“I don’t know what it is about it that I love. I don’t know why the sky is blue. I don’t know why the grass is green. It just is,” Big Sean says, regarding the inexplicability of what he loves about music. The rising star began rapping by the age of 12, after a neighborhood mentor also by the name of Sean inspired him with music. “He was always trying to get kids in the neighborhood to be better and not be in the streets. Where I’m from, Detroit, there’s a lot of bad things going on…He was trying to keep kids out of that. One of the things that he got me into was rapping and music…That was the beginning of it all.”
Growing up in Detroit, he made the most of what the city had to offer, particularly its rich musical history. “Detroit has a certain mystique that you can only understand being from there. It translates to music.” He attended private school, where he was exposed to art and poetry, not to mention a diverse student body. “I’d have best friends at school that were different colors and from different places. It taught me how to maneuver in certain situations. I could be in the middle of the ‘hood and feel comfortable. I could be eating at the royal palace and feel comfortable there too. The school I went to, it specialized in art and poetry. We even made our own textbooks. I wouldn’t probably be half of what I am now if it wasn’t for that foundation.”
During high school, Sean got serious about rapping, and began performing for a weekly radio show at 102.7 FM: the station that would eventually be fate-defining for the future star. One day, word got out that Kanye West was there for an interview. A friend of Sean’s called him and convinced him to introduce himself to the icon – an idea he was not initially keen on. “Man, that sounds stupid,” he said. “That sounds like a dumbass idea. I hung up the phone, and then I called him back. I think I was kind of nervous.”
Fortunately he decided to set his nerves aside and go see West. “I saw Kanye and his entourage, and I guess they thought I worked there, so I got past security. I shook his hand, and told him I was an aspiring MC. He was just like, ‘Man, keep it up. Much love.’ And as he was walking away, my friend was like, ‘Hey, you can’t just let him walk away without rapping!’ So I caught him again, told him, ‘Yo man, you know, Can I please rap for you?’ And he was like, ‘Man, I ain’t got time.’ And then I gave him the super guilt trip, like, ‘Man, I ride to school listening to you. You’re my hero.’ He was like, ‘All right. You got 16 bars. You gotta rap while we walk of out the station. Go!’ So I started rapping. I could tell he was really listening and into it. He just stopped there and was just bobbing his head, just listening. I ended rapping for like ten minutes straight, and he loved it.”
Sixteen bars later, Big Sean was born. Two years later, before the age of twenty, he was signed to West’s label, G.O.O.D. Music, and later Def Jam Records. His debut album, Finally Famous, came out in 2011, featuring the likes of West, Lupe Fiasco, Wiz Khalifa, Nicki Minaj, and Chris Brown.
Nominated for two Grammy awards this year for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance, Big Sean places a great deal of importance on the idea of willpower. “I believe in the law of attraction. I believe in creating your own world and not letting anybody tell you anything. I know it’s a proven fact that that works. I feel like whatever you believe in is the right thing, though. Whatever religion, whatever you believe in…If you really believe in it, and you put your heart into it, then that’s what it is.” He counts Bob Marley as one of his greatest inspirations, although he cites himself, currently on tour in Europe, as the future hip-hop icon for up-and-comers to look up to. “I think I will be the most inspirational person in the music industry very very soon. As soon as I release this new stuff!” Fortunately, the world will not have to wait too long: Big Sean’s new album, Hall of Fame, is due out this year.
Check out the full interview with Big Sean for The Music Issue 6 by Indira Cesarine
Indira Cesarine: How did you get started with music?
Big Sean: I was always into music. I liked Bone Thugs N Harmony, Tupac, Jay-Z, Biggie, and all those guys… Mase is one of my favorites. When I was twelve, that’s when I started to rhyme myself. It was more of a hobby. There was actually somebody in the neighborhood whose name was also Sean, who was sort of my mentor. He was always trying to get kids in the neighborhood to be better and not be in the streets, not be…You know, where I’m from, Detroit, there’s a lot of bad things going on. People in the streets, a lot of gangs. So he tried to keep kids out of that. Especially the younger kids. One of the things that he got me into was rapping and music, because he knew I had an interest in them. I started when I was twelve, and that was the beginning of it all. I was in a group with two other people. We recorded music in a basement.
