Local Legends

Reflections on the loss and legacy of Austin's beloved Big Don

Reflections on the loss and legacy of Austin's beloved Big Don

Big Don MC Overlord
As MC Overlord, Donnell Robinson made his mark on local hip-hop. As Big Don, he impacted a generation of young Austinites.  Big Don/Facebook

When Big Don passed away on September 12 at the age of 49, I worked through an odd kind of grief — the loss of someone I really didn’t know. I processed it in the usual ways (messaging friends, listening to his music, thinking about what to make of it) before sharing the news with the smallest Big Don fan in my house: my four-year-old son.

Big Don’s actual name was Donnell Robinson, but he was better known to local kids as Big Don and to hip-hop fans as MC Overlord. Robinson had an impressive career as MC Overlord, but I’ll admit, I don’t know much about that side of career, though my husband does. (The first time we saw Robinson’s Big Don Show at the now defunct Strange Brew, my husband leaned toward me and whispered, “That’s MC Overlord.” It turns out the positivity Robinson displayed in his Big Don shows was his trademark as MC Overlord as well.)

At that first show at Strange Brew, the room was crowded and my kid was young — about 18 months old — and I wondered if he’d be scared. But there was coffee and tacos, plus the beats were already starting. Then Big Don came out with a genuine smile and infectious warmth that beamed from the stage. Kids can smell a faker and Big Don’s positive energy was real. Babies, toddlers, school-aged kids all rushed the dance floor for the interactive show.

Among the regular rotation of songs during The Big Don Show was “Can Do,” from Big Don’s second album Big Don’s Brand New Beat. “Okay, kids. When I say, ‘can do,’ you’re gonna say ‘anything.’ You ready?” And then came the song’s empowering lyrics: 

Can do — anything
Can do — anything
It’s alright to have a challenge
It’s better to try
We’re all winners
No matter who’s first in line

Kids danced and sang along. Big Don invited kids onstage with him and though there was sometimes a shortage of space with all those kids up there, energy and love of music and little bodies moving were in ample supply.

The Big Don Show magically combined all the things I wanted for my kid: easy-to-learn songs, recognizable nursery rhymes (his version of Humpty Dumpty was unrivaled), early enjoyment of the power of language and stories, plus values like persistence and tolerance. His third album, Big Don’s Big Class, was released last summer and focused on the importance of doing well in school and being an educated citizen of the world. There are songs on that album about planets and conjunctions and even the three branches of government. This was good music to grown on.

So sharing the news of Big Don’s passing with my son was to share the news that all that had come to a sudden end. When I finally told him, it gave us a chance to talk about death and how we honor the people we miss, even the ones we don’t know very well.

My little guy talked about his memories of seeing Big Don at his shows and going up to say “hi” at the end of each one and getting a Big Don Show sticker every time. Then I reminded him that we still have Big Don’s songs (they’re on Spotify and iTunes).

In the end, I framed the loss of Big Don around the importance of making things that outlast you. And while we always miss people once they’ve gone, we also have the creations they leave behind. My son draws pictures and invents things out of paper towel rolls. He makes mistakes, deals with the reality of his creations not living up to the visions in his head, stomps his feet, then regroups and finds another way. This happens all the time, and Big Don’s songs have a lot of wisdom about the process of learning and trying and making.

I hope Robinson understood how much he was valued by kids in Austin, how meaningful his energy and music and lyrics were. His passing caught our family off guard and though we have his music, we miss him. Still, since he left us the legacy of his music, my son wanted to listen to it again. And so we started with "Can Do.”