Lamont Coleman grew up in an area of Harlem then known as the “danger zone” for its often violent crack-cocaine trade. A lyrical master, he sharpened his skills with street-corner rap battles and before long was part of the D.I.T.C. (Diggin’ in the Crates Crew), one of New York City’s best underground hip-hop troupes of the early 1990s. His work eventually won him notice from Columbia Records, which signed him in 1992 and released his debut solo album, Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous, under the name Big L. Sadly, his story ends there. As he was recording his follow-up album and reportedly in talks to sign with Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, Coleman was killed in 1999 at age 24 after suffering multiple gun-shot wounds just a few blocks from where he grew up. Initial reports speculated that his assailant either wanted vengeance against his then incarcerated older brother or mistook him for his brother. Gerard Woodley, 29, was charged with the murder, but was later released because of insufficient evidence. Three posthumous albums have been released.
An offspring of the Black Panther movement, the New York City–born, California-based Tupac Shakur (birth name: Lesane Parish Crooks) developed his vocal skills in inner-city America, watching and learning from the urban life he experienced firsthand as a child in Harlem and Baltimore. With his 1991 debut 2Pacalypse Now, Shakur showed he could be both explicit and charismatic. He espoused camaraderie with songs like “Keep Ya Head Up” and “If My Homie Calls” and abrasiveness with songs such as “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” and “Hit ‘Em Up.” But his fame and frustration soon led to a near fatal robbery at a Manhattan recording studio in 1994. The incident spiraled into a feud between himself and ex-friend Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, which escalated to a large-scale battle between East Coast and West Coast rap factions that eventually led to Shakur’s untimely death at age 25. There are many theories as to who actually fired the fatal bullet at Shakur’s chest as he left a boxing match in Las Vegas on Sept. 7, 1996 (he died a week later), but after 15 years, the murder remains unsolved.
Christopher Wallace’s ability to free-flow about his gruff Brooklyn neighborhood caught the eye of Sean (then Puffy) Combs, who signed Wallace to his then fledgling Bad Boy Records label. It was at Bad Boy that Wallace skyrocketed, adopting the moniker Biggie Smalls (later the Notorious B.I.G.) and releasing his quadruple-platinum debut album, Ready to Die, in 1994. But his rise was soon plagued with controversy after the 1994 robbery and shooting of his onetime rap compatriot, Tupac Shakur, which spurred a lyrical feud between Bad Boy and rival Suge Knight’s Death Row Records (where Shakur recorded). The rivalry came to a head with Shakur’s 1996 death, and though some theories speculated Wallace was involved, he was never formally implicated in the murder. He scarcely responded to the rumors, choosing instead to prepare for his sophomore release, Life After Death. Seeking to end the beef that had separated the two coasts, Wallace went to Los Angeles to promote the album. It was there that he was shot dead at the age of 24, when he was leaving the Soul Train Music Awards on March 9, 1997. Subsequent investigations never turned up a suspect, and the L.A. Police Department was later accused of negligence in the case. Sadly, the deaths of both Shakur and Wallace are regarded by many as a turning point from which hip-hop has never recovered.
Despite being best known for his work as one-third of the groundbreaking hip-hop group Run-DMC, Jason Mizell’s cuts and scratches set him apart from his friends Joey “Run” Simmons and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels. At the height of Run-DMC’s reign during the ’80s, the world learned about Mizell’s turntablism through a long string of the group’s hits including “Hard Times,” the titular “Jam Master Jay” and the group’s “Walk This Way” cover with Aerosmith. It was this unique style that allowed him to continue his work in hip-hop long after Run-DMC’s popularity waned. Starting his own label, JMJ Records, in 1989, he produced breakout rap group Onyx and many others before reuniting with his two friends for Run-DMC’s 2000 final album Crown Royal. Even though Mizell was well respected in the industry and had never dropped a diss track against another rapper, he was still a target. At age 37, as Mizell recorded in his Queens studio on Oct. 30, 2002, an assailant opened fire, killing him at point-blank range. Although several people were in the studio, no one admitted to having actually seen the shooter and no one has ever been arrested for the killing. To date, authorities say they have been unable to solve the case largely because of a lack of cooperation from witnesses.
