Happy 25th Anniversary to Big Mike’s debut solo album Somethin’ Serious, originally released June 28, 1994.
I disregarded southern rap for a long time on the assumption that it wasn’t the kind of hip-hop I enjoy. To a degree my assumption was correct, but when I finally dove in, I realized it shares the same hallmarks I love about west coast gangster rap. I’d never ignored the Geto Boys, but a lot of other music had passed me by until around 1996 or 1997, when a flood of garish adverts began to dominate pages of The Source.
The magazine, once the bible of hip-hop, was now full of marketing material for albums by artists nobody had heard of beyond their regional southern markets. It hadn’t been long since André 3000 had famously stated that “the south has something to say,” incidentally at the Source Awards in 1995. But OutKast aside, if you looked solely at the artwork of these albums, you might have assumed that the south wasn’t saying much at all. All of them had cheesy, lurid Pen & Pixel covers that soon become synonymous with labels like No Limit Records and early Cash Money Records. Other southern labels like Suave House and Rap-A-Lot had album covers slightly less awful, but still pretty bad.
I’m a big fan of movies so-bad-they-are-good though, so I went and checked some of these albums out at the time. As it turned out, the albums released by No Limit were as bad as their artwork augured, but some of the output from other labels was pretty good, especially Rap-A-Lot.
In retrospect, I should have guessed that records put out by the home of the Geto Boys would demand a certain level of quality. I subsequently revisited the Geto Boys’ catalog and branched out from there, discovering great albums by artists like the 5th Ward Boyz and Convicts, the latter of which Michael “Big Mike” Barnett was a member. Having already been around the Houston rap scene for many years, and even a drafted-in member of the Geto Boys for 1992’s Till Death Do Us Part, Big Mike released his Rap-A-Lot solo debut Somethin’ Serious in June 1994.
Somethin’ Serious is understandably very much like a Geto Boys album, following a similar format but thankfully with less of the horrorcore imagery favored by the late Bushwick Bill or fellow Rap-A-Lot artist Ganksta N.I.P. And like the best verses from Scarface and Willie D, Big Mike is skilled at telling brutally honest stories about growing up poor and desperate, especially on tracks like the reflective “World Of Mine.” Big Mike also delivers a decent love song of sorts with “Ghetto Love,” albeit an extremely hardcore love song. Any positive sentiments towards the women in his life delivered on “Ghetto Love” are later undone on joints like “On da Real” and “Playa,” but at least his heart was in the right place for one song.
Other standouts include the Scarface collaboration “Daddy’s Gone,” where Big Mike and Face tackle the systematic problem of men in poverty abandoning their children. Big Mike’s lyrics are powerful, but it’s left to Scarface to hit the nail on the head with one devastating line: “So here it is, brothers / If you gon' have babies, you need to father them muthafuckas.”
Somethin’ Serious also features tracks with both members of the iconic southern rap group UGK—Bun B on “On Da 1” and the late Pimp C on “Havin’ Thangs,” which he also produces. Meanwhile, “Fire” finds Big Mike reuniting with 3-2, his partner from the Convicts. 3-2 was tragically and fatally shot in 2016, becoming yet another member of Houston’s infamous Screwed Up Click to die young.
Among those producing tracks for Somethin’ Serious is Mike Dean. Best known today for working with Kanye West, Beyoncé and Travis Scott, he spent the ‘90s developing a classic southern rap style across albums for many different artists. He only contributes one track on Somethin’ Serious (“Creepin’ – Rollin’”), but his influence is heard throughout. The rest of the album also includes several tracks produced by N.O. Joe, whose career trajectory has gone in a similar direction to Mike Dean’s since Somethin’ Serious.
There is still a lot of smugness about southern rap, with many reluctant to award “classic” status to albums that didn’t derive from either the east or west coast. Even the term “southern rap” itself is lazy and way too broad, grouping together a wide spectrum of different styles from many different states and cities, each with their own nuances and vibes. Big Mike’s Somethin’ Serious is not a classic, but it is a very good album and representative of the local gangster rap scene in Houston that still thrives today.