“The fuckin' hospitality was nice,” says a jovial Fat Tony as he reflects on the backstage spread he received while performing at the Downtown Musical Festival earlier this month. A Houston-based rapper who counts on strong ties (and frequent visits) to the New York City hip-hop scene, Fat Tony's in town to begin promoting his upcoming Smart Ass Black Boy album which will drop on June 11. It's a project that should establish him as one of this year's canniest rap voices: Over beats provided by his erstwhile production partner Tom Cruz, Tony is comfortable kicking raps that quickly and cleverly switch from earnest introspection to a waggish type of braggadocio. Smart Ass Black Boy is also a project best characterized in the old-fashioned sense of being a proper album, what with it totaling a near-perfect length of 11 songs and possessing a storybook start, middle and ending to the listen. So as he enjoys the afterglow of his Downtown Fest stint, we checked in with Fat Tony to talk about Danny Brown's recent stage shenanigans, crowd-surfing felines, and the time he was scammed out of a deposit for a Brooklyn apartment.
You mentioned the hospitality at the Downtown Festival being great. What did it involved?
It just had nice wine, nice little chips and salsa. That counts.
What's the worst backstage hospitality you've experienced?
Oh my god, man, I had a dressing room once that was like a utility closet and it had a cooler. The cooler was melted ice, a fuckin' banana and one beer. That was it, the only thing in the whole room.
Did you eat the banana?
Hell, nah! I didn't touch that. It was like a slap in the face. But I worked with it. Sometimes I'll play a place like that and they'll give me nothing, but sometimes I'll play a real fancy place and they'll give me a whole buffet and top shelf liquor, but as long as the place has somewhere to chill like a couch and some water, I'm cool with it.
It's all about the couch for you?
Yeah, I like to chill before I play. I don't really get drunk and smoke before, I like to relax. I like to save all the other stuff up for afterwards. Sometimes I'll take a walk, like if the dressing room is packed I'll go out and walk around the building where I can get totally away from everything and get into a good zone. There's been several times where I'm playing a show and I'm so excited for it and all my friends are backstage and we'll be drinking and I feel like I spent so much of my energy hanging out I don't have the same vibe on stage.
Does it get sloppy on stage when that happens?
It never gets sloppy 'cause I'm definitely professional, but it's in little ways — it's probably stuff that fans won't notice but we as artists notice, like, “You didn't say it the same way as last time,” or “I noticed you changed this word 'cause you forgot the lyric.” So I never have a backstage where it's 30 dudes backstage smoking; at most it'll be me, Tom Cruz and five or six of our best girlfriends and we'll let a little wine flow.
What other artists have given you feedback on your live show?
Man, the O.G. Ron C and Bun B both said my shows were professional but still fun, like it didn't look like I was trying too hard and trying to get the crowd to chant and put their hands up like a cliche, so it was about me being natural. I mean, I'll look at the set-list sometimes on stage and often we'll just change it up; I'll look at Tom and we'll go in a new direction. A lot of times it's guys getting up there and spilling drinks and slurring words and it's more about the action of it, I guess, which is cool but it gets old. I'm a grown man, I've seen so many shows like that, it doesn't impress me that a guy's up there being a drunk clown. I want it to be professional and sound good.
Ol' Dirty Bastard was pretty great at being a drunk clown on stage though.
See, now his whole style was being fucked up! Him being drunk and high was his whole zone and he was good at that. Every artist can't be good at that. Every artist can't be ODB or Keith Moon.
What would an ODB and Keith Moon collaboration have come out like?
A lot of drugs. Heavy drug use and then a lot of sleep. Actually, it would probably be them snoring for most of it.
Can you remember the first time you heard ODB?
Shit, probably the first time I remember really knowing about Wu-Tang was '97, so I must have been in third grade. I was watching BET and MTV hard and they had a big campaign; ODB was coming out calling himself Big Baby Jesus and they had the track with Mya and Pras, plus the Wu-Tang Forever album, and I felt like ODB was the one that stood out the most and was doing the most press. He was a character. ODB is a one-of-a-kind artist. He's like a guy who is a miracle for this world. He's a straight-up unconfined artist. I feel like ODB went out there and did his thing and it was up to people around him like RZA to construct it into something. That's my favorite kind of art, really, shit like Dada, punk music, where people say the first things they think of. I see the beauty in that.
