On the cover of his latest album, Think Bigs, San Jose rapper Andrew Bigs wears wire-rimmed glasses and channels Steve Jobs in the iconic, if grammatically incorrect, “Think Different” Apple campaign. On the aptly titled release, Bigs distills his singular experience of growing up on the East Side, then attending private school for football at Archbishop Mitty.
“I grew up around poverty—gangbanging, people’s families getting evicted,” he says. “And then I go to highschool with the children of CEOs and sports players. In high school, I had a homie that was homeless that stayed at my house sometimes. And then on the weekends, I’d go to a party at a fucking mansion. It was like ‘how do I exist within this?’”
Bigs—a shortening of his real name Bigelow—started out as an exclusively “conscious” rapper under the moniker “Society” in his “hard-headed” late teens. But as he aged, he took a broader stance, seeking to ground his insights in personal musings that were universally relatable.
“You don’t want to be overly preachy,” Bigs says, explaining his shifting tastes. “But if the experience is authentic, people can connect whether they’ve lived it or not. Nobody wants to be told what to do or what to think. Plus, young homies ain’t going to listen to it if it don’t bump.”
Bigs employs a coalition of producers to meld live instrumentation with the slow-stomping pace of trap. The kick-off track, “Never Let You Down” rides a tinkly piano riff into a choir-backed hook about making enough dough for his parents to retire. But even though Bigs seeks to speak to everyone, he also understands that his race has given him benefits not offered to his childhood neighbors.
“White privilege is real,” he says. “I come from experiences that are hard. Nonetheless, when I get into a car, they don’t look at me the same as they look at my brother Malcolm (one of his producers). I own that. You have to be humble, open to those conversations—recognize you just don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color.”
Outside of music, Bigs works at De-Bug, a media advocacy non-profit that gave him his first recording space. The emcee strives to highlight the stories of working-class people ignored in the tech-wealth narrative of Silicon Valley. He aids their “participatory defense” program which organizes the family members of an arrestee so that they can help lawyers beat the case of their loved one as a grassroots response to mass incarceration.
“Everything goes through the courts,” he says. “So it’s a really traditional community organizing ethic applied to the courtroom. I spend a lot of time around this shit. I’ve seen mothers break down in meetings, people getting locked away for petty things. It shapes how I look at things.”
Bigs considers his music a part of De-Bug’s storytelling efforts and he shared his novel perspective with the country when he embarked on his first major tour, opening for Reef the Lost Cause. He traveled to Philadelphia and back, performing 17 shows in 30 days and earning a newfound confidence.
“It’s a lot of hard work. A lot of people break,” he says. “It’s tiring, physically and mentally, performing in and out every night. And it can just be a lot. This was a test, but I passed that shit with flying colors. I could have done another two months.”
He just returned from SXSW last month and hopes his community-building and steady rap grind will deliver his hometown to national prominence. He is celebrating the release of Think Bigs with a show at De Anza College this Thursday.
“The dope part of San Jose hip-hop is that you can find all types of shit,” he says. “People with live bands, people doing super trap shit, turn-up shit, people on some gangsta stuff, people on some conscious stuff, boom-bap—all that co-exists. There’s no stamp, where it’s like ‘Oh that’s from San Jose,’ but that in itself creates a style. It opens a door to people creating whatever they want.”
De Anza College, Cupertino