Mal Robinson and I are around the same age. We both grew up in Southwest and West Philly in the same circumstances, and we both avoided the streets. He did it by going to college and learning barbering. Mal is a shining light. Also, he’s the reason I have my daughter.
Mal’s services are one-on-one. He’s at 55th and Woodland, and by appointment only. Mal grew up in the Mantua section, better known as the Bottom. The Robinson family was big. “My grandma had 12 kids — a lot of aunts and uncles and cousins,” he says. His dad had 10 kids, including two sets of twins. His mom’s side are the Corbins and the Williams, including state Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, one of his celebrity clients.
A family that size, “it’s a lot to manage, but like any old family, we get along pretty well. A few squabbles here and there, but we iron ’em out and keep going. The love is real,” he says.
Just like me, from an early age, Mal wanted to attain nice things: Jordans, cars, better clothes, but also food, which, he says, “was hard to come by, growing up, for real for real.” Mal’s been buying his own clothes since age 13. He’d ride his bike to buy used jeans and Fila sweatsuits. The people in the neighborhood with fancy things, it was the drug dealers. “They were the superheroes,” he says.
But Mal was lucky. His dad was a jack of a few trades, including barbering. We held the barbers in our neighborhood in high esteem. There was Black Mark, and there was Nut. We thought they were pretty cool. When Mal’s sister bought him his first set of clippers at age 14, he was into it. “She bought them because a few barbers had messed up my line, and I had an attitude about it,” he recalls. “She was just like, Learn how to cut your own hair.”
But we both could easily have went the other route. Mal believes, “There’s always choices. No disrespect to those who went the other way. Those are my friends and family. But sometimes, you have to do a job that’s lackluster … My brother worked at Roy Rogers, and he would bring food home. We used to enjoy that.”
Mal the barber
After he graduated from West Catholic and went off to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Mal kept barbering to pay the bills. After college, he came back to Philly and worked in his sister’s salon at 51st and Ludlow, All About Perfection. That’s where he and I met.
Back then, I was going all over town to salons, selling my cakes, lasagna, seafood pasta salad, water ice and fried chicken. Mal was the only man in the salon, and we connected, over humor, over our work ethic.
“I come in, I get it in, get it in real hard, and then I leave,” he says, “As a young Black man, we always thinking: How can I make money — and stay out the way?”
After that, Mal got a place of his own, where he had a conglomerate of barbers. It was busy, but all the different personalities of the clientele was too much. So, he moved into his one-man shop. Mal’s is an enclave. Clients talk. Some fall asleep in the chair. It’s like that Ice Cube movie: It’s therapy for us as Black men in the community. You can relax and talk about real-life politics, sports. Mal was always a great mediator. He says it comes from “being around everybody.” Mal never takes anyone for granted; he respects everyone.
Maybe that’s why Beanie Sigel, Michael Wright, Charles Dutton, DJ Envy are some of his clientele.
He also has a great sense of people who belong together. Years ago, when he ran into a young lady I had had my eye on at Dana Black’s picnic at the Lakes, he called me and ordered an Oreo cheesecake. I brought it. Today, our daughter Zsanece is 20 years old.
Mal got where he is by hard work. He says, “Trying to do the right thing — that’s all you can do. It’s all about choices, ladies and gentlemen. Try your best and make the right choice everyday, and I think we’ll be alright.”
West Philly born and raised with a slosh of Brooklyn New York in between, Big Rube partnered with Mitchell & Ness in 2000 to help make it a global brand marketing and selling high-end vintage jerseys. He has been photographing Philly since 2009, including in a Daily News Column from 2011 to 2017. He’s also a chef, operating Chef Big Rube’s Kitchen seven days a week at Pitcher’s Pub in Manayunk, selling the best handmade food in a Main Street dive bar.
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