasn’t nothing prolific. But they was like, “Yo, man, he’ll rhyme for you. If you like him we’ll never bother you again.” I was like, “Word? Let me hear him.” And I was just blown away: the rhyme styles, of course the punch lines, the compounds. I seen the potential right away, but I was looking more at the age differential between me and him. I knew he was going to be great.
I was there when Finesse brought him onstage for the first time. I've seen it since day one. The way the crowd responded, I knew that he was gonna be a superstar.
Fat Joe: I was hearing about this kid that Finesse had met in Harlem, and he used to battle everybody.
Finesse: I ran and called Showbiz like, “This dude nice.” For me to tell Show—I done battled people, I ran across nice niggas—but for me to run with that excitement and put him on the phone, three-way it like, “L, man, kick a rhyme!” Show was like, “He’s nice.” That’s how we got him to represent. [After that] I would take him with me everywhere. If I had an interview, he had an interview. If I had a show, he gets his 15 or 20 minutes and then he’d rock and it was a done deal.
Finesse: Diggin in the Crates was a strict crew. If you weren't from our hood in the BX you can't get down, [but] all those rules and instructions went out the window the minute I heard Big L spit. I was like, “Oh no, we need this boy down."