Earlier this year marked the 20th anniversary of Lifestylez ov da Poor Dangerous, the debut album from the Harlem raised Lamont Coleman, better known as Big L. No one said jack about this, but Bonafide re-published his only ever UK interview, so here it is again, our final interview to be taken from the 90s Special as we near the release of our next issue.
After a particularly fertile period for hip-hop, L, with his spitfire cadence, killer punch lines and a superb (and often gory) gift for story telling, was a natural continuum. Coleman’s approach to the music business was also commendably advanced. Having scored a deal with Columbia in 1993 off the back of several fire singles – the pre-horrorcore sounding Devil Son and his work with DITC – he was dropped from the label post-Lifestylez in 1996, reportedly due to artistic differences over Columbia’s pursuits of the charts while L remained true to his hardcore roots. Rather than join another label, Damon Dash courted him from Roc-A-Fella, he started his own, Flamboyant Entertainment. Yet in a tragic case of life imitating art Big L wasn’t around to see the first album release on Flamboyant Entertainment, his sophomore effort The Big Picture, as he was murdered February 15th 1999.
By coincidence, the February 2009 issue of Hip-Hop Connection magazine included what proved to be both his first and last published interview in the UK, until now. Interviewed by writer, photographer and Lewis Recordings label head, Mike Lewis, Mike met Big L at a show in Amsterdam and recalls; “L chilling back stage with AG,neither of them lived up to the stereotype of a hood. L was polite, quietly spoken, professional and was keen to point out that he was starting a new label and the future looked bright. If anything it looked as if he’d escaped the danger of the streets.”
“I’m far from broke, got enough bread . And mad hoes, ask Beavis I get nothing Butthead” (98 Freestyle, The Big Picture)
Going to rap shows in London in the late 90s and early 00s there was a reverence towards Big L that probably outshone 2Pac and Biggie at the time, despite not playing a solo show in the UK. In fact it was, and still is in some circles, standard procedure for any touring East Coast act to pay their respects and urge the audience to; “put your L’s up”. It was a sentiment shared by HHC with the magazine voting L ‘no.1 illest MC of all time’. Lewis isn’t convinced by the accolade but does think he “could read from the Argos catalogue and it would sound ill.”
“If he was alive now and he’d have hooked up with Damon Dash when he wanted to sign him we’d probably be hearing him on Radio 1. I met Jay-Z in the nineties and their personalities were surprisingly similar – quiet, polite, professional and showing no signs of a past tainted by crime. Both were ambitious but only one made it through.”
With the shootings of Biggie and 2Pac still relatively fresh in the landscape of hip-hop, L’s murder didn’t come as the surprise it should have been. But from a personal perspective Mike found it a big shock: “He gave me his home phone number and address and I posted him a copy of the interview we did, so when (he) died in such a violent way and so soon after we met it was the last thing I expected.”
There are times when major labels unwittingly sign artists so good they don’t quite know what to do with them. A prime example is Big L. His debut album for Columbia, Lifestylez ov da Poor Dangerous, was critically acclaimed both sides of the pond and reissues of his early singles are still best sellers. L’s uninhibited lyrical style, coupled with the production talents of Lord Finesse, Buckwild and Showbiz, created a true hip-hop classic. This was one of the rare occasions that a corporate label signed real talent. But as we’ve heard so many times before, the people in the marketing department didn’t quite get it. Lack of promotion and record company politics inevitably led to a split – a perfect example of a label not knowing what they’ve got till it’s gone.
The fact this is Big L’s first UK interview shows what little attention was paid to him by his paymasters back then. But this lack of corporate support was replaced by back up from the Diggin’ In The Crates organization. In 1997 the kid from Harlem featured on DITC’s monster hit The Enemy. Arguably one of the best tracks that year, it was further proof that L was up there with the best of them. Their latest offering, Dignified Soldiers has L spittin’ lyrics alongside long-term pals AG, OC and Finesse.
It seems only yesterday that Big L told us he was the Devil’s Son, but that was five years ago and the rest of the rap world has finally started to catch up with him. Now in his early twenties and with his own record label, Flamboyant, Big L is back to give it to us raw. As corny and obvious as it seems, how did he get started in this thing called rap?
“For as long as I can remember I was always a rap fan. Back in the days I used to listen to the Cold Crush Four and Run–D.M.C. tapes, but I really got serious after Big Daddy Kane came out – I was a really big fan of his. I started writing rhymes in 1990 and was in a group called Three The Hard Way, but they wasn’t serious so I went solo. Then I started winning rap contests and battling everybody in my ‘hood’ and roastin’ ‘em. Later on I met Lord Finesse in a record store and we exchanged numbers. He let me open his shows and produced a couple of demos for me. We took four good tracks to Columbia and they loved them. We started negotiating a deal and they signed me.”
