An afternoon in Brooklyn with hip-hop artist Fat Tony

The underground rapper and musician opens up about balancing success with authenticity, not defining himself, and practicing doing nothing in the modern age.
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Fat Tony / Mekael Dawson via Houston Press

Fat Tony’s house is not actually his house. The 31-year-old underground hip-hop artist, real name Anthony Obi, is subletting a modest but stylish home in Brooklyn until his girlfriend and he move into their new home in Crown Heights. He explains to me as we sit down in the living room the merits of minimalism and his affinity to moving.

He spent much of his life in Houston, Texas but has also spent time in Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Brooklyn once before. “I like to move around a little bit,” he admits. “I feel like it’s really healthy for me as a creative. It inspires me and I get to meet so many different people and have so many different experiences that it really helps me have a better, broader world view.”

While he feels he’s reaching a point of wanting to settle down, he anticipates moving maybe a “couple more times”. It’s tempting to parallel his habit of bouncing around places with his habit of bouncing around professionally and creatively. Sure, he’s a 10-year veteran of the underground hip-hop scene (his latest album: 10,000 Hours), former host on Viceland’s bold albeit short-lived Vice Live, and he DJs. And aside from that, he co-founded and co-edits Found Me magazine.

Before Vice Live he was doing a show on Super Deluxe called Thrift Haul (which BuzzFeed unapologetically ripped off). He has also written, namely a moving and intimate piece on his non-verbal autistic brother Charles, whom he also has a song about as well. He also appears to be emerging as an Instagram model for The Good Company.

In short, Tony is mega-talented, cutting-edge, and seemingly plucking opportunities from out the sky that will grow his platform. He has no plans to cease pursuing anything non-music, further contributing to his already kaleidoscopic career.

From a distance, it may appear his accomplishments and plans are a mishmash amalgamation of whatever has stuck to the wall. But he’s much more strategic and tidy, as if his mind moves a mile a minute but he carefully plans a step in any direction.

“I want to do more. I’m so open-minded. I love getting opportunities that I haven’t done before. Everything that I’ve ever done has just been an opportunity placed in front of me that I said yes to. And I’m hoping to gain more opportunities like that, you know?”

While he wants to always be considered an artist and musician first and foremost, he also doesn’t want to define himself. How could anyone anyway, considering his resume.

“I think that is kind of dangerous when an artist tries to define themselves too much. I think you can get lost in trying to define yourself rather than just being your authentic self. So I could never say to someone ‘oh, you should view me as this or whatever’. I’m just telling you who I am and what my intentions are. I am allergic to being corny and predictable”, he laughs.

He doesn’t want to be put in categories, or a neat and tidy genre. Just as he believes it’s dangerous to do this to himself, he also believes it’s dangerous for people, especially those in the media, to do it to hip hop and other artists.

“I know a lot of people like to compartmentalize all sections of rap,” he explains. “Like, ‘oh there’s backpack rap and we only like this. There’s Atlanta rap and we only fuck with this. There’s bay area rap and we only fuck with this’. I think all of that is bullshit. I view Ghostface Killah, Young Thug, Nas, Scarface, Lil’ B…all these artists who have wildly different styles but are in the same playing field of greatness. Like, they’re all great. One just isn’t greater or lesser because they’re “weird” or different. And I want to be viewed the same way too. Like, I don’t want to be seen as just only an alternative rap artist or “different” for a Houston guy. I want to be in the same conversation as every else that’s in my genre, right? But people do split them up by region or genre. I totally get it. It’s easier.”

“But I’m a motherfucking artist and uh, that’s just not how I view things now”, he puts bluntly. “It’s lazy and doesn’t tell the full story. And it has the potential to make people feel like they’re not welcomed into a certain area of our life.”

When asked if he believes he should be in the same conversation of greatness as some of the artists he mentioned, he pauses. “Honestly? I feel like I should be. I definitely feel like I am an interesting, very, very good artist and I think that I should be celebrated as such sooner than later.”

Despite having his hand in a slew of different projects, the most notable “thing” that garnered him widespread attention most recently was actually not a project at all, but a 45-second video of him DJing at this past year’s SXSW. The track he’s playing in the video is a blend he created of Brooks and Dunn’s “Neon Moon” and Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle”. It’s infectious and humorous, not just the track itself but Tony’s endearing dancing as well, donning his signature look of a bucket hat, tucked-in shirt, and pants that don’t quite reach his ankles.

Facebook user Corey Littles used the video, added the caption “I need this man to DJ at my wedding”, and uploaded it to the world. It immediately went viral. Since its upload roughly three weeks ago, the original meme’d version alone has amassed 7.6 million views and over 100,000 shares, plus untold numbers elsewhere. It was also Tony’s first taste of truly going viral.

