The Crate Diggers
The D.I.T.C. crew reflects on their careers and the late Big L
by Damian Ghigliotty
Nearly twelve years after the fatal shooting of Lamont “Big L” Coleman on February 15, 1999, the whole story behind his homicide has yet to surface beyond reasonable suspicions linked to the vengeful murder of his older brother, Leroy Phinazee, three years later. Nonetheless, all signs of Big L’s continual presence in hip-hop remain clear with millions of YouTube hits under his name, dozens of songs and live shows in his honor, and a documentary on the late MC’s life story in the works. The coinciding release of his third (and second posthumous) album, Return of the Devil’s Son, says a lot about the potency of Big L’s legacy.
Throughout it all, one important story remains intertwined with his—the longevity of his extended music family, Diggin’ in the Crates, as a signature brand in hip-hop. For old and new fans, that brand will always remain tied to milk crates packed full of vinyl, SP drum machines, Technic turntables, sample-heavy beats, and gritty inner-city tales. Despite the early loss of one of their youngest and most valuable players, D.I.T.C. has continually helped shape the core of hip-hop over the last two decades with ties to some of the East Coast’s biggest legends: Freddie Foxxx, Gang Starr, the Fugees, Brand Nubian, Kid Capri, the Beatnuts, and the late Big Pun… to name a few. Since the early ’90s, D.I.T.C. has also cultivated close followings in New York, Chicago, Switzerland, Amsterdam, and Japan, among other parts of the world.
The crew’s original members took their first big step as a collective in early 1990 when Lord Finesse began reaching out to record labels to gauge interest levels in the music industry. Finesse’s debut album with DJ Mike Smooth, Funky Technician, which dropped on Wild Pitch Records in the same year, set the stage for his crew to shine. That first D.I.T.C.-branded LP (produced by DJ Premier, Showbiz, and Diamond D) gave Finesse the necessary tools to showcase his own beats on his sophomore release, Return of the Funky Man, on the Warner Brothers subsidiary Giant Records in January ’92.
During those early years, while Finesse played the role of front man, mentor, and salesman, his South Bronx neighbors, Diamond D, Showbiz, AG, and their local dealer, Fat Joe, stuck by his side and pitched in with their own music efforts. As the D.I.T.C. crew began to grow and gain clout, three other members—Buckwild, OC, and Big L—soon joined up.
Since then, the eight original D.I.T.C. members have individually and collectively released hundreds of albums, compilations, EPs, and 12-inch singles, while the crew’s four producers have laid down thousands of beats for a combined roster ranging from House of Pain to P. Diddy. After ten years of laying down the foundation with individual releases and live shows, D.I.T.C. released their first collective album, Worldwide, on Tommy Boy Records in February 2000. Following that, the crew dropped several compilations of rare and previously unreleased material, and a second collective album, the Movement, on D.I.T.C. Records in November ’08.
But the impact of those releases never matched the strength of the crew’s best individual accomplishments. As Finesse views it looking back: “I think with any D.I.T.C. album, there’s a lot more to it than just going into the studio and recording. You’ve got all these chefs in the kitchen trying to cook a meal and everyone’s got their own way of cooking. It’s understandable though, because most of the artists are solo artists.”
But even throughout the crew’s various struggles with the politics of music and their own differing visions, none of them have lost their stride, burnt themselves out, or suddenly changed careers. A full two decades after their emergence, D.I.T.C. still hold ground as hip-hop’s unsung heroes—far from collectively famous, but one of the culture’s most influential collectives. And their individual names can be seen or heard in any part of the world where hip-hop has a home and one of its connoisseurs owns a record crate, cassette box, CD tower, or digital playlist.
Lord Finesse (In the words of his crew: Funky Technician)
These days Finesse spends most of his time back behind the scenes making beats, setting up shows, finding new avenues for himself and his crew, and occasionally performing for dedicated fans overseas. The D.I.T.C. co-founder and original underboss, known for his laid-back old-school delivery, has always valued organically grown hip-hop. Finesse got started in music in the late ’80s as a young lyricist who would later hit any borough in the city to battle local artists trying to get on. One of those artists was an ambitious eighteen-year-old AG.
“Finesse has always been there, and he’s always been instrumental,” says his former protégé. “As I look back, he helped me. He didn’t say, ‘Oh you’re a dope dude and so you sign to me and I’ll get money off of you.’ He introduced me to Show[biz] and said, ‘You and my man get money together.’ To this day, I don’t really know anybody like that.”
