I lived on 139th street for a time. Harlem is intense. Lives move at incredible speeds, while appearing to go nowhere at all. I later learned that Big L lived his entire life on my block. He died there, six weeks before his 25th birthday.
(If the video won’t play, click “Watch on youtube”)
In his song “Ebonics,” is the entirety of a kind of Harlem life.
At first it appears that the song is a short dictionary—a brief English-to-“criminal slang” guide–aimed at beginners.
Yo pay attention/And listen real closely how I break this slang shit down
He proceeds through a list:
Ki(lo) of coke = pie
But as the list goes on it seems that what I am hearing is the story of a day in one life, the parameters of an entire world. A list of words, definitions, everyday objects, places, situations, his body and yours:
Sweat box = small club
This is not a simple list. The cadence of his voice—fast, insistent, yet never out of breath, deliberate, could-go-on-forever, the sound of New York—its energy and intelligence, makes my tick stop at times. This happens especially when his voice rises and speeds until it creates an entire picture, suggests another sound, places me where he is. Example:
The iron horse is the train/And champagne is bubbly
The words on the page, as empty and soundless as they are, still remind me of standing high above the street at the top of an elevated train platform made of crossed metal bars, wood and cement, in the winter. My body is shaking with the wind chill, tipsiness left over from a night out, the force of the train approaching at top speed, and the skyline is glowing. All of this is in those lines, his voice, and the beat.
Listen real closely while Big L breaks it down