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."
Finesse: I call L a Harlem renaissance man. Before L existed, you had a whole lot of rappers coming out of Harlem: Rob Base, Doug E. Fresh, Kool Moe Dee, The Treacherous Three. No rapper in Harlem was rhyming like L. He brought that street essence, that style, that flair. Cam and Mase was playing ball. They wasn’t thinking about rap until L brought that. It started with L.
Don: Cam and Mase used to come around playing ball. They got into the rap, because I guess they seen how serious it can be. Cam and Mase was around all the time. But they only come see L and listen to him.
No rapper in Harlem was rhyming like L. He brought that street essence, that style, that flair. Cam and Mase was playing ball. They wasn’t thinking about rap until L brought that. It started with L. —Lord Finesse
Dame: L was older than Cam, so Cam was like comin' in through L.
Jewlz: Children of the Corn was a group that was already in existence but they were called Caged Fury. The Caged Fury was Mase, Cam’ron, Digga, and Bloodshed. [They] had gone to L a few times in regards to working. L was always so busy so they went to Herb McGruff. When Gruff got on it that's when L said, “You know my man is fucking with it—I’ll fuck with it.” L was always trying to put his friends on.
Dame: I was gonna manage Children of the Corn. They used to be up in my house rapping. We used to just be hanging out. That album would have been sick; Cam, Big L, Mase, and Bloodshed, like that would have been the craziest shit of all time.
Jewlz: Big L was doing OK with the ladies. At this particular point Lamont had brought a young lady to his grandmother’s house. Cause they always would get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner prior to that holiday. At that time everybody in the family still related to him as Mont Mont. Now, being that he has this girl here, and him trying to impress the young lady, he wanna have the best view of himself. So he went to Don and he said, ‘Yo, Don, can I speak to you a minute?"
Don: I’d seen his face, but it ain't dawn on me. We stepped outside and he said, "Niggas calling me Big L now." I said, "Yo, man, come on. Stop playin' Mont Mont." He was like, "Nah D, serious." He was dead-ass serious. And that's how that came about.
Bobbito Garcia: I have a guest book of every artist and when they came to [the Stretch & Bobbito] show [on WKCR 89.9 FM] so I’m going to tell you the exact date that Big L first came on our show. April 9, 1992, to my knowledge, was the first public broadcast of his voice live in the world and definitely on radio. He was so focused. He knew what was at stake every time he came up there. The world was listening. This is the stamp and standard of excellence for hip-hop and live performance on radio. He came with his game face. He was always on a mission.
Bobbito, Big L and Buckwild
L wound up coming up like four or five times. The one that people remember the most is the night he came up with Jay Z, obviously because you know who Jay Z became, and they go verse for verse and it was kind of historic. [But] my favorite Big L moment was when he brought up Murda Mase, who later became Ma$e, and Killa Cam, plus Buddah Bless, Bloodshed, Herb McGruff, MC Terra, Big Twan. Clearly he had an eye for talent and was surrounded by such.
Big L (bottom left) with Lord Finesse (in Yankees jersey) and DITC crew.
BIG L vs JAY Z
Finesse: I used to put L in battles. I put him in his first battle and it was such a lopsided win that everybody was saying, “‘Ness wrote L’s rhymes,” like, c’mon man, really?
Pucci: L used to battle niggas. Niggas used to come get L off the block. It was like a hustle, cause niggas thought they was nice until we brought L to ’em. And when we bring L, put the money up. I remember when L took me to Rucker and beat a nigga for $1400. Mase used to come get L all the time like, “Yo, Dog, I put this much up. I got half for you, come roast this nigga.”
Finesse: People don’t know that Jay and L battled each other. They thought the battle was Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito. Nah, it was an actual battle. He was just rhyming on Stretch and Bobbito. Now imagine if they’re battling, they’re going at each other, what’s the difference? Temperature is going to go up in the battle.
Dame: Who do you think set that up?
Finesse: That's one of them untold stories. Jay don’t never talk about that shit. He’ll talk about everything else. That wasn’t a battle L started, that was a battle they set up for him and Jay. L was sitting there getting his hair braided, so that’s how that came about.
Jay got out the Lex. He had the Jansport bookbag. Dame was like, 'Yo my man Jay wants to battle L.' So they sent somebody to go and get him. L came down the block, he dapped everybody up, and he was like, 'Oh Jay wassup? I heard your s**t. You're nice.' But Jay was like, 'Yeah wassup, you want it?'
