By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“ ‘If you fucking niggers got any problems with us, we’ll be sitting right over there.’ ” Big Boy, DJ of Power 106 FM’s wildly popularBig Boy’s Neighborhood morning show, is in the station’s lounge, recalling words directed his way back in the early ’90s, when he was the Pharcyde’s bodyguard.
The rap group and road crew were on the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio. “It was such a small, rural area that when you called room service in the hotel, they just connected you to Denny’s next door.” So a few of the posse went to the Denny’s, which was where they received the local welcome. “I had never been called ‘nigger’ to my face like that in my life. We couldn’t believe it.” Big Boy shakes his head ruefully. “They were these little dudes too! So my man Seal and I went to tell Suave, the tour manager, what the deal was. We put on our boots and went back to confront them in the parking lot. Man, we beat the shit outta them cats. Then we all ran back to the bus and broke out of the city. We were like spooks in the night, peeking out of the tour-bus windows, flying down the freeway.”
It’s been a scenic drive from Big Boy’s Illinois birthplace to this modest Burbank office building, where a virtual sitcom cast of characters throngs the premises. There’s Big Boy himself; by now, we’re used to seeing the much smaller frame he’s maintained since losing almost 300 pounds. There’s DJ Jeff Garcia, broadcasting the daily “old-school” hip-hop mix at noon with afternoon jock Yesi Ortiz. There’s comely Stacey Stace, beloved by men across L.A. for her bikini-clad pose on a recent Power 106 billboard. And there’s Jason, whom you might know as one of the hosts of Wilmer Valderrama’s oddly fascinating competitive trash-talking reality show, Yo Momma. Jason has just outed Big Boy on the air as the previously uncredited narrative voice of that program, while proudly announcing that its initial ratings were the highest for an MTV series in years, even besting the 2003 premiere of Punk’d, hosted by Valderrama’s fellow That ’70s Show star Ashton Kutcher.
Big Boy just rolls his eyes. “People really watch that mess?” he says, laughing.
Big Boy was born Kurt Alexander in Chicago; when he was 2, his family relocated to Culver City, where as a teen he deejayed local parties. He made friends, among them fledgling rap outfit the Pharcyde, who would give him his first real taste of life in the music industry.
“Those were some cool cats. They weren’t the dangerous group to be on the road with,” Big Boy remembers of the irreverent rappers, whose first two albums, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde and Labcabincalifornia, are now indie hip-hop classics. “I grew up with no money and never traveled,” he says. “I got my first passport because of the Pharcyde. It’s funny, because when I first got the call to do radio, I almost turned it down out of loyalty to the band. But then I started to realize that my success hinged on their success. They’d have to be eating well for me just to eat. So it made sense to strike out on my own and seize the opportunity. Besides, once they started dissing each other, I got the hell outta there,” he adds, laughing, in reference to the group’s highly publicized fracture. “But it’s mostly good memories with the Pharcyde. Mostly.”
It would be another key friendship — and the pursuit of free food — that would lead Big Boy to his next gig in 1994. “The Baka Boys, who were on the air at Power 106 at the time, were good friends of mine,” he says of the DJ duo, now on the Miami airwaves. “I was never really interested in radio. I listened to it growing up, but it wasn’t a daily part of my life. One Memorial Day, the Baka Boys, who were also known as the ‘Two Fat Mexicans,’ and I had an itinerary of barbecues we were planning to hit over the course of the day. They were plus-sized guys, and I was around 470 pounds at the time. They were like, ‘We have to stop at our boss’s house,’ and I didn’t want to go. I thought it was going to be an uptight white family with a picket fence. We got there, and it was a white family with a picket fence, but they were cool. I got a call about a week later from the owner of the house, Rick Cummings [then the program director of Power 106]. He asked if I ever thought about doing radio, and offered me a spot one night for $35 an hour. At that point, I was so broke I would’ve done KKK radio for some cash!”
Suddenly, we’re interrupted as a large Latino dude sticks his head in to see if Big Boy wants something to eat. He’s toting a cardboard box filled with a diabetic’s nightmare of sugary and salty treats, but the first thing you notice is the script tattooed across his forehead: “I slept with Shaq.”
Fans of Big Boy’s Neighborhood will recognize him as Tattoo, whose initial notoriety began back in 2000, when he had the dubious statement permanently etched just under his hairline to win Lakers playoff tickets. The stunt earned him a regular spot on the show, where his habit of losing on-air bets has earned him further questionable inkage, such as a rendering of Lindsay Lohan’s face over his heart. Today, Tattoo’s just lost a wager with the morning show’s primary pinup girl and voice of estrogen, Luscious Liz, regarding Tupac’s friendship with Tony Danza. Now he’s scheduled for a tattoo of Danza’s face and the line “Who’s the Boss?” on his back. He makes a Burger King run while Big Boy continues to explain his career trajectory.
