Interviewed on January 3, 2018
After spending the past four years split between Mexico City, Houston and Brooklyn, Fat Tony is back in Los Angeles. Having done his part to permanently alter the face of Houston’s underground rap scene, Fat Tony, born Anthony Jude Obi, has returned with the intention of doing the same here in LA, one late-night warehouse party at a time. Since releasing his most recent album, the critically-embraced MacGregor Park, in 2017, Fat Tony has collaborated with Ricky Reed on “Son of God,” and most recently with Pregnant Boy on recent EP, Snak Pak. Beyond that, if you’ve gone dancing on the east side of LA this past year, chances are Fat Tony has DJ’ed for you. More than once.
I spoke with Fat Tony during soundcheck for an evening he recently curated at Zebulon, which included performances from an R&B singer with Jamaican roots, a duo of rapping comedians whose catchiest track was about cats, projected visuals of dancing rainbow animatrons and a sumptuously auto-tuned performance by Fat Tony himself. Read up below to find out how a stick pony, fast food and Dadaism factor into Fat Tony’s grand plan to change the way rap is heard and performed in LA.
What The Sound: Tell me a little bit about how tonight’s show came about.
Fat Tony: I’m trying to have a real local focus here in LA. It’s important to have an established presence here rather than treating it as a town that you play a couple times a year. I'm not at a level where I can do that in LA so I just want to be in the mix as much as possible. And performing is a great way to meet people. I want to be out in the public eye as much as possible — shaking hands, kissing babies — all that shit.
WTS: You do seem to be playing a wild amount of shows around LA — many of which feature comedians alongside hip-hop artists alongside graphic artists. How would you describe the community that gets together to put on these shows?
FT: Honestly, it's just a network of people that fuck with each other in real life. It’s one thing that I really like about living here — there's a good mix amongst people from different disciplines. From comedians to rappers to rock-n-roll performers to R&B singers to DJ's to actors. Everybody from every world seems to intersect in some way and I’m trying to capture that in shows like this. I knew that if I put this show together, it would be more diverse than if someone else did. When another promoter books me, they put me with a bunch of rap artists which can be short-sighted. Tonight, I just got a lot of people from different worlds and brought them all together.
WTS: I was doing a little reading up on your background and the topic of avant-garde art movements and Dadaism in particular comes up a lot. How does your understanding of past performance art movements enter into tonight’s show?
FT: Well, the whole Dada thing comes up because, when I learned about Dada in my early twenties, I found it interesting how humor functioned as a part of their art. An essential of Dadaism is poking fun at the industry that surrounds it and I think those jabs at capitalism are important. I’m a person that grew up on hip-hop and punk music — part of me is conditioned to think the music business is inherently bullshit. A lot of moves are not made for the progression of art’s sake but for the progression of somebody's pockets. I try to fight against that in every way that I can, all the while knowing that I'm playing a part in it. I work with corporations. I release music for money. I play shows for money. I'm part of the problem but I want to always have that element of bucking the system and I found that same intention in Dada.
WTS: And in terms of tonight’s performance?
FT: As far as putting more of a theatrical performance, I’ve started by incorporating visual elements into all of my shows. It just makes the show a bigger thing. I’ve also switched my performance style to a one-man show. I run it all myself now — I do the drops, I cue the music. I'll sample TV or film or do a bit of stage banter. That’s as far as I've gotten in terms of upping the theatrics of my own performance. I’d like to push it further — to have skits and costume changes. I think the image of somebody on stage just rapping is played out in some people's minds. For those who may look at me and say, “Oh, it's just another rapper,” — I want to show them, no, I’m doing different shit.'
WTS: When did you decide that you weren’t just another rapper?
FT: I always thought that I was doing something interesting, even when I was a teenager and was just getting started. I thought that, at the very least, all of my different musical, cultural and aesthetic interests were unlike those of most people I met. I felt that if I could find a way to blend all the parts of my personality into music, it would come across as interesting to somebody.
WTS: Speaking of pairing visuals with your music, a lot of your songs — the whole Macgregor Park album, for example — grounds itself in the sensory landscape of Houston. What is the relationship between your writing process and establishment of place? Do you always create environments for your songs to exist in?
FT: If I’m making a song I really love, I do. If I’m making a song that I’m not super excited about it, I don’t. If I’m writing a song I see going somewhere, I'll know what it’s going to look like on stage, what the music video is going to look like. I wrote an ode to Texas yesterday and I had this vision of rolling a giant tumbleweed out onstage, wearing a cowboy outfit and riding one of those toy doll ponies onstage. When those ideas start coming, I know I'm stoked on a song.
WTS: What is it like to make a song that you're not super stoked about?
FT: I second-guess myself a lot. I sit there and rewrite my parts a lot. It takes me longer to finish the song. I've figured out where my mind goes when I'm making something I'm not stoked on and I'm trying to be conscious of it and just move on to a new track. I know when I’m making something bordering on mediocrity and I’d rather pass on that. If you haven't noticed, the world is turning into shit. Nobody has time for that right now.
WTS: Do you have a philosophy about what art deserves to be made right now?
FT: I can't speak for other artists. As a music listener, I’ll only fuck with stuff that I genuinely like. As far as what I’m making, I’m definitely harder on myself this year than I was last year. When I moved to LA about a year ago, I was open to working with everybody. It left me feeling that, about a third of the time, I wasted time working with people I didn't fully vibe with. There are certain producers I worked with again and again and it never clicked. We’d butt heads about the content of the lyrics or about the direction of the song. I'm not doing that anymore. That is not to say that they're not talented, but their idea of a good song wasn’t mine.
WTS: Speaking of relationships with producers, you worked with the same producer, Tom Cruz, for a long time — do you still collaborate?
