Christopher Rios, the million-selling rap artist known as Big Pun (short for Big Punisher), died Monday of heart failure in White Plains, N.Y. He was 28.
Rios' first album, "Capital Punishment," released in 1998 and featuring the hit single "I Ain't a Player," debuted at No. 5 on the national sales chart and sold more than 2 million copies, making Rios the first Puerto Rican rapper to sell that many albums. It also garnered a Grammy nomination and established Rios as a standout in the highly competitive rap field, where he was known for his smooth style and creative lyrics.
"I knew he was one of the great ones," said rapper Joe Cartagena, who performs under the name Fat Joe and helped foster Rios' career. "I was totally impressed by his rapping, the delivery with the tongue-twisting metaphors."
Westchester County medical examiner Louis Roh said an autopsy revealed that Rios had numerous health problems, including extreme obesity and an "unusually enlarged heart, three times the size of a normal heart." Tests are still being performed to rule out other possible contributing causes of death.
Rios, who weighed nearly 700 pounds, was pronounced dead at White Plains Hospital, where he was taken by ambulance after his wife, Liza, called 911 when he collapsed in front of her in a room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Rescue workers had a difficult time performing CPR on Rios because of his size, and had to use a construction dolly to wheel him to an ambulance, according to hotel workers.
Steve Rifkin, president of Rios' label, Loud Records, said that he saw the rapper last week, and that it was obvious he was in very poor health.
"I wasn't worried about [his new record]," said Rifkin. "I was worried about his health at the time. Every conversation was about his health. We all knew. We wanted to do something and finally thought we had the right something, but it was too late. We realized that you could send him to a fat farm or wherever, but it was psychological. A doctor said we have to have him feeling better about himself."
Rios was scheduled to perform on NBC TV's "Saturday Night Live" this week with Jennifer Lopez and Cartagena, but canceled because he wasn't feeling well, according to Fat Joe's publicist, David Granoff. Rios appears on Lopez's new single "Feelin' So Good."
"He was a source of pride for the Latin community, a great artist and a great person," Lopez told MTV. "We will miss him terribly."
Rios was born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents and began his rise to stardom with a single, "You Ain't a Killer," on the 1997 "Soul in the Hole" soundtrack. He appeared as a guest on the Beatnuts' "Off the Books" single.
Although Rios was labeled by many in the media as a Latino rapper, he repeatedly said in interviews he did not want to be seen so narrowly. "I don't want to be considered 'the Latino rapper,' " Rios told The Times in 1998.
That said, Rios was proud of being Puerto Rican and amassed a large following among Puerto Ricans with his raps about boricuas (Puerto Ricans) and morenas (black women).
Rios draped himself in a Puerto Rican flag for photos or performances, and sprinkled his lyrics with Spanish. He continued to live in the Bronx despite his newfound wealth.
Rios lived in Los Angeles for a brief period, and was one of the few East Coast rappers to be heartily embraced by West Coast fans. Friends say that Rios had hoped to mend rifts between rap artists on each coast.
Southern California fans wept on the air Tuesday during the morning show of KPWR-FM (105.9), while New York fans gathered to paint the rapper's portrait on the side of an abandoned building in the Bronx.
"I lost a brother," said Cartagena. "As far as hip-hop, man, [it] lost a great personality, a great guy who really cared about everybody. One of the best, man. Another one of us gone. Thank God it ain't no violence. But he's gone."
Rios' new solo album, "Yeeah Baby," is scheduled to be released in April.
He is survived by his wife and three young children, Christopher, Vanessa and Amanda.
Funeral arrangements have not been finalized.
Steve Hochman, a freelance writer for The Times' Calendar section, contributed to this story.
Magician Doug Henning, who revived large-scale productions, dies of cancer at 52. B1
* DERRICK THOMAS
Linebacker Derrick Thomas dies 16 days after a car accident left him partially paralyzed. D1