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Casualties of a Rap Game

Lenaisa Phinazee talks to her Uncle Mont often. Sometimes, the 4-year-old plays phantom games of basketball with him. Uncle Mont’s name morphs to those who knew him. Big L to legions of hip-hop fans, Mont-Mont to his nine aunts and uncles. His tombstone bears his real name: Lamont Coleman. Lenaisa refuses to believe that death has taken her uncle, a popular rapper gunned down just blocks from the Harlem apartment where he grew up. He died just one block from the park where he freestyled with his friends, sharpened his lyrics and enjoyed barbecues with his family. It’s been more than two years since someone killed Coleman, the lightning-tongued lyricist who helped discover eventual rap stars Mase and Cam’ron. No one has ever been brought to justice in his murder. The man police believe killed him is in prison on federal drug charges, but they don’t have enough evidence to charge him with the 1999 killing.

The most important question — why was a rapper on the verge of stardom shot down? — is still the source of speculation in the heart of Harlem. For Coleman’s family, his death has sucked away the energy that revolved around the 139th Street Park, once the vibrant hub of this block. On his first album, Lifestylez Ov Da Poor and Dangerous, Coleman immortalized this stretch around West 139th Street and Lenox Avenue as the ”Danger Zone,” a slice of Harlem far removed from the Bill Clinton-fueled neighborhood renaissance. A mural of Big L painted on the side of a corner market watches over the park, where he used to hang out with Gerard Woodley, his alleged killer. Woodley used to eat at Coleman’s dinner table.

Gilda Terry laughed when she first heard her son’s rap moniker; Coleman was anything but big. He stood no more than five-foot-eight and was toothpick thin, although he would flex his biceps jokingly for his family. He rapped about street violence — not unusual in this neighborhood — but had never been in trouble with the law. His two older brothers called him a TV gangster. Coleman embarrassed easily in front of his family. He didn’t bring a girl home to meet the family until he was 19. If he was rapping with friends at the park, he would stop immediately if his family walked by. At home, he was the youngest of three sons, a spoiled goofball with a penchant for card tricks and sunflower seeds. Only his aunt, Pam Phinazee, would laugh at his corny jokes. While a student at Westside High School, Coleman was discovered at a record store by rapper and producer Lord Finesse. He became a young member of Harlem’s fabled Diggin’ in the Crates Crew and signed with Columbia Records in 1992. His mother giggled when he told her he toured in Japan and was treated like Michael Jackson. ”I never took him seriously because he would play so much,” Terry says. ‘He always said, `Momma, I’m going to be big.’ And I would tell him to get out of my face.” But he was big. His group, Children of the Korn, included Mase (then known as Murder Mase, sans the shiny suits) and Cam’ron (then Killer Kam) and Cam’ron’s cousin, Blood. Eventually, Mase and Cam’ron would earn their fame after signing with P. Diddy’s Bad Boy Entertainment. Blood would die in a car accident.


Coleman was dropped from Columbia because his albums did not sell well — they were not ”pop” enough. Still, he stayed close to the park, sizing up talent and continuing to practice his verbal flow. It was, after all, the same park on the same block where his family and the block association would gather regularly. Once, a family reunion/barbecue drew so many neighbors that the police demanded to know why they hadn’t sought a block party permit. And his loyalty to the rappers on 139th Street was unquestionable. When Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records offered to sign Coleman, he declined because it would not take his cohorts, McGruff and C-Town. On Still Here, released posthumously on The Lyricist Lounge Vol. 2 (Rawkus Records, 2000), Coleman spits: “My underground n – – – – – / y’all can shine with me / got my own label now, so y’all can sign with me / y’all can take me from the bottom and climb with me / that’s fine with me, that’s how it was designed to be.” Indeed, Coleman started his own indie label, Flamboyant Entertainment, and was preparing a party to promote it when the shooting happened. Police would later show the party fliers to anxious family members gathered at the scene. The family identified Coleman using the photo on the flier.


Feb. 14, 1999. That evening, Gilda Terry came home from work and half-jokingly chewed out her son, Coleman — who had recently moved back into his mom’s 140th Street apartment — for not bringing her any Valentine’s Day candy. So he ran down five flights of steps and to the corner store. When he returned, he handed her a packet of peanut-chew candies before leaving the apartment again. She settled down to watch the first of a two-part TV movie before going to bed. Terry would never see her son alive again. To this day, she will not watch two-part TV movies because it brings back bad memories. When she returned from work the next day, Coleman was not home. Terry settled down on the couch to watch the second part of the movie (the title escapes her), her Valentine’s peanut chews on the end table ready to be eaten. They would sit there, uneaten and forgotten, for weeks afterward. Terry doesn’t remember who called her with the news that her son had been shot, but she immediately jumped into a cab and rushed to a nearby hospital. It was the wrong place — Coleman’s body was in front of the Delano Village housing project, just a block away from the park. Coleman’s uncle, Kenny Phinazee, rushed to the scene, but the police would not let him pass.

A crowd had gathered. He gripped the black iron gate — the night air so cold that he could see his breath — and cried for the first time in years. Police soon arrested Woodley, who grew up with Coleman and his two brothers. At the time, Woodley was facing federal drug charges — he had been arrested earlier in the year, along with Coleman’s older brother, Donald Phinazee. The New York Daily News reported that Woodley had a beef with one of Coleman’s brothers and instead took it out on Coleman. Neighborhood speculation has provided plenty of other rumors. But to this day, Coleman’s family does not know why Coleman was killed. But there was not enough evidence to charge Woodley with the murder, said an assistant district attorney, Dan M. Rather. The investigation is still open. In December 1999, Woodley nervously pleaded guilty to one count of distribution and possession with intent to distribute cocaine base. He is serving a 50-month sentence in a New York federal prison and is scheduled to be released in late December. To add further agony, Coleman’s other brother, Leroy Phinazee, was murdered last year. His family declines to discuss the details, but Terry says Phinazee was killed while trying to find out what happened to Coleman.


Coleman’s fame within the hip-hop world did not sink into his family until his passing. For eight hours, hundreds of people lined up around the block to view his body. When the viewing closed for the night, well-wishers had to be turned away. Police escorted the family to the George Washington Bridge for the burial, which was attended by a throng of hip-hop stars, including Fat Joe, Mase and Cam’ron. Phone calls of condolences came from as far away as Brazil. Those calls keep coming today. Earlier this month, one caller wanted to send a demo tape to Coleman. He had been in jail and didn’t know Coleman was dead. On Coleman’s birthday, flowers pop up at the mural near the park. His album, The Big Picture, released posthumously, hangs on his grandmother’s wall. It sold well enough — some 500,000 copies — to earn gold honors. A box full of Coleman’s rhymes, scribbled in journals and on scraps of paper and napkins, gathers dust in Terry’s apartment closet. A trophy her son won at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater sits in the corner; it’s taller than Terry. And on 139th Street, the park looks little like it did when Coleman and his crew rocked it. City officials installed a colorful tot-lot and put up a sign that reads: ”No adults allowed without children.” On a recent Sunday afternoon, it was desolate. ”L was the man,” Cam’ron told The Village Voice after Coleman’s death. “If he wasn’t out on the block, nobody knew how the block was going to function.” For Coleman’s family, the block has functioned little since Coleman’s death. The spirit captured so vividly by Coleman and his friends, through the parties and rhyme sessions, melted away on a cold night by the heat of gunfire. ”I don’t think they’ve had a real block party since Lamont died,” Terry says. `We used to get out there and have a good time. Our family still gets together but not out there.”