Even though he released only one solo album in his lifetime, Big L walked through Lennox Ave with the confidence of Thelonious Monk. For starters, L knew other New York rappers feared getting on the same track as him. “I was scared to death when I heard Big L’s tape. I knew I couldn’t compete,” Nas once remarked. The Harlem spitter’s cutting delivery and crisp flow was capable of making even a young JAY-Z appear ordinary.
L was aware he possessed a rare gift of being able to conjure up ingenious cartoonish punchlines, practically on command. He turned being poor (“I wasn’t poor, I was po, I couldn’t afford the o-r”) and getting involved in too many fistfights (“I knocked out so many teeth, the tooth fairy went bankrupt”) into belly laughs, finding light amid inner-city dilemmas that were darker than the midnight sky.
He also routinely expressed violent imagery, talking about hitting women, committing murder, and, bizarrely, raping Jesus Christ. Not every line has aged well. Yet it’s worth noting L helped pioneer the horrorcore-era of rap on the East Coast, which was driven by an urge to say something more outrageous than Nas’ “going to hell for snuffin’ Jesus” proclamation. And in his music, L often took on the alter-ego of the “Devil’s Son”, reveling in becoming the line-pushing villain.
Across his classic 1995 debut, Lifestylez Ov Da Poor and Dangerous, L, a keen student of both Big Daddy Kane and Richard Pryor, worked through the traumas of institutional racism, police brutality, crime, and being on welfare without ever losing his sense of humor. It spoke to a perseverance so many Black people raised in the Crack era — Big L, real name Lamont Coleman, was born on May 30, 1974 — were forced to develop; an understanding that laughter and escaping into fantastical imagery can prevent one from unraveling.
“Big L was a comedian who liked to push the line as far as he possibly could,” says Buckwild, a veteran Bronx producer who produced some of Big L’s greatest songs and was also part of the Diggin in the Crates (D.I.T.C) collective alongside artists like Diamond D, O.C., AG, Showbiz, Lord Finesse, and Fat Joe. “He was a prophet too, though! He knew how important it was to talk about the horrible things he had seen in the street. If you listen to a song like “Fed Up With This Bullshit” it could have been recorded right after the George Floyd killing.”
Buckwild says this juxtaposition between sobering social commentary and trying to crack a dirty joke no one else had heard before was “integral” to L’s artistry. “For someone who probably weighed 125 lbs, he talked so much shit,” he said. “It was funny because he’d rap a bar that shocked you to the core and then tell other rappers in our camp to be more righteous and to clean up their act. He was the nicest guy with this amazingly dark sense of humor. That dude lived right across the bridge from me! It was maybe a 10-minute drive. His neighborhood was just as bad as mine was.”
The dichotomy between ballsy comedian and thoughtful ghetto poet is crystallized perfectly on the jubilant party anthem “Put It On”, which was produced by Buckwild. To this day, Buckwild considers the track to be among his very best. On “Put It On,” the first single from Lifestylez, Big L complains of how “some brothers would still be large if crack never came out” just a few bars before nonchalantly boasting: “I got girls that make that chick Toni Braxton look like Whoopie!” These lines capture his contradictions perfectly.
Like many of Buckwild’s best beats, “Put It On” sounds like Miles and the Band having a jamming session at a block party thick with weed smog, combining dusty boom bap with dense jazz in a way that sounds completely natural. The hazy music video is basically the hood Groundhog Day: L repeatedly wakes up at 7 AM before putting on yet another fly outfit and heading to a party with beautiful women, who braid his hair and hold his coat the second he shrugs it off his shoulders. Even now, in 2021, Big L looks like a rock star who would dominate the charts.
Yet “Put It On” didn’t exactly happen overnight, and the producer says the pair’s working relationship progressed gradually across the early 1990s. “Alongside maybe Nas, Big L was easily the toughest critic I’ve ever worked with when it comes to picking his beats,” Buckwild said “I used to play him beats and he would be like, ‘Yo, this is wack. I’m not rhyming on this. Bring me something hot. I need that heat.’ But I’m the kind of musician who always wants to learn new things so it didn’t bother me. L lit a fuse under me.”