IC: So you always wanted to be a rapper?
BS: Yeah, always.
IC: How did you come up with your performance name, Big Sean?
BS: Like I said, my mentor’s name was Sean. We had the same first name. He was like, six-foot-eight. He was real tall. I was like four-foot-eight at twelve years old. So just to be funny, I wanted to be called Big Sean. It was cool for people to call me “Big Sean” when I was clearly the smaller Sean. There were also a lot of “Lil”s at the time. There was Lil’ Wayne, Lil’ this and Lil’s that. I thought it was cool and it fit me; I had a big personality and I wanted to leave a big mark in the game, leave a big legacy.
IC: How was it growing up in Detroit?
BS: Growing up in Detroit was cool, man. Just like any city. I think there’s something special about any city. But for me Detroit has a certain soul, a certain mystique that you can only understand being from there. It translates to music. There’s a lot of people from Detroit, a lot of successful people. We go back to Motown. Anita Baker to Diana Ross, J Dilla to Eminem, and everything in between. It’s a crazy city, it’s a very beautiful city, it’s corrupt, it’s so many different things at once. I think I was somebody who saw all those perspectives, and I’m coming up in Detroit, because I stayed in the hood on Northlawn between Curtis and Six Mile. That’s where I grew up my whole life. My grandma stayed a mile or two away on Santa Barbara, which was way nicer than where we stayed. I would go there every day, and I’d go to a private school in a very ritzy neighborhood. I’d have best friends at school that were like, Jewish and white and Indian and yellow, green, purple, different colors and from different places. Rich. Then I’d go home and have a set of friends there that were like, ghetto as hell. Super hood. Into the wrong shit. I saw a wider spectrum than probably a lot of people would see growing up in Detroit, which taught me a lot. It taught me how to act, it taught me how to talk right in the right places. It taught me how to maneuver in certain situations. I could be in the middle of the hood and feel comfortable. I could be eating at the royal palace and feel comfortable there, too. It’s something I appreciated. Especially the school I went to, it specialized in art and poetry. We had to recite poems every morning. Our textbooks, we made our own textbooks, They would give us the information and we had to draw pictures and write our own, and we would get graded on them. It was a great method of learning. I wouldn’t probably be half of what I am now if it wasn’t for that foundation.
IC: I know that when you were living in Detroit, you rapped for Kanye West, which eventually led to working with GOOD Music. Can you talk about that introduction?
BS: I was in high school at the time. I went to a different type of high school than I did elementary and middle school. I went to a public high school. They were heavily into rap. We would battle rap all the time, all the kids. It was real competitive. That also motivated me, gave me hunger, gave me edge, sharpened my skills. I was always trying to sell CDs around high school and all that. I had my best friend who went to Cass who rapped as well. His name was Patrick, and he went by the name of Pat Piff. He had the idea of going down to the radio station to show the show that they did every Friday called the Friday Night Cypher, where we would have to battle people, ’cause we were already battling at school anyway. He was like, ‘Man, if we battle people and win the battles, we get to rap on the radio.’ You know, you could spit a verse on the radio over the air, and the whole city can hear you. So it was definitely an idea we considered and we went one week.
The first week, my grandma gave me her car because she had a stroke and she couldn’t drive anymore. So I got my car and we decided to go down to the cypher. We went down there, battle rapped, got on air, ended up being on the radio. We did that every week for about a year straight. We got a good relationship with the station, year-round, whether it was snow on the ground, whether it was the worst conditions outside. Even when my mom would tell me not to go out, I’d sneak out and go. She would be like, ‘Make sure you don’t go down to that radio station, there’s snow on the ground.’ But I’d have to go to school anyway, and it was right downtown. They were kind of not too far away from each other. So I would just hang out down there for a few hours and then go to the station. She would always be mad about that, but there was really nothing she could do. And now, of course, she’s happy I did all that. I did every Friday night, and going into my senior year of high school, Kanye was there at the radio station promoting his album. This was a Saturday morning. I was at the bank cashing my check. I was a telemarketer at the time, too. Making like a hundred fifty dollars a week. Worst job. It was a crowded Saturday at the bank. The line was basically out the door, and I got in line. Right when I got in line, my friend called me, my homie Tone. He said, ‘Yo man, you listening to the radio?’ I’m like, ‘No man, sup?’ And he said, ‘Man, Kanye’s down at the station playing his new album. If you go down there and rap for him, dawg, if he just heard you, he’d probably sign you, he’d probably love you.’ I said, ‘Man, that sounds stupid. That sounds like a dumbass idea.’
