Exclusive: Big Sean recalls turning down a scholarship to sign with G.O.O.D. Music and shares plans to build his own dynasty soon.
Big Sean has the sort of outright likeability that allows him to get away with pretty much anything. His content can be materialistic and sometimes—by his own admission—raunchy. It’s all done with a slick, Cheshire cat grin, and it works in part because it’s powered by a palpable authenticity rarely seen from an artist with his level of mainstream success. One minute he’s telling women, “Make that mothafucka hammer time,” and the next he’s preaching the power of positivity through actualization. It’s almost as if someone stuck Tony Robbins inside the most ratchet strip club with a stack of ones, a microphone and a mission to help you be your best possible self.
But don’t let the peaceful vibe mislead you. He’s heavily influenced by Detroit’s culture—from name-checking the city’s streets like colors on the rainbow, to pronouncing himself a “Detroit Player” with the hardest vocal inflection on the letter R this side of Too Short. It’s a mentality that has allowed him to deftly avoid beef and participate in the selling of 10 million digital singles while hoping to serve as a source of inspiration for his downtrodden city.
“I’m not just Sean Anderson,” he says. “I’m like a vessel for Detroit, a vessel for people with dreams and a vessel for people who have a lot of things going on and want to be entertained, go out and party.”
Some of that partying will likely happen with his latest album, Hall Of Fame serving as the soundtrack. His Jhene Aiko and Lil Wayne assisted single “Beware” has been on Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” chart for four weeks, and it’s entering the Top 40. He cast Miley Cyrus as the lead in his “Fire” video right before she decided to gyrate atop the Pop culture zeitgeist, and all this comes after some of his best cameo work on “Mercy” and “Clique.”
Now, he’s got bigger aspirations. And if his past success is any indication, he’ll get away with whatever else he puts his mind (and your ass) in motion to do.
Big Sean Details His Progress & Hopes To Inspire With “Hall Of Fame”
HipHopDX: Between “Clique” and “Mercy,” a lot of new fans might have looked at you differently as far as a bar for bar lyricist. Even though it was a year ago, how well do you think holding your own next to Kanye and Jay Z set you up for this album?
Big Sean: It seems like it was a short year, between “Mercy,” “Clique” and the Detroit mixtape up to now. I guess it was a set up, but I’m still in the beginning stages of my career. So I feel like people are just starting to know me. A lot of people might have been like, “Man, this dude’s not for real,” or this or that. But I think those people are starting to come around, and if they’re not they will, because I’m genuine, man. I keep it real with everything I do. I’m from Detroit—one of the most G-est places, where we keep it G. We keep it player, we keep it 100…so I represent that, and I’m a dreamer as well.
Coming from a place like that, the odds are slim to none of even making it out of there and being successful. We always had TV, and we knew it was a possibility to be successful and be lawyers, doctors, rappers or whatever, but just because you know it’s possible doesn’t mean you know it’s real. And a lot of my homies is like, “Man you showed the hood and everybody in Detroit that it’s real.” So I represent that—my city and people who had that dream and that ambition. I’ma keep going, and keep spitting that fire.
DX: That’s my favorite story about you. I was at your event at the London, and you mentioned a similar thing in your acceptance speech about inspiring people. That seemed to be a goal of yours…
Big Sean: Inspiring people is my main goal, man. Whether people can see it or not, I don’t be just saying that for the cameras. On and off-camera, I’m the same person. I’ll be there hugging every person I can, and if there’s one person signing autographs until the end of the night—until they tell me I can’t be there no more—I’m that dude. That’s because I know what it’s like to not be in that position. I know what it’s like to not have people want your picture. I’m never that type to be fake or act like I don’t have time for people. I give it my all in everything I do, and it is what it is. I’m gonna take it to new heights, keep going, pushing the envelope and trying to be creative. I really tried to step it up on this Hall Of Fame—from the “Beware” video, to “Fire” with Miley Cyrus and the album packaging. We tried to do everything on a higher level and still be ourselves…still be cool. So I’m just excited about this project, and I feel like the next one’s gonna be even better. I’m 25-years-old, and I’m livin’.
Big Sean Talks Selling 10 Million Singles
DX: You received a plaque from you label for 10 million singles sold, and you said you were surprised…
Big Sean: Yeah, I didn’t even realize that it was 10 million singles sold, and I also didn’t realize I was getting a plaque right then…or else I probably would’ve given a way better speech [laughs]. I probably would’ve said something way more inspiring and memorable, but it was a spur of the moment thing. I was exhausted, and I had a headache. It was such as surprise, because nobody told be about no plaques or that it was a surprise. They told me it was just a little get together. I don’t know why people like surprising me so much. They surprised me for my birthday, and for every plaque I get…everything is a goddamn surprise. Maybe they just like my reaction, but every time I’m legitimately surprised. They always catch me at a time where I least expect it. They get me when I’m feeling like shit, and it brings my spirits up.
