After years of waiting, Big Sean is finally famous. He recently dropped his debut album, Finally Famous: The Album, which had a Top 5 debut on the Billboard charts and spawned hits like the Chris Brown-assisted “My Last” and the infectious “I Do It.” However, that doesn’t mean it was an easy road to stardom. It turns out, things weren’t always all Marvin & Chardonnay.
We got down with Sean for our August/September issue (which features Aziz Ansari and Beyoncé on the covers) and asked him about how he made it to the top. We talked to him about getting credit for the Supa Dupa flow, how nerve racking it is to work with Kanye West, and who inspires his fashion style.
Interview by Andre Grant (@drejones)
An abridged version of this feature appears in Complex's August/September 2011 issue.
I hear you started rhyming at the age of 11 because of the school you went to?
Yeah man. That school was weird. It was the Detroit Waldorf school. There’s some everywhere. There’s one in New York. I even saw one in Hawaii. First of all, you had to make all your text books. They would give you the information, but they would make you write all the information down and draw pictures along with it. It was a dope ass way of learning man. You really had to learn it because you had to write it and draw pictures along with it.
We took German and Spanish from kindergarten to eighth grade. We had to play three different instruments. Every morning we would come in and do a morning verse, which is like a poem. And then we would have to do our own poem we made up. We had to write our own poetry all the time. It was a heavily artistic school.
I can draw pretty good too, but I never really got into it. And, obviously, I forgot a lot of the German and Spanish that I learned. But one thing that sticks with me was the poetry and being able to rhyme very easily and be clever. I was exposed to that at a young age not even knowing what it was doing to me.
What was your first rhyme for?
When I was eleven there was a song I had with this group I was in called the Young Boys. We did this whole abstinence thing where I was writing about no sex and no drugs. A lot of people were clowning me for it, but it was just some shit that I did when I was young. This is before I had sex and smoked weed. People be like, “Man when you were 12 years old you were rapping about not having sex and not smoking weed.” That’s cause I wasn’t having sex and smoking!
And probably five years from now my raps might be super fucking serious because that’s where I’ll be in my life. It just all depends on what you were going through. [I was going through] very positive stuff like that and I was just having fun as a kid. Of course, that changed though. [Laughs.]
That school is outside of the hood right?
Yeah, I went to a school that wasn’t in the hood and I would come home to a hood everyday so it was a hell of a fucking process. I would get to see a different side of Detroit. I would go to school and have best friends that were Jewish and Indian.
I had friends who had money and I would come home and have best friends that were broke as shit. It taught me about all the different spectrums of Detroit. It taught me how to act when in certain places. It teaches you how corrupt sometimes the city can be. I learned that a lot of racism was still alive even when I was little.
Did you specifically go through a racist situation?
Yeah man. Kids that I went to school with didn’t know how to interact with black people like that. There were only like three or four black kids in the class. And people would be saying “nigger” and dumb shit like that. I been through all that shit, but it teaches you so much especially in my music. I feel like I’m able to relate to all races of people because when you learn to tap into the raw emotion of a person, that goes past color.
I know you’re close with your mother. Can you tell me about her?
My mom was a real fucking G. I come from a family of scholars who got their Master’s degrees. To my grandma—and to a lot of people—an education was a way of making it out of the worst parts of their life. And, honestly, now education doesn’t mean the same shit. There’s so many people that go to college and it’s hard to get a job out of college now. Way harder than it was back when college wasn’t as expected. It’s kinda like going to high school almost if you don’t get a Master’s.
My mom graduated from the University of Michigan, which is a great school. Then she got her Master’s from NYU. She wanted to be an actress so when she graduated, she had a dream and she started following it. She moved to New York and took acting classes with people like Denzel Washington. Denzel would be tell my mom, “Damn, you’re so fucking good.”
She started doing commercials. She did a ton of A1 commercials and she started getting paid like $10,000 checks. She was doing what she loved, but of course she met my dad and had my older brother which slowed her down a lot. And then she moved to L.A. She was trying to pick back up on it to do movies. She was getting a lot of calls.
Then she got pregnant again with me. She almost didn’t have me, but she decided to have me. She [slowed down with] the acting. She fell back on her degree and became a teacher. But she had a dream and she never really got to execute it. So when it was my turn for my shit to come around, she was more than supportive. She was like, “You gotta do it!” I love her for that because if it wasn’t for her I probably would’ve gave up, honestly.
Not even to sound weak-minded or nothing but shit, it’s not easy sometimes. She really kept me going. There were times were I fucking broke down and cried and shit because I couldn’t take it. But she was always there to build me back up. She would tell me to be strong. She would dust my shit off and [tell me to] get right back to it. [That’s why] she’s the most important thing to me in my life, period.