Like hockey with fights or China and rice, the US brand Animal Bikes have an inescapable association with hip hop. Perhaps it’s due to their home on the east coast of America (which some people cite as being the birthplace of hip hop), the direction from front man Ralph Sinisi being a massive 90s hip hop head or perhaps it’s a shared attraction to counter-culture and expressing yourself in unique ways. My observation is that it’s all these things.
- Animal Bikes founder Ralph Sinisi
From inception on the 1 January 2000, Animal Bikes have been long entwined in hip hop culture and the grimy streets of New York. Created from the mind of Ralph Sinisi and embodying the sordid, fast-paced and cut-throat atmosphere of one of the world’s biggest and most famous cities, Animal Bikes has long been about no-bullshit, good quality BMX products. As the man himself describes in a 2018 DIG BMX interview:
“Being out and being a part of the energy on the streets, dodging cars, hanging with friends and sessioning spots is what I wanted to do more than anything else, and that's the niche I wanted Animal to serve.”
Moreso, Animal Bikes maintain an ongoing relationship with hip hop that to this day, remains uncoupled and unburdened. Whether it’s pairing a hip hop song to a video part, Animal crew linking with various hip hop heads for a range of collaborations (i.e. Nigel Sylvester x Pharrell Williams) or sharing a love for street culture, you cannot think of Animal Bikes without also ruminating about the richness of hip hop.
- Vinnie Sammon & Edwin Delarosa
For example, a DJ and promoter simply named ‘G’ who had links to the Wu-Tang Clan got the Animal Bikes crew into some shows in the mid 2000s which led to some specially made clothes being offered to the Wu boys - who actually wore the gear at shows and in video interviews. Furthermore, Wu-Tang Clan affiliate Redman (of Method Man and Redman fame), through an obscure connection, also spent some time with the Animal Bikes dudes. As detailed on the Animal Bikes page from a 2014 post:
“Next we met this dude Tariq from Staten Island. He cut hair for a lot of notable people, and he introduced us to Redman. One day in the Summer of ’06, they actually came to our warehouse in Clifton. That was probably the most happiest I ever saw Ralph in the whole time I’ve known him. Him and Redman hit it off like two long-lost cousins. We blessed them both with tons of gear, and they left in a cloud of smoke. Redman even lost his lucky lighter at the warehouse and called us looking for it after he left. Ralph and I were scrambling looking for it all over. He calls back and says, “Naaaa, I was just fucking with you guys, I got it.” Classic Redman shit.”
Need I remind you of the critical acclaim and legacy as imprinted into modern culture from perhaps one of the most celebrated and far-reaching hip hop crews, the Wu-Tang Clan. The fact that an emerging BMX brand was held with respect is a testament to the integrity and passion of the Animal Bikes crew.
- Vinnie Sammon with Wu-Tang Clans Redman
Touching on this, Animal Bikes was and still is backed by one of the most admired crews in BMX. Without a hint of hyperbole, it would be reasonable to allege that this scene literally created the technical style of street riding that purveys modern BMX.
While the 2022 crew presents as vastly different to those who grew the brand back in the early 2000s, there still remains that gritty, street dominated culture amongst dudes such as Mark Gralla, Mike Hoder and Augie Simoncini. It would be near impossible however, to assemble a line-up rivalling that which the brand will always be associated with, being the OGs; Edwin Delarosa, Joe ‘Butcher’ Kowalski, Joe Tiseo, Tom White, Bob Scerbo, Lino Gonzalez, Jared Washington and Vinnie Sammon (to name but a few). With limited opportunities and perhaps a serving of serendipity, these guys were able to take what presented as natural (i.e. riding bikes in your local ‘hood - which just happens to be a monstrous, decaying urban cityscape), master it and present it to the BMX community in an authentic way because that’s what it was, authentic.
- Animal Bikes Team clip check
One such project which embodies the above is the 2004 Animal Bikes video ‘Can I Eat’ (filmed and edited by Bob Scerbo). Fittingly, the video comprises a soundtrack that is made up of more than 50% hip hop, including the opening part featuring Vinnie Sammon - backed by the Big L track ‘Ebonics’. As part of this piece, I spoke with Bob Scerbo about the early days filming with Vinnie for this part as well as the influence of hip hop and Big L.
After growing up playing basketball and eventually being drawn to BMX, Bob & Vinnie were natural allies and ended up forming a lasting relationship, one which commenced through working on the ‘Can I Eat’ video, as Bob mentions:
“It was Vinnie and I starting a life long friendship essentially. I love the way he rides and it was really fun. We just chilled and rode together, still the same to this day. Less riding and filming though, a lot more chilling.”
