In person, Big Mike isn't quite as menacing as his publicity shots would have you think. In the photos, the 22-year-old rapper is usually shot from below, adding the illusion of towering stature to his already beefy frame. He wears a thin line of beard tracing his jaw line -- a grooming tactic usually employed by overweight men trying to emphasize shape or de-emphasize flab -- but since Big Mike carries no flab, simply solid heft, the effect of the hairy outline is more sinister than anything else.
It's an image that's served Mike's purposes well, first as a member of the hard-core rap outfit The Convicts, and later -- when Willie D. abandoned the group for a solo career -- as a member of Houston's platinum Geto Boys, debuting his skills on last year's Till Death Do Us Part. The streetwise, gangster-tough theme has made cash hand over fist for Rap-a-Lot Records, home of both The Convicts and The Geto Boys, but now it's one that Rap-a-Lot, as well as Big Mike, would just as soon shed, at least occasionally. Rap-a-Lot's move away from the sinister comes with recent releases by jazzy sex-fiend dopers Odd Squad and pseudo-spiritual questers Blac Monks; Big Mike's route to other things is his recently released solo debut Somethin' Serious.
The day of our interview, Big Mike is holding court in his room at a Bellaire area condo, a seafoam-green and coral-pink apartment complex that Rap-a-Lot publicist Akwanza Gleaves has described to me as a sort of halfway house for traveling rap figures and Rap-a-Lot artists who are between homes. Geto Boy Bushwick Bill steps out of the elevator we're about to board and stops to chat, then we stop on three different floors, knocking on doors behind which we find the extended entourages of the Rap-a-Lot family -- Scarface's brother here, 2-Low there, members of the Blac Monks -- before finally tracking down Mike. Today, the gangster beard has been shaved, and the hard facial grimace seen in his photos has relaxed into an open, almost pleading gaze, one that makes Mike look more like the 22-year-old kid trying to launch a career out of a less-than-privileged upbringing that he is, and less like the fuck-you gangsta that he's portrayed -- and may well have been before he was hit with what he calls the dream to make it in the rap world.
"I was a teenage father, I had kids, I was looking out after my little brothers and sisters and my mom, trying to stay out of trouble, but it's hard to stay out of trouble when you're out there on the streets," Mike says. "Make the pennies just to eat, survive, send some money back home. I ain't had no easy comin' up. It wasn't all that bad either, but a lot of stuff that my homies go through, I go through that stuff, and then things that I want to do on top of that, things that they couldn't understand. It'll break you down. I broke down a couple of times, but I got over all of that.
"I was about 18 and I found myself back at home staying with my mom in the projects in New Orleans. I had time to just look at myself, look at my surroundings, my situation. If I don't do something then things ain't gonna be better for me, they ain't gonna be better for my kid, for my family, we're gonna still be struggling, and I don't want to fall into that cycle. I could've gotten a 9 to 5, I had plenty of jobs, but that's not what I really wanted to do, you know, just trying to make that dollar, 'cause once you get it, it's gone."
In 1990, Mike moved to Houston chasing something more than the dollar, and got his demo tape circulated around the Rap-a-Lot offices. Shortly afterward, Mike's gangsta turn found play with The Convicts, but "that was just a beginning, a bunch of bragging, all that kind of stuff. It was cool for the time, but over the years I did a lot of growing up, and you can tell if you listen to some of my previous stuff and listen to some of my stuff now."
The Geto Boys break came in 1992. Mike was with The Convicts in Los Angeles, trying unsuccessfully to create some action with Dr. Dre's label, when the call from Rap-a-Lot came. Mike topped a short list of potential replacements for the departing Willie D., and when Till Death Do Us Part was released in '93, quite a few observers found Mike a more-than-adequate substitute. The word-of-mouth buzz and street credibility that makes or breaks an artist in the rap world was overwhelmingly positive, setting the stage for the solo breakthrough Mike had been aiming for all along.
"I like being down with the group, but it was really more of a group situation so I could get my name out there," he says. "My album's different, more me, you know what I'm saying? I got a chance to do more stuff that I like."
It took Mike a year to write Somethin' Serious. "I was going through a lot of changes, contractual problems and stuff. It took me from here back to Louisiana to Atlanta back to Louisiana. I was just running around trying to find some help. Trying to work things out. It took me a year of doing all that rippin' and runnin'. Things were on my mind, and that's what's on my album."
It's an odd album, one that forgoes rap's endemic fantasy and caricature role-playing in favor of more immediate personal material, and one that promises to force nationwide recognition of an emerging Southern sound in hip-hop, a sound that, until recently, has been overshadowed by the more established West Coast and East Coast styles.
"I was kinda scared to put some of that stuff out," Mike says, "but every time I sit down and try to write something, it always comes out like that. Every time I put the pen to the page it just comes out, whatever's inside of me. I don't know if that's good or bad. It sounds good though. As a solo artist, you want to express yourself. You want people to get into Big Mike. I try to distinguish myself, set myself aside from the rest because there's so many rappers coming out, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle."
But if the deck is stacked with rappers rhyming on guns and bitches and cars and cash, it's Mike's take on life -- something that all rappers claim as their lyrical territory, but few have the balls to address without the distance of fiction -- that sets him apart from the crowd. Take a track like "Havin Thangs," on which Mike addresses the ultimate emptiness of possession culture. It's not a terribly new thought, but in rap -- home to no small number of artists who entered the game to escape poverty as much as they did to find a means of artistic expression -- it's a bracing slap.
Somethin' Serious, released June 28, debuted on Billboard's R&B album chart at number four and has remained there ever since, trailing only Keith Sweat, Warren G. and The Brat, all radio heavy-hitters. Over on the pop charts, where rap albums often debut high and then start a quick slide into obscurity, Somethin' Serious came in at 54, moved to 49 in its second week of release and is currently sitting pretty at number 40 with a bullet. As a result of the buzz, Mike and Rap-a-Lot labelmate Seagram have been invited to perform at Rap Sheet magazine's prestigious Second Anniversary Party in Los Angeles on August 3, alongside rap kingpin KRS-1 and others.
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It's an auspicious solo debut, made all the more so by the fact that the 430,000 copies of Somethin' Serious sold so far have moved without the benefit of a promotional single, radio single, or promotional video.
Reggie Dennis, music editor at rap media organ The Source, says the faddish hip-hop community is taking notice. "These days there aren't too many rappers that stand apart. Mike's been around for a while, but this is the first time he's really been able to shine, and he really surpasses expectation," Dennis says. "It caught a lot of people by surprise. His stuff is honest. So many people are trying to be something they're not, but he doesn't sound like a comic book or a cartoon or a caricature of a rapper. [The album] strikes a chord in a lot of people."
That might well come as a validation of the type of personal expressiveness Mike is introducing to rap, but sitting down and talking with the man, you get the distinct impression that multiple brushes with both acclaim and desperation have left him with a tightly fastened head about such matters.
"Sometimes," Mike says during our interview, perhaps foreseeing the way the album might hit, "you get that feeling like "I've made it." Then the business turns around and slaps you in the face, lets you know that you ain't made it yet. Bill collector's still at your door, mouths still need to be fed. But it's what I wanna do. It's the thing that keeps me going. I gotta make it. I want it for myself, because the money and the fame and all that is kind of elusive. It comes and goes.