Big-ups (sometimes unhyphenated, sometimes singular) is an idiom that entered American English and, less conspicuously, British English around 1990. It has several meanings, but in the U.S. and Britain, where it started in hip-hop culture, it’s mainly used to acknowledge someone or to express respect or approval. It usually works as a noun. For instance, a performer on stage might send big-ups to a friend in the audience, or we might give big-ups to Grandma for her amazing green-bean casserole. In the acknowledgement sense, a big-up is similar to a shout-out. When it expresses praise, a big-up is similar to kudos and props.
Big up also appears as a verb phrase meaning (1) to give big-ups, (2) to make bigger (figuratively or literally), or (3) to pay homage to.
These 21st-century uses of big-ups descend from older senses primarily from English-speaking parts of the Caribbean, where the phrase has several meanings, including (1) a strong or important person,1 and (2) to promote or to elevate the importance of (someone).2 Outside the Caribbean, the phrase first gained traction in New York City and London, where Caribbean immigrants had an influence on the development of hip-hop culture through the 70s and 80s, and it gradually spread through the 90s and 00s. Though big-ups still appears occasionally, some might find it a little dated, and it tends to give way to shout-out and other synonyms.
Music has become the vehicle to dis or big-up the latest fashion trend. [Vibe (1994)]
Big ups to Sean “Puffy” Combs who, despite being one of the most successful producers today, retains enough humility to reach back and pull up another black talent. [Billboard (1995)]
On Antichrist, Reznor bigs up the Manson like he’s remixing the Nibelungenlied, downspiraling dense horror-rock through a riotous digital din. [Spin (1997)]
Big ups to all the cats who have picked up a basketball and transformed it into an art form. [Basketball Jones: America Above the Rim (2000)]
Eric Wynalda’s vociferous backing of Taylor Twellman as the best forward in America today on MLSnet.com deserves big ups for its brazen chutzpah. [Sports Illustrated (2003)]
Just a quick big ups to Norman Lear, who graciously received the Marian Anderson Award last night at the Kimmel. [Philebrity (2008)]
I want to send out a special “big up” to all the people across the world who came to the assistance of their Haitian brothers and sisters. [Letter to Jamaica Observer (2010)]
Several big-ups, too, for Everton’s respectful team selection. [Telegraph (2013)]