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Beyond 'dirt roads'

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

ALBANY -- As the intro to Albany rapper Big Neal's debut album "Dirt Roads, Backwoods, and Mosquito's" kicks in, listeners are struck by the disparate soundscape.

There's the ringing banjo of a country hoedown in the background and the very urban flow of Big Neal's in-your-face rhymes front and center. This, you figure right away, is no cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers rapper.

A disciple of the Tupac/Biggie Smalls/Master P school of rap, Big Neal (Patrick Jones) is working to carve out a place for himsel in the fertile Southwest Georgia rap scene that spawned the likes of Field Mob, Big Nod, Ole-E and Cloroks. The first single off "Backwoods," the biting and bouncy "Oh Yeah!," made its way onto the playlist of local urban trendsetter Power 105.5 and onto the locals-only show at ratings giant 96.3 WJIZ.

But Big Neal makes no bones that his goals stretch beyond the dirt roads and backwoods of Southwest Georgia.

"I want to put up platinum plates, break records like Barry Bonds and Mark McGuire," he says matter-of-factly. "It's tough, I know, because people in the business don't take local artists seriously. But that just makes me more determined, motivates me even more.

"I'm out here on my own trying to make something happen, but I'm committed to this. I'm here for the long haul. I know it's going to take a lot of hard work to take this to a higher level, but I'm willing to do what I have to do."

Jones was bigger than most of his peers growing up in Dawson, but he earned their respect through sports and music. He started rapping when he was 9, influenced by genre superstars Tupac, Biggie, Master P and LL Cool J, and wrote his first rhyme when he was 11.

"It was a childish thing, but it really got me going," Big Neal said. "I started paying attention to the people in the industry, and I just kept working on getting better."

He started taking his craft more seriously, reading and checking the dictionary for the right words for the beats that started manifesting themselves in his head.

"It doesn't matter what I'm doing -- at work, at home, whatever -- music is with me 110 percent of the time," Big Neal said. "I might get a beat in my head or some rhymes might come to me anywhere, and I'll take out my phone and record them so I can come back to it later.

"When I write songs, they sometimes come from a beat in my head or one somebody else gives me, or they might grow around the rhymes that I put together. It's almost like a movie sometimes; I see the rhymes play out in my head."

Jones got his nom de rap from the nickname his friends and family gave him ("My middle name is O'Neal, so they just dropped the 'O' and put 'Big' with it."), but he can rest easy that the other name he was known by didn't catch on.

"The guys in middle school called me 'Pat Rock Chocolate,'" he laughs. "At least that one didn't stick."

Big Neal works his 9-to-5 at Cagle Foods in Camilla but longs for the day that he can earn a livelihood from the music business. He's performed at a few shows in the region, selling copies of his album along the way, but he's getting ready to make a strategic push to get his music into the hands of the region's rap lovers.

"It's been pretty much me so far, although I did have management for a period (G-1 Management)," Big Neal said. "I've started up No Fear Entertainment to try and promote my work and to help others go through this process.

"I believe in what I'm doing."

He's not alone.

"Big Neal definitely has a chance at a career in the industry, but it's going to take a whole lot of legwork," influential on-air radio personality Jammin' Jay said. "A lot of people think when they get one of their songs played on the radio, they've made it. That's just a first step.

"I try to be realistic with local artists when I talk with them, and I believe Big Neal really has the potential to make a career for himself. It's up to him."

And maybe just how badly he wants to leave these dirt roads and backwoods behind.