The Mask is Off: Mr. Bigg's story by those who knew him best (2024)

Amid a chorus of vehement boos Outkast's Andre 3000 affirmed, "The South got something to say," at the 1995 Source Awardswhile receiving his group's "Best New Artist" trophy. The backdrop was the East Coast versusWest Coast rap feud that pitted New York City's old regime of hip-hop heads against the gangster rap stalwarts of Los Angeles County. With The Notorious B.I.G.'s Bad Boy records and 2Pac's Death Row Inmates at the helm of all of the tension, the crowd at Madison Square Garden's Paramount Theater wasn't much interested what anyone from anywhere else had to say. However, while tragedy took '90s rap's two biggest stars, just a little more than halfway through the decade, the region most known for innovation in American music was getting its words together.

By the 1996 Olympics, Atlanta had freaked their brand of soulful, energetichip-hop into an empire with industry veterans L.A. Reid and Babyface mentoringyoung producers like Organized Noize, Dallas Austin and Jermaine Dupri. Houston's knack for car culture helped nurture slow-rolling driving music perfect for Sunday night strolls. New Orleans' bounce made each city block hot and Miami's booty bumping bass was the standard for strip clubs and beach parties alike. Even the South's periphery hit it big whenVirginia-based production duo Timbaland and Missy Elliott made stars out of Aaliyah and Ginuwine.

"Our biggest obstacle in Mobile is our availability to different resources. We don't have the same things that Houston would have, Atlanta would have - even Memphis," Alabama rapper J. Simon says.

"We were thirsty for our own thing. We wanted it and needed it. We just didn't know how to get it. We're at the very bottom of the totem pole. And we're at the bottom of the map," J. Simon says of the time.

As upstartrap crews popped up in town, they began battling each other for supremacy in the Port City. Many who remember the period say Maysville's the Last Mr. Bigg was the first tostand out from the pack.

"We only had one guy. The reason Bigg was that guy was because he just seized the moment," J. Simon says. "He wanted to be a legend. He wanted to be the first. He wanted to be the only. He wanted to be the captain of the ship and he was our Christopher Columbus."

Bigg, whose real name was Donald Maurice Pears, II, spent most of his formative years growing up in California's San Francisco Bay Area with his mother. He spent his summers with his father in a money green house in the Maysville community of Mobile on the 1800 block of Kibby Street.

Living in the projects of Oakland, San Francisco and Richmond, Pears took to inner city crime at an early age. Prone to trouble at home and school, his teenage years proved to be too much on his mother.

"He was about 15 when momma was like, 'You know what, enough is enough. You gotta go back to your daddy,'" Nneka (pronounced like Nicky) Pears, Pears' sister, says.

"There were things going on that no matter how much my mothersaid, 'Get in the house,' no matter how much she said, 'Stay away from this crowd,' we were in the middle of trouble."

Pears' reputation preceded him once he arrived in Mobile for good. And his infatuation with street crime only festered in new surroundings.

Interestingly, his father, Donald Pears, Sr., enjoyed a tenured career withthe Mobile Police Department.

"(We all asked), 'How in the hell, do you do this when this is your dad? Your dad is someone who is really looked up to in the community.' But he had his own way of living and his own way of thinking," Nneka Pears says. "No matter what my daddy said to him, no matter how many whoopings he got, Maurice had his own mind. Maurice wanted to do what he wanted to do. And he did it."

Becoming Bigg

Pears' love for music and performance blossomed in the late 1980s when he began DJing at local talent shows at clubs like Solid Gold, Galaxy and Hi-Five in Moss Point, Miss.

The Mask is Off: Mr. Bigg's story by those who knew him best (1)

Longtime radio personality DJ Rodski first met Pears when he didn't have a stage name to complement his raw talent.

"He was just Maurice, then," Rodski says. "This dude wasan entertainer. He had a glove. He did a little Temptations thing. He was all over the place. The crowd loved it."

Rodski took Pears under his wing, teaching him the DJ trade and helping Pears learn his way around a drum machine.

"When he first started off, people called him,'Big Boy.' But he was never a big guy. He was just tall for his age. It got shortened to just 'Bigg,'" Nneka Pears says.

While burgeoning interests in the entertainment sector might have kept Pears busy, he still made time to facilitate the illicitlifestyle he subscribed to as a juvenile on the West Coast.