—Jewlz The Director
Dame: You know Jay ain’t never backed down from no battle. So we went on their block and they banged it out.
Jewlz: Jay got out the Lex. He had the Jansport bookbag. And Dame was like, "Yo, my man Jay wants to battle L." So they sent somebody to go and get him. L came down the block, he dapped everybody up, and he was like, "Oh, Jay wassup? I heard your shit. You're nice." This was his first time meeting Jay. But Jay was like, "Yeah, , you want it?" Just like that.
Dame: They was going shot for shot, and the way it went was they called it a tie. If someone is gonna call it a tie and they’re on somebody else’s block that means they must have worked hard for that tie. It must have been serious.
Finesse: L told me he got him. I got a phone call from L and he told me the rhymes he was kicking. I don't know what Jay kicked but I know what L kicked.
Dame: It wasn’t no killing. I heard it was a tie so I left it like that. I loved Big L. There was always a serious respect after that between them two.
Damon Dash and Big L.
THE COLUMBIA DEAL
Kurt Woodley: I started Big L’s introduction to Columbia Records.
Faith Newman: I came to know L because we were involved in his signing.
Kurt: The group I was working with were called The Ultramagnetic MCs, and one of the guys, Ced Gee, had introduced me to a guy named Tim Dog. He did a record called “Fuck Compton,” that did extremely well. So, crazy Tim and this street guy named I God, they kept saying “Kurt, I’ve got his kid, he’s off the hook, man.” They brought him up and he was real young at the time. I was like “This kid looks like he’s about 15 years old.” He came to the office, this is about ‘91-’92, and he didn't have a demo. He just started to rap, I thought the kid’s metaphors and flows were incredible.
Faith: At the time I had signed Nas and I had signed Kurious and Jamalski and I was trying to build Columbia’s rap division. I created this campaign called "No Doubt" and it was built around the artists I just mentioned, plus The Fugees and Big L.
Kurt: The guy who brought him to my office was Tim Dog but Lord Finesse was the guy actually doing the production, the guy who was steering the boat. There were a lot of people involved with L’s deal. Showbiz & A.G. were the production company and Lord Finesse was one of the producers involved. They were representing Diggin’ In The Crates. Another guy who was involved with Big L’s career that a lot of people don’t remember was Patrick Moxey, who now owns Ultra, one of the biggest EDM labels. At the time he was working with Payday Records and Gang Starr, so he brought DJ Premier to the table.
Faith: What I knew about him was that he was totally focused on his art. There was no ego there. He was probably one of the most humble people I’ve ever met and probably one of the most introverted. I don’t think he would’ve worked in the Internet era. He was a pure emcee. He was real, not like fucking game-playing industry people. He’d be sitting there thinking about, “What clever hooks am I going to use?”
Kurt: Back in those days, they used to have these things called demo budgets. They would basically disperse maybe $5,000 to go to the studio and cut a couple of records. If they liked the record they would take it and put it on the radio and if that single worked they would move you toward an album. Big L was running the ship for that deal, we did a $5,000 demo deal with Lord Finesse and they cut a couple of records and the rest was history.
Big L was the first person to introduce me to Biggie. He came to the video shoot for 'Put it On.' He was sitting in the car the whole time but I think he was a Big L fan.
Finesse: L was more like a one take dude, man. He ain’t really do too many takes because I guess he practiced so much when he was by himself that he know what he was going to say. I ain’t ever see him sit down and write rhymes. He wrote rhymes but when he came to the session he already know what he was going to say. There wasn’t no times where he was like, “I’m going to re-do that rhyme.” Those times were great times because we were always interested to see what everybody was going to say. We knew L was going to come say something retarded.
Faith: Big L was actually the first person to introduce me to Biggie. He came to the video shoot for "Put it On." He didn’t get out of the car [Laughs]. He was sitting in the car the whole time but I think he was a Big L fan.
Finesse: Biggie and L went on tour together. L had [the Debarge "Stay With Me" sample] first on his record "MVP." L's version was first. B.I.G.'s "One More Chance" was second. Big and them heard L's version before they did their version. That's a documented fact. [After that] L wanted to do a remix and he liked the mix so much they shot the "MVP" video with that.
