Donald Phinazee on the life of Big L

We talk to Big L's big brother Donald, about his life and legacy.

Brett Johnsonby Brett Johnson

Donald Phinazee on the life of Big L

Nearly 12 years after the promising career of Lamont “Big L” Coleman ended abruptly in a shooting death, fans of the Harlem rapper can now listen to a definitive collection of his unreleased material on the new CD The Return of the Devil’s Son. In addition to his official studio efforts, Lifestylez Ov Da Poor and Dangerous, and The Big Picture, an album released just after he died in 1999, this new 21-track disc features some of the best examples of the slain MC’s lyrical agility and knack for clever punchlines. There are also guest appearances from Royal Flush and Kool G. Rap on “Right To The Top,” and several songs produced by fellow Diggin’ In the Crates associate Showbiz. For Donald Phinazee, Big L’s eldest surviving brother, the disc helps to place L’s legacy in the proper context—as one of the greatest MC’s of all time. “You ask people who their top 5 rappers are and they’ll say Pun, Pac, Biggie. But you don’t hear L,” says Phinazee, 43. “He stands right up there with them. This what I want new generations to know.” Phinazee is also preparing to tell the complete story of the brother he knew as “Mont-Mont” in a documentary he’s shooting called Street Struck. In a recent phone conversation, Phinazee reminisced about Big L’s rise to stardom and the respect and impact his brother had on him and hip-hop. 

The Return of the Devil’s Son

CraveOnline: Describe how you grew up together with Big L. What was life like when you were kids?

Donald Phinazee: My moms [Gilda "Pinky" Terry] took real good care of us man. We didn’t need or want for anything. It was me, my middle brother Lee, and L was the youngest. I’m six years older than L. From Lee, I’m one year older. When we were younger, we used to dress the same. Me and my brother were like twins, then L came and she used to dress us like him too. Mostly in suits, leisure suits, three-piece suits with the hat. When we got a little older, [we wore] slick shirts, gold rings, bracelets, chains. Then Lee and I started working for my mother. L started rhyming so he didn’t really have to work for my moms, who was a hustler. She was a number’s runner. She did her thing when we were younger. She was the mother and father—a strong woman.


CraveOnline: We’re talking the late ’70s, early ’80s, right? What are some of your early hip-hop memories?

Donald Phinazee: There was a dude who worked for my moms for years. He started getting into deejaying when we were real little. He bought all this big equipment and he was doing his thing. He still DJs till this day. He’s not known but he still does parties and stuff. He used to bring his equipment out in 139th street park: That’s the Danger Zone that L be talking about in his albums. The DJ was Mr. Shades and the two rapper dudes were Ace La Rock and Ellie El. They were the Phase 2 Crew. We’d always asked to get on his equipment in the park and folks would be like, “Look at them little kids.” I was the DJ, L was the rhymer, and Lee was just there. He was in the streets real hard, so he wasn’t really into rapping. We were the Lil’ Phase 2 Crew. I was Lil’ Mr. Shades, Lamont was Lil’ Ellie El, Lee was Lil’ Ace La Rock. One day we came in the park, with our names on shirts and everything. We come in the park, the dude who works for my moms, Mr. Shades, didn’t let us get on that day. He must’ve been mad at my moms and something went down. So we go up to my moms all upset. And she’s like, “What the hell’s wrong with yawl boys?” Shades wouldn’t let us get on the DJ set today. “What the hell, it ain’t your stuff to get mad at.” Long story short: Christmas came and she bought us all DJ equipment—turntables, mixers, speakers, amp, microphone everything. We got our boogie on. Lamont was like 7 now. On his first album you could look inside the CD jacket and see a picture. I don’t know what made them cut my damn picture out, but you can see Lamont with the mike in his hand. When we first got the DJ equipment on Christmas day, she took that picture of us.



CraveOnline: When did you realize Big L would be a rapper?

Donald Phinazee: One day Run-DMC’s King of Rock tour came to the Beacon Theater. I got two tickets and I think me and my man were supposed to have went but he reneged or something. I’m on the block and Lamont came walking up, matter of fact he was playing in the park cause he’s still young. He was 7, or 9. I said you want to go to this concert. He said yeah. We got down there and I snuck him in. And when they came out, we were in the fifth row, aisle seats. I sat on the aisle, Lamont on the inside. They came on [rhyming], “I’m the King of Rock…” Everybody jumped up. The crowd was going crazy. I jumped up. I almost forgot L for a second. I know he was next to me but I didn’t hear him for a second. I turned around—his eyes, mouth everything is wide open. He didn’t say nothing. After that he started doing his thing, started finding his own rhythm, his own niche.


Donald is on the right, Lamont is in the middle, Lee is on the right


CraveOnline: Was he constantly battling other MCs?

Donald Phinazee: He would battle anybody. He don’t care where you at, you could be in the toilet, he’d battle you and knock you all in the head. I know Jay-Z will admit how L took him out on that corner on Lenox Avenue, when they was younger. When Jay’s second album didn’t do good, around that time. Me and Dame Dash grew up together. He used to bring Jay over. Back then we was NFL, N****s For Life. Dame Dash was The Best Out. We were like crews who would throw parties and shit. We played ball against them. We’d throw basketball games and shit, give out food, shirts and all that shit. Jay used to come around a lot after that and they would be rhyming and everything, them two just starting going at it. Lamont just knocked him in the head with it.


