Interview: Fat Tony Talks Regionless Rap, DJ Screw, and "Smart Ass Black Boy"


By Caitlin White

Fat Tony isn’t fat, but when I interview him, he is sweaty. He just finished performing on a stage outside a historical pirate boat in 90-degree weather for the annual 4 Knots Festival hosted by the Village Voice, and the sudden cool of the AC in the artist area has him mopping his brow.

Still, the changing elements don't seem to phase the Houston native who first emerged in 2010 with RABDARGAB, a title that made a play on a Houston '90s literacy program called "Read a Book–Do A Report–Get a Buck." Around this same time Tony, born Anthony Obi, began working with members of Das Racist and even Hudson Mohawke on collaborations for a mixtape preview to RABDARGAB  called RABDARGAB: THE EPREVIEW.

Springboarding these connections to build a buzz for himself, Tony and production partner Tom Cruz released the 2012 mixtape Double Dragon, and yes, the majority of the beats used on it were built from samples taken from the video game of the same name. This tape earned the Houston rapper features from the legendary Bun B and rising bay area cloud-rap duo Main Attrakionz.

His latest full-length album Smart Ass Black Boy came out in June and builds on all this previous work. Though it sometimes falls into amateurish pitfalls, the record feels like an important stepping stone for the 25-year-old MC. Lead single "BKNY" and the loosely-packed "Hood Party," featuring Kool A.D. and Despot, reveal an artist with a knack for morphing into whatever mold is needed at the moment. Opening for the likes of Kendrick Lamar at the Downtown Festival in Manhattan this past March, Obi has displayed his chops as a tireless live performer.

Tony, who's been living in Brooklyn for the past few months to help promote the album, put aside his post-show exhaustion to speak to P&P about his slow grind to relevancy, the important issues behind his album's title and how regionalization is breaking down in rap music.

Starting off with the basics: When did you first start rapping and how did you get started?
The first time I was like seriously trying to rap I was 13 I think. I was walking to class and I heard Cam’ron’s song “Oh Boy” and I decided right then and there that I’m about to do this shit. I walked to class, I said, [mimes pointing at multiple people] 'Yo, you're going to rap, you're going to rap, you're going to manage us, and I’m going to produce.' And then I couldn’t make beats so I was like, 'Fuck it, I’m just going to rap.' And here I am. Then I got connected with Tom Cruz because he used to be in a group called Supreeme in Atlanta. He has family in Houston and he came to Houston one time for some business shit and we linked up.

Would you say Cam'ron is your favorite rapper? What do you think about Jay Z's latest album?
Cam’ron is one of my top favorite rappers, but he’s not my most favorite. Jay Z, Nas, Tribe Called Quest, those are the legends. To be honest, I don’t really think much of it because I haven’t really been a fan like I used to be since The Black Album. That was like the last time I was going crazy for Jay Z. Every album I’ve heard since then—Kingdom Come, American Gangster, The Blueprint 3—have all been lackluster in my opinion. But I still love him. He’s a great artist.


Would you ever do something like that?

The Samsung thing? Yeah, it all depends on what’s going on around me because I don’t know the full deal about it. Like do you gotta buy something to get the album? I mean, well, that’s kinda wack because most people that really fuck with rap music got cricket phones, Metro PCS... no, seriously. Nobody has a phone like that. I probably wouldn’t do it if I wanted my music to reach the most people.

What does your family think about you being here rapping? Because Houston to New York is pretty far.

Um, well they don’t like it, but lately for some reason they’ve been more into it than ever. They’ve been calling me like every night about something. My mom called me the other day saying people were selling my album on eBay used and she’s loving that. I have one younger brother and he loves my music. He is severely autistic and he doesn’t speak so he doesn’t have the same kind of interactions that we do. But he listens to music, surprisingly enough. Mostly Bob Marley. He's 23.

I feel like it kind of represents the American black experience. We grow up being looked at as boys not a men, and we’re growing up having to have a keen sense on things—we have to be smart alecks but also have real intelligence just to stay afloat.

So what prompted you to finally move to New York? Are you here for good?

I got here in like April of this year. But I came here so often I might as well live here. Nowhere’s my home, I just go where I’m needed—if it’s New York, Houston, or L.A.—it doesn’t matter, I just go wherever shit takes me. I’m here until I gotta go somewhere else. But I do miss Houston, hell yeah. I miss the food, my family, my girlfriend. I miss my friends there. But I’m out here to work and that comes first.

Speaking of work, Smart Ass Black Boy just came out in June. How do you feel about the reception so far?

I’m actually loving it because the people that I respect love it. XXL gave it a great review, Robert Christgau gave it a great review, SPIN gave it a good review. Friends that I look up to in the industry, other artists, other label people love it. The fans that I’ve had are really into it and I’ve even made some new fans. It’s just part of the process that I’ve been through. Every album always pleases the people that’ve already been watching and always brings in a few hundred or a few thousand new fans.

As far as the title goes, Smart Ass Black Boy, what’s the significance of that title to you?

