Credit: Jess Lehrman
Fat Tony is drinking a cup of coffee. Leaning his back against a zig-zagged wall in a coffee shop in Brooklyn, the Houston-based rapper can't stop talking about his hometown.
"Houston rappers don’t have built in media, and don’t have the music industry," he says, but with a sense of pride. "Trends arrive slower, so that is the main reason why we’re so original and have our own thing. We’re part of the rap world but closed off to it."
A rapper carrying a chip on their shoulder about where they come from isn't anything new, but Fat Tony's mindset represents what's made Houston the progressive center for rap that it is. His new record, Smart Ass Black Boy, a slick batch of rhymes built upon a hodgepodge of sticky beats, is another demonstration of the city's progressive scene. On a recent weekday afternoon, the rapper talked extensively about his love for the scene, how it's influenced rap music as a whole, and how DJ Screw has managed to do what he proimised: screw the whole world.
Describe the current scene for an outsider.
I first started making music and putting on shows in like 2004. At that time, there weren't a lot of young people doing music like that. I was maybe 15 or 16 and I would go to open mics and I was typically the youngest person, and there wasn’t a scene for teenage rappers. Now in Houston, there’s more of a scene for young people—kids that are high school aged or an early college aged. Kids can throw their own shows, throw their own parties, and they have their own world. People try to pigeonhole Houston as being a non-lyrical rap city, but I find that many rappers in Houston really want to be a great MC. It gives the city an underdog mentality, and so it's a culture that's really, really hungry. There are tons of rappers there and they’re committed to making it. In New York, I feel like younger artists are coming up, like “Look at me I’m cool; I already have my own thing going." Houston rappers don’t have built in media, and don’t have the music industry. Trends arrive slower, so that is the main reason why we’re so original and have our own thing. We’re part of the rap world but closed off to it. The big music business for Texas is mostly for country music and gospel music.
What rappers did you look up to while growing up in the scene?
Growing up, I really, really liked Lil Flip. He was like the coolest dude because he was really funny. And the way he would flow, it would be all over the place, in a way that E-40 or Silkk the Shocker did. I looked up to Scarface, because he is easily one of the top five best rappers of all-time. With his storytelling, he had a perfect voice. He crafted real ass songs, songs you can cry to, songs that you can feel a whole variety of things to.
What's it like growing up and having yourself evolve from admiring the scene to becoming part of the scene?
Man, I feel like the rap game now is a lot different than when they were coming up.
In what ways?
The main thing that's probably different is the money. There was a lot more money to be made back then, which greatly affected the art. Having money helps the artist be in a space where they can only focus on their music. Now that there is less money in the music industry for artists coming up, they don’t have the same focus because they got to spend their time working a job or going to school or tending to something in order to survive. Back in the day, artists like Face or Devin the Dude, they were living pretty well, even if they weren’t super rich. They were at least able to live a middle class life and make music, you know? Back then, there were different tastemakers in Houston that greatly affected the culture, like Screw.
Talk about Screw's influence.
Screw really was a guy from the outside looking in for me. He was a guy that put people on. If Screw put on artist on their tape, you were gonna listen to them. Z-Ro, Kiki, Flip—all these people came up in the Screw clique. He was the main guy in Houston rap to be like, “This guy is good. That guy is good. We’re gonna listen to them.”
How do you feel about someone like A$AP Rocky using screw in such a popular way? I don't want to say hijacking it from Houston, but, kind of.
Honestly, it makes me feel great. One of Screw’s slogans was that he was gonna "screw the whole world." Screw and Screwed Up clique members wanted their sounds to reach as many people as possible. It's sad that’s it's happened after he passed away, but it's great that Screw’s music lives on. All these kids that are looking up Screw's music for the first time, they’re gonna have to go back and look at the originator. That only makes Screw more popular and it makes Houston rap music in general more popular.
Since you've gotten out of Houston and toured, how do you see the scene relating to Atlanta or the Bay or other places?
Places have very distinct sounds, but one thing that really links those places is that they’ve always been a stronghold, independent region—from Houston to the bay area to Memphis to Louisiana to Florida. These are places that have always been outside of the media hub of the music industry, and they’ve always found a way to make their own businesses, sell their own records, record their own records, distribute their own records, and that independent spirit has always made these places so hungry and committed to doing their own thing.
It's almost like they benefitted from not being New York.
Definitely, because I feel like in in New York and LA where it's so common to have the entertainment industry there, it makes people a little lazy. It's more copycats. It's more people boppin' off trends. It's like growing up in a rural life. Their lives are totally different because they don’t have that outside communication and they’re cultivated organically and they’re being themselves in a truer sense.
Do you feel like you’ve internalized that in your career?
Absolutely, because most of the music that I’ve loved—especially when I was getting into music—was independent artists, whether it was punk rock or rap music. I was into artists that branded their own label, booked their own shoes, did it all themselves. Once I saw that I just started thinking like, "Shit, why don’t I do the same thing?"
How do you see the punk and hip-hop scene in Houston interacting?
The crazy thing is that in Houston every year there's this even called The Texas Massacre or something like that. It’s a big ass concert and it's all grindcore bands and Texas rappers. That is something that I always thought was really unique, you know? Grind bands, metal bands, just heavy ass underground rock music paying with underground Houston rap, and I don’t think that the rap fans are really into that kind of rock music, but all those punk kids, grindcore kids, those crusty kids, they’re into that shit and their into rap, especially Houston rap.
That's definitely the stereotype, like Texas is its own country.
It is totally different from the rest of the south, and the west coast. Texas is its own culture, vibe, accent, type of music, food. Texas culture is unlike anywhere else in America. Whereas you can go to Georgia or Tennessee and it all feels the same, you know?
Are you more proud to be from Houston or more proud to be from Texas?
I’m more proud to be from Houston, because that’s where I’m from, and that’s what I know. I love Texas, but I’m by my city first and foremost.
How do you see that intense local pride reflected in the music?
I see it happening in good and bad ways. It's good because its awesome to be proud of where you’re from and who you are and the people you grew up with, but at the same time that can be limiting. Those same people who are Texas proud and only listen to Texas music, they are shutting themselves off form all this other music. Like when A$AP Rocky first came out, Houston people were mad at him because he was influenced by Houston and he used screwed and chop styles in his music. I thought it was fine because it's cool for people to be influenced for different stuff. But lots of people were like, “Yo, I don’t fuck with this, this is a disrespectful thing,” and that’s ignorant. Being a proud Texas person is a gift and a curse. Like, you got to know when and where to be proud and still be open-minded about it. There should be a lot more of a balance. Texas should still be proud because we have a lot to be proud of, but we should be open-minded to what else is out there in the same way that people have been open-minded to our culture.
Eric Sundermann has never been to Houston. He's on Twitter — @ericsundy