Fat Tony is a fast rising star of the Texas rap scene who has won the “Best Underground Hip Hop” award from the Houston Press four times in the last eight years, and in today’s intervlew Clara Wang talks about going from regional sensation to that next level as an artist.
Clara Wang: So you’re from Houston, and you’re Nigerian-American. Tell me about how your background has influenced your music, both culturally and just being from the South.
Fat Tony: Growing up, being a Nigerian-American really wasn’t on the forefront of my mind. Going to school, most of my classmates were just regular black American kids. I only had a couple friends growing up that had a Nigerian parent. We would talk about it, but not really. But as I got older, and I started to meet more people with an immigrant parent, who were not only from Africa, but like from Asia, Latin America, I started to see that there was something similar in all of us having a foreigner as a parent.
Clara Wang: Like the immigrant kid experience.
Fat Tony: I think lots of the discipline that’s instilled in the sons and daughters of immigrant parents really influences them, in the sense of rebellion and angst. Typically American teenage kids are angsty, and they don’t like authority, they don’t like parents, teachers blah blah blah. But I think when you have an immigrant parent, because of their hardships, they’re oftentimes a lot harder on their children than a lot of American parents, and that really had a big effect on me. I think that’s one thing that got me deeper into music and finding music as a source of refuge to calm down, and to let my emotions free, rather than to bottle them up.
Fat Tony: And being from Houston – Houston is one of the most important rap cities in the world, we have made so many styles, and have produced so many artists that have influenced the whole culture of hip-hop, from here on out. And that influence was always really really deep in me, but similar to me having an immigrant dad, I didn’t really notice the big difference. Like growing up, I would hear local artists on the radio at the same time as major artists. So when I would listen to radio, I would hear Master P, and hear DMX, and hear Lil’ Keke, and hear Big Mo played back to back, and there was never mention of, ‘Hey, these are local guys,’ or ‘Hey, these are non-local guys.’ Growing up, a Big Mo was as important as a Jay-Z to me, I didn’t really know the difference. But I think coming up in a city with such a history of rap music, I was really lucky, because rap was on the forefront of everything that I did growing up.
Clara Wang: You talk about the de-regionalization of hip-hop. You don’t have a traditional “Houston” sound; it’s not really chopped and screwed, or syrupy trap. How has the internet influenced that?
Fat Tony: It was through the internet that I got to hear different styles of music, from Napster or Limewire I was able to look up bands that I couldn’t find in the local CD store. I was able to do the research, thanks to the internet, about where they’re from, and why they did what they did, and what kind of impact it had. And I soaked up all that knowledge, and kind of put it into my own music. I heard a great quote once: An artist that’s inspired isn’t really trying to copy another artist, they’re just taking that artist’s idea and filtering it through their new mind. So in my mind, I’m trying to be like all these great artists that I love, like E-40, or Tribe Called Quest. But since I’m my own person it’s going to come out differently to the rest of y’all. Everything that I do, is in some way trying to honor all the artists that I loved and admired growing up, and it just came out original. I always wanted to set myself apart from other artists. I never wanted to do anything that was super trendy, or anything that was too typical. I feel like when you’re trying to hop on a trend, it’s easy to get lost in it. But even if you’re doing something different that people don’t really get at first, I think they’ll eventually get it, and if they don’t, you’ll at least be more of a memorable artist because you set yourself apart.
Clara Wang: If you’re trying to follow something else, you’ll always be one step behind.
Fat Tony: Yeah, I think the thing that’s trendy and happening now is happening now for a reason, and it might not happen the next day. So I think it’s important to try to be as original as possible. That’s what I look for in an artist. I would rather have an artist that is totally original, than to have the most talented artist, or the best rapper.
Clara Wang: Newton said, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” Speaking of which, your comedic style actually really reminds me of Cam’ron. It’s funny, but you’re not a punchline rapper like Fab or Ludacris.
Fat Tony: Cam’ron is one of the artists that inspired me to rap. I was walking to my eighth-grade history class – I used to carry a walkman around, a little radio. And I remember the radio station was playing “Oh Boy” by Cam’ron, and I stopped on my way to class, and I listened to it. I listened to that one song, I went to class, and I told my three friends that we need to taking music seriously. That was back in eighth grade, like 2001, and we all rapped, we all like to freestyle, but after hearing that song, it really inspired me to be like, ‘Yo, let’s just try to take this shit seriously.’ So it’s interesting that you noticed Cam, because he’s easily one of my favorite rappers and a huge inspiration for everything that I do.
Clara Wang: How did you get into rap, originally?
Fat Tony: Just growing up. I’m 28, born in 1988, and I grew up in the 90’s and the 2000’s with rap playing everywhere. I pretty much feel like if you’re an American teen who grew up in the 90’s or the 2000’s, you listened to rap music. I always wanted to make music from an early age. Growing up I liked Michael Jackson, I liked cartoons like Alvin and the Chipmunks that had tons of music in it. I loved popular music, I loved music that my parents played, I just loved music. And it just happened to be that rap was the music of my generation, so that’s what I came out making. If I grew up in the 20’s, maybe I’d make blues, if I grew up in the 30’s, 40’s, maybe I’d make jazz.
