The Big Picture: 15 Classic Big L Freestyles

Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)

Fifteen years ago, on February 15th, 1999, Harlem rapper Big L (aka Lamont Coleman) was tragically gunned down in the same neighborhood that he consistently repped in his rhymes. His murder came at a time when he had one of the most-talked about singles out, “Ebonics,” his D.I.T.C. crew was making major noise with posse cuts like “Day One,” and his mixtape and radio freestyles were scorching in the streets, which all led to his sophomore album being one of the most anticipated projects by a New York MC to drop. There were even rumors that he was signing to Roc-A-Fella Records, the hottest and most successful young label in the Big Apple at the time led by his rapper friend Jay Z. Unfortunately, his moment to shine at the next level never came.

To celebrate Big L’s rap career today on the fifteenth anniversary of his death, it was only right that we link up with our brethren at UpNorthTrips for a proper audio tribute to one of the greatest MCs of all time. Though Big L’s first album Lifestylez of da Poor & Dangerous is a classic in its own right, and he’s got plenty of notable singles and guest appearances in his catalog, we thought to truly highlight the essence of Big L’s lyrical greatness, charisma, performance ability, and bottomless pit of bars, we’d round up 15 of his dopest radio, mixtape, and live freestyles (plus a few bonuses because that’s how we do), and put them all together in one mix for you to enjoy.

Read about each of our selections below while you stream/download our exclusive NahRight x UpNorthTrips mix The Big Picture: 15 Classic Big L Freestyles, courtesy of UNT’s in-house DJ The Vinylcologist. RIP Big L, one love.

1. “Hard to Handle Freestyle” (Hard Pack)

This essentially was Big L’s audition for Lord Finesse when they first met at Rock ‘N’ Will’s in 1991, which was a record store in Harlem that would release their own custom-made Hard Pack mixtapes featuring raps by local MCs who would spit live in their store. The story goes that Big L asked Finesse if he could rap for him after their initial meeting, this classic Otis Redding loop got put on (which you’ll recognize from the Juice Crew posse cut “The Symphony”), and the rest is D.I.T.C. history.

*Bonus* “Blind Alley Freestyle” ft. Lord Finesse (Hard Pack)

Another Hard Pack session that made its way to the public featured Lord Finesse and Big L going in together over The Emotions’ classic “Blind Alley” loop, which Big Daddy Kane made famous with “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’” and Biggie Smalls also rapped over on his first demo tape. Around this same time, L would also appear with Finesse on his “Yes You May (Remix).”

2. “Breakbeat Freestyle” (Stretch and Bobbito)

In 1992, Big L was a guest on DJ Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia’s late-night, underground radio show on 89.9 FM for the first time, and over a classic breakbeat, it was made quite clear that “L is nice, no question.” There are plenty of quotables in here, as he raps about being “smoother than velvet,” and also lets the listeners know, “Fuck karate, I practice gun fu.” Big L would go on to be a Stretch and Bobbito show regular, and this list/mix has plenty more of his memorable on-air appearances with them.

3. “Tonight’s da Night Freestyle” (DJ Riz)

DJ Riz also had a late night radio show in New York City in the ‘90s on WNYU 89.1 FM, and Big L put it down over Redman’s “Tonight’s da Night” instrumental to lace Stretch and Bob’s comp with some exclusive shit as well. L raps, “I’m crazy quick to buck a gun, and get a sucker done/Yo I’m so smooth I could fuck a nun.” Preach.

4. “You Can’t Front Freestyle” (Stretch and Bobbito)

Big L made his way back up to 89.9 FM in ‘94, with his boy Herb McGruff by his side, and he once again made a strong impression with a set of vicious bars over the Buckwild-produced banger “You Can’t Front,” which originally featured Lord Finesse, Diamond D, and Sadat X. After hearing this, we can all agree that it would’ve been nice to have L as the fourth MC on that record, right? The shit he spit was definitely real, you can’t front.