Maintaining a friendship over such a long period of time and still finding love for the essence of what sparked the journey (i.e. hanging and riding bikes), is remarkable. No doubt having video projects to work on together helped, even if it was a trial and error situation:
“It’s pretty crazy. I knew nothing about editing or making a video and think that it’s pretty obvious. I definitely knew it was good but I didn’t expect it to cause the reaction it did. It was a great time in my life.”
- Animal Bikes legendary DVD "Can I Eat" Cover.
A great time indeed, and in my view, this is a key element as to why the video retains its integrity, in that it was born out of love. You cannot build something that lasts the test of time unless it is sourced from a place of passion, motivated by the purest of intentions. This notion also seems to hold true in regards to hip hop culture and how well it paired with Animal Bikes during the early to mid-2000s.
As Bob describes, being a teenager on the mean streets of the American east coast meant it was near impossible to avoid the influence of hip hop.
“It was just the music of my childhood, it was everywhere growing up. The videos were great, the radio was playing great stuff. It was pop culture in a sense for us. I was the perfect age when the televised and radio version happened. I spent most of my childhood before riding playing basketball and listening to hip hop because that’s what kids where I am from did. It was natural. As I got older and got into riding, I started appreciating all music.”
While Vinnie is noted as being the one to choose ‘Ebonics’ as the song to pair his riding in the ‘Can I Eat’ part, both dudes were equally enamored with the finesse and tenacity of Big L.
Lamont Coleman (otherwise known as ‘Big L’) was born in 1974 and grew up in Harlem, NYC. Starting off freestyling and writing rhymes in high school, the Big L (initially nicknamed ‘Little L’) journey began as a trio called ‘Three The Hard Way’ and later ended as a duo called ‘Two Hard Motherfuckers’. After showing off his MC skills to another hip hop legend Lord Finesse (LF) at an autograph session and exchanging numbers, Big L links up with LF and ends up featuring on the 1992 track titled ‘Yes You May (Remix)’. It was from this point on that Big L blew up, with only hot tracks to lust and crazy stacks to clutch.
- Big L in the booth during the recording of "The Big Picture"
As Rawkus Records details, “In no time at all, L secured himself a deal with Columbia records, and in 1993 released one of the illest records of all time: the vinyl, promo-only ‘Devil’s Son’. Promising to ‘catch more bodies than abortion clinics’, the murderous masterpiece became an immediate underground sensation well before the subsequent ‘horrorcore’ style came into hip-hop vogue.” Between 1992 and 1995, Big L released a number of singles, an ominous introduction for all about to be blessed with the greatness of his debut studio album ‘Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous’.
Regrettably, as is often the case in the hip hop scene, Big L savoured success for only a very short period of time after being gunned down in a drive-by shooting on the very same block that he grew up in within Harlem. Despite the hot rhymin’, the diamonds shinin’ and the autograph signin’, Big L died on February 15 1999.
It is out of these circumstances that the Big L album ‘The Big Picture’ birthed itself unto the world, his second release and first to see the light of day posthumously. Leaving an imprint on both underground heads and the casual listener, ‘The Big Picture’ retains critical acclaim and the reluctantly envious title of one of the most underrated hip hop albums of all time. The BMX community has been part of this legacy insofar as the lasting impact of Big L songs in the 2005 Shadow Conspiracy video ‘The Calling’ (John Jennings), Damian Racut’s part in the 2013 video by The Level Below ‘Chick’n Nugg’t’ and of course, Vinnie’s part in the subject video ‘Can I Eat’. In terms of Big Ls impact, I asked Bob for his thoughts:
“Essentially he is one of the greatest ever but like most people, I didn’t really appreciate it until he passed unfortunately. I was a bike rider and not a hip hop guy, so I was listening to a lot of punk and oldies and jazz and stuff during that time. The Big Picture itself is a weird album because it’s posthumous so I don’t think it was ever intended to be a record in the first place. Either way, it’s a classic and Big L was incredibly ahead of his time with wordplay. I still love listening to him.”
- The infamous Big L mural in Harlem, New York.