I hung up the phone, and then I called him back. I think I said that because I was kind of nervous. Even though it didn’t sound stupid to me, you gotta be brave to do that type of stuff. But then I called him back twenty seconds later, and I said, ‘Yo man, let’s do it.’ Why not?’ And I walked out of line at the bank. I didn’t even cash my check. I barely had any money. Luckily, one of my friends gave me twenty dollars just to go down there, ’cause I didn’t have any gas. He said, ‘I’ll give you twenty dollars if you just let me go with you.’ I said, ‘All right.’ This was another one of my friends; there’s only a few of us, but they all kind of played their different roles. Tone, who was my best friend, who I rode to school with every day, he was the one who called me and told me to go down there. My other friend, Brandon, was the one who gave me twenty dollars to drive down there because someone called him and said, ‘Yo, Sean’s ’bout to go rap for Kanye, man. Make sure he does it!’ And then Brandon was the one who came and was like, ‘Yo, let’s go down here.’ And he gave me twenty dollars to ride down there. I went home real fast to pick up my CD that I’ve been selling around high school, and we headed down there. Since we’ve been doing that show every week, they let us right in. I lied and said I left my phone in the back office, because I was just there the day before. I said, ‘Yo, I left my phone in here last night. Gotta go check to see if it’s back there.’ They said, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’ So I went back there, and then I went way back, where I knew the artists would go to do what they have to do at radio stations. I saw Kanye and his entourage, and I guess they thought I worked there, so I got past the security, past his management and all that, shook his hand, told him I was an aspiring MC, that I did a show every week there. He was just like, ‘Man, keep it up. Much love.’ And as he was walking away, my friend was like, ‘Hey, you can’t just let him walking away without rapping for him, man! It’s the whole reason we came here.’ So I caught him again, told him, ‘Yo man, I do this show here every Friday….you know, can I please rap for you?’ And he said, ‘Man, I ain’t got time.’ And then I gave him the super guilt trip, saying ‘Man, I ride to school listening to you, man. You’re my hero.’ All this and that, made him feel real bad, trying shoot me down. He was like, ‘Alright man, you got sixteen bars. You gotta rap while we walking out the station. Go.’
So I started rapping. At first it seemed like he wasn’t paying that much attention. As soon as we got to the entrance/exit at the radio station, he just was kind of…he was vibin’, and I could tell he was really listening and into it. He just stopped there and was just bobbing his head, just listening. I ended rapping for like, ten minutes straight, and he loved it. I gave him my CD, and he said, ‘I’m about to listen to this in the car right now.’ And that was the initial meeting point. The story goes on and on, and it took two years after that to fine tune, finally…I’m graduating high school and being on my way to Michigan State, to turning that down, having a full scholarship there, to still being in limbo, to believing in something that wasn’t for sure. In that aspect, it all worked out. I ended up signing to GOOD Music eventually, after a while, building my own fan base, touring small clubs and going on the road with my homie Mike Posner, Wale and all these different people. It just slowly started building from there.
IC: You were really young when all that happened. How old were you when you got signed at GOOD Music?
BS: I was nineteen going on twenty.
IC: You had your launch party for your album, Finally Famous, where you collaborated with a lot of different artists. Can you tell me about some of the collaborations with different musicians that you worked on with your launch album?
BS: I’ve got people like Kanye on there, Lupe Fiasco, my brother Whiz Khalifa, Nicki Minja, Chris Brown, a lot of people that are genuinely friends of mine and that are into me as artists. It was good, it was a success.
IC: How long did it take to develop the album?
BS: It took about a year. Same with this last album.
IC: Who would you consider the most inspirational person in the music industry?
BS: That’s a good question. The music I’m about to release is all about being inspirational, inspire people and getting them motivated. So I think I will be the most inspirational person in the music industry very ,very, soon. As soon as I release this new stuff. Besides me, myself…there are people that give that hope, from Kanye to Jay-Z, and then you got people like J. Cole and Kendrick. Different artists that tell their story in their own way. Whiz Khalifa, a lot of people. Definitely a lot of inspiration, just different ways.
