As we mark the 12th anniversary of Tupac Shakur’s death, I couldn’t help but think of all the hip-hop figures who left us long before we could complain of how bored we are of their music. While it’s true that death is terrible no matter when it strikes, this list aims to acknowledge 10 hip-hop artists who showed flashes of brilliance but never had a chance to reach their peak. [Disclaimer: This list ONLY includes artists aged 30 and younger.]
10. Disco D, 27 (Producer) >>Died: Jan. 22, 2007
Disco D, the talented music producer best remembered by his signature staccato jazz and funk overtones on 50 Cent’s “Ski Mask Way,” committed suicide in 2007 after a long bout with depression. Before his death, Disco produced a song intended for Nas and Jay-Z but it was later transformed into a tribute by his close friend Mr. Johnson.
9. Freaky Tah, 28 (Rapper) >>Died: March 28, 1999
As a member of the group Lost Boyz, Freaky Tah’s role was far from paramount but he still added some spark to LB tracks. Tah the Lost Boyz were working on their 3rd album, LB For Life, when he was shot and killed by an unknown assailant early Sunday morning while leaving a birthday party at a Sheraton Hotel in Jamaica Queens.
8. Left Eye, 30 (Rapper) >>Died: April 22, 2002
Before Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez’s career was cut short by a car accident in Honduras, she was putting finishing touches on her 2nd solo album. Left Eye was the flamboyant “L” in TLC and the group’s sole rapper. She was the only fatality of eight people involved in the car crash. Left Eye had traveled to Honduras to document a 30-day spiritual retreat with friends and family.
7. Bugz, 21 (Far Left) >>Died: May 21st, 1999
Bugz was an original member of Eminem’s posse, D-12. He was shot and killed during an altercation with a man. And to think that the altercation stemmed from a water-pistol fight. Proof, 32, another member of D-12 was also killed during an altercation in 2006.
6. Big L, 24 (Rapper) >>Died: February 15, 1999
Big L (born Lamont Coleman) was fatally shot in front of his home on West 139th St. and was pronounced dead at the scene. L was part of the group Diggin’ In The Crates, alongside Fat Joe, Lord Finesse, O.C., and Diamond D, as well as Showbiz & AG. Fans who adored L’s unique wordplay paid their respect by copping 72,000 copies of his posthumous album, The Big Picture, in its debut week.
5. Big Pun, 28 (Rapper) >>Died: February 7, 2000
Despite dropping just one album in his lifetime, Big Pun (aka Christopher Rios) had a tremendous impact on hip-hop. As a revered lyricist and as the first Latino MC to achieve mainstream success, he kicked the doors wide open for upstarts like Joell Ortiz and Termanology. In his last known interview, Big Pun was so ill (and I don’t mean lyrically) that journalist Cherie Saunders had trouble transcribing his words. Editors also rejected his publicity shots because of how terribly sick Pun looked. Little did they know that Pun was on the verge of a massive heart attack that would later claim his life and cut his legacy short.
4. DJ Screw, 29 (DJ/Producer) >>Died: November 16, 2000
Screw is a household name in Texas today, but Robert Earl Davis, Jr. did not live long enough to see his dream materialize. DJ Screw propelled the Chopped & Screwed form of music to unfathomable heights by cutting the normal speed of his records in half, thus giving them a woozy feel. On Nov. 16, 2000, Screw died of respiratory failure due to codeine overdose.
3. Scott La Rock, 25 (DJ/Producer) >>Died: August 27, 1987
Scott “La Rock” Sterling accomplished a lot at a mere 25. Scott was a high school basketball star who went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Business. He left his job as a social worker at Franklin Armory Men’s Shelter and joined forces with KRS-One and D-Nice to form Boogie Down Productions. His music career was also on the rise, as BDP was just about to drop their classic debut, Criminal Minded. All that ended when a gunman fired at a jeep occupied by Scott and 4 friends, striking him in the head and neck. What’s truly sad is that Scott had gone to settle a dispute at the request of a 16-year old friend who was being harassed.
2. 2Pac, 25 (Rapper/Actor) >>Died: September 14, 1996
Tupac Shakur, whose raw lyrics traced the rage of a grim urban existence that appeared to many to be a blueprint of his own life, died after a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. He was a great, influential force in his lifetime and even greater force in his death. No other rapper, living or dead, has sold more records and touched as many lives as Tupac Shakur.
1. The Notorious B.I.G., 24 (Rapper) >>Died: March 9, 1997
Just 6 months after Tupac Shakur was killed in a Las Vegas drive-by shooting, Brooklyn MC Notorious B.I.G. was also slain in a drive-by shooting that took place outside VIBE magazine’s Soul Train Awards afterparty. Biggie, real name Christopher Wallace, was sitting in his Chevrolet Suburban at a traffic light on Wilshire Blvd. when an unidentified vehicle pulled alongside the passenger side of his car and opened fire out of its driver-side window. Smalls was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center but did not survive. Like ‘Pac, many have called Biggie the greatest MC of all time. And that’s off just 1 album released before his death. We can only imagine how his career would’ve progressed if he’d survived that shooting.
After much deliberation, I’ve decided to add an honorable mention for two artists who would be on the list had they not accomplished so much before turning 30.
Ol’ Dirty is best remembered for being the wild ride in Wu-Tang. He was the most eccentric member of the Clan, with his energetic and unconventional approach to hip-hop. The 35-year old rapper was on the verge of dropping his first Roc-A-Fella album when he suffered a heart attack and died. His album, A Son Unique, has been stalled repeatedly due to label politics.
J Dilla, 32, succumbed to complications from lupus in 2006 after a long battle with the ailment. His death left a void in hip-hop that will probably never be filled. Though Dilla had been a venerated producer since 90s, commercial success always eluded him. If I could bring one producer back to life it would definitely be J Dilla.