In 2004, Michael Barnett was paroled and released from prison. The rapper known as Big Mike had served three and a half years for torching a studio affiliated with Rap-A-Lot Records.
That offense was the culmination of simmering tensions between Mike and the venerable Houston label, on which he'd released well-received solo projects and albums with Convicts and Geto Boys. By 1997 his star had risen so high that, according to Mike, Rap-A-Lot wanted to lock him down under a long-term contract.
The label attempted to make him an offer he couldn't refuse, and that's when the trouble started.
Now 37 and in a new phase of his career, Mike has decided to tell his side of the story publicly for the first time. Many of his fans know about the arson, but they assume it was the result of a mental condition or drug addiction. This is untrue, he says, and he wants to set the record straight.
"The only way to destroy those lies," he goes on, "is to tell the truth."
As girthy as his name implies, Mike wears an angular beard and his arms are tatted-up. He is extremely forthcoming and humble during a conversation at his apartment near Reliant Center, where he stays when he's in town. After getting into trouble as a kid in New Orleans, he moved to Houston to live with his grandparents and nowadays moves back and forth between the two cities.
This probably has something to do with why his music doesn't sound stereotypical of either region. The energy and up-tempo pacing on albums like his 1994 classic Somethin' Serious has a New Orleans flavor, while his lyrics are full of slang from Houston and other parts of the South. According to Mike, he taught Snoop Dogg phrases like "I don't love dem hoes" while they shared an apartment during their Death Row Records days.
Mike's short-lived deal with the Los Angeles label came about because Dr. Dre was a fan of Convicts, the duo consisting of Mike and Houston rapper Mr. 3-2. But as Death Row co-founder Suge Knight dragged his feet on their project, Mike began to consider his options.
A Rap-A-Lot representative told him that Willie D was leaving Geto Boys, and invited him to fill the spot. And so Mike returned to Houston and contributed to the group's 1993 LP Till Death Do Us Part. Though it was a strong album and eventually went gold, at the time it was seen as something of a failure, coming on the heels of the group's commercial and critical pinnacle, We Can't Be Stopped.
Mike was booted from the group shortly after he and Scarface had a physical altercation of some sort. Mike suggests 'Face was jealous over Mike's increasing fame. But Mike now had a platform to launch his solo career, and his first two Rap-A-Lot albums, Somethin' Serious and Still Serious, cracked Billboard's Top 40. The latter, released in 1997, peaked at No. 16 and demonstrated his commercial viability.
Around this time, Mike says, he attempted to collect some money he was owed by Rap-A-Lot. He called up founder J. Prince, who said sure, he could have his money, but he always wanted him to sign a new record contract.
This was news to Mike. His old contract hadn't expired, and besides, other labels were expressing interest in his services. Unsure what to do, he balked.
Apparently this didn't go over too well with Prince. Mike remembers their call being put on speakerphone, with someone lurking on Prince's end of the line barking threats. "Do you know who you're talking to?" Mike recalls the man saying. "Something could happen to you!"
Mike tried to put the conversation out of his mind. That night he fell asleep like normal in his house in a new Missouri City subdivision. But in the middle of the night, as he lay next to his pregnant girlfriend, something woke him.
"Did you just tell me to get up?" he asked his lady. She said she hadn't, so he lay back down, but sleep wouldn't return. Something felt eerie.
He walked into the living room and sat down. After pausing for a moment, he lit a cigarette and began a conversation with his maker. "Lord, I feel like somebody's plotting against me," he prayed. "Please watch over me. Don't let nothing happen to me."
Mike made the sign of the cross and leaned over to ash his cigarette. At that very moment, shots rang out and he heard the sound of glass smashing. A bullet penetrated the wall behind him, right where his head had been a moment earlier.
He hustled out of the room, avoiding the bullets and injury. His girlfriend was okay too, thankfully, as were his children — who, against their routine, happened to be with their mother that weekend.
It was divine intervention, Mike thought. Today, he doesn't come out and directly accuse Prince or anyone at Rap-A-Lot of orchestrating the shooting.
"Draw your own conclusions,"he says. (Calls requesting comment from the label for this story were not returned.)
Still, he felt what he felt, and in the coming days did a lot of thinking. He didn't go to the police, he says, because as a "street dude" that violated his code of ethics. Though initially he intended to turn the other cheek, an encounter at a local club with a Rap-A-Lot security guard made him change his mind.
Unprovoked, Mike says, the man threw a drink at him, and so he threw a couple of his own right back. "These people don't understand nothing else but guerrilla tactics," he remembers thinking, growing angry. "All of that took me away from being 'Big Mike.' It was just 'Mike' again."
Shortly thereafter, he made the decision that would dramatically alter the course of his life. He attempted to burn down a studio used by Rap-A-Lot, as well as the imprint's headquarters.
Mike won't go into details about the evening, but was quickly pinched for the studio fire. He served time in various spots around West Texas, and was released a little more than halfway through his six-year sentence.
"It's hard to think about it now, because I lost so much off that one event," he says. "Time off my life, time with my children. My career suffered a blow from it."
When he returned home, Mike found that his name had been slandered. There were rumors that he had lost his mind, and that he was abusing substances. Neither was true, he contends, and adds that he has finally gone public with his story to clear the air.
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"The alternative version is already out there," he says. "People ask, 'What happened to Big Mike?' 'Oh, he tried to burn down a building. I think he went off his rocker!'"
He also wants the public to know that Big Mike the rapper is back, and he's as serious about his music as he's ever been. Indeed, his latest mixtape, Ridah Music, Vol. 1, features his vintage carefully crafted, hard-hitting sound. It has guest spots from Rick Ross and Chamillionaire, and Mike has also been working with a roster of up-and-coming and established MCs for his own Ridah Music label. He's currently bearing down in the studio, and promises a full-length release this year.
Insisting that he's not bitter, he maintains that his faith in God has helped him accept — and even feel grateful for — the hand he was dealt.
"To the average person, it may feel like they won, that they were able to stomp on my name and throw dirt on it," he says. "But I know that it don't stop there. I'll always have another opportunity. Even though [these events] changed me as a person, I'm enjoying the person I am right now."