How One Black-Owned Printing Company Doubled its Footprint Overnight

Kesney and Dawaud Muhammad of Big Printing T-shirt Clothing ( Lauren J. Richardson of LacedMedia)

All it took was a worldwide pandemic, nationwide protests of racial injustice and one huge purchase order to change a Black-owned East Bay clothing business—possibly forever.

Y'all remember the summer of 2020, right? That's when it started. Before the natural disaster that is this election season and prior to the manmade disaster that is California's annual wildfire season.

Back when people got fed up with police brutality, groups of artists painted "Black Lives Matter" on the streets of major American cities and high-ranking officials from the Democratic party posed for photos in Kente Cloth. You recall: that bygone period in time when companies and celebrities issued vague "statements of solidarity" with the Black Lives Matter movement once they realized posturing themselves on the right side of history would do well for their bottom line.

In the midst of all of that, a certain multinational Fortune 500 company made a politically incorrect blunder. It was so public, and the backlash so strong, that the company figured the best way to save face was to not only order a huge shipment of Black Lives Matter-inspired shirts for their employees, but also hire a Black-owned printing company to make them.

Enter Big Printing T-shirt Company.

Dawaud Muhammad in the Big Printing factory in San Leandro.
Dawaud Muhammad in the Big Printing factory in San Leandro. (Lauren J. Richardson of LacedMedia)

With headquarters in San Leandro, Big Printing is the backbone to some of the most prominent street brands in the clothing game, all around the nation. Locally, they print Philthy Rich's FOD line, Beeda Weeda's Mackin' & Mobbin' and Mistah Fab's DOPE ERA, as well as the rapper Cookie Money. Threads have been assembled in their factory and landed on the backs of Snoop Dogg, Andre Ward and Marshawn Lynch.

But success isn't an overnight shipment. The company has been at it for over two decades. And their origin story is about as authentically 1990s East Oakland as one can get.

In 1994, a 19-year-old ambitious teenager named Dawaud Muhammad was "looking for a hustle that wasn't involved in the street life" when Soul Beat's footage of the Festival at The Lake caught his eye—specifically a guy selling T-shirts.

Long story short: he met the guy, got some shirts wholesale and started a small business. Dawaud chose an animated brown-skinned man with a stern face and small afro as his logo. I'd go on to see the image all throughout my childhood.

V White and Mac Dre in Big Pimpin' turf clothes.
V White and Mac Dre in Big Pimpin' Turf Clothes. (Big Printing Archives)

Initially, the company was called Big Pimpin' Turf Clothes. There's photos of V White (formerly known as V-Dal) of the Delinquents and the late Mac Dre, as well as images of Master P, all sporting early renditions of the gear.

I recall versions of the shirts that were made for specifically for Oakland neighborhoods, like the Shady 80s or the Murda Dubbs (Murder Doves). (And it was deeper than just clothing: A childhood friend of mine, Marcell (RIP), once put hands on someone for wearing the shirt of a 'hood he wasn't really from. Made the kid take the shirt off in the middle of Dimond Park.)

Along the way, Big Pimpin' blossomed. Dawaud started out selling the shirts out of his trunk. He moved on to cultural hubs like T's Wauzi, a record store in the Eastmont Mall. And then he landed in places like the Solano Mall, Sacramento's Arden Fair Mall and San Leandro's Bayfair Mall.

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That last location proved to be immensely important. Not just because of how popular that mall used to be back in the day, but because it was the place where Dawaud would meet Kesney, who's now the chief financial officer of Big Printing—as well as Dawaud's partner in marriage.

Kesney came from a different background than Dawaud, who grew up on 86th Avenue and Birch Street in East Oakland. She's from the East Bay suburb of Benicia. A Howard University grad who was working in Silicon Valley, her financial management expertis. e would prove to be key.

With her savviness, Big Pimpin' Turf Clothes rebranded itself as Big Printing. It also grew from a single press in Dawaud's grandmother's house to multiple presses.

Dawaud and Kesney were married at the turn of the millennium, got a loft across the street from McClymonds High School in West Oakland in 2002, and in 2004 acquired an automatic press. So in 2005, they relocated to 900 Doolittle Drive in San Leandro.

New threads fresh off the Big Printing press for the Detroit-based clothing company BossTooDeath
New threads fresh off the Big Printing press for the Detroit-based clothing company BossTooDeath. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Along with the acquisition of two embroidery machines, that move allowed the business to go from a 1,500-square-foot spot to a 2,500-square-foot location in the same area. Two years later they doubled in size to 5,000 square feet, still in San Leandro.

As the company grew, they honed the focus of their clientele: motorcycle clubs, churches and startup streetwear brands.

Social media, specifically Instagram and its paid ads, allowed the company to find customers from all around the country. "We found a lot more of 'us,'" says Dawaud, in reference to his community of African American entrepreneurs.

"We were happy and grateful to be a three-press shop with some embroidery," says Kesney. "But as we began to work toward our niche market of developing brands, we began to see this need for our community." Kesney says the business was a magnet for young African American folks who "had great vision, cool ideas and just needed a little bit of help to bring it to life."

Kesney Muhammad checking her phone in the Big Printing reception area
Kesney Muhammad checks her phone in the Big Printing reception area. ( Lauren J. Richardson of LacedMedia)

Contractually, Big Printing can't reveal the name of the giant Fortune 500 company that placed the huge Black Lives Matter order. But years of doing business has led Kesney to understanding the importance of this purchase order, and how it is a step toward finding a remedy to the economic divide that exists in America.

Talking with her about it brought up issues I was familiar with, like the disparity in wealth between Black and white households, as well as the U.S. unemployment rate, which is always worse for African Americans than just about any other demographic. But until I talked to Kesney, I didn't know that so few Black-owned businesses actually have employees.

Citing the U.S. Census 2012 Survey of Business Owners, BlackDemographics.com reports that approximately 95% of African American businesses don't have a staff, aside from the owner or partnership.

Couple that with the National Bureau of Economic Research's analysis that during the early stages of COVID-19, "African-American businesses were hit especially hard, experiencing a 41 percent drop," and you start to see how important it is for small, Black-owned businesses to be integrated into larger businesses' supply chain.

Big Printing took some early licks this year when business slowed down in China, but otherwise they weren't phased by COVID-19. If anything, the pandemic brought business to their door. "The business started to skyrocket," says Dawaud, noting that they got a few people thanking them for simply being open.

But nothing was like the big order they received at the start of the summer.

"I don't know anybody who's done 100,000 shirts," says Dawaud, proudly reflecting on the order his company fulfilled.

"We have a business," says Kesney, in a grounding tone. "We work for the money that we earn. We do a damn good job for every client we go out and print. Just the chance to bid on this type of order is great for us, and well-deserved."

Hats being embroidered at the Big Printing HQ
Hats being embroidered at the Big Printing HQ. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

After 25 years of steady growth, the giant order allowed Big Printing to increase their staff by nearly 20%, acquire new machinery and double their physical footprint, in just three weeks.

The beneficiaries of this investment will be the owners and employees, as well as the numerous members of the community the business serves, which is heavily African American.

Kesney and Dawaud understand that ripple effect. They also understand the waves of woes that Africans Americans face when it comes to inequalities, particularly economic inequality, in the United States.

To that, Dawaud says, "You can make a statement, or you can make a donation. But you really don't have to go that far to make a difference. All you really have to do is go to your procurement department and ask them, 'Are we doing any business with Black vendors?' If not, then make a conscious effort to see about changing that."

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