Fat Tony’s show is not going well.
It’s late March, and the 25-year-old Houston rapper is performing at Fitzgerald’s, one of his hometown’s most historic venues. He’s just the opening act, but it’s still a big show for Tony, because he’s previewing material from his second album, Smart Ass Black Boy (Young One Records). If the record does as well as he hopes, he might be able to go from sharing a house with his parents and his little brother, his current living situation, to sharing a place with a couple of friends. Or maybe just one friend. Or maybe no one at all.
Tonight, though, the universe is pressing a gigantic thumb down on his forehead.
Everything is a mess. His wireless microphone—his awful wireless microphone—keeps sending signals to the speakers a microsecond late, and it’s throwing off his timing. The sound—the awful sound—is almost exclusively mids and highs, causing him to miss his cues (generally, rappers listen for the bass). And somehow, for the first time ever, the laptop—the awful laptop—that’s playing his backing tracks has frozen.
Tony, who is known for his raucous live shows, bounces and raps and does his best to smooth things over. But afterward, backstage, he steams. He removes his shirt, throws an empty beer bottle, and goes off about the technical snafus, about not being able to do a proper sound check, about how embarrassed he is.
Still, this is a man who has charmed his way into the hearts of a small but dedicated band of devotees. He has a big laugh and a sunny disposition, and by the time he heads over to the merchandise table to meet his fans, he’s feeling better. People rush up to buy T-shirts and talk to him. Nobody mentions the bad sound or the malfunctioning laptop. It’s like nobody even noticed. Tony smiles for pictures and shakes hands.
Despite the fact that Fat Tony has lived in this city almost his entire life, he doesn’t come off like a Houston rapper. Houston hip-hop returns again and again to a few familiar tropes: candy paint (an automobile’s flashy custom paint job), lean (a beverage that contains a mixture of promethazine, codeine, and soda), and grills (jewelry worn over teeth). Those three subjects have served as the premise for an untold number of songs from inside Beltway 8, most famously between 2004 and 2006, when the city was the center of the rap universe.
But while Tony has clearly been influenced by the city’s rap forefathers, his trajectory isn’t guided by them. “I’ve only sipped lean a few times, so I can’t talk about that a lot,” he says. “I don’t own a car, so I can’t talk about slabs [slang for the large-bodied cars Southern rappers like to drive].”
“iPod Ammo [his DJ] has one,” Tony says, laughing. “I’ve never had one.”
Instead, in his songs, Tony relates anecdotes from his day-to-day life that touch on everything from his mildly bad habits (he’s been known to smoke some weed) to his liberal political beliefs. Even when Tony engages with Houston rap’s clichés, he does so as an aside, or as an inside joke. “Luv It Mayne,” a song off his 2010 debut album, RABDARGAB, is, in part, an homage to Houston producer DJ DMD’s classic 1999 track “25 Lighters.” (You may be familiar with the cover version ZZ Top put out last year, though they called it “I Gotsta Get Paid.”) Where the original gives firsthand accounts of the high-flying gangsta lifestyle, Tony’s song pulls the rug out from under all that attitude: he’s given instructions on how to “ball,” or live lavishly, by an elderly uncle, who tells him that he’ll need a nice car and an attractive woman—and, if he’s not going to deal drugs, to at least pretend to do so.
The album’s title is another clue to how much of an outlier Tony is. Before it was the name of a record, “RABDARGAB” was the name of a Houston Independent School District initiative: “Read a Book, Do a Report, Get a Buck.” Tony even co-opted the idea, creating a marketing campaign, “LISDARGAB,” that offered a dollar to anyone who listened to the record and wrote a review. “Most kids wrote me and straight up said, ‘I don’t want the dollar, I just wanna tell you how much I like the album,’ ” remembers Tony. Plenty of rappers want you to know how hard they are and how much money they’re making. Tony wants to remind you that he was once an elementary school student, and he’s not above offering you an extremely modest fee to help him get his career moving.
Credit for such amiability goes to his parents. His mother, Johnnie, is a homemaker who loves classical music. His father, Anthony Onyebuchi Obi, is an engineer who immigrated to the United States after fighting in Nigeria’s civil war as a teenager. (Their son’s birth name is Anthony Lawson Jude Ifeanyichukwu Obiawunaotu, though when he’s not rapping he goes by Anthony Obi.) Tony says that no one has ever made much of the fact that he’s half-Nigerian. He grew up the same as most kids in the Third Ward: playing basketball, trying to eat as much fast food as possible, and listening to hip-hop (and rock). But his parents certainly didn’t expect their son to go into the rap business.
“They don’t think rap is music,” says Tony. “They think it’s an abomination—too much cussing. They think it’s all gangsta rap.”
On “Father’s Day,” the most moving track on Smart Ass Black Boy, Tony raps, “He thinks I’m kinda lazy, he kinda sorta hates me.” Tony knows his dad doesn’t really hate him. Things aren’t that bad (in the next line he raps, “But he gotta love me ’cause I am his firstborn baby”). Still, his dad’s criticism stings. “He’s just disappointed,” says Tony, who studied communications at the University of Houston for a while but has yet to get his degree. “He wants me to graduate ASAP and get out of doing music. He’s proud of the attention and press and collects that stuff, but he’s trying to see money. Last year I only profited about $10K, and that ain’t shit. I’m not very materialistic, but I am trying to make a decent living.”
Smart Ass Black Boy, out this month, might get him there. “Hood Party,” the first single off the album, has more than 100,000 plays on the music-streaming website SoundCloud. The second single, “I Shine,” which takes a pro–gay marriage and pro-choice stance that, again, isn’t your typical Houston rap thing, picked up a rave from the influential music site Pitchfork.
The rest of the album doesn’t sound like Houston rap either. Rather than the bump and drag of Southern rap, the album features lots of frenetic synthesizers—no doubt a reflection of the fact that much of it was put together on the East and West coasts.
“I wanted to get out of Houston to record Smart Ass Black Boy,” says Tony. “I didn’t want to be around any of the distractions or usual influences. I wanted to just focus on the music I wanted to make.”
Still, not everything went smoothly. Two years ago Tony and his producer, Tom Cruz, were working on the album in New Jersey. It was a tough trip—he and Cruz were fleeced by someone they were trying to rent an apartment from. And then Tony’s beloved grandmother died.
“It changed my mind about a lot of things,” says Tony. “I cared less about going out and less about going to bars. That really upset some ‘friends’ I had here in Houston. And I guess some of my serious nature began to show up in my music, though I didn’t write a song about [my grandmother’s death]. I didn’t really know how to, even though I thought I should.”
Tony didn’t make it back to New Jersey. He didn’t want to record music or talk about music or even think about music. He just stayed in his room in Houston and wrote. Not songs, just cathartic ramblings about whatever
he was feeling. It was like that for months: him alone, poking around inside his brain.
Eventually he came out of it. As the audience at that iffy show at Fitzgerald’s learned, you can’t keep Fat Tony down for long.
Houston writer Shea Serrano’s work has appeared in the Houston Press and Grantland.