FT: He was the first music producer that served as a mentor to me. He produced my first album, RABDARGAB, my second album, Double Dragon, my third album Smart Ass Black Boy and he produced most of MacGregor Park. He recently moved to Jamaica and, because of that, I've opened up to working with more people. The whole time Tom Cruz and I were working on those albums, I essentially only collaborated with him. In my mind, he was the sound of my music and, honestly, he still is. But I think it's important for my growth to work with different producers. That’s one of the reasons why I'm back here [in LA] again — this is where you go when you want to make a lot of music right now in the US.
WTS: Is that the main reason why you decided to move from being a big fish in the relatively small pond in Houston to being a smaller fish in the gigantic pond that is LA?
FT: I first moved to LA to make my Smart Ass Black Boy and Double Dragon albums in 2012. I loved making music here and, after that point, I made all of my projects here. I saw LA as where I would go to hunker down and make an album.
WTS: Because of the resources available?
FT: I think making those two big albums just cemented LA in my mind as the place you go to record. Now that LA is my home, I don’t have the same feeling of coming into a workplace to make a project. Now I want to go out to Jamaica and make a record with Tom Cruz. I want to go back to Mexico and make music with my friends out there. It's so easy to get distracted when you're at your home base making music. Your distracted by your social groups, your romantic partner, all of the familiar things. I liked coming here when I didn't know anybody and all I had was a studio and a place to sleep. I love travel and I’m the kind of person that really vibes off the room I'm in, the people that I'm with. I want to switch that up for the rest of my life so I stay fresh, stay hungry and stay wanting to do more.
WTS: However, you did make most of MacGregor Park in your hometown of Houston, didn’t you?
FT: Yes, it was important for me to make it there. I got the idea of making an album that honors my home when I moved back to Houston from Brooklyn. I was so inspired by, not Houston in general, but my part of Houston, the Third Ward. All the familiar restaurants, the buildings I grew up around, my family and friends. When I go back there and walk around, I feel like I'm fresh out of high school again and I'm hungry about making music. I never want to lose that feeling of being 18, getting out of high school, and feeling like, “Yo, the world is mine, I can accomplish so much with my music and I'm down to do whatever it takes, to crash on a couch, to spend all my money to make this tour work.” Those aren't things I have to do anymore, but I never want to lose that hunger.
WTS: Were you worried about leaving a city where you’d really established yourself and your fanbase?
FT: No — if you're a fan of mine, I’d hope you’d want to see me grow. I’ve never worried about losing fans or failing, even. I’ve always been risky. I remember the first time I went to Brooklyn, I went to this Ninjasonik show and I stayed until it was 4:00AM ‘cause I didn't have nothing else to do and I was there solo. All those guys got in the cab and they're were like, “Yo, were going to Brooklyn who's hopping in with us?” to their friend group and I hopped in their car and they were like, who are you? I was like, “Y'all don’t know me, I’m Fat Tony, I’m from Houston, this is my first time in Brooklyn. I don't know where you're going but I want to ride with you.” And they were just like, “Damn, that's bold of you. All right, come and rock with us.” We ended up being really good friends and making music together. That was the attitude I had then and I still have now. I'm not afraid to talk to anybody or go anywhere in the pursuit of making music.
WTS: And that boldness comes naturally to you?
FT: Yeah, it's more natural for me to do that than to think about playing it safe. Doing something comfortable makes me anxious. Staying in the same place for too long makes me feel jittery. When I'm on the go, trying something new, letting new ideas come and challenging myself — that’s when I was feel the happiest.
WTS: So how did you end up with the opportunity to adventure to Mexico City last year?
FT: I first went to Mexico City in 2015 to play the NRML Festival and I was blown away by how cool the audience was. Everyone I met seemed to really just love music. People were less worried about hype and branding — I know it's a cliche to leave the US and go to Europe or whatever and say, “Oh, they're real music fans,” but I really felt that way. I performed at the Material Art Fair the following year and the fair directors told me how much they loved rap music but how rappers rarely come to Mexico City. I was like, that’s crazy — I have so many friends that I make music with that would love to come here. I started a monthly residency called Function, where I booked rappers from all parts of the US — from the Bay Area, the South, the East Coast. I really wanted to show people in Mexico City what a huge, diverse thing rap was.
WTS: Looking at the varied lineup of the show you booked tonight, it seems like you’re continuing the project of educating, but time this, you’re teaching folks who came to hear to rap about the topic of alt-comedy and vice-versa.
FT: Yeah, I love to set a vibe that mixes things up. Even on my Function shows, I didn't just have rappers all the time — I had DJs, I had Mexican Jihad, comedians — I wanted to keep it diverse as much as I could even though my focus was hip-hop. It’s more of a fulfilling experience to try a bit of every flavor. Even flavors that seem to conflict. One thing I like about the show tonight is that Special 2 has a song that disses fast food and I have a song called “Drive Thru” thats biggin’ up fast food. It’s great that in one concert you can hear both sides of an argument. Then you can make up your mind about your own feelings on fast food.
WTS: So tonight you’re curating a show featuring Amindi K Frost, The Special 2 and Pop Morris— what other artists are you psyched on right now?
FT: Definitely Amindi K. — the first time I saw her last year, I was blown away by her performance. Her whole look, her whole swag feels honest and young. I’m a big fan of this group called Injury Reserve from Phoenix, they live out here now— I feel like they’re the best rap group right now. The Outfit TX — they’re crazy, like a new age Three 6 Mafia to me. Heavin, my roommate, he makes electronic stuff mixed with R&B mixed with some soulful-ass guitar. For my last one, probably my boy Morris with his new project, “Pop Morris.” He blends all these different genres — from rap to pop to hip-hop. It’s just bugged out, genius stuff. I’ve never heard anything like it.
Interview by Becca Millstein