DX: Detroit could use to have their spirits lifted given how bad things are and how fractured the scene sometimes looks to us on the outside. It was a great look for the city when you and Danny Brown squashed whatever situation was going on between you two...
Big Sean: I didn’t understand what he was talking about when he said what he said. I hooked up with him a while ago; we just linked up on the phone or whatever. We were supposed to do some work together, but for some reason it just never got done. And then he said what he said, and I called him like, “Hold up, man. What the hell you talkin’ about?” But we worked it out, and it was a misunderstanding.
I’m probably the most active person in Detroit—from helping out through my foundation to helping out the school age youth in my city and the surrounding cities. I paid for Thanksgiving dinners for families last year and Christmases too. I grew up off Linwood, Northlawn, 6 Mile, 7 Mile, and I don’t even have to say that. People know I went to [Detroit] Cass [Technical High School] and how much I do for the city. I just moved my momma out the hood a few months ago…like straight up out the hood. When I went home to Detroit, that’s where I would go home every time. But it was just a misunderstanding. It’s like when he said, “Damn, you’ve been griding for a long time; I ain’t got nothin’ but respect. You know, it’s sad that it took this for us to talk.” I’m like, “Man…” But we worked it out though, and I got nothing but respect for Danny [Brown]. I’m sure he’s got nothing but respect for me too.
DX: How much of an example do you think it helped set?
Big Sean: I hope it set a great example, because the conclusion we came to and what people in Detroit are realizing is, ain’t no way we’re gonna make it through these tough times if we don’t stick together. It’s a reason Detroit is the only city going bankrupt, that we’re $15.9 billion in debt and all these different issues. It starts with the people coming together more than anything, and that’s something we agreed on. I feel like everybody in the city is starting to realize that, so we’re supporting each other. Hopefully, it’s an example that things shouldn’t really be so divided. It’s not about being soft, gangster, not gangster or whatever. You just gotta protect your brother and have each other’s back, because we all we got.
Why Big Sean Says, “I’m Like A Vessel For Detroit”
DX: You mentioned earlier that you still view yourself as a newer artist. How does that mentality translate to you going in the booth everyday to make Hall Of Fame?
Big Sean: I wanted to make an album that helps set up my foundation as an artist. I always say Hall Of Fame is like a piece to my puzzle as the artist Big Sean. This is the most personal album—from songs about old girlfriends to, songs like “Fire,” songs that tell so many intimate stories fast about my grandma’s wise words and me riding to school with my dad. There’s songs like “First Chain,” with me and Nas, where I discuss how the city needs help and they cut the police department’s hours trying to avoid the big bailout that was slated to happen. They cut the police hours down…it was just crazy, and a lot of madness was going on in the city.
So what I’m saying is, it was all these issues that I had to make sure I addressed because I’m the only black man from Detroit who has a platform to be heard on a level I’m on. And it’s not the highest level, but it’s a level. So I had to make sure I represented for that too, and I had to make sure I wasn’t being selfish on this album. I had to make sure I wasn’t like, “Yo, this is a Rap contest! Let me make sure I rap better than y’all mothafuckas,” on every song. I have to make sure I represent people, because I’m a vessel.
I’m not just Sean Anderson, I’m like a vessel for Detroit, a vessel for people with dreams and a vessel for people who have a lot of things going on and want to be entertained, go out and party. I made sure I addressed every aspect of that with my music, and it shows. There are some songs that really mean something on this album, and there’s some songs that are just raunchy as hell and fun. Those will make you laugh and hopefully bring your spirits up as well, and everything I do is out of a positive place. And I think you’ll get the vibe of that on this album. It’s great, quality music.
DX: The way you talk about balancing the personal as well as socio-political aspects and doing what you can to lift up your city sounds like Kanye’s Late Registration…
Big Sean: Yeah, if you can compare Hall Of Fame to Late Registration, that’s a great comparison. That’s somebody that I look up to, and it’s one of my favorite albums of all time. I feel like I don’t compare Hall Of Fame to anything. It’s just me, but I looked up to people like Kanye, and I looked up to College Dropout and Late Registration. “Last Call” was what got me through some of my toughest times ever. All Kanye’s albums were like that, and he’s definitely a big influence on me. He taught me a lot, and he was the one who gave me the beat for “Fire.” He was like, “Yo, you need to rap on this; this is like Big Sean. That sounds like classic Big Sean.” He was the one giving me a lot of advice on this album, and he had his hand in this album from afar. He was always asking me to hear stuff, [and giving me feedback] like, “Yeah, I like this,” but still letting me do my own thing. And I appreciate that.