Finesse, who produced one third of Big L’s debut album, Lifestylez Of Da Poor & Dangerous, among hundreds of other D.I.T.C. tracks, chilled out with his own solo projects after dropping his third album, the Awakening, on Penalty Records in February ’96. But even as he slowed down on recording vocals, he continued to play the role of producer and overseer, selectively lacing beats on various hip-hop projects, including Biggie Small’s Ready to Die and Dr. Dre’s the Chronic 2001, and even more selectively lacing a verse once in a blue moon. After a several-year-long stretch behind the scenes, Finesse made an unexpected vocal appearance on Handsome Boy Modeling School’s White People in November ’04.
Throughout those moments of reflecting, strategizing and performing, Finesse has made a concerted effort to keep the D.I.T.C. brand as close as possible to his original vision. As he put it on the ’98 single “Dignified Soldiers”: I don’t want to be a player / I’ll just coach the team. But the pace of modern music has made that tougher these days, he admits. “We live in the microwave age right now,” says Finesse. “I just wish, on a lot of levels of the game, that I had had a blueprint for what was to come.”
Even without one, Finesse has kept his brand around. And he still entertains questions about the past, present, and future of D.I.T.C. without strangling journalists.
“I won’t let you down,” says Finesse in memory of his late protégé Big L.
Andre the Giant (In the words of Lord Finesse: Passionate Philosopher.)
Picture a young AG rocking an oversized army jacket and Malcolm X button with a twisted black cargo hat in the ’92 video for “Fat Pockets.” Then picture a slightly older AG rocking a Bob Marley T-shirt with untamed hair in the ’95 video for “Next Level.” Now picture an empty record executive’s office. Despite a few image tweaks over the years, it’s comforting how little Andre’s position and outlook have changed considering every drastic shift in the music industry he grew up criticizing.
He and Showbiz played a vital part in New York’s underground hip-hop scene in the early ’90s as two artists who loved to make music for music’s sake, without ending up broke. In turn, the duo helped pave the way for the rest of the D.I.T.C. crew to follow suit. Nowadays AG is often viewed as one of hip-hop’s subtler pioneers, lauded by everyone from the sensationally self-absorbed Kanye West to the late rough and rugged Biggie Smalls, but rarely mentioned on the pages of commercial publications. His bragging rights are embedded in his catalog of independently released music.
“I once went on a Cash Money/Ruff Ryders tour, and the majority of the people in those arenas didn’t know who the hell I was, so I was like, ‘I’m not doing that again,’” he says. “A lot of artists lose their momentum, their passion, and sometimes even their skill trying to get on, and they get burnt out.” That sentiment goes back to day one and every year in between. As AG put it on the ’98 single “Full Scale”: Go mainstream and get the cream heavily / That’s what you say, but I say, never me.
The first AG & Showbiz album, Runaway Slave, released on Payday Records in September ’92, has become a staple inside and outside of the music industry. Riding off of the success of that release, later ranked as one of Billboard’s Top Ten Underground LP’s, the duo dropped four more projects together over the next fifteen years. Their Full Scale EP on D.I.T.C. Records played in steady rotation on the Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show on WKCR in ’98 providing them with a fresh buzz around the five boroughs. Four years later, in the 2002 movie 8 Mile, millions of people watched Eminem (Rabbit) battle one of his many opponents over the instrumental to Showbiz & AG’s single “Next Level (Nyte Time Mix)” produced by DJ Premier.
But those highs never noticeably went to AG’s head. He still maintains the same do-it-yourself attitude with the newly started label Red Apples Forty-Five, founded by him and the DJ/producer Ray West, as well as several other projects in the works.
On the heels of his November ’09 Oasis collaborative album with OC, which dropped on Nature Sounds and his June ’10 solo release Everything’s Berri on Red Apples Forty-Five, AG has started working on an upcoming LP with Sadat X and DJ Jab, as well as a fresh LP with his original cohort Showbiz. The seasoned lyricist spends the remainder of his time working with less experienced artists—like the Ghetto Dwellers, who lost their member Party Arty in ’08 due to undisclosed health conditions and the young indie rappers 950 Plus—all originally from the Bronx.
That farm-system approach to cultivating artists dates back to a time when Lord Finesse was at the peak of his mentoring game and helping others get on: like the late Lamont Coleman.
