Since the founding of Emancipation Park in 1872 by ex-slaves, the Third Ward—colloquially known as the Tre—has commemorated the end of human bondage in the United States. It’s the black cultural haven of the beautiful southern city of Houston, Texas. The neighborhood that raised black luminaries such as Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad, to the Queen of the Universe Beyonce Knowles, to fallen underground legend Big Moe, only serves to be the proper birthplace of a leader in this new hip-hop movement: Anthony “Fat Tony” Obi.
One of the most visible and progressive voices to come out of the early online underground hip-hop scene in the late 2000s, Fat Tony has been solely holding down his hometown across the world since his explosive splash into mainstream attention with his appearance on A$AP Rocky’s debut Live. Love. A$AP. In all that he does, the first generation Nigerian-American rapper champions DIY, and was a key figure in fostering Houston’s budding music scene in the mid-2000s.
In an exclusive interview after his mesmerizing performance at the Day For Night festival in Houston, we talked to him about the life of a traveling vagabond musician, his reason for constant collaboration with his peers, lessons learned as a young indie artist in the game, his new Charge It To The Game album with Mabson, and a upcoming zine highlighting the creative spirit that still emanates from the Tre. He’s currently on a 24-date tour with Epitaph Records’ The Garden in a city near you until early May.
SENAY KENFE: We’re here with Houston’s finest Fat Tony—
FAT TONY: Sick!
Sitting on some very comfortable couches—
Heck yeah, I’m laid out maxing and relaxing. Southside shit. You know I’m from 3rd Ward in Houston, Texas. This is very reminiscent of what we used to do back in the H.
I’ve spent some time in the 3rd Ward.
Great neighborhood. Best neighborhood in Houston. I’ve never lived anywhere else in Houston but the 3rd Ward and I never will. It just has so much history. You know I’m from there, Beyonce is from there back in the day, the Black Panther Party were stationed in 3rd Ward. We’ve produced a lot of great artists like Big Moe and just done a lot of great things for our neighborhood and for our side of Houston, you know, because we have such a deep history in the arts and music and activism and I’m just trying to keep all those things alive with the things that I do.
And that’s why you wear it on your back and you’re the global ambassador of your neighborhood. How does that feel?
It feels great. Shit, I take full responsibility for it. I don’t mind wearing the 3rd Ward on my back and me being the main one repping it around the world—someone has to. If you don’t, it’s gonna get forgotten. My neighborhood is quickly becoming a victim of gentrification, so more than ever it’s important for us. There’s condos all over 3rd Ward, and as that happens, more and more you’re going to find people referring to 3rd Ward not as 3rd Ward but as something like “Midtown.” It’s going to get swallowed. Gentrification doesn’t just bring brand new building into new territories—[it] replaces names of places. Part of the way to sell my neighborhood is to rebrand it, give it a new name, a new identity. And that probably isn’t going to go fit in line for what 3rd Ward is known for and I’m trying to preserve it the best that I can.
“We have such a deep history in the arts and music and activism [in Houston’s 3rd Ward] and I’m just trying to keep all those things alive.”
And you doing a pretty good job, You know, I like when festivals have a relationship with local artists. I caught you at Day for Night festival that they had recently in Houston. Can you talk about that experience? How did it feel as a local artist to be performing at a major festival that had the likes of Aphex Twin and Bjork?
I was super proud because Day for Night festival was the first time I ever played alongside a lot of my personal heroes—a lot of people that I grew up listening to that I never thought I’d see: Bjork, Jesus and Mary Chain, Aphex Twin. These are huge legends in the game. And I love that festival because its not just the music, you know, half the whole thing is the art and light installations that are really really cool. That just offers an entirely new dynamic to festivals that just makes it interesting to me because festivals can get old really fast. So I appreciate Day for Night for offering something interesting and for giving a platform for local artists like myself. And by local, I mean someone from the H, someone from the city. Not an up-and-comer, but someone who’s really been putting on. It’s important when you have a festival like that give artists like me a platform.
Fat Tony performing “Waterfalls,” produced by P Morris, for Highsnobiety.
