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On May 30th, Big L would’ve turned 49 years old. In honor of the iconic Harlem rapper, we’re looking back on the career and its impact in the hip-hop scene. As Eminem put it, “Take some Big and some ’Pac/And you mix ’em up in a pot/Sprinkle a lil’ Big L on top/What the f**k do you got?” If not for his unfortunate passing, there’s no doubt that Big L would consistently be on the shortlist of the greatest rappers of all time. Still, his legacy is one of a rapper’s rapper who was able to spar with any MC, bar-for-bar. During his short career, he released one album and a brief collection of singles. However, you would be remised to find him outside of the top 10 on all-time lists for a good reason.

Big L was tragically shot and killed on Feb. 15th in the area he famously referred to as “The Danger Zone” — 139th St. and Lenox Ave in Harlem. Named Lamont Coleman, he grew up as a relative outcast on his block, where violence and drug abuse grew rampant. Still, his aunt, Gilda “Pinky” Terry, raised him as her own son and ensured that he still experienced childhood. The family was just wealthy enough to occasionally travel, taking the kids out to places such as Walt Disney World in Florida. In addition, her outgoing personality was the host and star of Harlem block parties.

Big L And Jay Z Had A Rap Battle

CHICAGO – APRIL 01: Rapper Big L performs at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago, Illinois on April 1, 1995. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

Although Big L already had a penchant for rhyming since a young age, experiencing Run D.M.C. live was a game-changer. His older brother, Donald Phinazee, took him to the King Of Rock tour in 1985, which planted the seed for L’s own foray into hip-hop. Their mom eventually bought DJ equipment for Don and Big L, who would serve as the MC on the block.

As Damon Dash put it with Complex, “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.” By Big L’s teenage years, that reputation had sprouted from the block to New York City as a whole.

While Big L was a mellow and introverted personality, he hit a creative lightbulb when he got on the mic. Jay-Z heard of his notoriety in the Harlem scene, even challenging him to a rap battle on the block. With the battle reportedly being a tie, it wasn’t long until major labels were calling about Big L. Without a mixtape or even a demo tape, he captured the excitement of managers by dropping verses in person. By 1992, he had signed a deal with Colombia Records, who also had the likes of Nas under their wing.

Read More: Big L Effortlessly Broke Down Slang On “Ebonics”

Big L’s Debut Album Released In 1995

After releasing a slew of singles that depicted the realities of Harlem life amidst grim horrorcore production, Big L came out with his debut studio album Lifestylez Ov da Poor & Dangerous. The 1995 release was long overdue, as he was already a well-known MC at this point. Fat Joe went as far as to tell Vibe, “People can get mad at me for saying this, but he was the best lyricist at the time. He was a better lyricist than Biggie and Jay-Z. He just didn’t have the marketing and promotion. Let me go on the record and say that. It’s the truth.”

However, Big L was far more than exclusively a skilled lyricist. He was looking to steer the direction of hip-hop in a unique direction. After Columbia Records dropped him after his debut album, he began to explore going independent with the launch of Flamboyant Entertainment. The two parties parted ways due to “creative differences.” Still, what came after became an integral part of L’s story. Feeling that the genre was devolved into a repetitive sampling of hits and redundant subject matter, he had a steadfast vision of changing the landscape of hip-hop. In many ways, he was able to do just that while only releasing one non-posthumous album. He was able to identify new talent, proving his ear for talent was just as strong as his penmanship, as seen with the launch of Children Of The Corn — a group consisting of Big L, Ma$e, Cam’ron, Bloodshed, and McGruff.

He Was Murdered At Only 24 Years Old

Tragically, Big L was murdered in his native Harlem neighborhood on February 15, 1999. Gerard Woodley, one of his childhood friends, was arrested for the crime. However, he would later be released due to a lack of evidence regarding the drive-by shooting. Nearly 17 years after the shooting, Woodley himself was shot and killed. While there’s a great deal of controversy regarding the slew of tragedies, there is no doubt that rapper Big L’s death at the mere age of 24 cut one of the greatest hip-hop careers to date brutally short.

Read More: Big L Achieved Rap Immortality On “Put It On”

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