But how many of those viewers actually knew the man in the video was Fat Tony? The man who has a day named after him in Houston, is largely lauded by music critic god Robert Christgau, and now appears on nightly television. It’s always a little strange when a prolific artist can suddenly blow up overnight for something so insignificant in comparison to their larger body of work.

“I was talking to Jonah Hill yesterday and he was telling me, ‘Man, I think it’s so funny that that clip of yours went viral because it’s such like a dumb little piece of the Earth…your music is so great and I’m such a big fan of yours and I feel like there is more shit that you’ve done that’s more impressive than just that one clip’ and I feel that”, he candidly explains to me.

“But I think that’s just the way the world is…I was really happy to go viral for something that’s musical and not something that’s stupid. They got to see me performing it and dancing to it in an authentic way. That is great. I feel like I’m lucky to have a viral moment from that rather than some, like, silly shit that doesn’t speak to my art.”

He leans back in his chair and asks me pointedly with a smirk, “What is negative about it?”

Nothing, apparently.

“People have messaged me, and a lot of them have been like ‘yo I never heard of you before, but I checked out your music and I love it and I’m sharing it with my friends’ so it’s working. Most people that see that clip will never check me out. Some of those people will check me out and then another portion of those people will check me out and latch on. And that feels great and I’m very thankful for it.”

Despite the viral moment, amassing tons of followers on social media, and popping up on millions of people’s radar overnight, he still appreciates his space and quiet. More fame, platforms, and success are goals, but he enjoys taking the journey at his own pace, by his own means, and strategically.

He cites Jenny Odell’s recent book “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” as the recent inspiration for his new mindset towards appreciating space and being alone. He hasn’t read it yet, but he read an article by her on Medium.com and later in the day, we’ll go to a bookstore close by so he can purchase a copy.

Right now he spends most of his week working on music at his home or in the studio, doing shows, and was appearing nightly on Vice Live throughout the week. Every Friday, he travels back to Los Angeles to see his girlfriend for the weekend, who in less than a month will be moving to Brooklyn to be with him.

“I feel like my entire career has always gotten busier and busier and busier. I truly feel like every year of my life gets better and busier and closer to who I want to be as a man and an artist. I feel like it’s getting better all the time. And I think that as I get more opportunities, I find ways to structure my life in a way that I truly want it to be.”

His weeks are busy, and with his ambition and desire for more projects and more opportunities, and his girlfriend’s impending arrival, it’s fair to wonder how much longer he can sustain the freedom, space, and quiet he’s learning to appreciate more as influenced by Jenny Odell’s book.

“I believe [the book] is about how when we give ourselves space to be free from any distractions or any activity and just are able to move or sit and love in silence, new ideas flourish. I feel like in this day and age, especially people like you and I who are artists or working in media, we’re always bogged down by work. We always have a project, we always have something to do. Even in moments of leisure, we’re glued to our phone checking social media, which for you and I is part of our work. We don’t give ourselves any time to literally do nothing. And I think that we have demonized doing nothing as laziness.”

“But I think that there are gifts that we can receive from doing nothing. Mental gifts. Coming up with new ideas, giving ourselves room to really think. And I’m a person that’s always tried to be working. I hate the idea of doing nothing or having free time. I put myself in a position where I pretty much work for every dollar that I earned. So I felt like I needed to maximize my time and be constantly doing something. And for the first time in my life I started to think that maybe that isn’t the way. Maybe I should just have time to like, chill.”

He’s incredibly self-aware and principled in terms of knowing who he wants to be and how to get there. I also get the impression he is protective of himself and his authenticity. He’ll shoot for the moon, but only if he doesn’t sacrifice his artistry in order to land.

“I have a hard time doing anything that I don’t believe in if I don’t really feel it and it’s not earnest and it’s not sincere. I have a hard time faking it. I have a hard time not showing people how I really feel. It’s just not me. I will always be authentic and sincere about who I am and what my expectations are and who I want to be.”

I ask him what will happen when he reaches the crossroads of wanting alone time and space, yet is too occupied with endeavors to grant that space and time to himself. It’s an issue with anyone in the spotlight, or trying to achieve fame and success. You can work yourself to the bone to achieve success but sacrifice your mental health and space in the process.

“I don’t know. I can’t say what that would feel like until I experienced it. But I imagine…I will say this: pretty much everything I would want out of life, I feel like I put all of my energy towards it and make it happen. I always make a way for myself. I always found a way to live my dream, whatever that dream is at that moment. And once I’ve lived the way that I want to live, I’d come up with a new dream and I’d do all I can to achieve that. So in my perfect world, I will always have time to do whatever I want. I will always have time to be quiet, to be alone, to be busy. I will always have room to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to any project.”