"He was pimping. He was selling dope. He was always shooting at somebody. There was always something going on with Bigg in the early days," DJ Dirty Dan says.

Pears' first bout with serious trouble in Mobile came after a mid-90s incident in which he and his friends began shooting guns in the air while partying in Rickarby Park. Pears and his sister came home after the incident. Nneka says she pleaded for her brother to stay inside the house that night. He refused, insisting that he wanted to go and hang out some more.

But Bigg didn't make it back home that night. Instead, he wrapped his car around a pole on Houston Street.

When police made the scene, Pears was charged with offenses related to driving on a suspended license, reckless endangerment, resisting arrest, possession of narcotics and violation of probation. He was imprisoned for three years.

While in jail, he switched his focus from DJingto rapping. Unable to copyright his music, he sent lyrics home and told his family not to open the envelopes he sent, hopinghe could prove he wrote his material while behind bars.

Pearsreturned from prison during the Mardi Gras season in 1998 determined to reintroduce himself to the city of Mobile as a rap star.

"He got out of prison and he started saying he was 'Mr. Bigg,'" Nneka says, "I told him, 'Y'know, we've got too many people calling themselves Mr. Big. We've got Ronald Isley. We've got 8Ball.'"

"He said, 'You know what, sister, you right. I'm The Last Mr. Bigg.'"

DJ Krook, who acted as Pears' manager in the years before his passing, grew up in Maysville seeing, from afar, the larger than life character of the Last Mr. Bigg in its formative stages.

"I remember seeing him after the high school baccalaureate service when everyone goes to Pensacola Beach. He had all his green cars out there. He was a tall dude, but he was sitting down in a little, bitty Corvette. All the rims were on there. It was a like a show that he was putting on."

Taking it to trial

The Mask is Off: Mr. Bigg's story by those who knew him best (2)

After finishing her college finals inNovember 1998, Nneka Pears came home to get ready for a night out on the town with her family and friends. She remembers having an eerie feeling about being home that day.

"We had been noticing a lot of unfamiliar cars coming by. A lot of traffic. So, I was about to leave. Before I could make it to the car, police came out of everywhere in unmarked cars," she says.

"They kept asking, 'Where it's at? Where it's at? We know you the kingpin.' I'm like, 'Who the kingpin?'"

"They said, 'Mr. Bigg, Mr. Bigg, we know you the kingpin.'"

"At this point because, I'm looking at my brother, thinking, 'You're used to this. You're in this sort of stuff of all the time. This could ruin my life.'"

During a search of the Kibby Street home, police found paraphernalia, a marijuana blunt and a remnants of crack cocaine. Police arrested both Nneka and Donald Pears, along with an acquaintance.

The Pears family sorted through what to do about the arrests, deciding that they'd pay Bigg's bond, leaving Nneka to stay in jail overnight.

"When I got out of jail, it was pouring down raining. I was walking up Virginia Street, because I wasn't waiting on nobody to come and get me," Nneka Pears says.

"Someone stopped and said, 'Your brother has been looking all over for you. Come on and get in the car,'" Nneka Pears remembers.

When she got to her brother, he hugged her, telling her that he was sorry for getting her involved with the seedy activity he promised he'd always keep her from.

Later that night, Bigg played Nneka a song he said was inspired by their recent run-in with the law.

"He started rapping, 'Mama, call my lawyer, 'cause it's time to go to trial,'" she says.

Nneka was floored by what she heard.

"He said, 'If that's how they want to play it, I got something for them!'"

Bigg began promoting the song, performing in nightclubs and hitting the road throughout Alabama and surrounding states to put the song in the hands of DJs.

Radio personality Shawty Rock paired Bigg with a representative from New York independent record distributor Warlock Records. "Trial Time" became the lead single to Bigg's debut on the label, 2000's "Only if You Knew."

With the help of Warlock, Bigg's song was gaining national airplay on radio and television.

"When I heard the beat he made for 'Trial Time', I was like 'Boy, you got something there,'" DJ Rodski says.

"Everywhere you went, you had people talking about 'Trial Time.' You had police singing it.You had attorneys singing, 'Momma, call my lawyer...' I've heard that some judges liked it, too,'" Nneka says, laughing.

