There is a never-ending debate concerning the best rapper of all time in hip-hop. Certain MCs are bound to be mentioned if artists and prominent music industry figures are asked to name their favourite MCs. Whether Jay-Z, Nas, 2pac or Biggie, there are specific names that one can’t omit. However, Big L is one lyricist who only rarely recieves that honourable shoutout. Akin to so many iconic legends, Big L had an unfortunately brief time in the limelight. Still, he was undoubtedly a part of the wave of MCs that began taking over New York as the 1990s ended.
The early ’90s saw acts such as Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan and EPDM run riot in New York City with their hardcore hip-hop sound. However, by the decade’s end, crews such as Roc-A-Fella, the Terror Squad and Mobb Deep were taking over, and Big L was right in the mix. Formerly a part of the Diggin’ In The Crates crew, Big L was an associate of Fat Joe. Still, following the dissipation of Diggin’ In The Crates, the rapper (José Cartagena) turned his attention to the Bronx.
After the crew disbanded, the rapper (real name Lamont Cole) formed his own Harlem-based crew, Children Of The Corn (COC) alongside his younger protégés, Killa Cam (Cam’Ron), Murda Mase (Ma$e), Bloodshed and McGruff. Throughout 1994, Coleman released solo singles for his debut album, including promotional single ‘Clinic’, as well as ‘Put It On’ and ‘No Endz, No Skinz’. In 1995, the Harlem musician released his first-ever project, Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous.
Big L continued to grow his New York fanbase, and Big Pun would rise later. Pun (real name Christopher Rios) was raised in the New York borough of The Bronx during the 1990s in proximity to the Castle Hill Houses, a housing project in the southern region of the borough. According to Fat Joe, who discovered Rios, he was a well-known kid in both the Soundview and Castle Hill areas. Still, few people knew him as a rapper, merely an overweight kid from the block.
Cartagena was indisputably the first Latin rapper to fully penetrate the hip-hop mainstream and, as such, was a big deal to many in the Bronx (the epicentre of New York’s Puerto Rican and Dominican population). With their shared Puerto Rican heritage, with his neighbourhood friends, after successfully finding Fat Joe, Rios decided to wait for the rapper outside one of the Bronx’s many bodegas. When Cartagena left the Bodega, he unexpectedly saw Pun (who he did not know personally) who audaciously asked him if he could perform a quick freestyle. Following this de facto audition, as the head of a new crew who was looking for local talent, Joe made Pun the face of the Terror Squad.
Achieving vast amounts of critical acclaim for his lyricism, Big Pun would end up signing with Loud Records in 1997 and released his debut album, Capital Punishment, the following year. The project debuted at number five on the Billboard 200 and was certified as platinum by the RIAA. However, both Big Pun and Big L would have unfortunate demises. In 1999, Coleman was shot nine times in a drive-by shooting in Harlem. The injuries would prove to be fatal. The following year, Rios would pass as a result of an obesity-related cardiac arrest. The two MCs are legends in their own right and in 1998 before their deaths, the two rappers (alongside Charlie Hustle) freestyled together in a New York recording studio. You can view the rare footage in the video below.