20 years on, Big Pun’s Capital Punishment continues to inspire a new generation of Bronx rappers
Original release date: 28 April, 1998
Label: Loud Records
About a month after Christopher Rios was born, a pivotal event occurred in the Bronx. For years, rival gangs mostly comprised of black and Latino members had made the uptown sections of New York City a veritable warzone, with groups like the Black Spades and the Ghetto Brothers territorially carving out blocks as their own and defending their turf vigorously. Sparked by the death of one of the leading peacekeepers of the time, 1971’s monumental Hoe Avenue Meeting gathered representatives from multiple factions to achieve a truce.
The reverberations from the Hoe Avenue Meeting loosened invisible borders and allowed for more free movement throughout the city. Barely two years later, former rivals were mingling to the sound of DJ Kool Herc’s prototypical turntablism. This was the world Big Pun grew up in.
The Bronx’s rich history in hip-hop sprouted up around him, from the cracks in the sidewalk concrete. It took roughly 24 years before his first recorded appearance on a major label release, a feature on the Diggin’ in the Crates Crew emcee Fat Joe’s 1995 Jealous One’s Envy LP. A brash ode to the South Bronx, Watch Out introduced Pun’s world to the rap world at large.
While Big Pun certainly wasn’t the first Latinx rapper to make an impact, he was the first with an album to receive RIAA platinum certification. Released roughly a year after the murder of fellow outsized New York rapper The Notorious B.I.G., Capital Punishment sported his Puerto Rican heritage proudly. Its biggest single, the enduring hip-hop classic Still Not A Player, flipped an O’Jays sample into a radio-friendly, salsa-adjacent jam. The sung praises of boriquas and morenas coupled with Pun’s thug lover lyricism captured a pure feeling, one prevalent and sincere in música romantica yet too often exoticised by outsiders, including non-Latinx rappers who fumbled with high school Spanish.
Despite the tremendous appeal of Still Not A Player, to this day a rotation staple of rap radio both in New York and elsewhere, the commercial success of Capital Punishment wasn’t guaranteed. By 1998, the term ‘gangsta rap’ may have fallen out of favour with everyone except Republican congressmen, yet its spirit and sentiments prevailed on records like Pun’s. Over boom bap production by the likes of Dr. Dre, Rockwilder, and RZA, he represented the South Bronx that raised him, a place where gang activity and related crime had evolved and adapted rather than dissipated in the two decade wake of the Hoe Avenue Meeting. While some might criticise Pun for romanticising street behaviour and violence on Beware and the Pakinamac skits, the lyrics could be considered a stark reflection of his reality.
To his credit, Pun compensated for his gritty and occasionally downright bleak worldview with a proficiency on the mic, something made even more stunning by the fact that Capital Punishment was his full-length debut. He was a dextrous spitter, capable of complex cadences and rapid fire flows on cuts like The Dream Shatterer and You Ain’t A Killer. Some 20 years before latecomers got wise to The Roots’ Black Thought as one of the greatest rappers alive, Pun went toe to toe with the dude on the exquisite Super Lyrical, a masterclass for rap bars.
Capital Punishment includes a number of guest appearances by then-known quantities in hip-hop such as Busta Rhymes, Inspectah Deck of the Wu-Tang Clan, and Wyclef Jean. Yet the album also held it down for the Bronx with its features, giving time to his Terror Squad associates Armageddon, Prospect, and the aforementioned Fat Joe. The pairing of Joe and Pun remains one of rap’s finest duos, as evidenced by the incredible interplay of Twinz (Deep Cover ‘98).
20 years after its release, and 18 since Pun’s untimely passing, the influence of Capital Punishment endures. He remains a cited and felt influence by Latinx artists, including those in the current trap en español boom. Bodega Bamz, Cardi B, and Messiah can all count Pun as a godfather figure, in more ways than one. Regardless of race or ethnicity, he continues to give inspiration to wave after wave of Bronx rappers who can relate to his stories and marvel at his lyrics.