Big Sean has been patiently waiting for his chance to live up to his name. The Detroit native has already made career-related leap and bounds joining the G.O.O.D. Music family in '07 after impressing Kanye with a freestyle at a local radio station and landing a spot on Def Jam's roster the following year. But it wasn't until last year that his rhyming skills began earning him the proper praise he deserved. Sean's been cranking out impressive cuts like "Supa Dupa" for himself while owning other people's songs with his 16's, like on Chip Tha Ripper's "Fat Raps"
He's slowly but surely winning over those who've taken the time to listen to his material, chock-ful of braggadocios bars and witty punch lines. His addition to XXL's "Freshman 10" last month is the latest accolade the young man has accumulated. Complex had a chance to chop it up with the jovial 22-year-old at the Def Jam offices about everything from the origin of his nickname to what keeps him motivated on a daily basis to what's going on with his highly anticipated debut.
LISTEN: Big Sean Songs You Should Know:
Big Sean "Getcha Some"
Big Sean "Bullshittin'"
Big Sean "Supa Dupa Lemonade"
Chip Tha Ripper Feat. Curren$y and Big Sean "Fat Raps"
Interview by Modele "Modi" Oyewole
Complex: What did you grow up on as far as music and culture, and what was your childhood like?
Big Sean: Well, I'm from Detroit, and I grew up in the hood, man. The west side of Detroit, between 6th and 7th mile. It was straight hood, you know... drug dealers, people getting killed, all that. The thing was, at a young age, my mom and my grandma always tried to keep me out of the streets as much as they could, so they put me in a private school when I was super young. It was crazy, because I'd go to this private school where it was like a lot of rich kids, and a lot of different cultures like white, black, Asian, and then I'd go home every day to the 'hood. It gave me a good sense of the world and great balance. I think that was one of the biggest influences because the private school I went to was a very artistic school. They made us write our own poetry, so we had to do a poem in the morning, the middle of the day, and before we left. We had to write it all ourselves, so that gave me a good love for poetry. Then I started getting into music when I was in the 7th grade. From there, that's just where the music started. I was horrible at the time, of course. [Laughs.] My mom was having a hard time as far as jobs, and my grandpa had passed around that time, and that's when I really started getting into music emotionally.
Complex: How'd you come up with your name?
Big Sean: Well obviously, I'm not that big, physically. I'm just big where it counts man — I got a big heart! [Laughs.] Nah, I got it from my mentor when I was around that age [12, 13], I was super young, and in our neighborhood, there was this guy Sean Menifee who took a couple of kids in from our neighborhood. He was a guy who knew how to record music and made beats, so he was looking for kids to keep them out of trouble, keep them productive, and trying to find the big thing. Anybody who had talent. So I hooked up with him through a couple of my friends and we joined a group. His name was Sean, and my name was Sean. So he called me Big Sean, I called him Lil Sean, just to be an asshole and be funny, and it stuck with me. Notorious B.I.G. was one of my favorites. I started getting into hip-hop around the Bad Boy era. I'm 22, so that was one of the first hip-hop eras I really got into. Plus, everything I wanted to do was big. I feel like my music is big, the mark I'ma leave in this world is big, so I feel like that's the perfect name.
Complex: You finished high school, right?
Big Sean: Yep, graduated.
Complex: When you graduated, was music the only path you wanted to take?
Big Sean: Oh hell nah. Man, I graduated high school with a 3.7. I went to like the smartest high school in the D. I had damn near a full ride to Michigan State University, so that's where I was gonna go. I met Kanye my senior year in high school. He was going though a lot of things with G.O.O.D. music as a label, and he had found me in Detroit. I got a chance to rap for him, and that's how we started keeping in contact. He would send beats back and forth, and I'd jump on them. When he had revealed that he wanted to sign me my senior year in high school, it was kinda like, "Man, I wanna sign you, but I can't because my label's going through so much right now." So I was on my way to college, and I was going to Michigan State. It was a few weeks until the first class, and then Kanye called and was like, "Man, we ready to just get this started." He actually called my mom, too. He was talking to me, telling me, "I'm not trying to say you shouldn't go to school, but if you're trying to do this music thing and this school thing, you're either gonna suffer and lack in one, or you're gonna just run yourself down." He put no pressure on me, and was like like, "It's your choice ultimately." So uh, I decided to take a record deal with Kanye West. [Laughs.]
