As far as rap names go, there are good ones, bad ones, and then there are the "Lils."
A prefix that's almost as old as the industry itself, the ‘Lil’ has enjoyed a longer shelf-life in hip-hop than almost every other trend, save for microphones. A constant in the game that has permeated sounds, sizes, and geography, the ‘Lil’ stands as one of the most successful and oft-used names, a name that has outlasted all its counterparts (Grandmaster, MC, Young, etc.).
So how did three small letters end up becoming one of the most sustained and far-reaching trends in hip-hop history?
‘Lil’ by itself is a fairly common nickname in a variety of cultures, which shouldn’t really be breaking news to anyone but does explain a bit why there doesn’t appear to be one quantifiable locale for the moniker.
Some research will show that Lil Troy, the Houston rapper famous for the single “Wanna Be Baller," was the first nationally recognized rapper to don the tag way back in 1988. From there, the prevalence of Lil really follows the arc of hip-hop as it manifests itself in NYC in the late '80s and early '90s before popping up in places like New Orleans, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles.
In fact, if my reporting is correct, some of the first artists to step out with Lil in front of their names were Lil Bruce from the Bay Area (1989), Lil Mac from New Orleans (1990) and Lil Fame of M.O.P. out of NYC (1992). It’s interesting to note that there didn’t seem to be much outside influence on the prefix either, it having materialized organically in several different places around the country.
While many will point to the signings of Lil Kim and Lil Cease to J.U.N.I.O.R. Mafia in 1995 as the true beginning of the Lil craze, it was very much already a trend—although few if any before that found the kind of commercial success either Kim or Cease did with the name. In many ways, Kim deserves to be looked at as the first and biggest Lil because she was the most popular and successful artist to ever sport Lil at the time. And in that vein, it's interesting to note that, in the first really popular acts with this trend happened to be based in NYC, perhaps the result of marketing instincts from labels that had to have seen the popularity of similarly-named acts across the country in less-developed scenes.
Of course, the question that often comes up with artists utilizing the ‘Lil’ is when it is appropriate to drop the prefix and presumably become a "Big." Most in their mid-20s now remember Lil Bow Wow, who dropped the ‘Lil’ when he got the call from BET as the most obvious removal of the title. While he and Lil Romeo aren’t exactly the first names that we think of when talking about this subject, they are good examples of younger artists growing out of the name.
Upon his release from jail, Boosie dropped the front end of his name to re-brand as Boosie Badazz, mainly, I believe, because no one wants to call a 33-year-old man ‘Lil’ anything. It’s something Lil B may have to start pondering soon at 26, and a thought that might make sense to Lil Jon and Lil Zane, among others.
While Boosie certainly needed a new branding effort after leaving prison, it’s also hard to make the switch, especially in the era of social media and personal branding. At the end of the day, dollars and cents speak, and I’d leverage a bet that Wayne isn’t dropping the ‘Lil anytime soon, especially when he's established other nicknames for himself (like Weezy).
A sign of endearment in a way, sometimes it's simply not worth the effort to try to escape the intonations of the name you started your career with. For his part, Lil Herb recently did just that, doubling down on his signing to Cinematic Music Group by following through with his new stage name, G Herbo. His counterpart, Lil Bibby, has yet to follow suit.
As with all things hip-hop, though, even the Lil phenomenon can be pimped to an agenda as we’ve seen with satirical, tongue-in-cheek rapper Lil Dicky who reached for the lowest hanging of fruit when exploring monikers to begin his rap career. It makes sense too, as the Lil has permeated popular culture and largely overtaken ‘MC’ and ‘Young’ as the pre-eminent and most widely used prefix in hip-hop, something further evidenced by the fact that it popped up in so many places with such frequency from such an early point in time. Anything in rap music seems to have a shelf life before it is pimped to the whims of mainstream media and it appears as though the Lil has ultimately jumped the shark.
The well was seemingly running somewhat dry of Lils moving into the second decade of the 2000s. Interestingly enough, though, the region to pick that picked up the batton happened to be one of the only cities not to have a huge prevalence of the namesakes since DJ/Producer Lil Louis in the late '80s and early '90s, Chicago.
A lesser realized phenomenon of the Drill scene’s rise to fame has certainly been the rise of acts like Lil Durk, Lil Reese, Lil Herb, Lil Bibby, Lil Mouse and more, who have given rise to the Lil once again. Kept almost strictly to the Drill side of things, the Lil movement of the Midwest is real and appears to have at least some sort of staying power. The juxtaposition of the image that the word Lil conjures against the kind of gritty street-centric music these acts creates is one that has been a below the surface constant throughout.
More recently, though, the rap nickname appears increasingly endangered as artists have chosen to go with something closely resembling or literally their government name as we’ve seen with a new generation of acts like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Dave East or Mac Miller.
And so the future of the Lil appears as unknown as it ever has. But if we have learned anything from the past 30 years, it's that Lil is one part of hip-hop we probably won't see go away anytime soon.
A Brief History of Lils in Hip-Hop:
- Lil Troy (1988) Houston
- Lil Bruce (1989) Bay Area
- Lil Louis (1989) Chicago
- Lil Mac (1990) New Orleans
- Lil Fame of M.O.P. (1992) NYC
- Lil 1/2 Dead (1992) Los Angeles
- Lil Vicious (1993) NYC
- Lil Keke (1993) Houston
- Lil Italy (1993) Bay Area
- Lil Cease/Lil Kim (1995) NYC
- Lil Wayne (1995) New Orleans
- Lil Flip (1997) Houston
- Lil Wyte (2000) Memphis
- Lil Scrappy (2002) Atlanta
- Lil B (2004) California
- Lil Mama (2004) NYC
- Lil Reese (2010) Chicago
- Lil Durk (2010) Chicago
- Lil Bibby (2012) Chicago
- Lil Dicky (2013) Pennsylvania