I definitely would not count you as a up-and-comer—I would consider you a veteran of the new post-indie scene. I was talking to Alexander Spit about this because we were talking about people in the game that we’ve really been seeing around for the last ten years who’ve been not just bringing attention to who they are, but also showing the regional flair of and energy of where they come from, which isn’t common with a lot of new music on the internet. You’ve been in the game for awhile but a lot of people caught on to you thanks to things like early early connections to A$AP. Can you talk about that how it feels to be moving around in the new indie rap scene?
I love it, first of all. Fuck the terms but it’s good that we can have these kinds of terms so we can know who each other are. Because if there wasn’t these blanketed terms for our scene or for our ear, a lot of us would be lost and not in contact with each other. I love the time period that I have come up in rap music. When I was younger I really envied people who came up during the ’90s and ’80s because the music business has been failing since I got in it. I started making music maybe 2005 or ’06 and that’s around the time when I would read that the music business is failing because no one was buying CDs, everyone wanted the downloads. Now they’re saying people aren’t doing the downloads, they’re just streaming. It’s always a new scare.
I was really envious of people who came out back in the day because even at my level you could still get some pretty good checks. But what I do like about my era is that it’s like the Wild Wild West. A lot of different kinds of music was able to reach people that wouldn’t have been able to be let it into the door. Stuff like Lil B, stuff like cloud rap, G-Side, Odd Future, A$AP, all this stuff might of not had a chance back in the day due to being so different. But thanks to everything being a complete clusterfuck, it allowed for new artists like myself to walk ourselves into that front door to skip the label and go straight to the people, go straight to press, and go straight to festivals on our own terms doing our own new brand of hip-hop.
The most prime example would be like a Chance the Rapper, or what Frank Ocean did with Blonde where we see the utter disregard for labels as a middleman and artists connecting themselves straight to consumers. Kinda like Steven Segal or Wesley Snipes don’t really fuck with the major film studio system and they do these straight to DVD movies that we collectively here in the States all laugh at like, “Aww you got the bootleg movies!” But then you see the numbers that they’re doing overseas—5-20 mil a piece that they’re primarily funding themselves. How has your existence in the DIY scene been for you financially?
It’s been great because honestly I’ve been making money off of my art since 2011 as my main source of income. I feel like if I can make that happen, a lot of people can. I’m a guy that’s pretty much managed myself my entire career. I’ve been able to link up with some of the best people in this industry—not just business but music. I’ve worked with some great fucking producers like Tom Cruz (Shaka Girvan), and P Morris, and Mabson, I’ve put out music through record labels and clothing brands. I have a song on Spotify well over a million plays. You know, and this is just stuff I got on my own grind.
“It’s possible to make money off what you love to do. Everyone doesn’t get the chance to.”
I think that anybody can really do it if they’re willing to be smart and save money and move in a way where you don’t flex all the time and live like you’re a regular dude. I know a lot of people who make rap money go and blow it all instantly. And I know a few people who live really really quietly and stack it up and some of them got more bread than me. Shit. So I just wanna say it’s all possible—it’s possible to make money off what you love to do. Everyone doesn’t get the chance to, honestly I’m lucky enough to say I’ve made money on my own terms for so damn long and who knows if that’s going to last. But while this job is my job I’ve been loving it and I’ve been staying afloat and reaching my goals and making new ones every year.
Why is it important as an artist to be making money on your own terms?
Because it’s everything; it’s like having a business. We do this as our business. It’s a big part in how we feel and what we want to say. And [an] even bigger part of that is the money. This is the music business. I am doing this to make a living. If this was just something I liked for fun, maybe I’d have a different interest that would be my work and music would be my off time hobby shit. I’ve chosen the path of making music as Fat Tony, making music as Charge It To The Game, being a DJ, doing art projects, being a talent buyer, putting on my party in Mexico City, all these different things are my own interests. I’ve been able to take all these different things that I like to do and make it into one income.
That’s something they don’t teach you how to do, you have to learn it.
Hell no. You have to learn it and it’s really lots of listening and lots of trial and error. Because my shit isn’t perfect and I haven’t always been nice just off music.
What was a bust that you learned a lot from?