He tells me he hasn’t experienced it yet, but it also seems like he hasn’t given it much thought either. He’s so driven and has his hands in so many things, but appears to be at a crossroads not yet faced, where he wants it ‘all’ but maybe doesn’t quite know what ‘all’ is. Nonetheless, he’s dead-set on his vision and dream and seems to be an unstoppable, if careful, force.

“I didn’t become an artist to be in the rat race. When I’m L.A. and I’m walking around and I take a look at the freeway and I see all those cars of people going back and forth who begrudgingly go to a job they don’t care about, or pushing to level-up in anything they do, whether they work a square 9-5 job or are an artist or whatever, ya know, people who are stuck in this constant rat race of begrudgingly doing shit just to pay the bills…that’s not how I want to live. I feel very lucky and very privileged that I get to be the kind of artist who gets to lead things in his own way. And I’m determined to keep it that way.”

The industry, whether the music or Hollywood, has historically been unforgiving to artists trying to chase dreams and wild success, while also staying true to themselves. Tony insists on staying authentic but is equally incessant about wanting more and more success. Two opposite worlds colliding with each other, a collision not often allowed by the fates.

But times have changed in music largely due to the Internet disrupting how the industry, execs, and labels operate. It’s entirely plausible now to achieve great success without ever having to “sell-out”. In fact, the term “sell-out” isn’t something thrown around nearly as much as before.

Had he been born in a different era, he may have endured more of a struggle. In today’s age though, he’ll likely achieve the success he wants, while simultaneously being as choosy and authentic as he wants. But he’s not self-absorbed or drunk on his own greatness and dream. He’s also trying to champion other artists in the game.

“You’re always gonna see me championing my music or other underground music through any vehicle that I get, whether it’s television, film, books, magazines, radio, or whatever. That is my thing. My home is with underground artists. From rap music especially, but also punk and Prince-esque music, and electronic music, and anything that really represents the outsider artists. I’m always trying to do something different in every medium that I get my hands on. If I see everybody going in one direction, I know there’s room to speak for people looking the other way, and I want to be the leader in that every chance I get to.”

In between all this discussion, he’s played me some unreleased blends in the same vein as the “Neon Moon/Blow the Whistle” blend. One, in particular, is a blend of UGK’s “Int’l Players Anthem” and Destiny Child’s “Say My Name”. It’s just as infectious and pleasing as the “Neon Moon” blend, and he asks me what I think. Based on my positive response, he decides to upload it to the masses. Welcome to the world, “Say My International Player’s Anthem”.

The Jenny Odell book referenced earlier is still his main objective of the afternoon so we leave his house and go out on a search for this tome.

During the walk to this bookstore in Brooklyn, Tony’s transparency becomes thinner. He’s a very open, thoughtful, articulate person. He was right about what he told me earlier: he does have a hard time not showing people how he feels.

We touch on Robert Christgau, who has positively reviewed almost all of Tony’s work. However, when Tony noticed Christgau didn’t review 10,000 Hours, he reached out to him about why.

Tony hands me his phone to show me Christgau’s email reply, in which he explains that because he’s such a fan of Tony and his music, he didn’t want to publish the review at release time because it was negative. A few lines down in the email, he provides Tony with a short blurb encompassing his thoughts on the album. It’s sincere, but boils down to “disappointing”.

The full review has still not been published, but the absence of one entirely and the negative blurb in the email still sting Tony. He was forced to step back and re-evaluate the quality of 10,000 Hours, which at one point he believed was his best work to date. He asks me my thoughts on Christgau’s reply and I can’t help but think it’s great he’s such a fan in the first place. But I understand to an artist, it’s that negative blurb from a guy like him that has the more lasting effect.

He also tells me how the #metoo movement threw a warranted wrench into Tony’s circle; he cut out many collaborators he had worked with due to accusations against them. And he’s appreciative of this. I ask him if he wasn’t an artist, and didn’t have any sort of following or image to maintain, if he would have still severed ties.

He says yes, and without a doubt. He just “can’t fuck with people” like that, not only because it would hurt his image and his fans, but also because it goes directly against what he believes in.

When we get into the bookstore, Jenny Odell’s book is nowhere to be found. It’s an unsuccessful mission. He tells me he’s the type of person that will immediately ask for assistance looking for something, but today he doesn’t. And Tony proceeds to look elsewhere for the book.

As I’m left there in Brooklyn on a warm April day, and the artist known best as Fat Tony walks off after saying goodbye, I wonder ‘where does he go from here?’.

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