“I did the overnight show from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., and Power liked it and asked me to do it again,” he remembers. “After the second night, they offered me the evening shift, which at that time was 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. The ratings were great, so they moved me to afternoon drive time, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.”
With Big Boy’s popularity growing both in the streets and with advertisers, it wasn’t long before the station approached him about taking over the highly contested morning slot, radio’s Holy Grail, where most stations generate the lion’s share of their revenue.
“I didn’t want to do it,” he shrugs. “I was kicking ass on the air in the afternoons, I could go clubbing at night and sleep in the next day. It was a nice setup. But once I saw the competition of doing mornings, I got sucked in. There were a lot of people that said I couldn’t do it. So I did it not to prove them wrong, but to prove me right.”
With his morning show — a rollicking circus of prank phone calls, celebrity gossip and hip-hop hits — ruling the morning airwaves over the past eight years, Big Boy’s reign hasn’t gone unchallenged. The stiffest competition came in the form of popular black comedian Steve Harvey, who hosted the morning drive for Power 106’s most direct competitor at the time, The Beat 100.3 FM, starting in the autumn of 2000.
“It wasn’t a problem,” Big Boy says with a dismissive wave. “I’ve always had other stations put up programming to ‘get me,’ on every shift I’ve worked. The mornings have been no different. Steve was the guy, and he hit the ground running. But Steve never fell into any of the media bullshit; neither did I.” Big Boy vehemently denies rumors of friction.
“Steve is like my brother. He brought a class to L.A. radio. He respected me and I respected him. The only problem for me was that he couldn’t be on my show anymore. There’s enough money and people out here in L.A. for everybody.” (The Beat has since switched formats; Harvey, now based in New York, hosts a nationally syndicated morning show aired locally on KDAY-FM.)
Around that same time, Power 106 debuted the first of an ongoing series of notorious billboards to promote Big Boy’s morning show. It featured the eye-popping image of the DJ wearing nothing but silk boxer shorts under the title “Morning Obsession,” a parody of the day’s Calvin Klein cologne ads.
“Even now, I still trip out when I see [my billboards]. I never get used to that feeling, and I hope I never do.”
It was early 2002 when Will Smith visited Big Boy’s Neighborhood. At one point during the show, Smith confronted Big Boy about his health. When the DJ laughed off the warning, Smith got serious with him off the air.
“Will was like, ‘But what about your heart, Big?’ He was really concerned.”
But his size didn’t bother Big Boy in the least. “I’ve never been unhappy in my skin. I was always the big dude you wanted to be around, that had ladies and was happy. I was never at home being sad about being fat or getting teased. I never got teased, though, because kids knew I’d crack their teeth out,” he guffaws with a sly grin. “I was able to accommodate for my size; it never slowed me down, even at 510 pounds. If I needed a suit, I could have one made. If I needed a car, I just got a truck.”
Eventually, he struck a deal with Will Smith. Smith would pony up $1,000 to charity for every pound Big Boy lost, initially challenging him to shed 50 pounds. He dropped from 510 to 399 through a stringent diet and regular exercise. But like so many before him, he slowly began to put weight back on. With the pounds came new and unforeseen health issues.
“I’d been plus-sized ever since I was 5 years old. I never had high blood pressure, diabetes, none of that shit. But when I lost so much weight and started putting it back on, it was a shock to my system. There were times my legs would go numb. I couldn’t even walk through the airport without having to stop and rest. I’d never noticed my weight before. Now it felt like I was wearing a fat suit. I started to feel real, real bad, to the point where I thought I was going to die. That’s when I realized that if I wanted to live, I would have to do something fast. I didn’t care if it jeopardized my status as ‘Big Boy.’ ” Soon, he was considering gastric bypass surgery.
“I didn’t tell anybody that I was even thinking about it, not even my family. I spent a good eight months researching it. One night at the movies, this guy approached me and was like, ‘Do you remember the big guy from Varsity Blues?” referencing the 1999 teen “dramedy” starring Dawson’s Creek figurehead James Van Der Beek; the heavyweight was Ron Lester. “I thought he was going to tell me that he’d died, since that’s always what happens with the big guys,” Big Boy mutters ominously. “Ron Lester had lost 350 pounds after getting the surgery, and that’s who I was talking to. I didn’t recognize him, because he’d lost so much weight. We became fast friends, and one day we stayed on the phone for three hours talking about it. That’s when I decided to do it. I got with a doctor in Georgia, who pushed me to the front of a waiting list of over a year. When he called me with a date, it was only two weeks in advance. That’s when I told my family.”
