Surly you jest

The other side of Big Shug’s game
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  November 24, 2008

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CAPTIVE AUDIENCE: “I remember one time when I was in jail and I was snapping on this one dude who I couldn’t even see because we were all in our cells. I had the whole block erupting.”

Big Shug, "Like a Mothafucka" (mp3)
Big Shug and I have an ongoing tradition. Every time he drops a record, we gorge ourselves and talk shit for a few hours. He might be the toughest veteran on Boston’s hip-hop scene, but Shug is a phenomenal dinner guest — even if he’s apt to bury one rack of ribs, half-a-dozen wings, three sides, and a square of cornbread. “This is the first time I’ve seen you straight in a while,” he cracks as I walk into Tennessee’s in Braintree, where he owns a home. “You be getting drunk like a muhfucka at them shows, man. How’d you get home from that last one? Did you call your mom to pick you up?”

Funny as Shug is, he’s the biggest ballbuster since Alec Baldwin in The Departed. Scratch that — Alec Baldwin in Outside Providence. He’s been rabble-rousing since before Gang Starr, and even before high school. After getting expelled from the Metco program in fifth grade for assaulting curious/racist white Newton kids who kept touching his Afro, he wound up at middle school in Mattapan, where, in his words: “The kids were bad as hell — they would just show up to school with boxes of doughnuts that they stole from the grocery store.”

Even though he wound up elbow-deep in Boston’s violent drug game, in sixth grade Shug hoped to cut back on scrapping. “I was big, but I wasn’t as tough as the rest of these kids. I had this thing where I wanted to go through the rest of my life without fighting, and even though that didn’t happen, I learned how to snap. I’ve been legendary for it ever since — a lot of people thought I should be a stand-up comedian. It was just natural, and the funny thing was that I could fight, too, so if you got mad that I was snapping on you, so what — I’ll still whip your ass.”

Corny as it sounds, jest carried Shug through torrential times. Crime life caught him in the early ’90s, and after pouring cement for the Gang Starr Foundation here in Boston, he got locked before his crew shot to the top of Golden Era hip-hop. But through it all Shug laughed — even while Guru got rich rhyming about his hood experience. “I remember one time when I was in jail and I was snapping on this one dude who I couldn’t even see because we were all in our cells. I had the whole block erupting. You could hear the roars.”

Although comedy called, Shug returned to hip-hop in 1998 with his now legendary guest appearance on “The Militia,” off Gang Starr’s Moment of Truth. From there, he rebuilt his home and family life while maintaining close ties with DJ Premier (or Premo, or Preme, as Shug calls him). With Guru gone and Gang Starr evaporated, Premo handled most of the production on Shug’s overdue 2005 debut, Who’s Hard?, and that signaled the resurrection of a Boston heavyweight who had played the background for far too long. This Friday, Shug celebrates the release of his new Otherside of the Game (Traffic Entertainment) at the Western Front.

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