Interview: Big Mike


A native of New Orleans, Big Mike’s rap career took flight after he moved to live with his grandparents in Houston’s South Park neighborhood. He’s best known for a long solo career including 1994’s Somethin’ Serious and 1997’s Still Serious, as well as his time as a member of Convicts (with Mr. 3-2) and the Geto Boys (as a stand-in during Willie D’s departure from the group).

What took you from New Orleans to Houston initially? Was there any amount of culture shock?

Well, I came to Houston around the age of thirteen. My grandmother and grandfather was living here, my grandfather’s from here. They decided to bring me out here for a while, get me away from New Orleans so I could have more opportunities, you know what I mean? They felt I was a little bit limited there, so they brought me out to Houston.

Coming from New Orleans, you know, it’s more of a festive place. I grew up in a real tight community, you know what I mean, I spent most of my time in a neighborhood called Gert Town. Most of my family lived there, I never really even had interactions with other races outside of seeing ‘em on TV until I had came to Houston. But definitely the culture was different - in Houston I might’ve missed some of the things that I grew up with in New Orleans, but a whole new world was opened up to me. I been fortunate to be able to be reared in two places - it enhances my accent, gives me my own identity.

And two places that it’s hard to fake being from, I’d think.

It really is, because both cities… Houston has its own dialect from any other place in Texas. You might go to Dallas, then go to another spot, and they pretty much sound the same. Same thing with New Orleans - out of all the cities in Louisiana, New Orleans has its own distinct accent. And when people hear them both, it gives me my own lane vocally.

Were you already rapping in New Orleans, or did you pick that up here?

No I wasn’t; the seed was planted in me in New Orleans, but I didn’t actually start formulatin’ my rhymes until I came to Houston. New Orleans is a centerpoint of music, so we was getting a whole variety of music. We was on Go-go, we was up on the early rap that was coming up outta New York, and of course surrounded by New Orleans music and R’n’b and things like that. The music was there, we weren’t behind on getting any music believe that. I think it was actually two songs that did it for me, “Drop The Bomb and “Planet Rock. I heard that, I said you know what? That’s what I’m gonna do. My father is a musician, so I grew up in a household that music was prevalent in.

What’d he play?

My daddy specialized in drums, that’s what I loved to hear him play. But he plays an array of instruments, from the keys to trombone, you know what I mean? I love my dad because that’s where I got my gift of song from, he’s a very accomplished musician. So I’d always known that I was gonna express myself musically, I just didn’t know in which form until I heard hip-hop. Then once I got to Houston, I started putting down rhymes. Nobody in my family really knew what rap was, so they didn’t really know what I was doin’. My father understood the music aspect of it, so once I got it in my head that I was pretty good I recorded some demos with him.

Was the rest of your family still supportive, or did they see it as a waste of time?

Oh no, long as I was doing what I supposed to do around the house, you feel me, and taking care of business at school, they was for whatever I was for as long as it was positive. But I don’t think they understood the rap music itself. But they trusted me, and I’m glad that they did. The morals and values that they installed in they kid, you know, and then they can sit back and watch until they see something different from what they taught ‘em.

How did you and Mr. 3-2 initially get together?

Actually, when I was introduced to Rap-A-Lot by Tony Draper, it was as a solo artist. They approached me with the Convicts situation. We came together like that, but we eventually became brothers; we spent a lot of time together and was very fond of each other. I love him and I miss him a lot. But initially we had just met through the label.

I’ve read a bit about y’all spending some time in California working on something with Dr. Dre.

Yeah, when they was putting Death Row together a deal was made to bring the Convicts out to Los Angeles so that we could sign with them and record some music. They thought the whole idea of “Convicts and “Death Row was a good fit. But we wound up out there recording the album, with a couple songs that we came up with actually making the list for the Chronic album. If you go back to The Source magazine when Dr. Dre was on the cover with the gun to his head, he says “this is my favorite song on the album and then starts quoting “Mr. Officer. “Mr. Officer was slated to be on there, “Straight Gangstaism was slated to be on the album. Shout out to The Unknown DJ, who’s known for his work with Compton’s Most Wanted, we was working with him as well on that project.

