FAT TONY: THERE’S NO END TO THIS
photography by alex the brown
Fat Tony is either half way around the world with Virgil Abloh, playing a set in your city, or is in that YouTube thumbnail you keep scrolling over. The ubiquitous rapper slash musician slash game show host is a staple of L.A.’s eastside live music scene—think Zebulon or the Satellite—but I would stop short of calling him ‘underground.’ He’s endlessly active and has a breadth of talent that’s rare for anyone, musician or otherwise. His newest album 10,000 Hours (out Sept. 28 on Don Giovanni) is part victory lap and part celebration of an artist who’s mastered at least a few of the five elements. It’s also intimate in a way that made me uncomfortable, rattling in its honesty and clear expressions of love and struggle. Strong recommend. When we talked, he was in his hometown Houston prepping for a set—one of a few cross-country dates he’s playing before he pops out for a more extensive tour. He’ll be performing at a voter registration benefit at the Teragram Ballroom this Sunday. This interview by Tolliver.
You’re playing Houston tonight.
Fat Tony: Sure am, man. I’m in my frickin’ home town, I can’t believe it. I’m literally sitting in my childhood bedroom right now, man. This room is really special to me, cause it used to be my parents room when I was a kid. When I was in the sixth grade, we had a house fire right before Christmas and this entire second story burned down and we lost everything. We lost most of my baby pictures, all of my mom and dad’s record collection, I lost tons of my toys and books and video games, and we had to start over. So we moved to another part of Third Ward. And we just rebuilt this house after a year or two of hard work, and then we moved back in. And this room that became my room … is like a reset for me. I’m sitting here, I’m looking around. It’s still painted the same color that it was when we rebuilt this house. All those thoughts start coming back to me man—it’s some serious nostalgia going on right now.
You’ve been an emissary for hip-hop with your monthly FUNCTION parties in Mexico City, but what about your own journey? How did you end up here in L.A.?
Fat Tony: I started making music as a kid in Houston. I wanted to make music that resembled a lot of my early heroes like Devin the Dude and UGK and Lil’ Keke and Big Moe. People like them and Scarface were my very first idols. Then when I got into high school, I started to get into this crew Native Tongues. I loved crews, I loved Tribe. So I started a rap group called The Low End, named after The Low End Theory. And my dream was to be like Q-Tip. I wanted to be like a producer/rapper that was in a group where another rapper was kind of a fire lyricist, kinda like Phife Dawg or Bun B, and just be the support—the nucleus for the group. For my first album I met my longtime producer Shaka, a.k.a. Tom Cruz a.k.a. GLDN_EYE. He’s also an artist that goes against the grain that’s also from the south. He was raised in Atlanta. And like me he has a parent that’s a foreigner. My dad is Nigerian, his dad is Jamaican. So we could identify in a lot of different ways. He’s had production on all of my albums since. I never want to imitate what the mainstream’s doing; I don’t even want to imitate what the underground’s doing. I want to make sure that I stand out in some way, shape or form. It’s really important to me to stand on my own and have an identity.
What role does Hevln play in this? He produced most of the new album.
Fat Tony: I’ve known Hevln damn near all my life. I was friends with his little sister. Her and I were really into punk music. We would jam together and go to feminist rallies, go to shows and do all the things that little bad punk kids do. I always admired him cause he was one of the first people I saw who played in a band and who played shows and he had a Myspace page with a lot of music on it. He was an example of what I wanted to be: a professional artist. When I moved to L.A. at the end of 2016, he and I lived together for a little over a year. During that time I made a lot of music with him. I had no intention of making an album or anything—we were just making songs for fun. It came from a really pure place. After about a year of doing that, I took a look at our recordings and I was like, ‘Damn, maybe we have something here. Let’s try to make a project.’
Tell me about the song ‘Charles.’ That’s a beautiful arrangement of a very personal song.
Fat Tony: So ‘Charles’ is about my brother. He’s autistic and non-verbal and he’s been that way for as long as I remember. It was originally a song I wrote with my group Charge it to the Game. We put out that song on our EP back in 2016. I always loved that song—thought it was really touching. I thought it was the best song I ever made. Last year I wrote an essay for Talk House about me and my brother’s relationship—about how I’ve come to understand that we have our own way of communication, our own way of expression that’s really different from most siblings that I know. I’ve known people to have an autistic sibling, but I’ve never known anyone to have a non-verbal one. That was something that I always felt alone about. It sounds silly but I grew up seeing sibling relationships in media and kinda longing for that. I wanted to have a brother that was my best friend that I ran around town with and did all kinds of stuff with and taught things … to have that really close experience. As I got older, I started to examine our relationship more and I realized we have our own way of sharing things—of communicating things—that I can’t really compare to anything else and I saw the beauty in that. And I wanted to honor it.
