Would Biggie or Rick Ross even exist without The Fat Boys?
Written by Michael A. Gonzales (@gonzomike)
Although Jay-Z’s oft-quoted line about “the Fat Boys break up” sounds mournful, when the actual event happened in 1989, not many hip-hop fans seemed to care. Without a doubt, the rap careers of group members Prince Markie Dee (Mark Morales), Kool Rock-Ski (Damon Wimbley) and the show-stealing Buff aka The Human Beat Box (Darren Robinson), who formerly billed themselves as the Disco 3, began strong. Yet, by the end of the decade the trio known as The Fat Boys had fallen so deep into self-parody there was no escaping.
Even in England, where most New York City street music was respected, pop writers had no problem dissing the Fat Boys as though they were nothing more than a novelty act. “It’s this sort of pointless juvenile gimmickry which is rapidly turning hip-hop culture into a trembling jelly of silliness with its desperate appeals to the lowest criteria,” critic Chris Roberts poison-penned in 1985. Though his words were strong, it was obvious Roberts had no idea that these Schenck Avenue boys had once taken themselves a little bit more seriously.
“We wanted to be up there with the Treacherous Three and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five,” Prince Markie Dee told TVOne’s Unsung in 2011. “We wanted to be nice.” They were managed by Charlie Stettler, who discovered the teenagers at a hip-hop talent contest he helped organize at New York’s famed Radio City Music Hall in 1983 (reportedly the first “black event” ever held at the world-famous theater). The Swiss native was determined to make them into household names.
“Charlie knew hip-hop was going to be the new rock and roll,” rapper/producer Kurtis Blow said last year. Although they later earned endorsement deals, movie roles and platinum discs, their “Three Stooges of Rap” image quickly descended into a virtual vat of pizza grease with burgers on their breath. Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons had nothing on this gluttonous group, who used to pose on their album covers with measuring tape around their waists.
As a young man living in New York City during those days when hip-hop was just a baby crawling across the concrete, I can well remember when B-boys hanging out in Times Square blasted Fat Boys tracks from their Panasonic radios. Back in those golden days when life looked like a vintage Jamel Shabazz photograph of Lee jeans and Cazal-wearing dudes break-dancing on Da Deuce, there was no shame being down with those big-boned brothers. Reciting the words to catchy songs like “Stick’Em” and “Fat Boys” while nodding their crowns, crews throughout the city were digging their early sound.
“In my Brooklyn neighborhood, boom boxes and cars with booming systems blasted those two tracks as much as ‘Eric B. Is President,’” says former Billboard magazine hip-hop editor Havelock Nelson. “These weren’t novelty jams. For many kids who were becoming part of the growing hip-hop generation, Fat Boys concerts and singles were their first favorites. To this day, I can’t hear the opening notes of ‘Fat Boys’ without becoming excited and heading straight to the dance floor.”
In a 2009 interview with writer Jesse Serwer, rapper Prince Markie Dee explained, “‘Stick Em’ was the song we used to win the contest. It was really just a freestyle with Buff beatboxing: Brrrrt stick ’em ha-ha-ha stick ‘em. The funny thing is, we’re kids growing up in Brooklyn. And originally all our raps were heavily ’hood influenced. We’d talk about our hood and brag about ourselves. ‘Stick ‘em” was something people in Brooklyn used to say back in the day when you were gonna stick somebody up—going to rob somebody. Like we’re gonna go stick these kids, or whatever the case may be. And we changed it into ‘Brrrt Stick Em,’ like we gonna rob [other MCs]. That was the first thing that we recorded with Kurtis Blow.”
Yet, while Prince Markie Dee and Kool Rock-Ski could handle their own on the mic, it was the biggest member, Buff Love aka The Human Beat Box, that the audience couldn’t get enough of. Making the music with his mouth like his friends Biz Markie and Doug E. Fresh, the verbal bomber told Keyboard magazine, “My family didn’t have much money. I wanted DJ equipment like the other kids, but I couldn’t get it. So I just started playing the beat with my mouth. It just came naturally.”
On their first disc, Fat Boys (1984), which was re-issued yesterday by Traffic Entertainment—in a collectible carboard pizza box with bonus songs, vintage radio interviews and thorough liner notes —one of the stand-out tracks is “Human Beat Box.” Released the same year as Doug E’s "The Original Human Beatbox" (1984, Vintertainment), Buff’s sound was just as dope. “Buff was the heart of the group,” Kool Rock Ski told I Am Hip-Hop author Andrew J. Rausch in 2011. “He was just an ordinary round-the-way guy. People knew he was down-to-earth.”
Like most hip-hop kids of that era, the Fat Boys had come up hard and paid their dues on stage of the infamous Disco Fever. A few years later, Fever owner Sal Abbatiello helped them pen “Jail House Rap,” a song about doing time for stealing pizza and burgers that was also included on their debut joint.
Produced by jheri-curled rapper Kurtis Blow, “Jail House Rap” was one of his favorite songs from those sessions. “Working with the Fat Boys was amazing,” the pop rapper turned preacher told reissue producer Noah Uman. “You had raw talent, which was incredible… We were tripping out, I was going crazy. The record took off so well nationally, these guys became an overnight sensation. It shocked everybody; it was just awesome to see it go down. What a great time in my life.”
Although the super-sized rappers proved themselves telegenic in the few promotional clips they made, they really made a splash a year later when they appeared in the film Krush Groove (1985). When I saw the flick at the RKO Warner Twin Theater on Broadway and 47th Street, the sold-out audience lost their minds whenever the Fat Boys appeared on screen.
“Without a doubt, the Fat Boys stole that movie,” recalls former Spin magazine editor John Leland. “It starred Run-DMC, but they were kind of boring compared to the Fat Boys. The Fat Boys were funny; Run-DMC wasn’t funny.” Reviewing the film the day it was released, New York Times critic Janet Maslin pointed out the trio’s “impromptu clowning,” at which, “the Fat Boys are particularly skilled.”
Years before MC Hammer bought his first pair of genie pants, the Fat Boys and their manager pushed rap’s crossover appeal to the point where it started to sound more like sell-out. They headline The Fresh Fest, the first corporate-sponsored rap show in history, and they toured Europe before most rap crews were traveling outside New York. But at a time when hip-hop was becoming simultaneously more militant (Public Enemy, X-Clan) and more gangster (N.W.A), the Fat Boys were doing collabos with the Beach Boys and Chubby Checker. But the new generation of rap fans had no patience for all their pop posturing.
Still, for some teens they were real-life role models. Director Kevin Smith, who cites the Fat Boy’s fourth disc, Crushin’ as one of his favorites, once told a reporter, “I love the Fat Boys, because they made it OK to be fat. I figured those dudes must be getting laid, so maybe I could too.”
After the release of their sixth album, On and On in 1989, the Fat Boys dissolved their partnership with Charlie Stettler and returned to the streets of New York. Prince Markie Dee soon became a well-known producer, co-crafting Mary J. Blige’s 1992 hit single “Real Love.” Four years later, Buff died from a heart attack in his Queens, New York home. He was 28 years old and supposedly weighed over 400 pounds.
If nothing else, the reissue of Fat Boys will give hip-hop fans the chance reevaluate the legacy of these overweight B-boys turned worldwide icons, whose portly figures paved the way for Heavy D, The Notorious B.I.G. and Rick Ross. “Before weight became part of their shtick, the Fat Boys, like Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, were ambassadors exposing classic New York City rap to mainstream audiences,” Havelock Nelson says. “The Fat Boys weren’t just about size; those brothers also had skills.”