Is there anyone out there rapping now who you'd put up there with ODB in that respect?
Danny Brown kind of, 'cause Danny Brown has a wild energy to him and he's one of my favorite artists right now, but he's more a straight-up technical rapper. I think that people take the fact that he looks crazy and that some of his songs are about crazy shit as a reason to think he's crazy, but he's really a straight-up rappers' rapper: crazy flows, technically solid, good-ass rhymes. He's like an MC that we don't really get to see these days.
What do you think of his recent exploits on stage?
I'm not sure. I'm not sure of the context of it 'cause when I first read it I was like, “Oh, this is insane! This guy's got head on stage!” Then I read the Kitty Pryde article about it and I was like, “Damn, maybe it was kinda bad.” The way that Kitty painted it was a fucked up thing like she kinda forced herself on him: he was playing a show, the girl came up and grabbed his pants, pulled his pants down, pulled his dick out and then she started sucking his dick and he just kinda had to go along with it. The only thing about that is it's like a double-edged sword, 'cause it's cool and funny and it's gonna make him look like a total badass, but on the other hand I feel like people will want to write him off 'cause they think that he forced that or that it was his idea or that he planned it. But he's a great artist so I hope it doesn't undermine his artistry and what people think about him in a critical sense. But it is what it is — sometimes when you get head, you gotta get head.
Have you ever gotten head on stage?
I have never gotten head on stage. But if it did happen to me, I can't lie, I would probably not say a thing!
What's the most bizarre thing that's happened at one of your shows?
I just played a show with Antwon a couple of months ago in a little town outside of Dallas and that was the craziest crowd I've played to in a while. Fist of all, a guy got a stray cat from off the street, brought the cat inside and started crowd-surfing the cat. Kids were passing the cat around. Then people were excited but also pissed, like it was animal cruelty. This girl grabbed the cat from him and took it outside to like rescue the cat. That was a cool audience 'cause it was like spring break time and I could tell that the kids were in that spring break forever partying mode 'cause on the last song one girl came up and started dancing on me, then another girl started dancing with Tom Cruz, then another five came up, then suddenly it was like 30 girls on stage. Our set ended so we just deejayed a load of club anthems and just partied.
What did you think when you saw the cat crowd-surfing?
I was busy, man! I was in the middle of a song, I couldn't do shit! All I did was pet the cat and tried to let the cat know that it had love.
What song were you performing while the cat crowd-surfed?
I don't even remember! It was a really really slow song, like one of my chill songs, so the cat was like bouncing along with it. I was trying to make sure the cat didn't run off or anything. Then the next night we played this show in Houston and a kid brought a dog on stage. [Pauses] I don't know what's going on. Animals love us.
What Fat Tony song from the new album do you think cats would like best?
I would say “Frenzy,” 'cause it's a tropical anthem about me and Tom Cruz going out to L.A. and just kickin' back and enjoying life and plotting our next move, and cats are really smart so I think they'd feel that vibe. You know what, I think cats would probably feel the whole vibe of Smart Ass Black Boy. Cats are hella smart and they love black people, traditionally, if you look back to the Egyptians and shit.
What about Fat Tony songs for dogs?
I got plenty of songs for my dogs. There's “Hood Party,” there's “Creepin'” which is something all my dogs know plenty about.
Have you been playing many songs from the new album at your recent shows?
What songs have you received a best reaction to?
I actually played a remix to my “BKNY.” song that isn't out yet and the crowd were into it, swaying along.
What's the remix like? Is it a different beat?
Yeah, it's a different beat and I'm gonna have Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire and Melo-X rap on it. Melo-X and Tom Cruz have actually been friends for like ten years and Tom Cruz's old group, Melo recorded their album. The group was called Supreeme, from Atlanta.
There's a rumors that you tried to move to New York once but got ripped off over an apartment.