Many critics share the appreciation for Big Ls lyrical wit, power and genius, this being a central reason as to why his supremacy continues to permeate hip hop culture. For example, Big L was credited as one of the early forces developing a technique called ‘compounding’ which is essentially multisyllabic rhyming where two words rhyme with each other. For example, take the following bar from the track ‘Size ‘em Up’:
“Ayo, I hear a lot of bitch in your talk
See a lot of switch in your walk
Only thugs get rich in New York”
Big L is also credited as finessing a form of rap which exists as equally clever, concise and explicit, delivering fast-paced metaphors, brazen and ferocious aggression and endless punches draped in a dark comedic lining. As long time friend and hip hop artist Herb McGruff explains, Big L was a natural, almost certainly destined for big things from an early age, including his presence in the booth:
“He had a method to how he would write all his stuff and he mastered that joint. L was a lyricist for real, for real. I still say he the best to come out of Harlem, for real. L was nasty in that booth, punchlines, all that, he had the whole package.”
Beyond the remarkable lyricism on ‘The Big Picture’, Big L kept company to make even the most seasoned hip hop head envious. As mentioned above, long time friend (even before getting into rap) Herb McGruff and Big L grew up on the same block, as well as another big name in rap, Cameron Giles otherwise known as Cam’ron; infamously involved in the group Dipset/The Diplomats and continuing a long, illustrious career in the game to this day. These three stalwarts were joined by equally important yet lesser known characters in a group called ‘Children of the Corn’ (short for children of the corner - COC) releasing various records independently on the block until 1997 when the group disbanded.
- Huddy Combs, Nas & Big L.
Further to the above COC crew, it would be amiss to not touch on the notorious Diggin’ In The Crates crew (D.I.T.C.). While not having received the dues for the legacy left by their combined output, D.I.T.C. acted as somewhat of an essential linkage between the funk heavy hip hop of the late 80s to what is now known as the golden era of hip hop as defined by ‘boom bap’, with archetypes centred around drum breaks, jazz/soul samples and leaning towards a ‘hardcore’ style as pioneered by Public Enemy and N.W.A. The group consists of heavy hitters Lord Finesse, Diamond D, Showbiz & AG and later on Buckwild, Fat Joe, O.C and ya boy Big L. As detailed in a 2013 Pitchfork piece:
“Practically every artist who's brought their own takes on classic East Coast boom-bap with them into the 2010s—from veteran contemporaries like Roc Marciano and Ka to recently established stars like Action Bronson and Joey Bada$$—owe D.I.T.C. a debt, if not a huge portion of their sound itself. D.I.T.C. weren't the most famous crew out of New York at the time, but they did more than their share to enliven everything else that was going on.”
D.I.T.C. are perhaps most famous for their production, which as above mentioned, includes alumni that reach far and wide among many a luminary figure in hip hop. No surprise then that Big L’s LP ‘The Big Picture’ includes credits to this effect, including Lord Finesse, Showbiz as well as DJ Premier of Gangstarr fame. ‘The Big Picture’ is not ground-breaking in terms of production and sampling, perhaps (as Bob mentions above) this is a result of the album only having come together posthumously and without the spark of the moment. Far from a fruitcake, ‘The Big Picture’ is inspirational and long-lasting insofar as the punch packed by Big L’s lyrical prowess, combined with the rawness of having grown up in the cultural milieu of 90s Harlem, bringing the listener to an interface with the streets in which the music was born, grimy, savage, sempiternal.
- Diggin' in the crates crew
It’s remarkable to think of the cultural impact, having endured the last 30 years, that Big Ls ‘The Big Picture’ has had on hip hop. Big L will forever be entwined with shaping the golden era of 90s hip hop, a connection unable to be dissolved. In my mind, this is similar to the institution that is Animal Bikes and for clued in heads, the impact of videos such as ‘Can I Eat’. Sharing this perspective is LUXBMXs eCommerce lead Mikey C, having grown up on a diet of Big L and a love for NY culture, the impact of Big L x Vinnie is reflected as follows:
“The moment Vinnie Sammons part came on, I recognised Big L’s voice, but the track was new to me, and let me tell you, it completely blew my mind. The lyrics to the song are so elevated and incredibly skilful that for the first time in my life, the music made it harder to focus on the actual riding clips (which are also incredible). This was a first for me, especially being that young; I’d typically obsess over the riding clips, the music, while detrimental to a good part, came secondary. It was the riding clips that I’d be hitting the rewind button for, but this time, it was to take in what Big L was schooling us on.”
- Jim Cielencki & Vinnie Sammon
Fittingly, I’ll let Big L wrap this up, courtesy of PhD level lyrics from ‘Ebonics’:
“You got shot, you got bucked
And if you got double-crossed, you got fucked
Your bankroll is your poke, a choke hold is a yoke
A kite is a note, a con is a okey doke
And if you got punched that mean you got snuffed
To clean is to buff, a bull scare is a strong bluff
I know you like the way I'm freakin' it
I talk with slang and I'ma never stop speakin' it”