Clara Wang: It’s really just an artistic outlet.
Fat Tony: It just so happens that I grew up at a time where rap was the music of choice. I grew up loving rap.
Clara Wang: Your new EP, “Look,” has a much more intense sound than your last album “Smart Ass Black Boy.” What do you think accounts for that?
Fat Tony: I would say it’s a mix of things. I wanted to do something more upbeat, and more in-your-face, because I knew I purposely took a laid-back approach on SABB. A lot of flows I used on that album were slower, and I really wanted to concentrate on people hearing the words and making it as simple and as direct as possible. With this project, I wanted to do something a bit more experimental. When I met Morris and I started working with him, I noticed that he was kind of on the same wave. I’ve known Morris for years – we’ve played shows together, he’s a casual acquaintance in Los Angeles. I had a show coming up, and my normal DJ illFaded could not make it, so I had to find a new guy. We started to practice, and when I performed, he used all these effects – the reverb effect, and the delay effect, sometimes an autopitch/AutoTune effect. Just to spice up the show and fill in the parts where I’m not doing the hook. And I noticed that he was really into being experimental too – he was into doing all kinds of sound effects, and he was into doing all kinds of crazy drops. He would do stuff with me during rehearsals where he would slow the beat down one part, and then bring it back to the right time going into the next verse. And I was really impressed by how experimental he was down to get, and that really fit with where I’m at now as an artist. It was the willingness to improvise and really experiment with music that drew me to him, and I’m glad that a lot of it came across in the music too.
Clara Wang: So the energy of the moment.
Fat Tony: He was just down to do some freaky shit. He was down to shit that I knew was wrong. All different kinds of samples – in the first song, “Waterfalls,” there’s a drastic tempo shift off the hook that really broke off the song, and made it hard to dance to. And it’s not just for the sake of being weird to be weird. For us, it keeps us on our toes, and keeps us excited.
Clara Wang: I like how y’all are like, ‘It’s lit. It’s art.’
Fat Tony: That’s true.
Clara Wang: What were some moments in your career that you’ve been like, ‘I’ve made it?’
Fat Tony: There’s been several moments. There’s always times where you’re feeling down, and feeling like you want to quit, or you want to give up. And it’s those moments when something good happens. Every time. I remember the first time that I signed a record deal to put out SABB with Young Ones Records, which were part of Partisan Records. Right before I got that record deal offer, I had to quit school because I couldn’t afford it and my parents couldn’t afford it anymore. I had just finished a tour where I got into a big fight with one of my close friends. I had just got fired from my part-time job because I went on tour and the management changed. I was going to play a festival in Austin, called Fun Fun Fun Fest, and these guys just wanted to hang out and talk to me. I never thought nothing of it, they were just some young dudes trying to hang out. I was really friendly with them, and I gave them my contact. A couple months later they messaged me and were like, ‘Hey, we’re starting this label, and we want to put out a record with you.’ They sent over a (record) deal and I really liked it, and I moved to Los Angeles, and I lived there for six months to make a couple albums that changed my life.
Fat Tony: Another time I felt like I had a purpose in making music was my birthday party in 2011. This was about the time when I just started to meet Bun B, and he came to my birthday party. He just came totally by himself, and just sat with me for about two hours and told me all these stories about his group UGK, and all the hardships they had, and about all the times that he wanted to quit music. He told me stories that they had a popular record on Houston radio, but they had troubles with their record label and he wasn’t making money and he wanted to quit. He ended up with a big break by being on a movie soundtrack that was like a big, big movie. Or another time where they wanted to quit, and then they got the offer to be on the Jay-Z song “Big Pimpin’.” Or another time they really wanted to quit because Pimp C went to jail. Just having him humble himself and come to me, and just really put me on some game, really inspired me to keep going. I thought, ‘Yo, if a legendary artist like him, that I’ve looked to for years, has had some similar problems as I’ve had, if he can overcome them, why can’t I?’
Clara Wang: Anything other projects you want us to know about?
Fat Tony: I’ve got a new duo called ‘Charge it to the Game’ with Kyle Mabson and we made it on some old-school gear. It’s all keyboards, and samplers, and drum machines. We used no computers to make the music, and it’s a five-song EP. It’s called “Urban Hall of Fame,” coming out in May on Ghost Ramp Records. I have an album called “Memph Record Park,” produced my long-time producer Tom Cruz coming up. I’m trying to put out as music as possible for 2016.
Clara Wang: Top three old-school and top three new-school rappers.
Fat Tony: My top three old school rappers are E-40, Too $hort, and Pimp C. My top three new school rappers are Chief Keef, Young Thug, and Future.