Faith: His album, Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous, came out in ’95.
Don: It didn’t do good.
Jewlz: I wouldn’t categorize it as not doing good. It did as well as expected for the limited amount of exposure that Columbia gave it.
Pucci: That was all dated material. All them songs with the exception of 'Put it on,’ ‘MVP,’ and “Street Struck’ was recorded between ’91 and ’93.
Fat Joe: Big L was no punk. Whatsoever! Cause he was a little guy, and he was famous, people would try to start problems with him around his block and stuff like that. One time he put me on the spot. This is the first time I'm telling this story anywhere. We in The Tunnel and I'm in there with like 50 guys and Big L runs up on me. He says, "Yo, Joe, I got beef, man. Come with me. I got problems." So I go in, I got all my goons with me a shit and when we get there it's Mase. They had some type of argument or misunderstanding and fuckin L threw me in the shit.
We in The Tunnel and I'm in there with like 50 guys and
Big L runs up on me. He says, 'Yo Joe, I got beef, man. Come with me. I got problems.' So I go in, I got all my goons with me and when we get there it's Mase.
Mike Boogie: [On the song "Me & Big L"]: "Remember when you and Mase was beefin/Mad that you never put him on that '8 iz Enuff'."
Fat Joe: The niggas start screaming on Mase. "Yo, I'll fuck you up right now. I'ma smack the shit outta him. Tell 'em Joe." This, this, that. Crazy shit is that I was hangin' out with Mase the night before. I was like, "Oh my God." You know, Big L was my guy so he put me in a messed-up position. We worked it out though.
Faith: I honestly think, and this is going to sound really fucked up, but he just got lost in Illmatic-mania and Nas-mania. He got overshadowed by The Fugees, too. Maybe he didn’t have anybody necessarily to champion him at the label, you know, Kurt had left.
Kurt: I left at that time, I had an all-label deal with RCA. I remember asking one of [Sony Music chairman] Donnie Ienner’s people, “What happened with L?” They just thought he wasn’t commercial enough.
Dame: How could he communicate at Columbia? Do you know how corporate Columbia is? An artist like that—he was a lyrical artist. He wasn’t no crossover artist. Nas made the crossover record. Same with the Fugeess. So if they would have gave him that crossover record they probably would have been able to deal with it, but they just never gave it to him.
Kurt: The people at Columbia didn’t understand that you have to get the street beat first and then move on to the mainstream. When L started coming with all these underground, urban grassroots rap records they didn’t get it. They looked at it like “Oh, we can’t get on radio with this right away. We can’t take this Top 30.” So I think a lot of people started to fade their attention from L, which I didn’t understand. That was not their world at that time.
Finesse: I guess at the time labels was still not knowing how to deal with a street act.
Kid Capri, Faith Newman, Big L, Lord Finesse, Buckwild & DJ Alamo.
Faith: I came to know L but I can’t say that he was an easy person to get to know. When he was around me he was very quiet. It’s got to be weird when you come into that Sony building [but] I never saw him get nervous about anything. He knew what he came there to do and he was on top of his business.
Finesse: For people who say he was quiet, you ain’t know L. If he’s quiet that means he doesn’t know you like that. But when he’s comfortable or he’s himself? He’s in rare comedic form all day, every day—joke about everything. It definitely came across in his music. The crazy stuff you hearing is every day L, the stuff he talk about, the slick shit he say, it’s the slick shit he was around.
Kurt: You know how some guys have very vibrant demeanors? They just talk and they’re very vibrant and they move their arms and they could talk to 20, 30 people at one time? That wasn’t L. If you’re talking to L one on one, he’s cool. He speaks well. But in front of a group of people he would calm down. He wasn’t an introvert but I wouldn’t say he was a soapbox politician.
Fat Joe: Big L was smooth and he was a funny dude. He always had jokes. With me all he would do is joke. But you gotta understand, I was his big brother. He looked at me like a backbone. He's like, "I got my giant with me."
Finesse: L loved to shoot dice.
Jewlz: There’d be times L would be off tour, he’d have $10,000 or $15,000 in cash and go straight to the gambling spot. Or if he didn’t have his money, he’d go into Lee’s stash and take out $2,000 of Lee’s re-up money.