The first time I ever got a record deal, our advance was split up monthly. And I would move like the guys that I was speaking on earlier—I would spend it up every month. Whatever little bit I got for that advance, I would pretty much wipe it out that month. Not like just on like balling out buying lots of stuff, just not really thinking. Eating out all the time, buying hella weed, you know what I mean? Buying hella groceries, going out, and then going, “I’ll pay for everyone’s drinks.” Just not being mindful of my spending. And then when that advance stopped, I had one dry month where I had no money coming in and it was right before this tour happened. For that month I was seriously—I had nothing… Straight up scraping by and it was totally my fault because if I had thought ahead of having that month, I should have been saving up a li’l bit and that would have made up what I had gotten from my advance. That was the first time that ever happened to me, and then after that I was like, never again am I wasting any kind of record label money.
“What I do like about my era is that it’s like the Wild Wild West.”
For most of your career, one thing people can admire and respect about you is your eagerness and curiosity [when it comes to] collaborating with other people. You mentioned the record you did with P Morris, the Charge It To The Game record with Mabson, the Asher Roth record countless moments really. Why is it important to you to have those kinds of relationships with other artists? Especially in the rap sense it’s very much singular.
Growing up being from Houston and seeing lots of rap music from Texas and the Bay Area, even Louisiana, I would notice that all these artists would mix up and all work together. There would be Master P’s songs with UGK on it, there would be E-40 songs with Scarface on it. There would be this mix and I would notice that it was mostly amongst underground West Coast and underground Southern hip-hop artists in the ’90s all working with each other because they were all doing independent label hustles. I really respected that and I really admired that from those artists, and I kinda wanted to leave that mark within my own era. Like I want people to look at Fat Tony and be like, “Damn, not only did he have his own music that was live, he also worked with some of the livest people in his time.”
Being able to say that I worked with a A$AP Rocky on his landmark album that not only brought him out but brought out a total change to the game. Like I always think about the song me and Rocky made “Get Lit,” and how “lit” is like a regular term now. That was one of the first songs of this time that even had this word in it. Like even little things like that, everybody brings something to this game and I’m honored to say that I’ve linked up with all kinds of people not just from my era. I’ve worked with some old school guys like Bun B and Devin the Dude, and in the same way that I want to rep for the greats of my time. I want link people back to that, to like if they see me and Bun B in a Instagram picture or a song together maybe they wanna check him out and see what his group was all about.
Your legacy is important to you. Why is that? Because I don’t think most people think of the long-term, especially us as rappers , it’s very much a day-to-day thing. Why is it important to you [to have your] body of work immortalized?
I want my shit to be looked at one day; I don’t want it to be a footnote. I would like it to be something that people can look to as a gamechanger, especially for Houston, for my whole swag to be different from what Houston was known for before. I want folks to say Fat Tony ushered in a new era for rappers in the city, a new way to do things. I had Travis Scott, the first time I ever met him come up to me and say, “Hey bro, you were the first artist from Houston ever doing something different and I really, really respected that.”
Yeah and then you shared the same stage at Day for Night. Total 360.
Speaking of collaborations, with you out in LA now you’ve been working with Mabson on the new Charge It To The Game record. What’s it like working together as we talk about different flavors within rap music. [You’re] working with a dude from the space of noise music and you a Houston rapper. How did that come about and sonically how does that even work?
It happened because we had hella mutual friends. I met Kyle Mabson about 5 years ago through a dude named Juiceboxxx. He’s a rapper and producer that lives in New York. I met Mabson on some chill shit. I went over his house with Juice and we played Mario Kart and kicked it. Years later, Mabson hit me up and was like, “Yo, I made some beats,” and I knew he does music, he’s a super sick bass player and I know he does metal stuff and noise stuff too. But he told me he had made some beats and told me it kinda sounds like Ministry or Nine Inch Nails, you know some real industrial type of vibe. And he was going to put out those instrumentals by themselves but he played them for me and I was like, “Yo, let me try to fuck with it try to make some music to it.”
We said, “Okay, let’s give one song a try,” went in the studio, tried the first song, it was hot. So we were like, “Shit! Let’s make another song”—liked it too. Made a third song and we were like, “Oh, this is cool too.” By this point, we were like, “Alright dude, let’s make an EP, let’s make it a group, let’s name the first record the Urban Hall of Fame because we cant make it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” and it just flowed. And that’s really how I like to approach making music. I just want it to feel natural like that and just really feel from us hanging out and vibing—that’s enough for us to go into the lab. There was so many times that we just chilled and just vibed for years before we ever made music. And then when we finally started making music, it was like we made it yesterday. It felt totally natural.
