Rifling through the history books to get acquainted with the legends of hip-hop lore can be testing to say the least, with many not knowing where to start. To help you ace that test, we over here at Bonafide will be putting together detailed memos providing the lowdown on rap’s great and wonderful. Like concise cliffs notes, these ‘Cheat Sheets’ will cover all bases, telling you everything you need to know about everyone worth knowing.
In celebration of the 18th anniversary of his classic debut, Capital Punishment, we spotlight one of the deadliest microphone assassins to ever murder a beat: the late, great Terror Squad emcee, Big Pun.
The legendary rapper was born Christopher Lee Rios on November 10, 1971, in The Bronx, New York.
Big Pun began his rap career in the early ‘90s, having honed his penmanship as a teenager in the ‘80s when he began writing lyrics. Forming the underground group, Full-A-Clips, he initially went by the alias Big Moon Dawg, before changing his name to Big Punisher. Shortening the moniker to Big Pun, the imposing rapper was also referred to simply as Pun.
Claim to fame
Pun rose to prominence as a fearsome and formidable emcee after fellow Bronx rapper, Fat Joe, took him under his wing. Making his first appearance on the latter’s Jealous One’s Envy, Pun shocked the world with his distinctive voice, flow and hard-hitting punchlines, his roughhouse rhymes relegating many of his contemporaries to lower league status, following his arrival on the scene.
As a prominent member of Fat Joe’s Terror Squad – the famous collective of Bronx borough rappers – Pun smashed the glass ceiling for Latino artists, being the first high-profile emcee of Hispanic origin to attain mainstream success; the 1998 release of his debut – Capital Punishment – catapulting him to superstar status.
Having contended with a string of weight-related health issues for most of his adult life, Pun passed away on 7 February 2000, after suffering a heart attack and respiratory failure.
Big Pun belongs on the Mount Rushmore of rap, his lyricism and rapid-fire flow solidifying his status as a monumental rapper – an emcee for the ages. Ranked Top 5 Dead or Alive by many a hip-hop head, Pun is truly one of the greatest of all-time, his complex rhyme schemes, advanced writing and flair for freestyling legendary.
As with Nas and Raekwon, Pun was very much inspired by the great Kool G Rap, no doubt studying and learning a thing or two from the Juice Crew vet. Cut from the same cloth as the formidable Giancana, Pun was critically acclaimed and revered for his mafioso raps; his intricate, multisyllabic rhyming rivalled only by a hallowed few.
Beloved by legions of admirers, Pun was a fan’s favourite and hometown hero, taking every opportunity on and off wax to put on for the Bronx, Puerto Rico and Hispanics everywhere.
Big Pun made history over the course of a tragically short career, entering rap’s pantheon of greats as a 26-year-old with the release of his classic debut, Capital Punishment. Having established himself as an underground darling and one of hip-hop’s finest with a string of astounding freestyles and guest appearances, Pun truly made his way into the hearts and minds of music fans all over the world with his first full-length studio effort.
Labelled the Puerto Rican Biggie, Pun’s Capital Punishment justified the comparisons to the Bad Boy legend while simultaneously distinguishing the rapper as a master of the art-form in his own right.
Praised for the sheer brilliance of Pun’s lyricism, Capital Punishment garnered rave reviews, with fans and critics taking to the rapper’s street tales and dextrous delivery with great enthusiasm.
A breakout record, the album would go on to sell over a million copies, making Pun the first Latino rapper to go platinum, the milestone marking a watershed moment in hip-hop history.
Songs to Check Out
Super Lyrical feat Black Thought
Tres Leches (Triboro Trilogy) feat Inspectah Deck & Prodigy
Solo album: Capital Punishment (1998); Yeeeah Baby (2000 – posthumous)
Compilation album: The Album (with Terror Squad – 1999); Endangered Species (2001 – posthumous)
In spite of his imposing frame, intimidating reputation and hardboiled rhymes, Pun was a colourful character with a winning sense of humour, and many of his videos – including Darren Grant’s playful James Bond treatment for the Rockwilder-produced You Came Up – reflect that, highlighting the late rapper’s fun-loving spirit.
As stylish as he was grimy, dapper as he was tough, Pun affected a street-smart elegance that distinguished him from his competitors and peers, setting him apart as superior in every regard: be it as an emcee, a man of discerning taste, or someone with the grace – and wherewithal – to appreciate and acquire the finer things. He was a cut above, and his music videos conveyed that, the visuals for songs like Still Not a Player zooming in on him at his exuberant best.
Staying true to his name, Pun would lyrically reprimand rappers on their own records for even thinking they could match him bar for bar; admonishing and chiding friends and foes alike with his witticisms, wordplay, and double entendres. He attacked beats with such vengeance his features were nothing short of exercises in cruelty, as he subjected anyone brave enough to trade rhymes with him to the worst sort of verbal lashings. What must have been torture for his many collaborators – their egos beaten up and bruised – amounted to nothing less than listening bliss for fans and hip-hop heads, his show-stealing turns on records like John Blaze, The Beatnuts’ Off The Books, Banned From T.V. and Fat Joe’s Fire Water eminently enjoyable.
“Even if I stuttered I would still sh- sh- shit on you” – John Blaze
“Dead in the middle of Little Italy, little did we know that we riddled some middleman who didn’t do diddily” – Twinz (Deep Cover ‘98)
“Que te pasa, you ain’t even in my clasa” – John Blaze
“I’m not a player, I just fuck a lot” – Still Not A Player
What They Say
Praising his beloved partner in rhyme in an interview with Cam Capone, Fat Joe waxed lyrical about his late friend, calling him “by far one of the best lyricists to touch the mic.”
Shedding a little more light on their relationship, Fat Joe explained – while talking to Charlamagne, Envy and Yee on The Breakfast Club – “Pun taught me how to rap. I started before him and put him in the game, but it wasn’t until I went to ‘The Pun School of Arts’ that I learnt how to make records.”
Equally effusive, Remy Ma – the Terror Squad leading lady – also emphasised Pun’s influence in the very same interview, saying, “Big Pun is always around me. Whenever I’m in a situation and I have to make a decision, I hear Pun’s inner voice.”
N.O.R.E., a fellow Boricua and frequent collaborator, has also spoken at length about Pun’s standing and legacy, notably declaring, “Pun was the best,” in an interview with Latinflow305. “I’m glad I knew a legend,” he said. “I’m glad a legend called me on the phone. I’m glad a legend ate at my house, and I‘m glad I ate at his.” “I’m glad,” he shared, “I got to walk the Earth with the man.”
Real recognising real, Black Thought of the venerable Roots crew, put it perfectly in a conversation with AllHipHop , saying simply, “There’s only one Big Pun.”