This fuse involved digging in the crates at an obsessive level. Like Big L’s quest to find depraved punchlines no one else in the rap game had the audacity to put on wax, Buckwild wanted to flip niche jazz samples in a way that would intimidate other producers. “After I had sampled a song, I wanted my beat to be so good that no other producer would dare touch it. I wanted people to be like, ‘How did he flip it like that?’ Other producers sampled the same shit over and over, but that wasn’t me.”
A jazz obsessive intimately familiar with the back catalogs of artists like Miles Davis, Ron Ayers, John Coltrane, and David Axelrod, Buckwild was inspired by L to dig even deeper into his vinyl collection. He eventually arrived on a scratched-up copy of Buster Williams’ Crystal Reflections. The album’s centerpiece is “Vibrations”, a gorgeous 12-minute jazz song that combines a deep funky bass guitar with heavenly licks from a glockenspiel that playfully twists across the track. “Those two instruments [on “Vibrations”] worked together so beautifully and the song just touched my soul,” Buckwild said. “What I love about jazz is it’s so emotional and has so much pain and feeling to it [and “Vibrations” was an extension of that]. I chopped it up and knew I had something special.”
He says Big L liked the subsequent beat instantly, quickly deciding it would be the first single for his album and roping in Kid Capri to bark the giddy hook, which sounds like he’s giving the Harlem rhymer a locker room pep talk. It took Big L two days to write his verses, something he did at home before nailing the song in a couple of takes in the studio. “L was a person who took his time writing, you know?” Buckwild said. “It had to be perfect. His writing process was so unique. He would write “Ebonics” on like 15 different pieces of paper and have them all in his pocket scrunched up. He had a shoebox of ripped up pieces of paper, which had like all the lyrics for his album. I used to give him shit for it.”
By November 1994, the naturally competitive Big L saw the release of “Put It On” as a chance to match up against kingpin New York MCs like The Notorious B.I.G. and Nas, while also offering something a little brighter and more radio friendly to draw people into the next year’s Lifestylez, which, it’s fair to say, had more than its fair share of nihilistic moments. The song was barely even a small hit (peaking at No. 81 on the rap charts), but the single’s potential for success was derailed by label Columbia not understanding how to market Big L as an artist. “They dropped the ball,” Buckwild said.
However, over the years, the song’s legend has only grown, achieving cult status among hip-hop heads. Musically it sounds like euphoric “lo-fi rap” decades before it officially existed, which could explain why it’s so popular on streaming (with 44m streams and counting, it’s easily L’s most popular track on Spotify). “’Put It On’ just has that vibrant infectious energy, man,” Buckwild said. “There’s kids at school now who tell me it’s their favorite rap song. When I met Mac Miller he showed me his Big L tattoo and said ‘Put It On’ was the blueprint to him becoming a rapper. That influence is just as big [to me] as having a hit record.”
Now 52, Buckwild is still pushing forward as a producer. Last year he put out two new albums (Fully Loaded and Music Is My Religion), a beat tape (Essential Beats), and produced rapper Rasheed Campbell’s underrated political rap opus Sinners and Saints. Each release is underpinned by that luxurious nostalgic hood sound Buckwild made his name off of, with vibrant samples that you can’t quite place. He’s as inventive as he’s ever been. However, the legendary producer is acutely aware of the tragedy of his friend not making it to such an age or being able to see how much his music was loved by the masses. Big L was shot to death on February 15, 1999, on 45 West 139th Street. His “infinite potential” was wiped out forever.
“I still miss him,” he Buckwild said. “He learned so much from the first album and was definitely headed to the next level with the new shit. He was literally working out the contract with Roca-a-Fella because Dame [Dash] and JAY-Z wanted to sign him, so that tells you what kind of mainstream artist he was about to become.”
Banner Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the UK. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out. You can find him on Twitter: @thobbsjourno.
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