“You an ill nigga,” says AG in memory of Big L. “Rest in peace to you and Party Arty.”
Showbiz (In the words of Lord Finesse: True Warrior.)
When asked about the best years of D.I.T.C. Showbiz describes the feeling as if the moment never had a beginning or end: “You know the saying… if you were there, you don’t really remember, because everything was going so fast.” he says.
Simply put, Show never stopped banging out beats long enough to focus on the past. And aside from buckets worth of sweat equity, his influence among his peers runs deeper than still waters. He once competed with Diamond D for local DJ props in the South Bronx and he once taught Finesse how to use the SP1200. Show also provided the gunpowder to AG’s fire. “One minute your making beats, and the next minute you’re on tour, doing shows,” he says with a laugh. “It’s crazy. But it’s all fun at the end of the day.”
These days, the veteran producer, DJ, and former vocalist keeps himself busy at HeadQuarters Studios (formerly known as D&D), making beats for well-seasoned and comparatively new artists—from KRS-One to G-Unit’s Lloyd Banks to the D.I.T.C. affiliate Milano.
“Making music’s a lot easier now that we have our own studio,” says Show, who rents out space from his long-time brother DJ Premier. “Before that, we were working on other people’s time and paying studio time, so we couldn’t get as creative as we wanted to. But now, we can go in all day everyday and do it thanks to technology.”
Show’s upcoming collaborative album with KRS-One, Godsville on D.I.T.C. Records, is a testament to both artists’ stripes—over two decades of notoriety in hip-hop. Among the D.I.T.C. crew, his status is no less. In addition to the five group projects he released with AG, he still works with nearly all of the original members and extended affiliates. His first solo album, Street Talk, released on Lumberjack Records in October ’05, featured guest production from Lord Finesse and vocal appearances from OC, Fat Joe, AG, Big Pun, M.O.P., and the late Party Arty, among others.
These days, as Show pounds away on his MPC 2500, the memory of Big L has become a familiar ghost from his past.
“You did your thing,” he says in memory of Big L. “You and Big Pun. Some people didn’t always know what they were around when they were around you, but you dudes were special.”
Diamond D (In the words of Lord Finesse: Abstract Journalist.)
In the eyes of most hip-hop artists, Diamond D has done enough to continue doing what he wants. His October ’08 release on Babygrande Records, the Huge Hefner Chronicles, was crafted as an ode to the late J Dilla’s Pay Jay—a seasoned producer rhyming on other people’s beats. The D.I.T.C. co-founder, and one of the first hip-hop producers to start a solo career as a lyricist, made his first mark DJing for Jazzy Jay of the Zulu Nation in ’79.
“Back when I was 10-years-old, I was the little guy who stood behind the ropes and was just fixated on whatever beats the other DJs were cutting,” says Diamond. “I was heavily influenced by the record digging and the DJing.”
As soon as he stepped over those ropes, Diamond began to hone his skills for over a decade spinning records at Park Jams all across the South Bronx. Then, after lacing vocals for one of the first times in early 1990, he dropped his debut album, Stunts, Blunts, & Hip-Hop, on Chemistry Records in September ’92—a project he had recorded with his group, the Psychotic Neurotics, as well as fellow D.I.T.C. members Fat Joe, Big L, and Showbiz. That album, originally released on cassette and CD only, was later re-released on vinyl by Island Def Jam in June ’94 and dubbed one of the “100 Best Rap Albums” by the Source. Since then, Diamond has also been branded one of the top ten producer/MCs of all time by several publications.
“One of the best times for me was seeing us all take off in the early 90’s,” he says. “We all came from nothing, we all grew up in the 10456 zip code, and none of our parents had any real paper, so it’s been pretty incredible looking back.”
Combining his years of experience with turntables, drum machines, samplers, and keyboards—not to mention industry red tape—Diamond has laced beats for several big names on both coasts. Among the hundred or so: Xzibit, the Pharcyde, and Too $hort on the West and Busta Rhymes, Mos Def, and the Fugees on the East. The South Bronx-native has also made vocal appearances on songs with some of the artists he’s produced beats for, as well as some that he hasn’t.
“Diamond D is a legend,” Fat Joe told XXL in their October 2010 issue. “He’s the original Kanye West. He was an ill producer, and then he turns around and delivers a classic album. To me, Stunts, Blunts, & Hip-Hop is a classic album.”