Finesse: "He could call me anywhere 2, 3 in the morning like, “Yo, ‘Ness what you doing?” And I’m like, “Yo, I’m about to turn in. Why, what’s up?” He's like “I’m down at the gambling spot. Yo, man, I’m kind of low.” And I would come down to the gambling spot and we would gamble til the sun come up, literally, and he done made his money back, I’m up a couple grand and it’s like, “OK, what’re you going to do? You want me to drop you off?” And he would be like, “Nah, I’ma stay here a little longer.” And I’d be like, “Man, you serious? Nah, you can’t be serious, son.”
One time he lost $6,000 on one roll. I was sick. I was like, 'Yo, I coulda covered all my bills and got some outfits with that, man. How ya gonna throw all that away?
—Big Don Phinazee
Don: One time he lost $6,000 on one roll. Yo, I was sick. I was like, "My nigga, I coulda covered all my bills and got some outfits with that, man. How ya gonna throw that away?"
Kurt: He wasn’t a mean guy, he wasn’t a nasty guy, he was the type of guy that if he sees you on the street he would actually cross the street to say hi, shake your hand, and cross the street and go about his business. Don: I’m not even gonna front, ain’t nobody fucking with me or my lil brother because of Lee. He went to jail for the robbery of the after-hours gamblin’ spot. He got knocked coming out at the after-hours spot on 136th St. and Lenox Ave. It's a nail place now but it was a nice after hours spot. Ol’ heads had a lot of money in there, and he took that. As they coming out, these niggas got the vests, masks, everything on. I don't know if somebody told, but the police were fucking right there.
Kurt Woodley: Big L wasn’t really a street guy but he was really around that element and very well respected. I think it was his brother that was extremely respected as far as it goes by “the streets.”
Jewlz: He never really had any problems like that.
Don: Except for one time.
Jewlz: There was one time that he got robbed on 137th St. They were from 144th. They caught L and his man, and they had these coats—either Feathered Friends or Marmots. They got robbed. They took the coats. And then, maybe a day or two later the kids who did the robbery, somebody told them, "Yo, you robbed Big L. He’s from 139th. You need to take those coats back." To make a long story short Lamont got his coat.
Jewlz: "I won't lie, I got stuck once... got that back."
Finesse: L was around the street, all day long. He’s seeing people get robbed, or seeing people get slapped or pistol-whipped or shot at, or see somebody dead. He was around that so that goes into his rhymes.
Page from Big L's notebook: "139th St. & Lenox Ave iz tha Danger Zone so watch where you step."
THE INDEPENDENT HUSTLE
Jewlz: During that time he was getting a lil’ disheartened with the music business because that’s when Columbia left him alone. He really wasn’t looking into rhyming like that. So he began doing parties and the first few parties he did was like in the club Latin Quarters and his brothers they was doing parties up in the Bronx up in the Sports Bar. And for them being exposed to that that’s what sparked the entrepreneurial interest for him.
Don: The parties started from NFL, Niggas for Life. That was just a bunch of us on 139the, 140th that was getting money.
Jewlz: They could do a party and charge $50-150 per ticket and it sold out. Everybody knew him in the neighborhood.
Rich: He was super famous in like a 12-block radius.
Don: He was just selling a lil dust sometimes.
Rich: He used to bring it to my boy downtown. Like, "Here smoke this."
Jewlz: When he started doing parties, he started appearing on other peoples songs, verses, he started making money on his own. He would tell me, “Yo, Tom, the first big grip of money that I get when I do this party, I’ma take this money and I’ma buy my own music equipment."
Rich: I met L from trying to get him to do rhymes. I had been doing independent hip-hop distribution. Trying to put that Diggin in the Crates project together. After we started talking, he said, “I’m doin’ these parties. I’m making money off of this party.” And I was like, “Yeah, but you need to do a record.”
Faith: He was an indie artist if there ever was one. I think that was the smartest thing he did.
Finesse: The Sony deal gave him a taste of a major label. He understood how you could get lost in the major label. Around ’95, ’96, Diggin’ started doing a lot of independent stuff and they put him on to being independent. People don’t understand, there was a lot of money to be made independent that you wasn’t getting in royalties. For every 5,000 singles you make a $9,000 profit. So if we doing 30,000, 40,000 singles, nine times eight, that’s $72,000. You ain’t seeing $72,000 off no label. So we all got into the independent thing hardbody That was real money compared to this false imagery of money that the labels supposedly had.