Yeah, that was crazy. So, basically a couple of years ago I was coming here to make an album and I was supposed to live with Tom Cruz. I started to live with him then began to stay with a homegirl for a little bit. I went back and it turned out that Tom's roommate fucked him over and robbed him and another roommate for all their savings. They had an actual savings chest in their house, like with a code for it that they all used. So he had to leave that place and he's looking for a new spot and he tells me he's found one and they're ready to give it to us right now and he needs cash for it. He had like $700 and I had another $400. So he takes the cash and he goes to meet her and sign the lease. He goes and waits and calls her back like 12 hours later and is like, “Yo, I've been sitting and waiting at this train station for like 12 hours, what's up?” But nothing.
The next day, we decide to roll over to the apartment she's supposedly rented for us and see what's good. It turns out we get there and a lady comes to the door and says, “Oh, you tried to rent an apartment from her? Really?” The lady goes inside then comes back and says, “I got to tell y'all something. That lady doesn't really live there. It's her step-dad's place and she doesn't really live there.” She had a thing where she has a key and it's totally clean, so she gets the deposit then disappears. So we went to the police station and sure enough, she had a whole record for scamming people. I have no idea what happened to her. I think Tom Cruz tried to follow up but after I left town I never heard about her again.
Where was the apartment?
It was in East New York, like near the Brownsville area. It was deep in the 'hood.
What happened then?
We were homeless so we stayed with our homie Jason Scott in Jersey City. We were there for like two weeks and during that I found out my grandmother was really sick and was close to passing away. I took a flight back home and pretty much stayed with my family at home for a couple of months and didn't make any music. My grandmother passed away. I'd made a few songs in Jersey and ended up getting some interest from Young One Records and we signed a deal for them and ended up using some of those songs. Most of the songs for my Double Dragon tape that came out were from then and a couple of them from that time are on the Smart Ass Black Boy album.
Did your grandmother passing away change the sort of songs you were writing?
Man, it didn't change the way I write, but it changed the way I looked at life in general. I was with my grandmother for most of my entire life; my home was me, my mom, my dad, my younger brother and my grandmother. It was the first time someone in my life that close passed away and I had to face it. It made me more serious about the things that I'm doing. It drove me to want to go harder with music and make sure that everything I do is totally thorough. I talked to her on the phone but by the time I got back home, I literally went from the airport to the hospital and she had died minutes before I got there.
Was she a fan of your music?
Absolutely. She was probably the biggest supporter of my music in my house. My mom and dad weren't really down with it. She would have been 82 this year but she just loved me and wanted me to be happy and vibe with that. She saw how the music made me happy. Any time I was in a newspaper or a magazine she'd collect them in a scrapbook and keep all my CDs and tell her church friends about it.
What does your younger brother do?
My younger brother is severely autistic. He stays at home and my parents watch him. He went to school up until 18, 19, and now he stays at home. He's a year younger than me. Growing up, he was always really sick; he was probably diagnosed in the first grade.
Were you aware he had autism when you were a kid?
I was aware but it was normal to me. I was aware that he was different but because he was my brother, it was just, “Oh, that's Charles.” I didn't know it was like a big thing. I just thought my brother was this way. My brother doesn't talk so when I was little I'd tell my parents stuff like, “He just speaks Spanish, y'all don't get it yet.” It wasn't a big deal to me. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I met some more autistic people and I started going to like the seminars with my mom and seeing this is some serious shit. [Pauses] It definitely made my life different. I don't know anyone else who has an autistic brother.
Changing topic completely, you're wearing a DJ Screw sweater. What was your first Screw tape?
My first Screw tape was probably this one called Codeine Fiend. It's probably still my favorite one still. It had “Swangin' And Bangin'” on it by E.S.G., a famous Screwed Up Click artist, it has Biggie's “One More Chance” on it. I was maybe in high school. Screw is the same way that my brother is or my grandmother was, like things that are just so familiar to me that I don't think it's anything special or they don't seem that weird to me. It wasn't until I started leaving Texas that I realized Screw was something not everyone knew about and it seemed strange to them. Screw is so big that friends of mine would get a brand new album and they would only want the screwed version. It's some really special experimental music. I mean, some of the times it would be soul and R&B, not even hip-hop. Actually, one of my favorite Screw tapes is called Late Night Fuckin' Your Bitch and it's nothing but R&B shit: R Kelly, Brandy, Aaliyah, Janet Jackson. He has tapes where he screwed reggae groups, but it was mostly southern rap and Bay Area rap.