IC: If you weren’t in music, what do you think you’d be doing?
BS: I don’t know. I guess we’ll never know.
IC: What influences your direction with your clothing and your personal style?
BS: Just what I like. What I feel like. What I’m into at the time. Sometimes big clothes, sometimes I like small clothes. Sometimes I colors, sometimes I like just black and white. It depends on how I feel.
IC: Do you have a favorite designer you like to wear?
BS: Lately, a lot of Alexander Wang. I like the simplicity, the bold colors, not too much text on it. Not logos everywhere, I like that. I really do…I like classic brands like Adidas. It all depends. Everybody has great things. Burberry, Prada, Christian Dior. There are brands that are just starting out; a lot of my friends got brands…there’s this brand called Detroit Versus Everybody. It’s just awesome…I’m into a lot of plain things, with minimal graphics.
IC: Do you have a motto that you live by?
BS: My only words of wisdom…I’m very spiritual. I believe in the law of attraction. I believe in creating you own world and not letting anybody tell you anything. I know it’s a proven fact that it works. I feel that whatever you believe in is the right thing, though. Whatever religion, whatever you believe in. If you really believe in it, and you put your heart into it, then that’s what it is. If you believe that you have to work hard to get what you want in life, then you’ll probably have to work hard. If you believe, ‘I can work very easy in my life and just do what I love to do, and hardly work, and make all the money in the world I want to make,’ then that’s a belief, too. That’s what you believe in. That’s what’s true. So I believe that there are no certain beliefs except the beliefs that you make yourself. I believe you can do whatever you want.
IC: What is it about music that you love?
BS: I don’t know what it is about it that I love. I just love it. I don’t know why the sky is blue. I don’t know why the grass is green. It just is. Just for the same reason that those things are that. As sure as the sky is blue, and as sure as the grass is green, or can be green, I love music. It’s just part of life.
IC: Do you have favorite a musician that you looked up to?
BS: I look up to Bob Marley. He smoked weed, but that wasn’t his message at all. How much inspiration he gave was incredible to me. It’s so heartfelt. He’s actually somebody that I’ve been recently getting into more. Eminem was someone I was really into coming into. He’s someone I have a lot of respect for, for him to be from where I’m from and to be the biggest rapper in the world is always incredible to me.
IC: What projects can we look out for in 2013?
BS: A new album. It’s titled Hall of Fame. The simple fact that that’s how I want to be remembered. I want to go down in history. I think it’s something a lot of people can relate to. They want to be the best at it. Those are the people I make this music for, those who want to be remembered. Whether they have an official Hallf of Fame or not, for whatever you do, I feel like that’s just some people who want to be “in”. They want to be in a Hall of Fame, or at least I do. I’m taking the necessary steps to ensure that. The music’s really good so far. It’s almost done. We’re just making sure that these last couple of songs are together, making sure that everybody’s happy from my side, the label’s side. We decided to take our time with it as opposed to rushing it. It’s almost ready.
IC: Are there any collaborations with musicians on that album?
BS: The GOOD Music family will of course be on there. From Common to Pusha, etc. You’ve got people like Nas on there. You’ve got new new artists like Jhene Aiko, who’s like a rising star. She’s on Def Jam 2. She’s new, but she’s gonna be huge. Miguel’s on there. Great features. There’s a couple more than that, but there are people who accent and add to it. I’m excited for people to hear it very soon.
IC: I heard you were nominated for two Grammys with the GOOD Music family?
BS: Even though we didn’t win, I truly felt like a winner anyway. I had my mom and dad there. We were just smiling the whole day. Fun times.
IC: Just to wrap it up, I’d like to get a play list of some your favorite songs that you’re listening to right now.
BS: I can’t even narrow it down to ten. So many different things. Rap, alternative…I’ve been listening to a lot of the radio recently. Just vibin’ out and seeing what’s on there. For a while I was listening to my iPod and stuff I had, but I want to listen to just more and more, and see what people are offering. Fun. was an awesome group. Miguel. Frank Ocean. Whiz Khalifa. The Black Keys is jammin’ too.
Photography and interview by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine
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