CraveOnline: Was it a friendly competition?

Donald Phinazee: Friendly competition but they was serious like, “Hold up, this lil n***a getting out on me.” Jay would come back with something, then L would knock him in the head with something. That’s how they come up on that joint with them two on it. That’s how that came about it. I know Jay would admit it.


CraveOnline: Then it went from NFL to Children of the Corn?

Donald Phinazee: Them n****s used to always come around the block and try to come be with him— Cam, Mase, [McGruff, Bloodshed], all of them. They would just come around just to hang out with us. They wasn’t our age, so they’d go to Lamont and hear Lamont be knocking dudes in the head or something. Lamont inspired all these dudes around here—Cam and Mase especially. Cam was my man at one time. He got money and lost his mind. I can’t get in touch with him because he’s ducking me.



CraveOnline: I read that you and Mase don’t get along. What happened?

Donald Phinazee: He said something real foul. I think I might slap him the next time I see him. Ain’t no talking to him. He said something real wrong about L and he knows he was dead wrong about it. He said he wrote some of L’s rhymes. He said it on Pennsylvania radio. I was out there and I heard it. He’s talking about how I need to go back to church. Why dude? You phony.


CraveOnline: They were supposed to come out as a super-group, right?

Donald Phinazee: Yeah, but Jay and them didn’t want them. Ok, I done skipped too fast. They tried to come out as a group, but it didn’t work. Cause one day while in the studio, L was like, “Yo Mase your joint is not hitting with this song.” Shit wasn’t as tight as his and Cam’s verses. They got into an argument because he’s talking about how he was hot. That broke that up. Coming up a little further, he was going to sign with Roc before he passed. But Lamont didn’t want to sign by himself. He was staying loyal to McGruff, and I forget dude’s name…Jay kept telling Lamont, “Go and do your thing, and come back for these dudes. Get in, then put them on and you’ll get money from them doing they thing.” He was like, “Nah, I want to go up with them.” He loved them n****s.


CraveOnline: How did he connect with Lord Finesse and the DITC crew?

Donald Phinazee: A while back when L was first trying to get on, Lamont heard Finesse was down at this record shop, a known record shop on 125th street back in the days. Lamont took a cab down there. Finesse is down there, doing what he do, whatever, whatever, promoting his album. He goes up to Finesse first, but Finesse brushes him off. But L was not going to kiss no ass. He went to somebody else on the side, some beat was on and he just started rocking it. After the rhyme, Finesse was like let me get your number. He was an arrogant motherf****r, he and Lamont. That’s why clicked so well. Sounded the same, rhymed the same, arrogant the same. Finesse is a good dude. He’s helped me a lot since I’ve been home.


CraveOnline: What happened that night got L got killed?

Donald Phinazee: I was locked up. This is the story my moms told me. He was in the house writing in this rhyme books. His man called about picking up a phone or some bullshit. I think the dude who killed him scared the other dude to call him out. It was his best friend so he thought every thing was all right, but I think the dude scared him out. Long story short: He went down 139th Street between 5th Avenue and Lenox, and the dude was in the bushes and started shooting and left Lamont there.


CraveOnline: Was it retaliation for some incident related to your brother Lee?

Donald Phinazee: Someone made a comment in one of the magazines about how I’m the one [to blame] about L passing, and it wasn’t me, it was my middle brother. It wasn’t his fault. I wasn’t even nothing he did, it was something he said he’d do. That’s how that came about. My other brother was in jail at the time, then I got locked up. He had five years. I had eight-and-a-half years. Mine was a drug charge. I was locked in 1998, and ain’t come out till 2006. Lamont got killed February 15, 1999, and my other brother got killed March 27, 2002.


CraveOnline: Did you get to go to their funerals?

Donald Phinazee: When I first went in, L got killed and I went to L’s funeral. I was the first one there. I had to go early. The other brother’s funeral I couldn’t go to. I was already up in the Feds doing my time, and my mom said they were asking too much money to bring me down. They asked for 10s of thousands of dollars and I was like, “What the hell.”


CraveOnline: It must be hard to have not been able to be there.

Donald Phinazee: I will never get over it. But I don’t let it run my life.


CraveOnline: The alleged shooter was Gerald Woodley who was someone that L knew. What does that say about the streets?

Donald Phinazee: He just got locked up, but he was out here. They were childhood friends. In the household, there’s love. Outside there’s jealousy on the block. We always had jewelry, silk shirts, we were the first to have telephone and TV in every room in the early 70s. A lot of people was f****d up back then. If you weren’t hustling or number running, you were not struggling but working everyday. My friends’ houses ain’t got a third of what we had. We never paid it no mind. We were never an arrogant family neither. Lamont got arrogant later on, when he could get his money from his music.


CraveOnline: What did your mother think of Big L’s music?

Donald Phinazee: She wanted no part of it. She never listened to a song until he passed. She didn’t want to hear him cursing and the girl thing in there. She never knew how big he was until he passed. No regrets because that was her baby. She just didn’t want to know that side. She didn’t know he had so much love. She didn’t know he was doing it, the way he was doing it. That big.


Big L’s, The Return of the Devil’s Son is in stores now.