Now with several projects in the work, including a Pete Rock-inspired contrast to his previous album—with all of his own production under other vocalists—Diamond D has no less ambition than he did when he started out. And he still holds close to his heart all of the raw, young talent that he witnessed in the ’90s.
“You were right,” says Diamond in memory of Big L. “You always said that if you had the right push you’d be out of here. It’s unfortunate that you weren’t here to see the success of your album that went Gold. We miss you.”
OC (In the words of Lord Finesse: Underrated Vocalist.)
OC’s next move in music has never been clear and, while that occasionally frustrates his most dedicated fans, it also makes him an unexpected surprise when he pops back up. The Bushwick-native, who made his debut with Organized Konfusion on the single “Fudge Pudge” in ’91, linked up with Lord Finesse during his one-album deal with Wild Pitch Records in the mid-’90s and soon after joined the D.I.T.C. crew as the last core member.
With six solo releases under his belt, including the underground classic Word…Life on Wild Pitch Records in October ’94 and the follow-up release Jewelz on Payday Records in August ’97, OC has remained a rare phenomenon in the music world. Since his first (and first critically acclaimed) album, the Brooklyn-native has tread a fine line between hip-hop’s fickle rays of light and its dense clouds of obscurity.
As with Show & AG’s “Next Level (Nyte Time Mix),” millions of people have heard the signature Buckwild beat to OC’s ’94 single “Time’s Up” in the movie 8 Mile. Several years before that, and before Eminem became a household name, OC’s music videos for “My World” and “Far From Yours” played for young audiences tuned into MTV and B.E.T. in the late ’90s.
“Do you know how long i was looking for this song but couldn’t remember the name?!” one viewer commented on a user-posted “Far From Yours” YouTube page. “This must’ve came out when i was like 7 or 10 yrs_ old.”
Yet aside from the ’99 single “Bonafide” featuring Jay-Z, and past collaborations with Fat Joe and Big Pun, OC has kept little contact with hip-hop’s commercial side. That paradox has caused periods of noticeable struggles. In the tussle to maintain artistic integrity and still sell records, OC has often voiced frustrations with the critical lows in his music career—to an extent where fans and critics have wondered if he might throw in the towel or suddenly go pop. But his recent Oasis collaboration with AG, reminded listeners once again that OC still hasn’t lost his step, even if he progresses at his own pace. And he still has love for the collective he became a part of, despite inner-tensions.
As he recently put it on the ’09 single “Keep It Going”: Put aside our differences / Commemorative of Big L’s name in spirit / We embellish tradition
Buckwild (In the words of Lord Finesse: Sporadic Inventor.)
Buckwild impressed listeners in ’94 with the bulk of beats he laid down on OC’s Word…Life, which opened the door for a fourth and final D.I.T.C. beat maker.
Though his later production work never stacked up as high as the work of his fellow crew members Lord Finesse, Showbiz, and Diamond D, Buckwild’s beats have underscored some prominent names in hip-hop, including Kool G Rap, Nas, Jay-Z, and P. Diddy.
Throughout the early ’90s, while working as Lord Finesse’s studio apprentice, Buckwild took notes in the lab and started to brand himself as one of the more popular remix producers during that era. His first official beat was on the ’93 single “Shit Is Real (You Can’t Front)” featuring Diamond D, Lord Finesse, and Sadat X, a B-side to Diamond’s “Fuck What U Heard.” Since then, Buckwild has sporadically laced his own gems and often added his own flavor to hit tracks produced by D.I.T.C. and other artists. One of his notable techniques as a producer has been his exclusivity in picking projects to work on.
After six years of working mostly with his D.I.T.C. cohorts, Buckwild freaked one of his most infamous beats on the Black Rob single “Whoa!” in 2000. That formula for success started with the examples laid out by his South Bronx neighbors. As Finesse told Grind Music Radio in an August 2010 video interview, Buckwild quit his job at D’Agostino and bought his own SP1200 in the early ’90s after witnessing the growing successes of those around him.
“Buckwild definitely mastered his craft with the machines over those year,” says AG.
His two most recent projects—the October 2010 Nineteen Ninety Now and the November 2010 Buckwild Presents… EP (both released on No Sleep Recordings)—have proven Buckwild’s willingness to work at all levels when it comes to artist status, even if the beats he provides were stored up from the mid-’90s.
Buckwild’s production on Big L’s classic single “Clinic” can be heard on the Return of the Devil’s Son.
