By the time this1994 Dirty South landmark solo debut was released, New Orleans / Houston rapper Big Mike already had toiled at a local Olive Garden, cut an album as a member of the legendarily filthy and violent Rap-A-Lot group the Convicts, roomed with (and influenced) the pre-fame Snoop Dogg out in Los Angeles when both were part of the Death Row camp, and served as the temporary replacement for Willie D in the Geto Boys for the Till Death Do Us Part album. All of this experience, save perhaps for the Olive Garden stint, was brought to bear on Somethin' Serious.
While his Convicts album was pretty much straight hardcore, his stay on the West Coast taught him, as he put it in a Murder Dog interview from a couple of years ago, how to be a fly gangsta. "Me being around Dr. Dre and hearing a better quality of beats put me up on game on how to make my stuff sound better," he said. "I got just that all around fly attitude that's out there on the West Coast. They gangsta to the fullest and they had that flyness about them too. That kinda soaked into me too so I sorta blended all of that with my Southside flow and I mixed it up all together and I came up with a winning recipe."
That there's no idle boast. Somethin' Serious offers up a textbook example of what hardcore Southern hip-hop once was and could and should still be.
As with many rappers from New Orleans, Big Mike has a very musical, melodic flow. (He comes from a talented family — his father was New Orleans R&B drummer/singer Will "Chewy Thunderfoot Black" Barnett.) What's more, Big Mike used that flow to all manner of diverse subject matter, ranging from the mo' money mo' problems jam "Havin' Thangs" to the absolutely classic player's boast "Playa Playa" and the pistol-packing threats of the block-bleeder "Fire." But there's also the thoughtful "World of Mind," the teen romance in the projects tale "Ghetto Love" and the Scarface duet "Daddy's Gone,"
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Big Mike's lyrics on the socially conscious stuff — Dirty South ghetto masterpieces -- feel as lived-in and real as the very best episodes of The Wire. Take "Daddy's Gone," for example: "1971 a young girl gave birth / only a child bringing another child on this earth / only 15 years of age / but comin' from the ghetto it won't make the front page / see, that's the way shit go / and to the government she ain't nothin' but another ho / thinkin' all she wants is food stamps / give her a check and let her hang with the school tramps." The song also examines the situation from the father's point of view: "Little do they know daddy also sheds tears," he raps. "'Cause he don't know what to do / Be a father to his child, or run with a crew / You might say: easy choice, be a father / But why should he do it when his father didn't bother?" It was a work of amazing maturity and compassion for a guy who was then 23 years old.
"I wrote that after I had gotten an understanding of how relationships work," he told me in 2004, shortly after he was released from a prison stint of several years. "A parent gonna love his kid, love his family, but certain things just don't work out. So that song was like a message to my father, my mother, that I understood certain things. I was just letting fathers know that it's a blessing to be able to have kids. I just shot my story out there and I was hoping that other fathers would hear it and think, 'Hey, man, I'm missin' somethin'. I'm gonna go over there and check on my kid and be part of my child's life.' "
Then there's "Ghetto Love." Here's his take on his teenaged girlfriend and why he dug her so much: "She used to say 'Our business ain't show business / and another bitch's business ain't yo' business' / so I had to keep her close at hand / while she was comin' up, because she was down with her man / understand she grew up with next to nothin' / and was sick of seein' all her shit getting' stole every month and... / Why?/ 'Cause her mama's smokin' up the whole house / so she got to get her shit together 'cause she got to get her shit together 'cause she got to roll on out." The song's closing is epically cool. "Young love in the ghetto / Hello! / knew I had a down ho didn't wanna let go / straight based on trust / and while other mothafuckas got crushed / they couldn't fuck with us / to fuck around with us was unwise G / 'cause we was fully strapped, jammin' them Iii-Sley's." And then the tune fades out to the strains of an interpolation of the Isley Brothers' slinky babymaking jam "For the Love of You."
In addition to the top-notch lyrics, the album is a musical tour de force, a bubbling crockpot of Gulf Coast gumbo-funk. The young Pimp C turns in the Led Zeppelin-meets-Fat Albert beat behind "Havin' Things", which Pimp recently recut on last year's Pimpalation. Big Easy heroes the Meters are sampled twice: "Look-Ka-Py" is the backdrop for the hot fun in the projects anthem "Southern Thang" (which sports the killer line "The Southern way / the only way / fuck what another say"), while the guitar and drums from "People Say" back Mike's "Fire." "You know I had to touch the Meters, New Orleans' own legends," he said in our 2004 interview. "I try to keep that home feelin' in my music. It's important to me."
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"Daddy's Gone" sports a smoky jazz saxophone, rousing female gospel-style choirs swell on "Havin' Things" and "Creepin'-Rollin'," which also rhymes Scott Street with Swisher Sweets. "Playa Playa" has a balmy, breezy Al Green / "Tighten Up" vibe; "Smoke Em & Choke Em" features a plinky G-funk vibe and also sports a sax. "Get Over That" and "On Da Real" feature warm organic keyboards. Even the posse cut "On Da One" is a stand-out — listen out for one of the very first appearances of the very young, still very-country-sounding Bun B.
At the time, the Press's then music editor Brad Tyer thought it worthy of a full profile. His verdict: "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."
Sadly, Big Mike would miss much of the South's rise. He would go on to release the sequel Still Serious in 1997, but was sent to prison from 1998 to 2004 for some incident he would only describe to me as "some straight-up gangsta shit." (He was caught trying to burn down one of Rap-A-Lot president J. Prince's businesses.) By the time he got out, he had slipped off the mainstream radar. Which is a shame, because today's radio-friendly Southern rap pales in comparison to this record -- it has more limited lyrics, the beats aren't as tight, rappers aren't as real nor do they flow as well. And Big Mike's still doing his thing — he's released two albums (Nawlins Phats and Keep It Playa) since his release and they both show home to still be outside of and ahead of the game. — John Nova Lomax
(Note: If you choose to buy this album via iTunes, don't, unless you want the screwed and chopped version. That's the only version available there and it is not marked clearly as such.)