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Big Sean — the latest addition to Kanye West's G.O.O.D. (Getting Out Our Dreams) Music record label — has always had skill. But he insists that the people who pushed him to take music seriously are just as important; without them, he claims, he may not have pursued a career in music.
"They're the ones who gave me the passion for it," says 20-year-old Detroit rapper Big Sean (born Sean Michael Leonard Anderson).
A guy who mentored kids in Anderson's westside Detroit neighborhood, Sean Menisee, befriended the then 12-year-old Anderson after noticing his knack for stringing words together. He convinced Sean to join the Young Boys, a local rap group formed by two of Menisee's younger cousins.
After recording both group and solo songs as a pre-teen, young Sean's time with the combo dwindled when he began high school; the rest of the crew was still in junior high. His music resumed, however, when a uni-monikered rapper called Pat (aka Patrick Williams) — a junior-high acquaintance who grew closer to the artist when they were both attending Cass Technical High School — ran an idea by him.
"He's like, 'Man, you're dope. I'm dope. Let's make a group!'" Sean says. "I was like, 'All right, let's do it!'"
The newly formed duo — named S.O.S., an acronym for Sons of the Streets — would continue to record in Menisee's studio, completing an album that they distributed throughout Cass Tech. They would later compete to appear on 105.9-FM on Friday Cipher, a weekly radio show that allowed aspiring rappers to compete off-air to earn time to perform on the air.
After winning the pre-show battle several weeks in a row, Sean and Pat became regulars at the station, holding down their spot on the show for nearly a year.
"[People at school] would all listen to the radio, just to listen to me and Pat," Sean recalls. "We felt like stars. And I was addicted to the attention. So that's when I knew, 'Man, I want to be a rapper.' This is what I love to do. I love to perform. I love to get props. And I love to make music."
That relationship with the radio station would directly link to Sean's big break. During summer 2005, Sean was at a Detroit bank, cashing a check from his telemarketing job, when a friend called him on his cell to see if he was listening to Kanye West on 102.7. The friend believed that if West got a chance to hear Sean — whose charismatic flow and playful voice shifts are actually comparable to the Chicago producer-superstar — he'd offer Sean a record deal. So he reluctantly left the line at the bank.
"When I got to the crib to grab a CD and go down to the radio station, man, I honestly didn't even feel like going down there anymore," Sean says. But another one of Sean's friends had already talked to the friend who originally urged the aspiring artist to approach West ... and he came to Sean's house to take him to the station. Sean protested, but his friend persisted, even offering Sean $20 to go to the station. "I was broke, because I didn't even cash my check that day," Sean laughs. "So I'm like, 'Alright, cool. Let's go!'"
Upon arriving at the station, the desk receptionists recognized Sean from his earlier on-air triumphs and admitted the pair to the studio area. After greeting the DJs, Sean walked toward the room that West was in, where he began talking to the star's manager, Don C. Sean handed his CD to the heavyweight, but after seeing him put the CD in a pile where it was sure to collect dust, Sean decided to wait for West outside of the room instead. When West finally emerged, Sean pleaded with him to listen to his lyrics. West finally said he'd listen to a 16-bar as he was walking out of the station. Sean obliged, and he was still rapping when they reached the exit. A crowd immediately surrounded the pair, and Sean, of course, absolutely thrived under the pressure.
"I remember Kanye looking at my face while I was rapping, and I got so nervous, I just started looking at the ground," he recalls. "I'm thinking, 'Man, don't mess up!' And I spit every rap I could remember that was good."
After the crowd applauded Sean's performance, West gave the recent high-school grad kudos and invited him to his album's listening party, which was taking place an hour later. During the Q&A session at the event, Sean asked West if he was looking for acts to sign to his new label. West said no, but did acknowledge Sean's skills to the audience. Afterward, he told Sean that he'd try to help the young emcee in any way he could.
Months went by, however, and Sean never heard from West's camp. He and Pat were working with a different major label (which he elects not to name) by this point. The situation with that label eventually went awry, leaving the duo with emptied pockets, expired energy and new tracks. Fate intervened one weekend, though, when a Def Jam exec called Sean and told him that Don C. was interested in signing the duo. Phone calls were exchanged; meetings were conducted ... and Sean was eventually offered a deal with G.O.O.D. Music — a solo deal that excluded his partner-in-rhyme, Pat.
"Pat is one of my favorite emcees, still," Sean says. "He was always just so much better than me. But ... I was really spitting my heart out on these new tracks. The idea of us getting signed as a group was still fresh in our mind, though, so when we found out they wanted to split us up, Pat was real hurt. But we had an agreement early on that if one of us gets on, it'll be that much easier for the other one to get on later."
Big Sean had earned scholarships to attend Michigan State University that fall of '06, but after Kanye talked to him and his mother, he decided to bypass his enrollment to focus on music. He spent the next two years making music with his new production team, WRIGHTRAX (which would also eventually sign to G.O.O.D.), and he officially signed to the label in August last year.
Since then, things have fallen into place quite nicely: He signed a joint deal with Def Jam (home of such multiplatinum sellers as DMX and Jay-Z and others) this past February and followed up by performing with N.E.R.D. in Tokyo and Hong Kong. He also enlisted the management skills of Mike "Blue" Williams, who's guided the careers of OutKast and Nas, among others. He recently shot a music video for his first single, "Getcha Some," with Hype Williams, the universal go-to director who's worked with the likes of Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious B.I.G. and R. Kelly. The video premieres this month, with his debut album — which Sean says is 95 percent complete — set to hit stores in January of 2009.
"I just feel like everything is going well," Sean beams. "I'm still under 21. Everything comes in due time. I realize that, so I'm just happy. After all, what young rapper wouldn't want to be sign to the biggest artist in the world at Def Jam?"
William E. Ketchum III writes for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.