Montae Talbert did not have a very long hip-hop résumé. In fact, although he was part of the upstart Cali Swag District, Talbert never actually did any vocals, leaving the lyricism to his colleagues. Instead, he took a dance popularized in Dallas — named in honor of ’80s rap pioneer Doug E. Fresh — took it to California and restyled it for a new generation. In 2009, Talbert’s moves went viral, garnering worldwide fame, and a hit single based on Talbert’s choreography called “Teach Me How to Dougie” was so popular that it caught the eye of First Lady Michelle Obama, who incorporated the moves into her kids’-fitness campaign. But without warning on May 15, 2011, while sitting in a car with a friend, another vehicle pulled up and shot Talbert, killing him at the age of 22. Police still have no motive in the slaying, but some have speculated that many were jealous of Talbert’s success. For their part, the remaining members of Cali Swag District released the album The Kickback in July.
Scott “La Rock” Sterling’s day job was social work, but he moonlighted as a club DJ. With a popular reputation, he needed a rapper to complement his skills. By accident, he met Lawrence “Krisna” Parker, a graffiti artist who was staying at the Bronx shelter where he worked, and the pair formed a group called Scott La Rock and the Celebrity Three. Later, Sterling and Parker (also known as KRS-One), along with Derrick “D-Nice” Jones, formed Boogie Down Productions and released a 1987 debut LP called Criminal Minded. With hits like “South Bronx” and the title track, the trio soon caught the eye of Jive Records execs who signed them to their label. But the success was short-lived. On Aug. 27, 1987, as he attempted to squash a fight between Jones and an enemy, Sterling was mortally wounded in a Jeep outside the Bronx’s Highbridge projects and died hours later. The next year, Cory Bayne and Kendall Newland were arrested for the crime, but as the case had no willing witnesses to testify, they were acquitted.
At its inception, Cash Money Records was dominated by men, including hitmakers Lil Wayne and Juvenile, who unleashed a unique Southern sound. Seeking to diversify the ranks, founder Bryan “Birdman” Williams sought a female act and signed Renetta Yemika Lowe, whom he nicknamed Magnolia Shorty because she came from New Orleans’ Magnolia Projects. Along with singer Trishelle “Miss Tee” Williams, Lowe released a 1997 breakout debut album titled Monkey on tha D$ck, in 1997, which featured the hit “Charlie Whop.” But, for reasons that remain unknown, in December 2010, the 28-year-old rapper was shot to death in a car not far from the Magnolia Projects that gave her her name. Another passenger, Jerome Hampton, 25, was also killed.
After dropping out of high school, James Tapp Jr. — first known as Magnolia Slim for the housing projects he hailed from — found his way into the rap game, dropping his debut album Soulja fa Lyfe in 1994 and a follow-up album on Master P’s label in 1998. After a prison stint beginning that same year, he sought to reinvent himself under the name Soulja Slim. He soon released Streets Made Me, two other albums on his own label, Cutt Throat Committy, and released a chart-topping hit with Juvenile called “Slow Motion.” But just a few months after the release of his second album on his independent label, he was killed in front of his mother’s home. Police arrested Garelle Smith, 22, in connection with the murder but released him within months. (Smith was found murdered in August 2011.)
Many people rap about crime and thuggery in the streets, but Andre “Mac Dre” Hicks is one of the few who actually lived it. Born in Oakland, Calif., Hicks dropped three albums in the late ’80s with the raunchiness typical of West Coast rap. He continued his rise, despite a five-year prison sentence in 1992, recording two albums over the phone from jail and eventually started his own label, Thizz Entertainment. Under his label, he released four albums, bringing new recognition to Bay Area rap. That resurgence was short-lived, however, as Hicks was shot to death at age 34 while leaving a 2004 performance in Kansas City, Mo. Rumors fingered local rapper Anthony “Fat Tone” Watkins although no evidence has ever surfaced and authorities have never named a suspect. (Watkins was shot dead the following year.)
South London–born Smiley Culture delivered music to the world that served to bridge the linguistic divide between British speech and Jamaican patois. His rhymes spoke of the social tension of the day and won him a record deal from the London label Fashion Records. Soon after, he released the hit he is best known for, “Police Officer,” a song that tells the story of his arrest and release, allegedly because of his celebrity status. While his other attempts to craft hit songs never proved fruitful, his style went on to influence many others in British rap. In more recent years he was charged with drug conspiracy. When police went to his home with a search warrant, officials say he fatally stabbed himself in the heart at age 48. Despite a police report that found no evidence of misconduct, the public has been dubious about Smiley’s untimely end and speculation remains over who really killed the onetime star.