The thing is, I come from a family of scholars; my mom is an English teacher, she got her Master's from U of Michigan, my grandma's the same way. Grandpa, dad, everybody went to college. It was a big thing when I didn't go to school, but my mom related to me the most, because she had a similar story of her own. She was an actress. She used to be in acting classes with Denzel. She was really good. She ended up getting a whole bunch of commercials, and then it led to movie roles. Then when she had me, and she already had my older brother, After she moved to Hollywood, and my dad was fucking around, and he wasn't there all the time, so she had to give acting up and fell back on her degree and started teaching. Acting is a grind, just like music is a grind. Sometimes it takes longer than what you can give. She gave up her dream so she could be more stable and steady with us at that time. So she really related when my dream came around. She was the one who pushed for me the most, and told me "Baby, you can always go back to school. It's always there."
Complex: That's deep. So if you took an alternate path and weren't rapping, what do you think you'd be doing right now?
Big Sean: I'd probably be getting ready to graduate from school, not really knowing what I would be about to do in life, although it would probably be something in the entertainment field, on the business side of things, behind the scenes somehow. Maybe something to do with advertising? Marketing? But you never know, man. It's hard to even imagine what I'd be doing. It would be something productive though. [Laughs.]
Complex: On the UKNOWBIGSEAN mixtape, Pharrell talked about how you were pretty timid in the studio before you guys got acquainted, but impressed him with your presence on the track. Are people pleasantly surprised when they meet you?
Big Sean: I'm really the most humble, nice person. [Laughs.] My grandma always told me, "Boy, you better act right, because just as fast as you get something, you can lose it twice as fast." Plus, nobody likes a fucking asshole. That's the worst shit ever. The boastfulness on my raps is just confidence, it's not necessarily asshole-ish, I'm not trying to be... well, I feel like you should be confident in whatever you do, and a lot of my new music [that's coming out] I want people to judge more so than the music I've put out recently, because I feel like it's really changed a lot. I just always stay honest with myself. All my stuff isn't boastful, but some of it is. But that's just the music, the art. When Kobe go on the court, he'll talk all the shit he want, but when he's in person, he may be a nice guy, you know?
Complex: Definitely. Speaking a bit more on Pharrell, I remember you had some YouTube videos out of you in the studio with P, and how a friend of yours named his kid after the super producer.
Big Sean: Oh yeah, my boy A-Dub named his son after him.
Complex: That's a pretty huge statement.
Big Sean: Yeah, definitely.
Complex: Were you a fan of P's production before you got in the studio with him?
Big Sean: Oh hell yeah! The thing was, I met Pharrell when we were in Japan. Kanye took me to Japan with him right when I signed to Def Jam for the Bathing Ape World Tour that they do over there, so it was N*E*R*D, Kanye, Teriyaki Boyz, Nigo, those guys. I absolutely love BAPE and BBC, so I was excited. I never met Pharrell, Nigo, or none of those guys. So I remember the first time I met them, and I was nervous. P didn't know who I was at all, but he was like, "What's up, what's good," and the next day after the first show, there was a BAPE photo shoot for their lookbook. Kanye was talking to Nigo and was like "Man, you should let my new artist Big Sean take some pictures." Nigo heard some of my music because Kanye started playing some of my music, and he was like, "Yeah, I fuck with it. Let's do it," so I was in the BAPE lookbook. Pharrell was there too, and Pharrell was talking to Kanye like "Man, who is that kid, what's up with him?" [Laughs.] Kanye was like, "Aww, nigga, he a BEAST!" He was like, "Aight, Nigo, Teriyaki Boyz, come here. Everybody come in the huddle!" I was like, "What the fuck is he doing?" He's like, "Spit that shit! Don't spit no wack shit!" [Laughs.] So I spit my heart out. Pharrell was really into it, and then he started listening to the music because we were playing it there, and he was like, "Man, I wanna work with you on your album! Let me get down with you." I used to ride to school listening to these guys, so it's a dream come true.
Complex: I hear that. Explain what happened in Chicago a few weeks ago at your concert. I caught some footage of Chicago personality Hustle Simmons body slamming a guy off the stage at a show because he disrespected your set.