I got a homie that I grew up with in Houston, he had a certain kind of way that he talked - “really doe, big baby, “I don’t love dem hoes, you know what I mean? Different slang like that. So 3-2, when we went to Los Angeles, he would mimic him. And that’s how, when you hear the skits on the Chronic LP and all on the Doggystyle album, a lot of that stuff came from what they heard from what they heard from me and 3-2.

It was an awesome experience, man - we didn’t get a chance to actually release the project because I was approached with the Geto Boys situation and went back to Houston to do that. I wish me and 3-2 had the opportunity to get back together and record some new music, but with this technology you know we can get back off in the studio and I want to take advantage of that.

Just from an organizational, behind-the-scenes standpoint, how did Rap-A-Lot and Death Row compare?

Well, from the time that I had got to Rap-A-Lot, me and Scarface had actually spent quite a bit of time together. We used to ride around and buy music together, listen to new albums, you know what I mean? If it was trash, toss it out the window [laughs]. We hit it off, so we knew each other before ever doing the Geto Boys project. But Rap-A-Lot, it was a little sporadic. You never knew what the schedule was. At Death Row, they had a schedule of what they was gonna be workin’ on, and what they was gonna be workin’ on after that. And during the recording process at Rap-A-Lot, me and 3-2 had spent a lot of time together but when I came back for the Geto Boys album we didn’t really spend much time together in the studio recording.

At Death Row, you could watch everybody bond, both before doing the music and during doing the music, you know what I mean? I think that made for some amazing music. Just the camaraderie was different, Rap-A-Lot felt like a bunch of guys that had been brought together and Death Row was more like a family. Not to downplay anything, because I’m grateful for my time at Rap-A-Lot even though it didn’t turn out how I wanted it to. But that was definitely what was different about it. At Death Row everybody was kickin’ it before they ever started recording, and by the time they started recording there was a cohesiveness that you could hear in the music. I used to tell Scarface, man, it’s cool if you lay your part and then I come through later and do my part, but these guys out in LA are spending a lot of time together and the music is soundin’ incredible. One of the things that I regret from recording the Till Death Do Us Part album is that we didn’t get that opportunity to spend time together before recording, seeing what the music could’ve been like if we’d all had time to get on the same page.

And let me say this, I know that Suge is locked up right now, but when I was in need Suge Knight was there for me. He showed me love. He was actually the person who gave me the money to help my mom get out the projects in New Orleans. I want to shout that out, to let Suge know that I remember that and that my heart goes out to him in his current situation.

With Convicts, how did you approach working as a duo?

I think me and 3-2, we hooked up and were already fine with what each other was doing. It came a little easy to us, it wasn’t much of a struggle. It was always fun, I was just eager to see what he would bring to the table. We was both hungry, and that was our approach. We’d work with the label sometimes, J Prince was actually the one who had come up with the Convicts concept initially. I just saw it as a stepping stone, you know, you help us out with this and we’ll help you out with what you’re doin’ as a solo artist.

What had you been doing before Convicts that initially got Rap-A-Lot’s attention?

Before Convicts it was just demo work, I wasn’t known to the public before that situation. Me and Tony Draper had recorded demos - we used to work together at the Olive Garden for a short period of time, and we would put our checks together to purchase some studio time to go in and record the music. And actually, Tony Draper was the mover and shaker at the time, he’d take the music and say he had a homie here or there that he could get it to. Next thing you know, we was havin’ a meeting with J Prince to sit down and discuss future ventures.

Why do you think it was so difficult to fit yourself into the Geto Boys when you came back to town?

