By Robert Dean
Big L never got his chance to shine. It's a story all-American, all-believable in a country where our legends and our brightest stars burn out faster than a citronella candle left to burn on a hot summer night. Like Nipsey Hussle, Tupac, or Biggie Smalls, Big L's life was snuffed out by a hail of bullets back in 1999. All before the mainstream was starting to know his name. It's a heartbreaker because he could have been great, he could have stood as tall as the giants of the game today, because when Big L was lowered into his grave, neither Nas nor Jay-Z were the superstars we know them. He could have been on that wave to greatness.
Coming up from the East Harlem hip hop scene in the early to mid-1990s, Big L blew up thanks to his ability to devastate in freestyle battles as well as flip the context in any situation. He could take literally any subject and flip the point of view on its head with a samurai-sharp eye – all while keeping that smooth New York style. Big L had the bars and the stories that sold his songs, legend has it he'd have people shouting in awe as he laced tirades left and right.
The Source, the OG of all things hip hop journalism, has stated he was one of the best storytellers to ever do it. In an interview with Funkmaster Flex, Nas claimed, "[Big L] scared me to death. When I heard [an Apollo Theater performance] on tape, I was scared to death. I said, 'Yo, it's no way I can compete if this is what I gotta compete with."
Big L's classic record, Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous is not a token entry into one of the overlooked greats, it's a fact that most true hip hop heads will agree with. It's got all the elements of style, but also has the vibe and that special thing that reverberates through time, the bars, the beats, and the attitude is genuine. The record went on to sell two hundred thousand copies on the strength of singles, "Put it On" and “MVP." Big L was scooped up long before the pretend gangster that would emerge years later.
Being the king of the New York mixtapes back in the early 90s, Big L was on a series of tapes with scene luminaries like Cam' ron, Ma$e, and McGruff, (who he briefly had a group with called COC, short for Children of the Corn.) He was also tight with rappers like Jay-Z, Big Pun, and Fat Joe, who happens to perform on the stone-cold classic, "The Enemy."
While most people credit RZA's Gravediggaz as the origins of "horrorcore" but, go back and listen to Big L's "Devil's Son," saying, "I've always been a fan of horror flicks. Plus, the things I see in Harlem are very scary. So, I just put it all together in a rhyme."
When it all turned sideways
Apparently, Columbia didn't understand what they had, trying to box a real MC into radio singles and, despite selling a lot of records, dropped him, "I was there with a bunch of strangers that didn't really know my music." Despite all of this, he went on to form his own label,
Flamboyant Entertainment, which was "planned to distribute the kind of hip-hop that sold without top 40 samples or R & B hooks." Ironically, his harder style landed him at the feet of Damon Dash, who wanted Big L to sign with Rockafella. It almost happened as Big L, Jay-Z, and Herb McGruff, C-Town, was going to be called The Wolfpack.
Sadly, the good fortunes weren't meant to last. On February 15, 1999, Big L was killed at 45 West 139th Street in his native Harlem. He was shot nine times in the face and chest. A kid he grew up with, Gerard Woodley, was arrested three months later. "It's a good possibility it was retaliation for something Big L's brother did, or Woodley believed he had done," said a spokesperson for the New York City Police Department. Woodley was released due to a lack of evidence. The case remains officially unsolved. In 2016, Woodley got his, catching one to the head in 2016.
The legacy of Big L
There are a few things that dropped after his death, a record, The Big Picture came out back in 2000, thanks to a plethora of freestyles and a capella tracks they had in the studio from tracks the rapper was working at the time of his death. The record features verses by legends like Fat Joe, Tupac, Gang Starr, Kool G Rap, and Big Daddy Kane – the record when on to sell almost one hundred thousand copies.
If you're looking for some of that deep, old school hip hop that gets every party hot or is the perfect soundtrack for a long car ride on a summer day, look no further than Big L. he remains unsung despite the legends of the game knowing full well that he was one of a kind. He died for a street vendetta he had nothing to do with like many have before and since. We can only imagine where he would have fallen with the other New York giants many MC's of today are still chasing.