And now y’all here.
And now we’re here, now we’re putting out a whole album. Last year we put out our first record, it was an EP it was called Urban Hall of Fame it came out on Wavves’s label Ghost Ramp.
Great video by the way for [“Bite Me”].
We had the homie Sam [Herring] from Future Islands rap on it, he goes hard. Slept on.
He got a record out with Madlib. He got some bars.
Yeah man Madlib and Milo. Charge It To The Game about to wrap up our first full length album, probably going to come out this summer. And I’m working on new Fat Tony music as always, I wanna drop out two projects this year, something in spring time and something in the fall.
Tell them about the zine. Let them know you a multi-disciplinary artist.
I’m a inter-disciplinary artist mane, I’m out here getting it. It ain’t just the emceeing even though I’m really raw at that too. Really really think I’m one of the best rappers out here, swear to god. So yeah, the zine is called Found Me. Back in Houston there is a grant called the Idea Fund. Me and my partner Matthew were lucky enough to receive this grant last year [which] basically funds our project Found Me, which is a look into Houston from our eyes. It’s a series of interviews, articles, essays, poems, photos—all or with or by a person of color in Texas. There’s not a single white face profiled in this zine y’all. Not one.
We talked to so many people man, we talked to Hall of Fame Booker T who’s from my neighborhood [3rd Ward], we talked to Dre Price who is a great painter, we talked to Kim Nguyen, a fabulous fashion designer that’s up and coming who is working for one of your favorite rapper’s clothing lines right now. Man, lots of people. We talked to chefs, we talked to people that do photos, we really wanted to talk to everybody that has a passion that we knew. The whole zine is about talking to people and figuring out how their passion lines up with their job or their main hobby. Like what is it that you love that you would do for free that you’ve been able to monetize? You know, kinda like me. And I really wanted to meet more people like that and really go into their heads and dig deep and find out what makes them tick and that’s what this zine is about.
You’re an international man, know to live all around the world—
Try to be.
Recently you were spending a good amount of time living in Mexico City. You were throwing a very popular party down there [called] Function. Next month you got a very big thing going on down there. Tell us about Function and a little bit about your experience in Mexico.
Let me tell y’all about Mexico. So my first time going to Mexico in 2015 I performed at the NRMAL Fest. It was amazing, I thought the hospitality was sick, I thought the lineup was excellent. Bands like Swans and Future Islands played, it was beautiful, had a great time. Wanted to come back. A year later, the Material Art Fair which I think is the probably the best modern art fair in the world right now, hollered at me February 16th and booked me to perform at their after party for the art fair. Once again, I went back, thought it was sick, loved Mexico. I started to figure out that some of the people who booked me down there didn’t have a big network when it came down to booking US rappers. Artists like myself or Kool A.D. or Antwon—they were fans of these guys but didn’t know how to reach out to us. And I knew that I could get these artists and more to come play Mexico, which would be great for these artists putting them onto a new scene and would be great for the scene in Mexico because I noticed that hip-hop wasn’t the mainstream there.
In Mexico City, rap is kinda looked at like an underground thing. Like if you see a kid on the street wearing something that’s kind of hip, you might stop him and be like, “Damn, are you into rap too?” It’s kinda like how it was in the old days like the ’80s or something. So I wanted to put on a party that could bring US artists to a brand new place and turn on Mexican fans onto some new shit that they don’t get to see everyday. [For] some of these artists, this might be their only chance to go to Mexico in the next 4 years. You have a U.S. president saying he wants to close the border. I really wanted to put on something to make rap pop off before any of that B.S. stands the chance of happening.
S: And you did and now you’re coming back!
And now I’m coming back. This year the tables have turned and the material art fair has hired function to help put on their official after party in Mexico City.
All photos by Nathanael Turner. Fat Tony is currently on a 24-date monthlong tour with The Garden (Epitaph Records) and playing C3’s Middlelands festival in May.