I first saw the title on a hat that the Beastie Boys’ DJ Hurricane had on in like '86 or something. And I thought it was a really interesting title because I liked that it used the word 'boy.' I feel like 'boy' is the usual American way of using a derogatory term for the black man. And I liked using 'smart ass' because it’s a double edge—it can mean both intelligent and smart alecky. I feel like it kind of represents the American black experience. We grow up being looked at as boys not a men, and we’re growing up having to have a keen sense on things—we have to be smart alecks but also have real intelligence just to stay afloat. I thought it was the perfect title for this album, especially addressing race stuff.

Do you feel like your music has been influenced by New York or is it still influenced by Houston? Do you feel like you’re a regional rapper?

I feel like the regional rap thing is kind of done with, because nowadays kids don’t even ask where a rapper’s from. No one cares. All these artists are sounding so much alike and not like the places they’re from. A$AP Rocky doesn’t even sound like the traditional East Coast rapper. SpaceGhostPurrp doesn’t sound like a traditional Florida rapper. Everyone’s doing their own thing. Even me growing up, I liked all kinds of rap music—rap from the East Coast, rap from the West Coast, rap from the Midwest. It never mattered much to me. It was based on my instincts that I knew their region and knew kind of what they were talking about. But I was never the kind of person that was like, 'Oh, this is East Coast, I don’t fuck with it, this is Southern I don’t fuck with it.' I don't think I sound like a specific region, I sound like me.


I'm a huge Simpsons fan. So obviously when I first heard your name I thought it was funny. And to me it was funny because there’s this history of affiliation with the realm of gangsters and rap and it seemed like you were making a joke by talking about this fictional gangster from The Simpsons. Was that an influence behind your name?

Actually not at all. I love The Simpsons. I got called the name when I was in middle school. They had like a, what do you call it, like a fat kids’ program and somebody just called me that cause my name was Anthony and I was bigger. So it’s like a popular gangster name and a popular name and I just kept it from there. But I did grow up loving The Simpsons. I think it’s really interesting that you thought that. I think it’s important for you to interpret yourself your own way. You know how like sometimes people hear certain words and lyrics that aren’t really there. I think that’s cool, that’s the whole point of it. It’s supposed to be whatever you feel it really is. Because it’s always, more than not, different from the artist. The artists might have meant one thing and then it can mean a million things to someone else. It’s awesome.

Since you're from Houston, do you have a perspective on Beyonce's new song, "I Been On/ Bow Down."

Oh yeah, that was a big deal to Houston. Beyonce has kind of—it's weird because in Houston coming up she had a more urban influence. Like Destiny’s Child would do songs with local rappers, they played shows with local rappers. But to most of the world, she’s like a Disney pop figure. So I think with that song she was trying to appeal to her Houston and her urban roots, and that kind of shocked some people cause they’re so used to her clean-cut image. Personally, I thought that song was cool. I really like the first part of it; I thought the melody was great. Toward the end of it, it kind of fell off honestly. But she did a remix with like some big Houston artists and that was a big deal to Houston. She had Scarface on it, Willie D, Z-Ro, Lil Keke. She put artists on there that had worked with her coming up, which I really think made Houston people fight for her again.

Getting deeper into Houston's musical history, there's OG Ron C, DJ Screw and this whole culture of chopped and screwed. You had your whole debut RABDARGAB screwed by Ron as SCREWDARGAB. Can you talk about the sound and the culture behind it?
It’s weird because I think that now people think of [DJ] Screw as just sipping on lean and partying, but in Houston and a lot of the south for some reason, a lot of these southern places love the traditional rap style more than other people think. So, like Screw’s clique were like the hip-hop purists, like Screw was really into the scratch techniques. They were doing what they thought was like a pure hip-hop thing, not a party thing. It wasn’t what they call now ratchet with twerking and partying. He was playing shit like Pac, screwing and chopping Tribe Called Quest, he screwed Rakim. He would screw whatever was the good, traditional rap music. Another main thing with guys that are comin’ out now that are trying Screw’s stuff—and I don’t mean like the OG Ron’s or the Michael Watts, I mean the younger ones—they don’t really have the tastemaker level of thought that Screw had. Because Screw picked out certain artists. Like he would put on a Spice 1 or an E-40 record, people that were not really looked at in the mainstream world. He was trying to introduce that to like Houston people. Yeah. Now, I think people just like Screw because it’s cool. I think people have lost the meaning of it. But that’s naturally what happens to art forms when they get popular, they lose their meaning over time.

You're gaining a buzz and you definitely have a core audience that’s with you, but there’s still a large demographic that hasn’t been exposed to you. What is the one thing you would want people who have never heard you to know about your music and what you’re about?

I would want them to know that it’s honest more than anything. I’m not out here riding the trends, I’m not out here trying to buddy up with the most popular rapper. I’m here to speak my mind and make music that I wanna make. You know what I mean? And I don’t mean that in a selfish way—the music’s for the people. More than anything, I want them to know that I’m totally original, I'm great.

On the flip side of that, if you could work with any established rapper, who would you choose?

I would love to work with E-40 and Too $hort because I feel like they’re rappers that are already a lot like me. They’ve had the same style since the fucking '80s. They never change, they have the same producers, same clothes, same style. At first, they were looked down upon. People thought that E-40 rapped too fast or that Too $hort rapped too slow and simple. But they kept doing it to the point where like bam! They put out 10 fucking albums and you never even noticed it, and they’re legends now.

Smart Ass Black Boy is out now on Young One Records. Buy it here or stream via DJ Booth.