Today marks the 13th anniversary of the untimely death of Harlem wordsmith Big L. Praised for his wit, delivery, and raw lyrics, among other talents, the rapper born Lamont Coleman was just scratching the surface of his potential when he was gunned down on February 15, 1999. L had a growing fanbase at the time, and his followers have only increased in the years since his passing. Counted among those devoted to his music is Mac Miller, the 20-year-old independent artist with a No. 1 Billboard album under his belt, who was just seven when Big L died. Here, Mac speaks with XXL to reflect on when he first heard L, how he has been influenced by him as an MC, and how he’ll be remembered. —As told to Adam Fleischer (@adamxxl)
I was 15 years old, around 2007, and the stuff on the radio was cool, but I just remember when I heard Big L, it was just so different than everything I was hearing. That interested me, because no one my age that I knew was listening to him. He was my favorite rapper, and at that time it was like, ‘”This is my favorite rapper, and no one else’s that I know. I was doing all this research. He really inspired me to be clever and witty. My early stages of rapping, I was basically trying to be like Big L—trying to be a super raw MC. That’s what he really inspired in me: to always keep that MC factor about myself and about my music.
As a 15-year-old kid, you’re always going through that shit where you’re angry for no reason, and you’re mad at the world. [Big L's debut] Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous was some dark shit. Records like “Da Graveyard” and “All Black”—there are a bunch of dark records on there that caught my attention, that I was listening to and that inspired me. My favorite record off that shit was “Street Struck.” It’s a complete next level shit. I have “Street Struck” tatted on my left arm. Musically, that beat is crazy. And you hear L kicking some knowledge.
I just think that he was such a great MC. He could freestyle on the radio; he could do it all. He was a great storytelling MC. “The Heist,” off The Big Picture?!? He could do that fly shit, like “Flamboyant”—that a super fly record, and what people today would consider swag. And that “The Big Picture (Intro)” is one of the illest shits to me, ever.
I took a trip up to Harlem and went and took a picture of the [L] mural and took a picture of [his infamous block] 139th and Lenox. That’s something I always wanted to do. It’s funny, because Cam’ron saw the pictures and he was like, “What are you doing in Harlem this late at night?!” I was like, “Oh, I’m just chilling.” He was like, “Man, you can’t be chilling around there, I’m sending a car to come pick you up.” And he sent someone to come pick me up and we went over to his crib.
You talk to a hip-hop head and mention Big L, he’ll tell you he’s one of the greats. But I don’t think he gets as much acknowledgement from mainstream, commercial media. It’s hard to say, because there’s a lot, a lot of people who don’t get the acknowledgement from mainstream commercial media. My whole feeling is that L was on the verge of that crossover success—with what he was about to do with Jay-Z and his sound was advancing. Even on The Big Picture, the records are different than they are on Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous. Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous is really grimey, and The Big Picture, he’s on some fly shit on some of the record. They show possibilities of making big records, and at that time, those records could be big. I always felt that, with a little more time, he would have been able to crossover. We’ll never know, but we can just always assume the best, and assume that he would have been at the top of the game right there with Jay. That’s Jay’s big homie, and who knows what would have happened.
L is someone who is always gonna have respect from people, forever. He’s part of hip-hop history forever. Which is good, man. You don’t always have to hit that mainstream success to get the respect that you need. That’s something about hip-hop. Dope music and a dope MC will always get the recognition that they deserve when it’s all said and done. No one’s ever gonna tell you that L’s wack; no one’s ever gonna tell you that he wasn’t gonna pop off, because all signs lead to things positive happening.