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Harlem's Finest: The Rise and Impact of Big L

Hand painted portrait of Big L
Vinyl art portrait of Big L on Put It On

Early Life and Rise in Harlem


Growing up in the heart of Harlem during the 1980s and 1990s, Lamont Coleman, later known as Big L, was surrounded by the pulsating beats of hip-hop that echoed through the streets like a heartbeat of the neighbourhood. Harlem, historically known as a hotbed of African-American culture and creativity, provided a fertile ground for young talents like Big L to explore their artistic potential.


From a young age, Big L immersed himself in the music of hip-hop pioneers like Rakim, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane, whose innovative styles and lyrical prowess left a mark on his burgeoning artistry. These influences, coupled with his first-hand experiences navigating the challenges and triumphs of inner-city life, served as the crucible from which Big L's distinct lyrical style emerged.


The formation of the Children of the Corn collective, comprising Big L alongside fellow rising stars Cam'ron and Mase, signalled a pivotal moment in his artistic journey. Collaborating with like-minded talents allowed Big L to showcase his emerging talent on a broader stage, setting the foundation for his solo endeavours and establishing connections within the hip-hop community that would shape his future collaborations and career trajectory.


Artistic Mastery: Big L's Unique Style


Big L's debut album, "Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous," released on March 28, 1995, under Columbia Records, stands as a testament to his unparalleled talent and artistic vision. The album introduced listeners to a new standard of lyrical prowess and storytelling depth.


Tracks like "Put It On," with its infectious beat and Big L's razor-sharp delivery, immediately captured attention and announced his arrival as a force to be reckoned with in the rap game. The track not only showcased his lyrical dexterity but also established his signature style characterized by vivid imagery, streetwise narratives, and clever wordplay that resonated with audiences far beyond Harlem's borders.


"M.V.P." (Most Valuable Poet) further solidified Big L's reputation as a lyricist's lyricist, with his rapid-fire flow and intricate rhyme schemes leaving listeners in awe of his technical skill and creative wit. His ability to seamlessly blend gritty street tales with introspective lyrics and cultural commentary showcased the depth and versatility of his artistry, elevating him to a league of elite emcees.


What set Big L apart was not just his ability to string together complex rhymes but also his fearless delivery and unwavering confidence on the mic. Each verse was a masterclass in wordplay, with clever metaphors and double entendres woven into every bar, keeping listeners engaged and eager for more.



D.I.T.C. and Collaborations


Big L's affiliation with the Diggin' in the Crates (D.I.T.C.) crew marked a pivotal moment in his career, amplifying his lyrical prowess and expanding his musical horizons. The legendary collective, comprising influential producers and emcees, provided a fertile ground for artistic exploration and collaboration.


Collaborations with luminaries such as Lord Finesse, known for his production prowess and lyrical finesse, resulted in tracks like "Yes You May (Remix)," where Big L's raw lyricism complemented Lord Finesse's smooth production seamlessly.


Showbiz & A.G., another integral part of D.I.T.C., joined forces with Big L on tracks like "Represent" and "Diggin' in the Crates". These collaborations exemplified Big L's versatility and adaptability across various production styles, from gritty boom-bap beats to soulful sampled melodies, showcasing his ability to shine on diverse musical canvases.


Diamond D, revered for his innovative production techniques and soulful soundscapes, collaborated with Big L on tracks like "Casualties of a Dice Game," where Big L's vivid storytelling and Diamond D's evocative beats created a sonic landscape that resonated with audiences beyond New York City.


Big L's contributions to the collective's self-titled album "D.I.T.C.," released posthumously in 2000, served as a poignant reminder of his enduring influence and impact on the East Coast rap scene. Big L's verse on "Da Enemy" stands as a testament to his unparalleled lyrical prowess and storytelling finesse. His intricate wordplay and clever punchlines are on full display, painting vivid pictures of urban life and the challenges faced by those navigating its unforgiving terrain. From his opening lines that command attention:


“I drive up and down Harlem blocks, iced-out watch

Knots in my socks, cops think I’m selling rocks

Pulling me over to see if I’m drunk, but I’m sober

They wouldn’t f**k with me if I drove a Nova”


To his seamless transitions between gritty realism and self-assured bravado:


“Listen Columbo, you’re mad because your money come slow

And what you make in a year I make in one show”


Commercial Success and Major Releases


As Big L's career ascended, so did the anticipation for his sophomore album, "The Big Picture." Promising to showcase his artistic growth and expanded storytelling prowess, the album was poised to solidify his status as a rap icon.


Tragically, on February 15, 1999, Big L's promising journey was abruptly halted when he fell victim to a senseless shooting in his hometown of Harlem. The news sent shockwaves throughout the hip-hop community, reverberating with a profound sense of loss and disbelief. Fans, collaborators, and industry peers mourned the untimely passing of a rap luminary whose potential seemed limitless.


Despite his physical absence, "The Big Picture," released posthumously in 2000, served as a poignant testament to his enduring influence and artistic vision. Tracks like "Ebonics," "Flamboyant," and "The Heist" showcased his lyrical prowess and storytelling depth, leaving listeners captivated by his raw talent and unapologetic authenticity.


The loss of Big L not only deprived the rap world of a visionary artist but also underscored broader conversations about violence in urban communities and the challenges faced by artists navigating fame and personal safety. His passing became a sombre reminder of the harsh realities that often intersect with the pursuit of artistic expression.


Impact on the Hip-Hop Scene


Big L's impact on the hip-hop scene transcends mere statistics or chart positions; it resides in the very fabric of the genre's evolution. His lyrical prowess and innovative style influenced a generation of rappers who continue to pay homage to his legacy in various ways.


Artists like Jay-Z, whose early career intersected with Big L's rise, have openly praised Big L's influence on their own lyrical development. Jay-Z's track "7 Minute Freestyle" features a homage to Big L, showcasing not only respect for his fellow artist but also a recognition of Big L's impact on shaping the lyrical landscape of hip-hop.


Nas, revered for his storytelling abilities and lyrical depth, has also acknowledged Big L's influence. In interviews and freestyles, Nas has referenced Big L as a lyrical inspiration, highlighting the intricate rhyme schemes and clever wordplay that characterized Big L's music.


Eminem, known for his technical prowess and verbal acrobatics, has paid tribute to Big L in several tracks and interviews. Eminem's admiration for Big L's raw talent and fearless delivery is evident in his lyrical references and public statements, underscoring the profound impact Big L had on shaping Eminem's own approach to lyricism and storytelling.

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