Did you ever get to buy tapes from DJ Screw's house?
Never. He passed away in 2000 so I was like in seventh grade then. I was definitely not going to Screw's house. But in the mid-2000s they took pretty much everything he did and remastered it.
You mentioned Bay Area rap. Why is there such a strong link between the southern and Bay Area scenes?
It was because there were a lot of independent labels and independent artists making their own records and selling their own records and booking their own shows. It's the same in lots of places like that: Memphis, Houston, the Bay Area, even Atlanta has a scene like that, even though it got to the mainstream earlier than those other scenes. I think the independent hustle appealed, especially as we had Rap-A-Lot with J. Prince. Even now, being the kinda artist that I am, I often find myself linking up with other artists that have similar business models to me and will play similar shows. We're all in the same boat, with similar ideas and ideals about music. We see eye to eye; I see more eye to eye with a D.I.Y. artist like B-L-A-C-K-I-E or Antwon than Justin Bieber 'cause he's a mainstream artist.
Were you aware of that division when you first began listening to music?
Hell yeah! Hell yeah, because when I was growing up I feel like rap was very separated — either you were a backpack underground fan and you hated commercial music or you were a mainstream fan who had no idea about the underground. Now I think it's a little better and there's more of an acceptance and more of a willingness to intermingle. But back in the days there was a crazy divide — either you liked this or you liked that. And that was it.
Were you like that?
As far as rap? No. But I did in other genres. Punk was the only kind of rock music I liked in my teenage years, like if it was a classic rock like a Led Zeppelin or metal, I'd be like hell nah, it's strictly punk and hardcore; we don't want to listen if it's not endorsed by punk people. I grew out of that once I started going to college. I realized rock was great music and I was closing myself off to so much great music by being a closed-minded little punk kid. And I've definitely seen friends of mine do that with rap, like they've been strictly a backpack kid and others who were strictly a gangsta rap fan.
What were you like as a closed-minded little punk kid?
I just listened to straight-up rap and punk music, like '90s punk music and L.A.'s old scene like X and Black Flag and Circle Jerks, and I love New York's scene like the Ramones and Television and Suicide. At school I really liked stuff like the Epitaph artists. It's crazy, 'cause now I listen to a lot of '90s punk bands and I just don't feel it the same. The older I get, the more I feel like I can only fuck with the original punk bands, the '70s and '80s stuff, that's what I identify with the most but growing up I liked current stuff.
Were you ever in a punk band yourself?
For fun, but never to play a show or nothing. I'm actually in a punk band now called Cunt Killer and we don't really play or nothing, it's just to jam out and have fun. It's with some friends back home in Houston.
Is being in Cunt Killer like an energy release?
Absolutely, it's like a workout. It's a part of me as an artist that I'm never ever gonna let go of. I mean, I feel like being in a band is kinda played out, but I love playing with my friends.
What sort of music do you make?
It's mostly instrumental stuff, really catchy, a straight-forward mix like Nirvana type stuff and with a Blink 182 catchiness with the riffs
Will any of this music ever be released?
Who knows? We have an album worth of stuff. But we're all in different bands so we're always busy.
Smart Ass Black Boy isn't released for a few weeks yet. Is it a strange situation to be waiting for the rest of the world to hear it?
Man, yeah, but I have learned to become so patient with music 'cause in music things happen like that. Albums are made a year before they come out. This is my second time making a full-length album. I've been making projects as Fat Tony since '07, but this is the first time doing a retail album that's meant to be sold. So at first I was like, “Why hasn't this come out when it was first scheduled to?” Then I sat back, peeped the game, saw how hip-hop was going, was waiting on artists to sign off on release forms, and I realized it's all happened for the better. The album was supposed to come out last September, but I think it's for the best.
When did you start recording it?
We probably made this album in a week, last April. Then we took a couple of weeks to mix it.
Have you been tempted to go back and change any of the songs or lyrics since then?
Not at all. I'm not a guy who likes to go back and edit a whole bunch. I feel like the first time going at it is the most authentic. I like to do it and live with it.
Fat Tony's Smart Ass Black Boy is out June 11 on Young One Records.