Big Sean: Man, it was crazy! The thing was, that Chicago show, I didn't realize it was gonna be that big and that major. It was like 1200, 1300 people in there. They've never had it that packed before, and I'm like, "I wonder if everybody came to see me," because there were other people opening up too. I came out after like 15 opening acts, and motherfuckers were going crazy. We started rocking, and everything was going great, and then all of a sudden, while I'm talking to the crowd, a dude comes out of nowhere. I don't even know how the hell he got back there. He tapped me, and I thought it was somebody from Chicago being like, "Yo man, this dude Big Sean is putting on, he's doing a good job!" [Laughs.] He's like, "Ey, let me see that mic real quick," so I give it to him, and then he's like, "Man, FUCK Chicago! I just wanna say fuck everybody in this motherfucker! They ain't let me perform, I paid to perform in this motherfucker, and they didn't even let me perform, so fuck everybody in this bitch!" and threw the mic off stage.
I was about to punch him, 'cause it's like, you interrupt me and disrespect my show, I'm bout to fuck you up. I'm from Detroit. And then my man Hustle Simmons, before I got to him, came running out of nowhere and tackled him off this tall ass stage. Everybody started stomping the dude, and trying to beat him up, but the security helped him out and took him outta there. It was a wild show, man. They tried to shut the club down, and people were pissed off, so I came back out and was like, "Fuck that shit!" my DJ was still hooked up to the sound system, so I was like [to my DJ], "Mo Beatz, you still hooked up?!" So we dropped "Supa Dupa Lemonade", and motherfuckers started going nuts. It was one of the best shows I've ever had in my life.
Complex: That's a lot of love right there. Switching topics a bit, I've noticed that in the past there's been a bunch of delays regarding your stuff, from videos to mixtapes...
Big Sean: Oh yeah, the "Getcha Some" video took like a year and a half to come out, and when it came out I was pissed off because I don't even like the song anymore. I've grown as an artist so much that I'm like, "I don't even wanna see this shit." My style has changed more, my clothes, but I understand that it's all politics. Def Jam is a great label and I've just learned certain things you gotta do to get all your shit in order. It's nobody's fault, it's just the way it happens. That's what it is with that. You live and you learn, man. I've learned you can't wait on anybody. You have to raise your awareness yourself, because then they're gonna jump on anyway. Whoever, your label, your people, they're gonna recognize the difference from when they go to your show and everybody's just staring at you, and they go to your show and motherfuckers is saying the words and getting hype for you. They see that, and I've been working harder than anybody. It's just perfect timing man, with the XXL cover thing, people over at Complex showing me love, all these magazines, MTV and BET, I can't even tell when I'm sleep no more. [Laughs.]
Complex: What's it like being mentored and co-signed by Kanye?
Big Sean: Working with Kanye is one of the greatest things ever. It's also one of the most nerve-wracking things ever. He's like the most critical, particular, artistic person ever. But man, without him, I wouldn't be shit. I recognize that he's one of my greatest mentors musically, and I love him for everything he's done for me. It's unbelievable, man. He shows you different methods of music. He always tries to re-invent, make new things and trends all the time, so getting the co-sign from him was one of the biggest things that could ever happen to me. People are gonna see all the growth from my mixtapes to my next mixtape and album. Kanye had a lot to do with that, as did NO I.D. and Pharrell.
Complex: In his recent stand-up special, comedian Aziz Ansari poked a little fun at 'Ye in one of his bits. Is he a comical guy that you can joke with?
Big Sean: Kanye is super comical. He has a very good sense of humor. That whole South Park episode stuff, he laughs at stuff like that.
Complex: So you're never scared of offending him?
Big Sean: Nah, nah. Especially if he knows your intentions aren't like that. I feel like with anyone, there's a soft spot, but he can take a joke.
Complex: What's the collaboration process like with the G.O.O.D. Music team? How does it work when you guys are all working on stuff together, as far as bouncing ideas around?
Big Sean: I mean, there's been times where we've all been in the studio together. I remember we had a session in New York where it was me, Kanye, Consequence, and even some other people there like Drake, we were all working on some stuff, so sometimes it's a collaborative effort, sometimes we'll branch out by ourselves and work on music. We could even be working on the same stuff, but sometimes we'll be by ourselves. People like Common may fall through and we'll work on stuff together. It's definitely a group thing and a solo thing as well. It all depends on people's schedules, what we're working on, and where we're at.