5. “Keep it Real Freestyle” ft. Jay Z (Stretch and Bobbito)

Big L fans most likely know this whole 19995 Stretch and Bob session with Jay Z word for word, because they probably hit rewind on the shit like the rest of us thousands of times over the years. It’s arguably the most iconic freestyle session of both of their careers, as L goes back and forth with Jigga over Milkbone’s “Keep it Real” instrumental. Higgedy Hov spits an old school style that def proves he’s always had “crazy skills,” but you gotta admit that Big L straight blacks out here on some whole other shit. No wonder Roc-A-Fella was looking to sign him before he passed. Whose verses do you like more?

*Bonus* “Freek’N You Freestyle” (Hot 97)

The beat selection for this 1995 Hot 97 freestyle session is a bit odd, considering Big L was one of the hardest street rappers out at the time. Then again, Rae and Ghost were too, and they did their thing on Jodeci’s “Freek’N You (Remix),” so why not let L get a shot at it? And L def had the Hot 97 crew feeling his shit, as you can tell by the laughs after his line, “And every girl I’m with looks like a model/If you ever see me with a chickenhead, she must’ve hit the Lotto.” Nice.

6. “Who Shot Ya Freestyle” (Tim Westwood)

Big L paid a visit to Tim Westwood when he was across the pond in ’95 (he came through with O.C. in ’97 too), and blessed him with an exclusive freestyle over Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya” beat. And as you might expect, L went in, rapping, “I run with intruders, looters and sharp-shooters/Who spark buddhas and fuck thick bitches with large hooters.” Shouts to London!

7. “Motherless Child Freestyle” ft. Children of the Corn (Bloodshed, McGruff, Murda Mase, and Cam’ron) (Stretch and Bobbito)

Before Mase and Cam’ron went on to have successful solo careers, they were in a rap group with fellow Harlemites Big L and Bloodshed (RIP). The foursome made an appearance on Stretch and Bobbito’s show one night together, and passed the mic over Ghostface’s “Motherless Child” instrumental. This is some classic, early Harlem World shit, for sure. Cam is especially amped at the end. You gotta love it.

*Bonus* “560 Freestyle”

As a bonus, we snuck in his freestyle recording of Big L spitting over another classic beat of the mid-’90s, Real Live’s “Real Live Shit,” on behalf of Fat Joe’s clothing line FJ560. L flows crazy on this, rapping, “I roll with cliques pushing luxury whips/Who be calling chicks on Motorola flips with illegal chips.” Bars for days.

8. “139 Freestyle” (Tony Touch)

Big L popped up on Tony Touch’s Power Cypha 2 50 MCs mixtape in 1997, and held down 139th Street with an impressive appearance, rapping over Biggie’s DJ Premier-produced “10 Crack Commandments” instrumental. This is another one of the more iconic freestyles of Big L’s career as he spits, “As you can see pal, it’s all about me now/twenty Gs a show bitch, three thou just to freestyle.” Yup, Harlem World was on the rise in ‘97, and clearly Big L was one of its most prominent MCs.

9. “‘97 Freestyle” (DJ Clue)

DJ Clue always came correct with the exclusive mixtape freestyles, and this back and forth recording of Big L and McGruff exchanging verses over the The LOX’s “You’ll See” instrumental (which is a take on EPMD’s “You’re a Customer”) is one of the best of the bunch. Big L raps, “Clue heard me once and said, ‘I bet he blow.’” And Clue was right. By the end of ‘97, Big L’s sophomore album was one of the most anticipated joints in the streets, thanks to buzzworthy appearances like this. Too bad he didn’t live long enough to release it. Fuck.

10. “Pre-Game Freestyle” (Doo Wop)

Want that swift Big L flow? Here you go. Now this is how you murder an instrumental. Props to Doo Wop for hooking this up. This is sick shit right here, over one of the hardest beats of the late ‘90s, Sauce Money and Jay Z’s duet “Pre-Game.” Straight flames.

11. “Exclusive” (Ron G)

Ron G had a nice exclusive of Big L rapping over Pop da Brown Hornet’s “Black on Black Crime” instrumental in the stash, and he let it go on one of his tapes after Big L’s murder to let his rap spirit live on. Thank you Ron G, this is truly a gem from the archives. And no matter how many times L drops the line, “I’m so ahead of my time my parents haven’t met yet,” we always crack a smile.