For that 'Ebonics' beat, he gave me like $1,500 in cash. That was the first time I got paid for a beat. I was just like, 'Cool.' It was’t about the money for me at the time. I just wanted my music to be heard.
Ron Browz: Big L was the first artist to give me a shot. I was fresh out of high school, just doing beats for local people in the neighborhood. He already had a deal with Columbia. I remember seeing the stickers all over the place. So it was a blessing for somebody like that to pick one of my beats and do something with it.
We basically met on my mother’s block, on 127th and Lenox Avenue. It was pretty random, he just happened to come through and my friend recognized him, like, "Yo that’s Big L. You should holler at him." I told him I got some beats. I don’t think he really knew me, but he took the chance. He went right upstairs to my mother’s house and the first beat I played for him ended up being "Ebonics." He said, "I think I got something for this."
The lyrics for "Ebonics,e" from Big L's notebook.
Ron Browz: "Ebonics" was premeditated. The way that song was written, you could tell it wasn't written in one day. We recorded it on tape in my mother’s house just to see how it sounded as a reference. I was like, "Wow, that’s a dope idea." The next week we was at D&D Studios making the record. For that “Ebonics” beat, he gave me like $1,500 in cash. That was the first time I got paid for a beat. I was just like, "Cool." It was’t about the money for me at the time. I just wanted my music to be heard. He was telling me he was working on a deal. He was gonna sign to Roc-A-Fella. Basically he was saying you’re gonna start getting paid more after he got the deal.
Rich: I always liked L the best out of the crew. I always wanted to fuck with him but Show wanted to do it. Show was like, “I’m gonna get to L, wait ’til I finish my shit.” L got tired of waiting. He was like, "Yo Rich, I’m about to do this single, ‘Ebonics’ I can’t wait no more for Show.” Basically Show was like the leader of the crew, I needed his permission, I was like, “Is it cool if I do a record with L on my own.” He was like, “Do your thing.” We put out "Ebonics," and it sold like 30,000 12 inches immediately. Every DJ bought it.
Bobbito: When he did “Ebonics,” you kind of saw it coming together like, OK, he’s growing up. He’s maturing as an artist.
Ron Browz: When he met me he was already out the Columbia deal. He was like “Yo, Ima go independent.” He was taking control of his situation. He started Flamboyant Entertainment and he was going full speed ahead. He always told me, "Yo, you gonna be big."
Big L and Ron Browz at D&D Studios recording "Size Em Up" in 1998 (shot by Jewlz The Director)
Dame: I definitely was gonna sign him. Ain’t no doubt about that.
Finesse: Dame wanted a Harlem feel up in there and that’s where L came in the fold.
Dame: Just like with Cam or anyone else. L and I was friends first and foremost because of our history together. I know Big L through childhood. Big L was there at the battle between Jay and DMX. Big L went with me with the camera. He was the one taping it. We came up in that era when crack came out, so we were seeing each other at the Rooftop and at the basketball games that Rucker used to have on 139th St for a while. He was from a really solid block and I was from a good block as well. We were survivors on that level. So we always considered each other brothers. At any given time if there was anything I had that could benefit him, that was there for him.
Rich: I was there at the meeting with Dame. He was in the office saying, "You got me looking crazy. I’m a Harlem nigga you got me fucking with Brooklyn niggas. I need a Harlem dude, we need you." But they had no money at the time. They were going through their problems with Def Jam at the time. There was lights hanging out of the ceiling when Roc-A-Fella had no money. Beanie was on the shelf, Memph was on the shelf. Nothing was coming out but Jay's shit. This was pre-"Hard Knock Life."
Dame: I was like, "Yo, you wanna come with us, you could come with us." Just like I did with Cam. Just like I did for anyone else that was from Harlem that I had a rapport with. It’s not even a question. I was always ready to pull that trigger for him at any time. All my plans, he was damn near included when he was ready. It was the same with the Diplomats. No matter what we always together. It would have been ill cuz Big L would have been a Diplomat as well. He didn’t even see that come to be realized.
I was always ready to pull that trigger for him at any time. All my plans, he was damn near included when he was ready. It would have been ill cuz Big L would have been a Diplomat as well. He didn’t even see that come to be realized.