Constructed from a simple drum and synth pattern, "Trial Time" stood out at the turn of the millennium. While most Southern rap regional scenes had grown to embrace the grandiose, Bigg's stripped-down sound was reminiscent of late 1980s Bay Area trunk-rattling jams. Much like the street-wise storytelling of Oakland's Too $hort, Bigg infused a specificity to his rhymes that captivated listeners. If you never knew Mobile was on the map before, Bigg made it easy to picture.

Bigg was a ringleader, positioned at center stage, but his breakout song introduced a crowded cast of characters. His mom, his aunt, his grandmother, courtroom snitches, the district attorney, and, of course, his little sister - they all came along for the five-minute ride.

"When we saw 'Trial Time' on TV, that freaked us out! It was like, 'Yo! Bigg done made it,'" J. Simon says.

The Diamond Eye Era

While leaving a birthday party in 2004, Bigg rode around with a man who asked him to listen to his music. The ride turned into a robbery when the man shot Biggand the front seat passenger. Bigg lost his right eye in the attack.

"When Bigg got shot, he had been shot 10 times before that, it seemed like. He had surely been shot before. Everyone was like, 'That man got so many lives,'" DJ Dirty Dan says. "But a headshot - people thought he was gone (for good)."

"I never prayed so hard in my life for somebody. I don't think I prayed for myself that hard," DJ Rodski says.

Bigg eventually replaced his eye with a glass prosthetic, encrusted with diamonds, taking on the name "Diamond Eye" as an alter ego.

"What a lot of people didn't realize was he put on a front for us, but deep down, he was hurting and he was scared," DJ Rodski says.

"How he almost lost his life. He lost his eye. He never got a chance to just lay back and say, 'Okay, I'm going to be Maurice today.'" J. Simon says, "The people keep demanding to see The Last Mr. Bigg. They weren't looking to see Maurice. It got to the point where friends and family weren't demanding to see Maurice. They, too, wanted to see Mr. Bigg. They wanted a show."

Perhaps the grandest stage Mr. Bigg graced was the 2005 Three Six Mafia album "Most Known Unknown." Bigg co-wrote a handful of songs on the project, contributing vocals to the single, "Poppin' My Collar."Three Six wasriding high from their Oscar Award-winning contribution to "Hustle & Flow". All eyes were on the group, at the time.

But, Bigg didn't quite capitalize from the visibility. Bigg turned down a million-dollar contract with a major label, according to DJ Krook. He declined to distribute his music through any mainstream channels, as well.

"It was like, if you weren't in Mobile to get (his music), you likely weren't going to be able to get your hands on it," Krook says, regretfully.

The Mask is Off: Mr. Bigg's story by those who knew him best (3)

The Mask is Off

A workaholic and private recorder, Bigg made time for new material and toured frequently.

J. Simon remembers Bigg being in high demand on road trips. He says promoters would proposition Bigg at his shows, attempting to lure him to their venues after he was done.

"Sometimes we'd do two or three spots in one night. And wouldn't stay in no room, we'd get right back on the road and come back (to Mobile)."

Bigg passed away in his sleep on April 29, 2015.One year later, Mobile's rap universe still revolves around the legacy he left.

"Our hip-hop movement is closer now than it ever was. I have to say Bigg is responsible for that. His passing made us join together," J. Simon says.

On the day Bigg died, DJ Krook's phone rang off the hook. Many people wanted to know if he could confirm the news, but Krook says seven phone calls were from people who were hoping to book Bigg for upcoming events.

"I really got mad, because I thought they heard. I thought they knew and were playing with me. I didn't want to believe people could be so cruel, but they were genuinely hoping they could get Mr. Bigg in their city. I had to tell them, 'Look, he just died, man.'"

DJ Rodski regards Bigg as one of the last true originals in southern rap.

"I think he was the South's greatest performer in rap. When I was behind him DJing, I was laughing and going through all the emotions the crowd was going through. He said what he felt. And he meant what he felt."

"No matter what anyone says, if you have anything to do with hip-hop in Mobile, the Gulf Coast or in Alabama, his legacy is in them, whether they like it or not," J. Simon says. "Whether you like it or not, you got a piece of him in ya."

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The Mask is Off: Mr. Bigg's story by those who knew him best (2024)
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