12. “‘98 Freestyle Pts. I & II” (Stretch and Bobbito)

The first verse from this incredible Big L appearance on Stretch and Bobbito’s show in ‘98 appeared on his posthumous album The Big Picture, but we’ve got the whole session for you in our mix, which includes a second verse where L spits nasty bars, like, “You got fucked upstate you cupcake/How many dicks can your butt take?/I ran through every bitch in my path/I was fucking chicks in the ass when I was six and a half.” Stretch comments afterwards, “That’s one I’m not gonna play for my mom.” Hahaha.

*Bonus* “Tru Master Freestyle” (Hot 97)

On the bonus tip, peep how Big L annihilates a Pete Rock instrumental on Hot 97 with Stretch and Bobbito (they had a show up there too for a while). Props to anyone out there who heard this live. This is the type of radio moment that needed a “get your tapes ready” heads up.

13. “NY Freestyle”

This is taken from a longer freestyle-style recording that also includes McGruff, I-Born, and CL Smooth (random!) that was actually released on wax back in the day, but for the purposes of this list and mix, we’re just giving you Big L’s verse, which is definitely worthy of inclusion, even though he admits, “I wasn’t prepared for this, I wrote my shit on the spot.” No worries L, you still slayed it.

*Bonus* “Flamboyant Freestyle”

Here’s another late ‘90s gem that we’re gonna sneak into the mix as an added bonus, just to keep it thorough. L opens it up, “Yo I’m a young teen with dumb cream/I refuse to be unheard or unseen, I shine like a sunbeam/All you niggas better come clean before my gun scream/Rap’s a fun thing, only roll with one team/Flamboyant Entertainment, that’s who I came with…” Aiight.

14. “Cool Breeze Freestyle” (DJ Kay Slay)

You know Harlem’s own DJ Kay Slay had to tap Big L for an exclusive freestyle at some point, and with this one, he got L to spit over the Cool Breeze, Outkast, and Goodie Mob A-Town rap classic “Watch For the Hook.” L shreds it, too, setting it off by putting cats in their place, like, “While we hold gats you hold knives, when you sold eighths we sold pies/When you rode bikes we drove 5s/There’s no comparison son, the shit’s embarrassing…” Ice cold.

*Bonus* “Masterpiece 10 Freestyle” (Chill Will)

Unless you were up on your mixtape shit in the late ‘90s heavily, or you’re the type of Big L fan who likes to click YouTube links until you’re deep into the abyss of his archives, you probably never heard this. Chill Will was one of the most respected DJs in New York (DJ Green Lantern cited him as a major influence during our Mixtape Memories interview with him), and on his Masterpiece 10 tape, he had an ill exclusive from Big L and his partner in rhyme C-Town. It’s a short but hard verse, as L raps, “I’m standing strong with my squad behind me/Whoever wanna see me come to Harlem, it ain’t hard to find me.” The quality’s a bit dusty, but fuck it, enjoy.

15. “Day One Freestyle (Live in Amsterdam ‘99)”

Big L made his way to Amsterdam in ‘99 with his D.I.T.C. crew, where this live freestyle of him rapping over their “Day One” posse cut instrumental was recorded (pic above is L rapping live at Tramps in New York). It’s a solemn note to end the mix/list off on, since he was murdered shortly after. L even spits some bars about his tour life here, rapping, “You know the game plan, A.G. that’s my main man/We never bring luggage, we go shopping when the plane lands.” You can peep the video footage here, too.

#RIPBIGL

Pics via UpNorthTrips. More mixes HERE.

Previously: The Top 20 Rap Remixes of 1994Mixtape Memories: 20 Classic Nas Mixtape Cuts | Mixtape Memories: 15 Classic Cam’ron Mixtape Cuts | 10 Classic Biggie Smalls Mixtape Cuts | The Top 20 Rap Videos of 1993