On the song ‘Rumors’, you talk about a really intense high school experience.
Fat Tony: There’s a website called Xanga. These kids in my high school made this anonymous page where they would talk shit about people at school. They made a post about me saying that I’ve asked all these girls out and asked them to be my girlfriend and they’ve all turned me down. It also named some of the girls they were calling sluts and said they were hooking up with me and they’re trashy and all this shit. Most of it wasn’t true. Some of it was true. There was one or two girls in there that I had crushes on and they told me they weren’t interested. I thought my reputation was ruined like, ‘Oh, I’m such a loser.’ And I go to school and it turns out people are laughing at it in a way that didn’t feel that cruel. People were kind of aware that it was a mean-spirited thing and it wasn’t cool. Even the principal spoke with me and was like, ‘This is some bullshit.’ I started to make friends with people who read about that thing that didn’t really know me before that. And the girls that wrote it got called out by some of the girls that they were talking shit about, and they had a confrontation one morning when I was going to school and that was that.
Did that affect the way you interact with women?
Fat Tony: No because people didn’t change the way they behaved around me. No one came back to me like, ‘Oh, you’re such a loser. Oh, you suck.’ People were nice to me.
You’ve said in the past you want to do more than music. With your hand in so many pots, how will you know when you’ve made it? When you get 8 million streams, for example? What’s the marker?
Fat Tony: I feel like there’s no end to this thing. I feel lucky that I’ve been able to be a working artist since 2011. I’ve never been forced to take any work that isn’t related to my talents or creativity. I think that’s what we all dream of. To be able to feed yourself and your loved ones is incredible, and so many people don’t get that opportunity. So I definitely feel like I’ve made it in that sense. This isn’t something just to do while we’re young. I hope to find new ways to be creative and express myself till I die. I want to keep writing and writing and singing and being a DJ. I want to be coming with something new when I’m 70 years old.
You’re very busy.
Fat Tony: I sure am. [laughs] You have to be when you’re working class and you’re freelance. You have to take on as many jobs as time allows.
You’re going on tour very soon, and you’ve been back and forth to Paris a couple times this year. Does it feel hectic? Or are you managing?
Fat Tony: The only hectic part is scheduling. Making sure I’m getting the best deal on flights, making sure I’m staying on time for everything—for press and for shows and for [his YouTube series] “Thrift Haul” and for all this stuff. And also at this point in my life, I like being home. When I’m not working I want to be home enjoying where I live—relaxing and enjoying my life. I just came across a tweet I wrote in 2013, and I said, ‘I would like to be on tour 300 days out of the year.’ I don’t feel like that anymore. Being a performer is my favorite part of being a musician, but I value my home life more than I ever have. Maybe that’s something that just came with age.
This was actually supposed to be my first question, and it’s not even a question. I saw in an interview that you said L.A. has $7 banh mi. I’m telling you, man—they got it for $2 in Chinatown.
Fat Tony: That’s how it should be!
Is that how it is in Houston?
Fat Tony: That is absolutely how it is here. Houston has the most Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam. I’ve grown up with Vietnamese people and food my entire life and I’m used to a banh mi that’s a fair price. I think it’s a real crime when these restaurants try to take a quote unquote ‘ethnic’ food and spike up the price and try to pass it off as this exotic new thing. It’s street food, dude. Give it some respect.
When I saw you said that, I thought, ‘That’s criminal.’
Fat Tony: Criminal! I’ll never buy it.
DIRTY LAUNDRY TV & PENNIBACK RECORDS PRESENT RISE ABOVE: A VOTER REGISTRATION BENEFIT SHOW WITH FAT TONY, HUTCH HARRIS (THE THERMALS), FRANCES QUINLAN (OF HOP ALONG), CRUSH (MEMBERS OF THE BLACK LIPS) AND MORE ON SUN., SEPT. 23, AT THE TERAGRAM BALLROOM, 1234 W. 7TH ST., DOWNTOWN. $16-$20 / 5 PM / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! FAT TONY’S 10,000 HOURS IS OUT FRI., SEPT. 28, ON DON GIOVANNI. VISIT FAT TONY AT FATTONYRAP.BANDCAMP.COM.