Rich: They were trying to sign L for free. They had no money at the time. L was like, "No, I’m not having it." He went and talked to them and he called me and I was like "No, I’m not doing it." We just put out "Ebonics," sold like 30,000 12-inches and I just put like $20,000 in this guy's pockets a week before. Dame is over here trying to sign us for 12,000 free promo records. We need the deal. We need a commitment. And I finally looked at Jay, I’m like, "Jay you’re an artist. It's not about money. It's about a commitment." You want a label to commit to you. You want a certain amount of monies committed to your project. He's like "Yeah, of course." Dame threw a fit, and tried to get me outta there. “How much to get rid of this dude?"
Dame: He was probably trying to rob him and I was like I’m not signing him to you. Cause that was the point of the deal. I'm not gonna sign an artist that’s getting robbed. So he needed to explain to me what his position was. Did he have a production deal with him? He’s probably gonna try to take half of his shit and I wasn’t with it. Like, why would I have to go through him to do a deal with Big L?
Rich: Dame was like "How long is the deal for?” L looked at me and I was like, "Yo, it's forever." Dame was like, "Forever? There is no such thing." And I looked at L and he could have said whatever but he goes, "Like he said, it's forever." And I never loved another human being like that. [Laughs] Because he had my back when Dame was wilding. He’s like throwing shit, goin' crazy. Jay was mad cool, just sitting there. "No, you right, you right." So we wasn't having that deal. But then I guess Dame kicked it to him uptown where he was like, "Let’s just do a Wolfpack [group] record." That was L, C-Town and Herb McGruff.
I been wanted to put his record out. I believed in him. That was a no-brainer. It was like, ‘Big L, I been waitin for you my nigga, let’s go!’ Whatever he wanted to do.
Finesse: With me and L it was always a steel-sharpens-steel thing. Who can come with the wittiest compound? Who can make words that don’t rhyme, rhyme? He kept me sharp because I’m hearing him and it’s like, “Wow, OK. I’ve got to step it up more." You have to go against people that’s gonna make you raise your bar and that’s what L would do for me. L was light and easy. It was just a flow, it was a bop, he’s bopping all over the record and it was just so visual without being complicated, but still dope, still intriguing, not complicated—just dope. I’d sit there and be like, “Wow.” And that was the push because it’s just like, "OK, I gotta top you on your punch line and go up one more.” But when I was listening to him at one point I told him, “You got it. I can retire now. I don’t want to do this shit no more.”
When my grandmother passed away. I told L, “I can live through you. I’m just happy to see you shine. I’m done.” It wasn’t fun for me no more. I had whips, I had jewels, I had money. I made a lot of money, but I was lost. I never really set a bar of life. I set a bar lyrically and industry-wise but I never set a bar [for] what I wanted to do with life.
The last conversation I had with L, I came through in the Lex, I remember it was the middle of the night. It had to be 12 or 1 at night. We just pulled over sitting in the car talking. He told me about his aspirations and what he planned to do. He told me he had money stashed from this independent singles and he talked about the Roc-A-Fella move. He talked about how it was supposed to be him, C Town, and McGruff and they didn’t want them, they just wanted L.
Jewlz: L had a whole bunch of flyers on him. He was handing them out when they killed him.
LIFE AND DEATH
Ron Browz: L called me one day. He was like, "Yo, you wanna go to L.A.?" I was like, "Yeah. I never been to L.A." He was like "All right, I'ma hit you back." And that was the last thing he ever said to me. After that the next phone call was to find out he was murdered. My friend Max called me and I couldn’t believe it. I was like, "Nah. We just spoke a day or two ago." It felt like Harlem was still for a minute. It just felt like Harlem died for a minute.
Finesse: I just remember coming in the house and my beeper was going bananas. I get the phone call and they told me where he was at—139th between 5th and Lenox in them buildings. I just remember him lying there and they had the sheets over him. It was me, Show, and Joe. We all met down there. We stood there. We couldn’t believe that this was happening. This is actually L on the floor covered. I was just hurt. I was beyond hurt. I was done. Tears couldn’t stop coming out my eyes. Dude had so much going. The phone kept ringing and I didn’t want to talk to nobody. I couldn’t believe that this happened. You the youngest member out of all of us—how did you go before all of us? To this day it just never adds up.
Fat Joe: That really hurt me what happened to L, just to know that he was killed ahead of his time. He had the whole world ahead of him. And he was only going up. Everybody was starting to know who he is even more.