Fat Joe (In the words of Lord Finesse: Extreme Opportunist)
The most commercially successful of the original D.I.T.C. members, but also one of the most estranged, Fat Joe (known in the early ’90s as Fat Joe da Gangsta) has hustled in his own ways to stay relevant in the ever-shifting music industry. His July 2010 release, The Darkside Vol. 1 on E1 Music (formerly Koch Records), part of a three album series, debuted at #27 on the Billboard 200.
Since his debut album, Represent in July ’93 and his second release, Jealous One’s Envy in October ’95 (both on Relativity Records), Joe went on to gain major sales and noticeable Billboard recognition while doing songs and live shows with Big Pun and the Terror Squad. He dropped four albums on Atlantic Records between ’98 and ’05, before starting his own label, Terror Squad Records.
But while he might have diverted from the more traditional approach of his D.I.T.C. crew over the years—as he quickly bounced from humble beginnings to notable peaks of fame to drastic feuds with 50 Cent over credibility (at a time when rappers were verbally attacking each other like politicians)—Fat Joe still keeps a visible respect for the original crew he came up with.
“I want to do a Diggin’ In The Crates album!” he told Hip-Hop DX in an online interview in August ‘10. “I love them and they love me. But it bugs me out to see that I should be the dickhead, and I’m like ‘Yo, let’s do this!’”
Still, the inner-conflicts come out most visibly when his name comes up. In Lord Finesse’s view: he’s an opportunist, one who reaches out to the crew every two years. In AG’s view: he’s a rapper with a different philosophy, but still family at the end of the day. In his own view: he’s just doing what has to do to get things going, and he never lost respect for the crew he came up with. So naturally, while Fat Joe has publicly said that he would love to do another project with D.I.T.C., Finesse and other members have voiced their reservations.
“Assuming we do another Digging’ In The Crates album, we all want Joe on the project,” says Diamond D. “But when it’s time to go on the road and work it, he’s got to be there as well.”
With original ties coming back around, one of Fat Joe’s most infamous D.I.T.C. tracks from ’98, “The Enemy” featuring him and Big L, has started to resurface among new and old fans.
“That’s my little man,” Fat Joe told Hip-Hop DX. “It was an honor to work with him.”
Big L (In the words of Lord Finesse: Eternal Lyricist.)
Big L never lost the sound of hunger in his voice. Even while he was improv freestyling on the radio at three in the morning after a night of recording.
The late MC, who once formed the group Children of the Corn with Mase, McGruff, and Cam’ron in hopes of them all making it big, joined the ranks of D.I.T.C. after grabbing Lord Finesse’s attention in the back of the New York record shop Rockin’ Wills. That all happened during Big L’s high-school years in the late ’80s and early ’90s. After signing to Columbia Records in ’92, the youngest of the D.I.T.C. crew quickly rose up and laced tracks with some of the big-name artists he once idolized, including Big Daddy Kane.
Big L’s second album, the Big Picture, dropped on Rawkus Records/Flamboyant Entertainment four months after his death, in August 2000, and landed at #13 on the Billboard 200 and #2 on the Hip-Hop & R&B Chart. The press and word-of-mouth were, in many ways, larger than the sales (though the album went Gold), but the respect and appreciation were undeniable. Now, a decade since then, L still has fans eager to hear that next sharp punch line and raw dose of inner-city reality—impressions of the grittier side of New York City felt at a time when Harlem was less safe and the corner of 139th St. & Lenox Ave. was commonly referred to as “The Danger Zone.”
But while his name still rings bells, the biggest audiences for the November 2010 Big L release on SMC Recordings are likely among those who haven’t yet heard songs like “Once Again” and “Return of the Devil’s Son.”
“If you’re a Big L fan, then you’ve probably heard everything that’s on there,” says Showbiz, who produced a large bulk of the album’s tracks back in the ’90s. “If you’re just getting up on Big L, and you don’t know his music, then it might be something new and exciting. But it’s unfortunate that he’s not here to do new stuff.”
Now immortalized at his peak, and often referred to as one of the greatest MCs of all time—from Harlem to Tokyo—Big L stands out just as fiercely as he did when he dropped Lifestylez Of Da Poor & Dangerous on Columbia Records in March ’95.
“I was rhyming [in the third and fourth grade],” L once told Fab Five Freddy in an interview on Yo! MTV Raps in ’95. “But I wasn’t saying my own rhymes. I was reciting records.”
That alone makes him eternal.