Hardcore rhymes had been around for some time, but back in ’95, when the album first dropped nobody had yet reached the extremes of Big L. Most major releases of the time consisted mainly of radio-friendly or commercial tracks. So how did the general public react to this new style?
“The album sold pretty good. It did well, extremely well when you take into account that it didn’t get much airplay or video play but people still went out and supported it. If you took the promotion and video play away form some other artists, they couldn’t sell what I sold. It sold just by word of mouth. People were like, ‘Big L is hot, we like him’, not because the label put me out there or supported me.”
Selling purely on his talent alone, L knew which path he wanted to take. Unfortunately Columbia didn’t share his vision and there the trouble started. “They didn’t promote me in the way I needed to be promoted. I’m a lyricist and they were trying to point me in a different direction to where I was heading. Also, a lot of the people I was originally working with at Columbia had left, so I was there with a bunch of strangers that didn’t really know my music. I didn’t really get along with the new people so I left.”
A lot of A&R people never even grew up on rap so how can they tell a rapper what kind of records they should make?
Leaving the security of a major label is a big gamble and a decision that many artists are making these days. If it pays off the rewards are vast, but if it goes wrong an artist can be forgotten quickly. Keeping your hand in is essential in this immensely competitive industry. L explains how he maintained his presence: “After the album came out I did a lot of shows until the end of ’96. I also did a lot of guest appearances on other independent cats’ singles and LPs to stay out there. Doing the OC and DITC records kept me in the game. I’ve recently started my own independent label, and my first release on that was the Ebonics single.”
Many rappers are now opting to start their own independent label. With manufacturing and distribution provided by Fat Beats, Big L’s Flamboyant label is already making its mark on the scene, though he stresses it’s a direct result of his own hard work. “Having your own label is financially rewarding and it’s good for long term growth. I’ve got total control of what I put out and don’t have anybody telling me what to do. A lot of A&R people never even grew up on rap so how can they tell a rapper what kind of records they should make? Basically they want you to be a copycat of whoever’s selling the most records at the time. If you went back to ’93 they would probably tell you to sound like Snoop. DMX is hot right now so they’d want you come out like that. They (A&R people) – use in pull out only) don’t let artists be themselves.”
A little over a year ago Big L was voted number one in HHC’s chart of the illest emcees of all time. Was this a self-conscious decision to shock or just the natural Big L style? “I was always considered a good emcee but never thought of myself that way. When I first started rhyming people thought I’d been doing it for years. They said I should enter competitions and I started winning them. People couldn’t believe I’d not been rhyming for a long time. I started seeing in magazines that they saw me as a real great lyricist, but I’d never really looked at myself like that. I know that I can rhyme and all that, but I didn’t know people looked at my lyrics that way. When I saw that I was number one I was like ‘Hey, that’s hot!’ I rap about what comes to mind. I don’t think there’s any subject I wouldn’t rap about.”
L can certainly hold his corner both on wax and stage. Winning rap contests was his first real introduction to the game, but so many emcees now prefer to be heard on record and do battle via vinyl. The LL/Canibus spat is just one example of emcees fighting it out on wax, but are battle records a valid form?
“Face to face is a good way to battle, but only a few people are going to be there. If you do a record the whole world can listen. It really depends on the circumstances. Some people don’t want the whole world to know their business, so if they’ve got a problem with someone they’ll want to battle them in a club or somewhere and let that be the end of it. It’s not always cool to have your personal business on a record. It also depends how serious you are, like back in the days they didn’t really go that far. Back when it was people like LL and Kool Moe Dee. They would come out with tracks like How You Like Me Now and Jack The Ripper, but now people get more personal, like ‘I fucked your girl’. They’re taking it to too many places and it can get dangerous.”
Emcees like Cage, Mr Eon, Eminem and RA The Rugged Man are only the tip of the iceberg in the ever-increasing world of downright nasty lyricists. One thing is sure, they’re here to stay. And despite the turbulent start to his career, the future looks bright for this kid from 138th Street. “I’m meeting up with some people in Europe and doing some stuff with them in the studio”, he says of his future plans. “I’ll also be doing guest appearances on other artists’ albums. Hopefully I’ll be coming to Britain soon but nothing’s planned. The last time I came over was with OC about a year ago and it was cool. I want to take Flamboyant to the next level.”
When hip-hop finally implodes and the tired mainstream rappers have disappeared up their own arseholes, artists like L should prosper. Hip-hop will always be with us, but without hardcore underground emcees creating new trends rap soon becomes stagnant. Let ‘em have it, L.
Words & Photography: Mike Lewis (originally published in Hip-Hop Connection magazine, February 1999)