Rich: He barely got going before he got cut down in his prime. It was just about to get going where he could have really done it. He never really got a chance to do it. It's gotta be the best ones that go first. That almost killed me.
Finesse: Not saying it would be cool or I would wish it, but if anybody else out the crew got killed I wouldn’t be as shocked as when it happened to L. That’s why I look at Harlem different. You have all these undertones in Harlem. You can’t catch everything that’s going on in Harlem or what’s the motive. It’s just a lot of undertones. That shit goes all the way to Alpo and Rich Porter. Somebody could love you and you get money together but there’s all these undertones, jealousy and needs. From the outside looking in, you see none of this. I ain’t see this happening. I ain’t see this coming. As much as L repped Harlem to the fullest, I never in a million years saw him getting killed in Harlem.
When L got killed his brother Lee was away, but then me and Lee had a long talk the day he got killed. We sat in iHop for about three hours. He had ideas about what he wanted to do. He had aspirations to put a group together—I think it was McGruff, Cam, and Ma$e. He was talking to me about the industry side, asking me if the plans he had could be done. We talked about that and then I went to the studio and I was sitting there with Show and he got a phone call that Lee got killed that afternoon.
I look at Harlem different. Dudes will help your mom carry groceries upstairs but don’t like you. It’s weird like that. There's undertones.
Artist 90 Degrees painting the Big L mural on 139th Street.
Damon Dash: He’s a legend from being lyrical, not from being famous. Sometimes you can be legendary from being famous. Sometimes you can be legendary from what you’re saying and how you say it. Big L's one of those.
DJ Premier: If he was still alive now, a lot of these MCs that are running things now wouldn't even be able to match Big L.
Ron Browz: We see it with "Ebonics." That record still is hot today. It goes as a classic. He woulda just kept making classics. And he had the mind frame to go independent back then, so he woulda been huge.
Fat Joe: He was one of the best punchline rappers ever. Even to this day, all my nephews, my son, everybody worships Big L. They act like he's a brand new rapper. And it's crazy because the young kids they gravitate to L, maybe because he passed away when he was still young. So they think he's still young.
Faith Newman: He was the MC's MC, a genius with words.
Bobbito: I think that’s what makes him so curious and mysterious because he never really reached his potential. I think that’s what leaves it kind of like, “Dag, what would’ve happened?”
Finesse: Eminem was just touching the scene when L got killed and L was still growing. He’s adaptable, so he would adapt to the environment. If it was more dope people around him it was going to push him to be more dope. He’s one of the greatest. I put him up there with B.I.G. I put him up there with Pun. I definitely put him up there with them in a heartbeat.
Charlie Hustle, Big L, and Big Pun Freestyling on the set of Fat Joe's "John Blaze" video, 1999
Lamont Coleman died on February 15, 1999, three months shy of his 25th birthday. According to reports, police found him laying dead in front of 104 West 139th st at 8:30 pm, three blocks away from his childhood home. He had multiple gunshot wounds in his head and chest.
The people interviewed for this article declined to discuss the cause of Lamont’s tragic, untimely passing. Rumors linked the shooting as an act of revenge against his middle brother Leroy. Lee was serving a prison sentence for armed robbery at the time, but was murdered three years later. None of these allegations have been proven and while a man named Gerard Woodley, who had known L and his family for years, was initially charged for the crime, he was later released for lack of evidence.
“When you’re involved with the streets on that level, they go for what’s in your heart,” said one person familiar with the situation. “They might not come after you, they might go after what’s in your heart. So you can add it up. Unfortunately, that’s what I was told was happened.”
Although Big L only put out one proper solo studio album during his short life, his signature style left a lasting impact on the rap world. Since his death, 15 years ago, there have been three posthumous LPs released, the most successful of which—1999’s The Big Picture—featured 2Pac, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap and DJ Premier. DJ Soul's 5/30 Tribute is another excellent and essential collection.
Big L has been cited as an influence by many of hip-hop’s biggest stars, including Eminem, who was undoubtedly inspired by L’s uncanny wordplay and his propensity to shock listeners, and Mac Miller, who has one of L’s song titles, “Street Struck,” tattooed on his arm, and names Lamont Coleman as the reason why he decided to become a rapper.
Street Struck is also the title of the forthcoming documentary being produced by his old friend, Jewlz The Director, who shot the never-before-seen video clips included with this story.