20 Years After Big L’s Passing, This Rarity Showcases The Man Behind The Punchlines
Twenty years ago today (February 15, 1999) Big L was fatally shot just steps from his childhood home at 45 West 139th Street in Harlem. It was the block he prophetically deemed the “The Danger Zone” in his early songs. On that fateful Monday night, Lamont Coleman was struck nine times in a drive-by shooting. In a 2010 interview with Planet Ill‘s Odeisel, one of his older brothers, Donald Phinazee, suggested that L was targeted because of something his sibling, Leroy “Big Lee” Phinazee, was believed to have done. In any case, the tragedy happened just as the dazzling lyricist and freestyle phenom was in the midst of some exciting career developments. While L previously won over fans with one LP, 1995’s Sony-backed Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous, the MC was in transition with new material. Many of those recordings were released after his death as the gold-certified LP, The Big Picture. At the close of the 1990s, Big L had the respect of his top peers. JAY-Z, who had freestyled beside him at Stretch and Bobbito’s radio show, was courting him to join Roc-A-Fella’s roster. Nas caught a famous flick with L. The MC’s Flamboyant Entertainment imprint released “Ebonics (Criminal Slang)” in late 1998, a 12″ single that carried one of his stunning concept verses.
Meanwhile, L and his Diggin’ In The Crates cohorts were working on The Album, which would release 19 years ago this month on Tommy Boy. It featured all founding members on one project, including L’s mentor Lord Finesse, as well as Fat Joe, A.G., O.C., and Diamond D, as well as producers Showbiz and Buckwild. Notably, that LP also involved Big Pun, the same month of his passing. It was the first group release from the conglomerate heard in posse cuts throughout the 1990s.
However, Big L left behind plenty of other jewels that did not make either of his two proper albums or group work. For an artist known for his scathing punchlines, glowing self-confidence, and clever wit, Big L had personal depth. There are some moments of vulnerability in the catalog that L left behind. “How Will I Make It” is one such illustration that went unreleased during the MC’s life. Beginning his first verse, L describes how his father just up and left one day without any notice or explanation, while his mother dealt with substance abuse.
“I’m only at the age of 10 / And life already seems to me like it’s heading for a dead end,” he raps. “‘Cause my Moms be smoking mad crack / My pops went out for a fast snack, and never brought his ass back.” Later in the verse, Big L hearkens back to the figurative loss of his father and how growing up was rough. “Too ashamed to walk the streets / Wearing the same cheap sneaks and dirty outfits for weeks,” he raps. “Even my holidays got damaged / ‘Cause on Christmas I asked Santa for a father and a hot sandwich.” Like Biggie’s “Juicy,” it is unclear if the accounts were completely factual. However, Lamont rapped on a dusty sample with conviction and rawness. The song captivates the listener.
In the third and final verse, L speaks about re-adjusting to life after serving time in prison. It becomes clear that L is telling a story, but making it feel as though it is his own. He describes how hard it is to get a job after having a felony on his record and turning to crime to survive. “My time came to a cease, I’m back on the streets again / I hope I don’t get snatched by the beast again,” he spits. “But it’s getting crazy hectic cause I’m broke, get up naked / And can’t get a job ‘cause of my jail record / Before you know it, I was robbing them same ducks / I even started robbing homeless folks for their change cups.” This song would appear among the several 2010s releases of posthumous Big L material, with his brother Donald at the helm. Notably, it is titled as “I Won’t” on 2010’s Return Of The Devil’s Son.
There is more Big L material that Heads will never be able to hear. In 2018, Ski Beatz revealed that he deleted ADATs that contained unreleased Big L and JAY-Z verses. “I threw that stuff out,” he said. “That’s what I did, not thinking that in the future this stuff…[not thinking that] people would wanna hear this stuff. When you making this music, you not thinking that everybody’s gonna blow up. Now, I keep everything because you never know.”
Twenty years after Big L’s death, his star power exceeds any commercial measure, even as a gold-certified artist. The D.I.T.C. MC (who was also in Children Of The Corn with Cam’ron, Ma$e, Herb McGruff, Digga, and the late Bloodshed) has become a global ambassador for Harlem, and a certain type of Hip-Hop. His style is influential, his bars are regularly quoted, and he remains a tragic “what-if” in the genre of Rap. While his cutting wit and smooth delivery are high atop the list of L’s incredible traits, songs like “How Will I Make It” show another side to a great artist that may be gone, but can never be forgotten.