Complex: So let's say you go to the studio and you crank out something crazy. How hard is it to have to hold on to that heat and stash it away until the right moment comes along? I feel like if I was an artist, I'd want people to hear the new material as soon as it's finished.
Big Sean: Oh, definitely. As an artist, that's one of the toughest things to do. Sometimes when you make good stuff and you love it, it gets outdated sometimes, because you've held on to it so long, you may not like it like you used to. The bright side of it is that you know you're holding on to it for a reason, and you know that you're holding on to it so you can put it out right, or so it can be better; whatever the case may be. It's all for the better. You don't wanna put something out and then be mad at how things turned out because you didn't plan right. Proper planning prevents... what is it?
Complex: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. The 5 P's.
Big Sean: Yeah, that. [Laughs.] Planning is always good. But yeah, it's definitely irritating having to hold on to stuff, but it's even that much sweeter when you put it out.
Complex: What's the next mixtape, and when is that dropping?
Big Sean: Well the thing is about that... [Laughs.] I was supposed to drop this next mixtape. I was gonna call it Finally Famous, Vol. 3: B.I.G. and the thing is, my album is way more important than that shit. We're really just more focused on that, getting all that together. I'm definitely gonna finish that mixtape, though. It's crazy, because a lot of the great mixtape records we were like, "Hey, why don't we use these for the album?" I just don't want the mixtape to conflict with my album at all. More importantly than my mixtape is that we got singles coming out on the radio, and I think that's where a lot of my believers, I don't call my people fans, I call them believers, because they go above and beyond, I think that's what they're really waiting on. They wanna hear some shit on the radio. That's the most important goal. This album and that radio stuff, but the mixtape is definitely coming, I haven't forgot about it. Very soon.
Complex: Cool. Do you have an album release date?
Big Sean: I was actually discussing that today. I was talking to LA Reid and it's definitely this year, we just gotta discuss when. We gotta put these singles out like now. It's that time I feel like.
Complex: I know you guys have been out in Hawaii recording recently. What has that whole situation been like? The creative process, is there a name for an album? What can you tell us?
Big Sean: Hmm... [Laughs.] Hawaii is beautiful, I'll tell you that. That's all I'm gonna say.
Complex: How far along is the album?
Big Sean: It's like 89% done. As of now, it's called Finally Famous: The Album. I might put a subtitle with it, because I wanted to make it a series, but we'll see. And I'm calling it Finally Famous not just because a nigga got on, it's more like, when you're famous, you're recognized for doing something great. I put "finally" in front of it just to symbolize what we've been working so hard for. It's kind of like a lifestyle, because that can relate to everybody. People in college, if you're getting recognized for getting good grades, you're finally famous. If you get recognized for playing the drums, if you're being recognized for making good ass beats, good ass raps, good ass interviews like this one, you're finally famous. I think it's something that's very relatable and easy. I just love it.
Complex: Awesome. So as far as contributors to the album, you've named a bunch of people earlier. Are these confirmed for your album cuts?
Big Sean: Yeah, Drake for sure, just talked to him a week ago about our record. Rick Ross, Pusha T, Mr. Hudson... oh and by the way, the version of "Way Out" that leaked is not the album version. I wanna make sure people know that. As far as producers are concerned, NO I.D. did a lot, Kanye did a couple, Pharrell did one, producers like WrighTrax did a couple, The Olympicks, Filthy Rockwell, who did stuff for Slaughterhouse and Royce, it's a great variety, and it comes together so beautifully. It sounds like one producer did the whole thing, how it meshes so well.
Complex: What motivates and inspires you to keep on going?
Big Sean: My mom keeps me going, man. She deserves such a good life. I just wanna give it to her. My dad too. My family, my friends, they keep me motivated. Just knowing my personal legend, just knowing what I'm supposed to do, that keeps me going. Another thing that keeps me going is people like Kanye, uh, what he gets a show? If you knew how much he gets a show? Like hundreds of thousands of thousands, a show? Just to perform on stage and do the songs you love?! That keeps me going all the time. [Laughs.] I heard drake gets $75,000 a show, and he ain't even got an album out. I was like, "Shit!" That keeps me going for sure. I'll be in the studio until nine in the morning, falling asleep, and then think about that, and be like, "Man, we gotta get this shit done!" [Laughs.] So yeah, that's a big motivation. A better life, basically, is the motivation.