Well, when they approached me about it I was just excited about it. Damn, the Geto Boys… they big from where I’m from. And I’d spent some time with Scarface and Bushwick during the recording of We Can't Be Stopped - I wrote “The Other Level for Bushwick. And so the situation came about, and it was like a kid growing up in their hometown and then getting drafted by the Texans or the Rockets. How can you pass that up, you feel me? But I never really felt like a permanent member of the group because they had already had that history and success before me, going platinum. I did my best - there was no concept for the album, so I came in with some works that I had already written for my solo project and offerin’ them up to get us going. I think I provided some energy for the transition into the ‘90s - the Geto Boys was known for a lot of hardcore rap, and I was trying to reel it in and bring it back to a more street level, where people can grasp it. I was fortunate to be in LA while the G-funk was being formulated, to witness that and then bring it back as an influence on the Geto Boys project.

Jumping forward in your career, was getting back into music a priority for you after being released from prison or did it just end up happening?

Yeah, you think about it! That’s where you left off. But when I came home, I needed some time to get re-acclimated to what was happening, you know what I mean? To absorb the times. So when I came out I was just throwing a bunch of punches man, firing off from every angle hoping to hit the bullseye. But after a while, I realized that I create my best music just as I live. Just living life plays a big part in how I write, how I approach my music, things like that. Getting out, not enjoying the success that I had before I got locked up, it provided me some downtime to get back into the flow of life. Even though it’s been an uphill climb for me, they still love what I do here. If I have to write music for a smaller, boutique-type crowd, I’m cool with that. Long as there’s somebody that’s continually digging what I do.

You came back during a real boom time for Houston rap, but there were a lot of new faces.

It was, it definitely was. The style of music was different. All I could do was focus on myself - I could find and listen to what I thought was the best of what was out there, and then work on my music until I thought it was on that level. I never really tried to blend in - even though I spoke the same language in my music, I didn’t want to come out and cater to a specific region. I’d already experienced a broader fanbase by that time, and so I felt a responsibility to keep covering that territory. But it wasn’t an easy process, listening to my own music and having to figure out what wasn’t translatin’. Right now I’m still taking my time, working with a lot of younger artists and just coachin’ ‘em up, listening to what they’re doing without a biased ear. I like to sharpen up my sword against their steel. They keep me young, they keep me in the loop, and it’s becoming fun again.

Was there anything in particular that you occupied yourself with in prison?

Man, when I was locked up I immediately reached out for the hand of the Lord. Immediately. I spent a lot of time in the word. I spent a lot of time growin’ my relationship with the Lord. I know a lot of cats don’t like to hear that when they see you as only a street artist, but I’m not ashamed of my faith. It made things easier for me while I was down there, you know what I mean? Of course it’s a sad place, nobody wants to be locked up, but for the most part I feel like I was shielded from a lot of things that could’ve held me back and kept me in there by staying focused on that. I spent a lot of time reflecting, taking inventory of my past mistakes and bad judgments, things that set me in that direction, you know what I mean? I spent a lot of time working on myself spiritually, physically, mentally, doin’ what it takes to get up out of there.

Do you find it difficult to portray your faith in your music without cutting off part of your audience?

I don’t, because I know I’m good at what I do. I thank God that I’m good at what I do, especially when I’m writin’ for Him - it’s amazing. I know that sometimes the public might not gravitate towards that, because everybody wants to have fun. They don’t want to be weighed down with their music, they don’t want to be taught, but I come from a different era. We were entertained and taught with the music, but today they just want to turn up. And there’s nothing wrong with having fun, but they not leaving the door open to learn. I think that’s why everything seems so repetitive to me, people being close-minded to hearing something with substance and stagnating the sound. Fans are being programmed instead of growing along with the artists, you know what I mean? We had all different kinds of hip-hop, but today if you’re not in this one particular mode people won’t ever hear you. And that can be kind of frustrating, but at the same time when I get one person that turn around and say “man, I love that rhyme, that one song… that just makes you keep going. How could I stop?