People ask me why Kanye isn’t on the album, and it’s because when I signed with Kanye we had songs together, but I don’t need Kanye on every single song. Me and Kanye got five songs together, man. We got “Marvin Gaye And Chardonnay,” “Mercy,” “Don’t Like” and all these different songs. I wanted to take the focus off of Big Sean being hot because he’s always on songs with the biggest rappers. Big Sean is hot because he’s someone who can make great music…someone that you can like as an artist. So I kept the focus on myself more than anything, and I’m excited about it.
DX: It’s always harder to appease the mixtape set once you start making retail albums. How close are you to mixtape Sean and album Sean being one in the same?
Big Sean: I feel like I did a good job of balancing album Sean and mixtape Sean. I just feel like the mixtape Sean is rapping with and without a cause. I’m rapping, but sometimes I’m just going off and rapping about nothing. People obviously might love that more than me talking about a subject, but it’s all opinionated and it’s all me. So my response when people say, “I like mixtape Sean more than album Sean,” I’ll be like, “Mothafucka, bang both of them bitches! It’s not like I didn’t make it [laughs].” Shit, bang Detroit with Hall Of Fame—that’s what I’ma do. I feel like it should never be a thing where you say, “I [only] like his mixtapes.” It’s all different, and like I said, it all adds to the puzzle of me and my artistry.
There’s definitely a difference. With my album, I feel like I have more to say. I feel like I want to address things and go on record with this, whereas sometimes mixtapes get lost. Some fans might remember it, but it kind of fades away sometimes, and albums are there forever. That’s the difference to me, but you’ll get more mixtapes and albums.
Big Sean Reflects On Battle Rap & Skipping College To Pursue Music
DX: We were watching a video of you battle rapping…
Big Sean: Back in the day?
DX: Yeah the one from high school.
Big Sean: I hate battle rapping, man. I was battle rapping back in the day because I had to…just trying to make a name for myself back in The D. But I hate battle rapping, man. I hate it because my voice isn’t intense like a Meek Mill or a Kendrick. They can go real aggressive with the yelling and shit. My voice isn’t like that, because I got a smooth-ass, player voice. So I hated doing that, but I did it. And I always had to compromise on having good raps and lyrics as opposed to being so dramatic when I used to battle rap. I’m glad I don’t have to do that no more; I hate that shit, man.
DX: Do you watch it?
Big Sean: Do I watch it? No, I don’t watch it. I don’t like that, but I don’t listen to my old stuff either. Even though I appreciate them, I don’t listen to songs like “Getcha Some” and stuff from my first mixtape. I tried to listen to it, but I just can’t. It’s like [covers ears], “Ah, man.” As an artist, I think a lot of people are like that—we grow and evolve.
DX: As the story goes, you waited outside the radio station for Kanye and you spit 16 bars…
Big Sean: After I rapped for Kanye, it took years to be signed to G.O.O.D. Music. I was going through a lot. I graduated high school, and I canceled my scholarship to Michigan State ‘cause ‘Ye and G.O.O.D. Music was like, “Yo, we’re gonna sign you.” It didn’t happen like that, and I really could’ve went to college for like a year…maybe even two years if I had have known what I know now. But for that year and a half or two that it took for the deal to go through, I was just in my mom’s house off Northlawn in that two-family flat. Day in and day out, I was just making music and hooking up with different producers in the city making music. I was struggling, but it taught me a lot. I didn’t go to school, and I didn’t have a job, so my mom had me just figuring it out as a man. She didn’t help me out too much financially, because she didn’t have a lot of money…we didn’t have a lot of money. I would spend the little money I did get on studio time trying to make it happen.
That taught me a lot about being spiritual and paying attention to omens and different signs. When you do something good from your heart out of instinct—when you get that good feeling and act on it—I learned that’s exactly the right way to be. It showed me that you can manifest anything that you want. You can create your own world. I literally went from listening to my favorite rapper, to meeting him, rapping for him, being signed to him, doing songs with him to him being my friend. And it’s all because I manifested it. I truly, truly believe it’s all because of God. It’s all because of the universe. I’m a total spiritual believer, and you can’t tell me nothing. I could hop off a cliff, and I know that I’ll be alright if God tells me to do it. Straight up. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s how much faith I have in being spiritual, the universe and God.
DX: Have you had that kid come up to you yet and spit 16 bars?
Big Sean: Man, hell yeah! People come up to me all the time spittin’ 16 bars. And I’ll sit and listen too if I can. Sometimes the environment just isn’t right. They’ll be like, “Can I rap for you?” and it’s music going all crazy in the background. I’m like, “I can’t even hear you, man. Just give me your CD.” We listen to them, and we’ve found a couple good artists out there too. Hopefully, I’m getting to the point where I can start rolling out my own dynasty soon. I want to help give other people a platform to be heard and put other artists on. Hopefully, I’ll find an artist that’s better than me at rapping. They can be bigger and better than me and take it further. That’s the whole goal—singers, visual artists, and any type of art that we can make bigger. I’m with it.