In Georgia, Big Boy underwent the somewhat controversial procedure known as the duodenal switch, where not only is the stomach reduced, but the intestines are also rearranged in such a way that most food calories aren’t absorbed.
“I told myself that all I had to do was wake up,” Big Boy says of the operation. “When I woke up and none of my dead homies were there, I knew it was all good.”
Complications still linger more than three and a half years later. But Big Boy’s condition is nothing like it was in the months immediately following the procedure.
“I couldn’t stop losing weight. I’d get lockjaw and a bad taste in my mouth. I was fainting a lot. I just started to decline. My body couldn’t hold any proteins or nutrients. When I’d sit down, I could feel the pain in my back from the bones being so brittle. One time on the air, I just blacked out and busted my head open on the console. I’d gone from morbid obesity to malnourished.” While his smile never falters, it’s obvious the experience weighed heavily on him.
“There were times I was so out of it that the producer would position the microphone so I could lay on the floor of the studio to do my job. I’d be so delirious I would drive to work and not know how I got there. I had to have a catheter put into my chest to pump nutrition directly into my body. That went on for like two months. It was so bad I couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. I was always in the hospital.” One particular stay provided the clarity and motivation to stay focused through recovery.
“I was taking a walk through the ward, dragging the IV bag with me on the stand like Tony Soprano, and I was noticing that everybody else was older. So I was throwing myself a pity party, really feeling sorry for myself for being so messed up so young. I heard an emergency over the intercom, and doctors and nurses all started running to this one room. When I looked inside, there was a woman there on a bed, and someone was pumping her chest, and her family and doctors were all there, and her eyes and mouth were wide open. But she just looked dead. In that moment, I realized that I didn’t have any problems. This lady wished she could walk around the hospital dragging an IV.”
Ultimately, Big Boy had part of his gastric bypass surgery undone just to allow his body to sustain itself.
“I would never, ever advise anyone to get the duodenal switch,” he sighs wearily. “A doctor said I was that one-in-a-thousand case, but damn.”
Big Boy’s postsurgery illness forced him to put the brakes on a growing side career in movies (Charlie’s Angels 2, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo) and TV, such as Entourage and Fastlane, Fox’s bombastic but short-lived action drama directed by McG. “If that show came out now, it would work,” Big Boy insists. “We were just a little ahead of the curve on that one.” Still, he’s been able to press forward with a syndicated radio show, Big Boy’s Hip-Hop Spot. But his loyalty lies with Power 106, and the citywide sea of listeners who tune in daily despite much ado about the medium’s long-predicted demise.
“Radio is like home. You can always come back to it. We’ll leave the light on for you,” he deadpans in his best Tom Bodett. “It comes down to personality and appeal. Radio will be here, even in spite of satellite. People already have more than enough stuff to pay for. Look at Howard Stern, who had 12 million listeners on radio. He doesn’t have a third of that on satellite. He blames the listeners, when it’s him that left them.”
For an accidental career, radio has served Big Boy well, and he knows it. He’s racked up a serious cache of accolades, including Personality of the Year three times at the Radio Music Awards. There are also two Marconi Radio Awards, considered the Oscars of radio, from the National Association of Broadcasters. And despite professions that he wasn’t so deep into it growing up, he has a solid knowledge of Los Angeles’ radio history and is quick to give respect where it’s due.
“I come from the school of originality, the days of KDAY with Russ Parr in the morning, who had great alter-ego characters like ‘Bobby Jimmy’ ” — a possible precursor to Big Boy’s own phone prankster, “Luther Luffeigh.”
“Back in the day, Power 106 was all alone where the industry was concerned, because we focused on hip-hop,” says Big Boy. “We were like the bad boys of L.A. radio for playing the music of the streets. They said we’d never be able to build anything in sales because of it. Now, everybody’s playing hip-hop. But what’s happened is that everybody’s on the same songs. If you hear a classic Tupac record on the radio, it could be Power-106, KDAY, KIIS, Jack, the Beat, any of us. It’s not like I can and you can’t, but not everyone can do it like me. So it comes down to which one you choose to push that button for you. Is it Big Boy or Ryan Seacrest? Tom Joyner? The choice is yours.”
Big Boy has made his own choice. In the studio, huge picture windows offer an impressive view of the mountains looming in the distance. He’s now engaged to his longtime girlfriend (after proposing onstage at a Mariah Carey contest no less), who stood by him through all the drama and gave birth to their son, Jaden, in February. Big Boy leans back in his chair and shoots a broad smile. “This is the life, right?”