By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
JT the Bigga Figga leans his long, arching back against the wall and stretches his slender legs across the narrow passageway in front of Luv n' Haight's sandwich counter. Decked head-to-toe in Desert Storm-era camouflage and bobbing his head to an anxious, inaudible rhythm, he practically dares the sandwich shop's customers to cross his path. He barks out his order to the busy attendant: "Turkey sandwich, no Brussels sprouts or nothing like that."
Depending on your perspective, JT is either refreshingly direct or disturbingly coarse; brash and courageous or supremely arrogant; a community leader or a self-serving capitalist. Since his debut in 1992, he's figured heavily into Bay Area hip hop's past, present, and future, and remains one of the scene's most powerful and compelling individuals. As an MC, JT has released a string of memorable albums, including Playaz N the Game, Operation Takeover, and, more recently, Project Poetry. As the CEO of local label Get Low Records, he took a basement enterprise and transformed it into one of the most successful and emulated independent labels in the country, an imprint that has flourished not only because of its A-list roster of local MCs, but also because of its overall approach: Forgoing traditional means of distribution and promotion -- i.e., mainstream radio -- Get Low markets directly to its core, street audience, self-producing and self-distributing records that, when all else fails, get sold out of car trunks.
But now that Get Low is the success that it is, JT is doing what no one expected from an MC who spent his career chronicling the sordid side of ghetto life: transcending territorial grudges that exist in neighborhoods like Bayview-Hunters Point and organizing a community-outreach-program-cum-record-label -- Black Wall Street -- that provides links between fledgling hip hop artists and the city's promoters, graphic artists, engineers, distributors, and other peripheral figures whose services are essential. It's a powerful concept -- both strategically and philosophically -- and it borrows equally from Minister Louis Farrakhan, the Black Panthers, Dr. Dre, and Russell Simmons. Not only does Black Wall Street have the potential to succeed financially, it stands to transform a hip hop scene that has long been splintered by dueling gang affiliations and violent feuds. Community leader, self-serving capitalist -- JT the Bigga Figga may just be both.
JT first stepped onto the stage as an MC in '93 with Playaz N the Game.While the album employed many of the typical gangsta rap tropes on songs such as "Mr. Millimeter," it lacked the aura of impending doom that characterized most West Coast hip hop, offering a quirky sense of artistic exploration instead. Playazwas released on the newly created Get Low, which at the time was a one-man operation with no office and no employees. JT founded Get Low for more practical than philosophical reasons: He saw no other means of getting his voice heard and so he took it upon himself to create an outlet.
That problem vanished when Playaz's first single, the soon-to-be-classic street anthem "Game Recognize Game," began getting significant airplay, first on local stations and then nationwide. Suddenly JT was thrust into the hip hop limelight, heralded by both critics and fans as the next superstar to emerge from the bay. "I felt blessed," he says of his initial success, in between bites of his turkey sandwich. "I changed from negative to positive, and I was seeing that what I was going after was something [attainable]. ... It was unbelievable to hear myself on the radio."
It wasn't long before the majors swooped in. After a bidding war, JT decided to go with hip hop juggernaut Priority Records. The label gave Get Low a multiyear distribution deal that allowed JT to produce his own albums with very little oversight. "[I] went from a 16-year-old just fucking around to being a 19-year-old CEO with my own company and making hundreds of thousands of dollars," he says with more than a hint of pride.
The first album to come out of the deal was 1995's Dwellin' in the Lab. While it sported enhanced production values and a stellar cast of cameos from Master P, Mac Mall, and Herm, it was a commercial flop. Subsequent albums distributed through Priority fared no better and in 1996 the label exercised its option to release JT from his contract.
Instead of becoming embittered, the young CEO took the lessons learned from the Priority debacle and returned to self-distributing his albums -- and eventually those of his peers -- via Get Low. Free from label obligations, and outfitted with a top-notch recording studio purchased with cash from the Priority deal, he began producing and releasing records at a breakneck pace, pioneering an approach that would not only switch up his game, but ultimately alter the entire Bay Area hip hop community. "I found out the fans like that raw shit," JT says. "They like that get-in-the-studio-and-make-an-album-in-a-week shit. ... Before, I was caught up [in the mentality] that I was going to go platinum off one album instead of realizing that I could put out 10 records and sell a million off of those."